The Early Submariners: Bauer’s Sea Diver

The development of the submarine weapon was a product of many different minds, all with varying intentions. Some were patriots, seeking the ultimate counter to the naval super-weapons of first-rate powers. Others were schemers, betting their lives and fortunes on unproven vessels of their own design, seeking riches and renown beyond measure. There were, of course, those who explored the physical universe through the mind, men who could conceptualize the vastly complicated interaction of man-made materials and the physical nature of the abyss. These men oftentimes never sought to bring their drawings and writings from the confine of paper or parchment, but inspired generations of dreamers to follow. The most important group, however, was that of the journeyman inventor, men of the mind who traveled from country to country seeking patronage for their radical dreams.

Brandtaucher_farbig_A3As he did not survive the disappearance of his submarine, little is known about Lodner D. Phillip’s final moments. For a survival account of underwater adventure, one must turn to one of Phillip’s contemporaries, Prussian carpenter Wilhelm Bauer. A corporal in the Prussian Light Horse Artillery, Bauer was stationed in Kiel during one of Prussia’s many border disputes with the Danes. Danish warships blockaded the harbor, leaving the Horse Artillery with little existing military recourse. Not content to wait out the blockade, Bauer offered to build a submarine, one capable of surreptitious guerilla attack on the blockading Danish warships. His superiors were intrigued by the proposed project, and approved it. Bauer worked in concert with a local ironsmith to repurpose massive sheet-iron boiler plates into a practicable submarine design. The result was the Der Brandtacher, or Sea Diver. Handwheels would be used to propel the toaster-shaped iron contraption, a hardly practical choice given the vessels crushing 38-ton weight. Crewed by Bauer and two men, the 26-foot long, 6-foot wide, 9-foot tall submarine was designed to crawl just under the surface to where the Danish ships were moored. Two watertight-leather gloves would then be used to attach a crude limpet mine to the side of the warship, than retreat before the mine detonated. Four glass windows would be used to navigate, and the trim controlled by mobile weights. The ballast was manually actuated using a small pump.

military-history-museumIn her first action, the Sea Diver scored a moral victory, if not a practical one. Bauer himself commanded the craft, accompanied by two crewmen. The Danish lookouts immediately spotted the submarine once she was within range, and hastily abandoned their station, renewing the blockade at a further distance. Unfortunately, the Sea Diver was not as lucky. She attempted to dive over an uncharted crater in the seabed. Unlike the rest of the relatively shallow harbor, the crater measured some 60 feet deep. As the Sea Diver dove, her crew lost control of her descent, accelerating swiftly downwards into the crater. The trim-balance weights broke free, sliding forward and further unbalancing the vessel, which promptly dove nose-first into the soft seabed. Water openly flowed through buckling seams, and rivets loudly popped loose, pinging throughout the flooding submarine. The Sea Diver was irreversibly bogged down in the mud, her prow fully buried. Her crew frantically tried to pump ballast, but failed. They then tried to open a hatch, but could not against the 40 pounds per square inch of ocean pressure keeping it closed.

DCF 1.0The flooding began to slow as the air pressure inside the Sea Diver rose with each entering droplet of seawater. Bauer quickly realized that the only way to open the hatch and escape would be to allow the stricken sub to nearly completely flood, then open the hatch and swim free. Unfortunately, he did not choose to communicate his intention before opening the seacocks to begin flooding the Sea Diver. Naturally, his two compatriots thought Bauer had lost his mind. An event never before seen in human history immediately took place—the first submarine brawl—as the two men attempted to physically prevent him from implementing his plan. The two crewmen pinned Bauer down for four hours, loudly arguing about what to do as the air around them fouled with increasing levels of carbon dioxide.

DCF 1.0Their loud, oxygen-consuming discussion came to an abrupt end when scraping sounds loudly dragged across the fragile hull of their flooded submarine. On the surface, rescuers were attempting to grapple them with large metal hooks, many of which swung dangerously close to their delicate glass portals. Finally, the two men were convinced to allow Bauer to proceed with his near-suicidal plan, and allowed him to flood the remaining submarine via a small air valve. The hatch, relieved of opposing pressure, released, allowing the three men to be blown out of the Sea Diver and carried to the surface in a cloud of roiling bubbles.

It is not surprising that this experience eventually lead Bauer to seek patronage elsewhere once the conflict was over. He first traveled to England, but had little success. The Tsars of St. Petersburg were more receptive of his idea, funding the development and construction of the Le Diable Marin, a substantially updated design of the Sea Diver. She was remarkably successful, carrying out a stunning 134 successful dives, some of which reached a crushing depth of 150 feet. The design boasted a diver-lockout chamber, and was large enough to ship a four-piece orchestra—the latter of which was actually utilized to entertain Tsar Alexander II from beneath the surface of Kronstad harbor on the occasion of his imperial coronation.

Brandtaucher2.Unfortunately, Bauer once again did not have the foresight to calculate the interference of other men in the implementation of his plans. Russian admirals deeply coveted the attention Bauer received from the Tsarist court, and set forth to sabotage his endeavors. They arranged a military demonstration of Le Diable Marin, ordering him to take the submarine and sink a dummy ship moored some distance away. They did not, however, warn him of the underwater mud berm between the submarine and her target. The Le Diable Marin hit the mudbank while submerged, then tangled her props in the underwater flora. Bauer was forced to release emergency drop weights to surface, released the hatch and escaped, but the submarine was not as fortunate. It flooded moments later and sank, nearly taking Bauer with her. The Admiral’s sabotage was rendered incomplete when the Le Diable Marin was salvaged about a month later. In a typically Russian fashion, they arranged a second “accident.” This time, the tiny submarine sank in waters too deep for salvage, and was never recovered. Though the entire crew of the submarine survived, but Bauer’s relationship with Imperial Russia did not. As for the Sea Diver, it was eventually recovered in 1887 and exhibited at the Naval School in Kiel, before moving again to the Berlin Naval Museum.

Let's hear what you have to say...