In general, the focus of any range of military models tends to be on the items that actually do the fighting. But, as any military historian knows, the fighting units depend heavily on the vital, and often more numerous support services that command, administer, train and supply them. They may not be sexy, but they are essential!
When creating their range of Kriegsmarine vessels in the 1930s, Wiking was conscientious in portraying the various, usually smaller, auxiliary vessels that supported the fighting ships. One such ship is the Saar. Let’s take a look.
Wiking H059 Saar
Year first produced:1935
L77xW11xH14, Metal 34g, Scale 1:1250, Features: 0
Our model is a quite small and relatively simple one-piece casting. Wire has been inserted to form the two masts and the gun barrels, as well as the small cranes behind the funnel. The paint scheme is simplicity itself – mid-grey overall, with a white funnel and black detailing on the superstructure and hull sides. The name of the ship is handwritten on both sides of the hull.
Under the hull are the identification marks
“SAAR” and “WIKING-MODELL”.
In ink you can also see “0.8”, indicating 0.8 of a Reichsmark or 80 pfennigs – the price of the model in the 1930s.
That’s it for this diminutive, nondescript model – short and sweet! Surely this can’t have been a very important ship, can it?
The Role of the Saar
The Saar was launched in 1934, and was the first purpose-built submarine tender of the interwar German navy. She was armed with 3 three 4” guns, carried a crew of over 200, and could make 18 knots.
Initially the Saar was stationed at Kiel, to support the fledgling German submarine service. She served as HQ ship for the submariners’ school and then as tender to the newly formed 1st submarine flotilla, titled “Weddigen” after a Great War U-boat commander. In 1937, she moved to Wilhelmshaven to take over the 2nd Submarine Flotilla “Saltzwedel”.
During WW2, after supporting the submarines involved in the invasion of Norway, she served relatively uneventfully as support ship to several Baltic flotillas based at Gdynia in Poland. After the war, she was taken by France and employed in the French navy throughout the 1950s and 1960s.
So, what exactly was a submarine tender used for? The short answer is to maintain the operational status of a flotilla of submarines. To keep submarines at war, a host of support services were required. Space in a submarine was extremely limited, so frequent resupply was necessary. A tender would hold these supplies, such as food, fuel and armaments especially torpedoes; as well as providing medical, maintenance and other services; accommodation for crews when not at sea; space for recreation and relaxation; a base for flotilla command, communications and administration; and potentially rescue and repair facilities (though the Saar was not so equipped).
Of course, these could be provided by shore-based facilities, but that required the creation of significant infrastructure and tied the flotilla to permanent bases. A tender could redeploy with the submarine flotilla if it moved base, and was in any case more immediately accessible to them, since they could berth alongside. Moreover, a sea-going tender could accompany submarines on training exercises, acting as a control ship or target as circumstances required.
When Germany began building up her submarine force in the 1930s, infrastructure was non-existent and the tenders were an essential part of this expansion.
Once war broke out, Germany quickly conquered western Europe but was unable to invade Great Britain. Lacking a strong surface fleet that could directly challenge the Royal Navy, the German strategy in the theatre resolved into a submarine offensive against convoys bound for the UK, known as the Battle of the Atlantic. The German submarine force was massively increased, and bigger ocean-going boats were developed. To be as near to the convoys as possible, the main flotillas were moved to the Atlantic coasts of France and Norway.
Given the threat that the U-boats posed, the Allies were desperate to attack the U-boat forces in their bases, where they would be concentrated together, and increasingly deployed their air power to this end. The Germans were forced to respond by constructing massive reinforced concrete bunkers, proof against bombing, where the U-boats could safely dock.
In this arena of intense air bombardment and fortified bases, tenders would have been a vulnerable and unnecessary liability. As a result, the vessels were kept back in safer waters, the Saar herself remaining in the Baltic far from British airbases. Even so, she was lucky to escape the War undamaged, many of the larger submarine tenders in North German ports and the Baltic being sunk by air raids in 1944-5.
Although the German submarine tenders were thus marginalised by Allied air power, in the early years of the U-boat service, especially during peacetime, they played an essential role. And as it was during these years that Wiking created most of their warship models, the Saar was a natural subject for them to model.
In closing, we can note that Wiking was not the only company to recognise the importance of the humble Saar. Eagle were one of the earliest manufacturers of plastic construction kits in the UK, and around the year 1960 created a series of 1:1200 models celebrating the Battle of the Atlantic. The first kit in this series was of two submarine support vessels, including none other than the Saar, described by Eagle as a “depot ship” or floating base.
Wiking didn’t produce a model of the larger, purpose-built U-boat tenders commissioned during the war, but did make models of many of the converted merchant ships used for this purpose, including H057 Donau, H058 Weichsel and H060 Erwin Wassner.
It’s worth mentioning at an unusual model in the Wiking range connected with the U-Boat war: the striking H628 Laboe Memorial. The memorial, standing near Kiel, was built in honour of WW1 submarine crews. It was completed in 1936, and features a viewing platform atop a tall buttressed tower, somewhat reminiscent of a U-boat conning tower. After WW2, the memorial was first extended to include crews of both wars, and then in 1954 repurposed for the less militaristic all sailors lost at sea. At its foot, nonetheless, is a preserved type VII U-boat.