The Balao-class submarine SS-400 and Sturgeon-class submarine SSN-664 both have something in common. They are named The Sea Devil after the largest ray in the ocean. Known for its power and endurance, the name is, of course, fitting for some powerful pieces of machinery. But these submarines also share their name with another submarine that helped begin submarine development. The original Sea Devil is considered one of the groundbreaking early submarines.
Wilhelm Bauer was an engineer in Bavaria during the German/Danish war between 1848 and 1851. Fascinated by the Danish Navy’s ability to block the Prussians, Bauer began to study ship construction and hydraulics. He was inspired through his research to create a new type of submersible ship that would be better than those that had come before. His first construction was Brandtaucher or Incendiary Diver. At the time, in order to break blockades, ships with explosives were set adrift towards the blockading. Once the vessel would explode, it would either sink the blockading vessels or cause them to move. The ships that carried the explosives were called incendiary ships. Bauer took this idea and applied it to his first submarine. He believed that his submarine could attach an explosive to the underside of a blockading ship and break through that way. His design was about 28 feet long and weighed around 35 tons. Two sailors on a treadmill powered the vessel while a third would operate it. On February 1, 1851, his first public demonstration was a disaster. The submarine began to leak and ended up on the bottom of the harbor. For six hours, Bauer and the other two sailors had to wait for enough water to leak into the submarine to equalize pressure, so they could open the hatch and escape. The submarine itself would not escape the river until 1887. Despite the terrible first run, this did not stop Bauer.
Due to the failure of his first submarine, Bauer had difficulty finding patronage and a crew in Bavaria. Word had gotten out that while underwater, Bauer and his fellow crewmembers of his first craft had gotten into a physical fight over how to handle the situation. He had little success trying to find a sponsor in England. It was not until he traveled to Russia that he had some success. Tsar Alexander II funded the development of the next submarine- Le Diable Marin or the Sea Devil. This design was more advanced than her previous counterpart was. The Sea Devil was twice as large and could carry a crew of twelve. The same premises existed, with four men on a treadmill to power the vessel. After his previous incident, Bauer decided his new model would contain a lockout chamber. The Sea Devil carried out 134 successful dives, with some reaching a depth of 150 feet. The Tsar was so impressed that a four-piece orchestra was put onboard and played on board during a coronation from beneath the surface of Kronstad Harbor.
When Le Diable Marin was first launched, it was described in the following manner: “The Russian submarine, ‘L.E. Diable Marin,’ resembled a dolphin in outward shape. It had a lent of 15m. 80. A beam of 3m. 80 and a depth of 3 m.35. The framework of the hull was of iron and the hull was credited with the power of resisting a 45 m. 50 column of water.…In the bows was a hatchway for entrance and exit. That the weight might be the more easily distributed, the forward part of the ship was 6 inches less in height than the middle portion. Pumps were used for forcing water into the cylinders, and longitudinal stability was obtained by reducing or augmenting the volume of water carried as ballast. In the bows was fixed a large mine, containing 500lb of powder and other combustible matter; on either side of this mine protruded a thick Indiarubber glove, to allow of fixing it to the keel of the vessel to be attacked. A door by which divers might descend to the bottom of the water was also provided, and this is not unnatural when one considers that Bauer’s very first submarine was intended for industrial purposes.” Unfortunately, this excess attention from the Tsar was not appreciated by the Russian admirals who devised a way to sabotage him. Bauer was ordered to do a demonstration and sink a dummy ship a distance away. However, the admirals misled Bauer on the exact depth of the river. While submerged, the Sea Devil hit a mudbank and became stuck. Bauer was forced to release the hatch and he and his crew were able to escape. However, just like his first vessel, the submarine was left on the bottom. This time, it is where the submarine would rest. This would be Bauer’s last attempt at submarine development.
Despite what many might view as a failure, Bauer greatly advanced submarine development. His work played a key role in advancing the science and engineering of future vessels. The successful dives of his second vessel proved the ability to successfully navigate underwater and with the four-piece orchestra from the Tsar’s coronation, proved it could be done comfortably. This original Sea Devil set the stage for those that came after. Just like the submarine’s namesake, Bauer had extreme endurance and fought hard for what he believed in. Today, Bauer’s first submarine that was rescued from the deep is on display in Dresden, Germany.
His name is also attached to the only German U-boat that is still floating today. Never used during the war due to its late production, The Wilhelm Bauer was originally scuttled after the war but rescued and refitted. In its second life, she served as a training vessel, shedding the connotation of her U-boat origins. Today she serves as a museum ship at the German Maritime Museum.