Toilet malfunctions are never pleasant as they cost people time and money, all while adding the unenviable task of wrangling human waste to the equation. It’s entirely possible, however, that no restroom disaster was more catastrophic than the one that occurred after German Captain Karl-Adolf Schlitt dropped his pants to unburden himself on a U-boat during World War II.
Captain Schlitt’s bowel movement sank an entire submarine.
Tragedy at 200 Feet Below
The gastrointestinal calamity happened on April 14, 1945, when German U-boat U-1206 was operating off Scotland's Aberdeenshire coast. The U-boats (named for unterseeboot, or “undersea boat”) were a vehicular version of an apex predator, able to move undetected and unleash devastating firepower upon enemy ships. Originally developed during World War I, the vessels destroyed trans-Atlantic shipping routes and could take down ships 20 times their size. Germany targeted military and civilian vessels alike, notoriously attacking the passenger ship Lusitania in 1915, killing nearly 1200 people.
The newer Type VIIC subs, as they were known, had an impressive profile, with two anti-aircraft guns, five torpedo tubes, and more. U-1206 was practically fresh off the assembly line and had sailed out of Norway, operating at a depth of 200 feet, when tragedy struck.
Owing to U-1206’s advanced technology, there was little reason for Captain Schlitt to doubt he could successfully complete a trip to the lavatory. The boat boasted the latest in septic handling, releasing waste directly into the sea instead of storing it onboard the vessel. This saved space as well as tonnage: there was no large tank of poop weighing the vessel down.
No one can really say what went through Schlitt’s mind as he positioned himself on the toilet. Perhaps it was a measure of pride that the German forces had such advanced ways of elimination. Perhaps he was perusing German literature.
Whatever the case, it wasn't until after Schlitt finished his business that he realized he didn’t know how to operate the flushing mechanism. This was not unusual. Because the plumbing system was new, crew members had to be specially trained on how to operate it. Schlitt either didn’t attend the training or became confused as to what the procedure involved.
He called for assistance and greeted an engineer. Now both men were trying to unwind the logistics of disposing of Schlitt’s excreta.
Full of Schlitt
When dealing with wastewater, one never wants to hear the phrase "turning the wrong valve." Yet this is exactly what the engineer did. Immediately, the bathroom began filling up with both seawater and feces. It was, in a literal sense, full of Schlitt.
Another account of the tale—which, as one might expect, includes variations in which Schlitt claims no accountability for his ship-sinking poop—has it that Schlitt tried to flush the toilet himself without any aid from an engineer. Other theories have it that the flush system couldn’t operate at lower depths.
In any telling, however, the system failed. Unpleasant even in the best of circumstances—the U-boats were prone to reeking of sweat, body odor, and diesel fumes—the crew now had to contend with fecal matter.
As disgusting as the plumbing issue was, the real problem lay in the ship’s configuration. The bathroom was located just above the sub’s battery compartment. When the mixture overflowed, chlorine gas resulted.
Between the toxic fumes and the flooding, Schlitt had no option but to race to the surface. To do that, he had to fire torpedoes for no reason other than to increase buoyancy.
Schlitt’s misfortune got worse. When the vessel surfaced, it was immediately in the sight of Allied forces, who began to fire. Schlitt abandoned U-1206, while approximately 50 were taken as prisoners of war. Roughly 10 men evaded immediate capture but were later apprehended. Another four men were killed, either due to British attack or drowning. When news of the incident reached the British, they dubbed it the "sh*twreck."
The war wouldn’t last much longer, but U-1206 did. The wreckage was discovered in the 1970s by underwater oil pipeline workers who likely had little idea of how the high-tech vessel had come to rest after one final, fatal flush.