On Monday 14th May 1945, eight German U-boats made their way up the River Foyle. Bound for the Royal Navy jetty at Lisahally, they were not attacking the Northern Irish port.
The German boats were surrendering to Admiral Sir Max Horton. The Commander In Chief of the Western Approaches chose the Derry~Londonderry port for this historic moment. The Royal Navy White Ensign flew from the U-boats’ decks. British seamen watched over the skeleton Kriegsmarine crews as they passed Culmore Point. Horton commanded the Western Approaches from Derby House, Liverpool. But, it was Derry~Londonderry chosen as the host of the surrendered U-boats.
The port city of Derry~Londonderry had been vital in the Allies’ Battle of the Atlantic. It was at the centre of the battle against the Nazi U-boat wolf packs. Hosting the formal surrender there showed the city’s importance to the Allies.
Churchill had described the U-boats as his “greatest fear”. Their ruthless attacks on merchant convoys in the Atlantic Ocean threatened to cut off supplies to Britain.
The Battle of the Atlantic
In June 1940, the Nazis occupied France. Then, Derry~Londonderry became vital as U-boats operated from French ports. Before 1940, the naval effort centred around the south of Ireland and on routes north of Scotland. Derry~Londonderry increased in demand as the UK’s westernmost port with its recently deepened channel in the Foyle.
In 1940, HMS Ferret, the Derry~Londonderry shore base came into existence. By 1943, the number of ships in Derry~Londonderry was greater than Liverpool, Clyde, and Belfast combined. At a peak in 1943, Derry~Londonderry and Lisahlly housed 139 oceangoing ships.
Some of the Allies’ most famous U-boat hunters served in Derry~Londonderry. The likes of Donald MacIntyre, Johnnie Walker, Peter Gretton, and Evelyn Chavasse commanded vessels.
Sinking of the Athenia
The Battle of the Atlantic was the longest-fought campaign of World War Two. It began on 3rd September 1939 with the sinking of the liner Athenia by U-30 off Ireland’s northwest coast. The battle raged on until 7th May 1945 when two ships went down in the Firth of Fourth hours before VE Day.
In those 6 years, both sides suffered heavy losses. 3,500 merchant ships and 175 warships sank. The Merchant Navy lost 30,000 men, women, and boys along with 11.5 million tons of shipping. Germany lost 783 U-boats with around 32,000 men perishing and 5,000 seamen captured. The tide turned in the Allies’ favour in March 1943 with the cracking of the Enigma code.
Improvement in detection equipment including ASDIC and SONAR helped in the battle. Using long-range aircraft with mounted RADAR to patrol the Atlantic coast was also of great help to the Allies.
In total, more than 100,000 died in the Battle of the Atlantic before Hitler’s successor Grand Admiral Karl Donitz surrendered.
Undefeated ad spotless, you lay down your arms after heroic battle without equal.
Grand Admiral Karl Donitz – May 1945.
Donitz went on to instruct all U-boat captains to surrender to the nearest Allied warship. Each vessel had to raise a black flag. Most captains obeyed although some scuttled their own craft rather than surrender.
All U-boats. Attention all U-boats. Cease fire at once. Stop all hostile action against Allied shipping.
Grand Admiral Karl Donitz – May 1945.
HMS Hesperus, HMCS Theford Mines and USS Paine escorted those first eight U-boats in 1945. The three ships represented the British, Canadian, and American contribution to the Battle of the Atlantic. Despite fond memories of American GIs in Derry~Londonderry, the bulk of the naval power was British and Canadian.
Formal Surrender at Lisahally
That morning, Admiral Sir Max Horton departed RAF Speke in poor weather. His pilot flew low over the Irish sea, circling the storms on the way to RNAS Eglinton, Co. Londonderry. On the banks of the Foyle, he joined a distinguished group for the historic event.
Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Sir Basil Brooke stood alongside the head of Irish Intelligence Colonel Dan Bryan. This was a recognition that the effort in the Battle of the Atlantic was not only a British one. Sailors, airmen, soldiers, US marines, and many WRNS from HMS Ferret also attended. Airmen from Eglinton, Maydown, and Ballykelly and Navy from HMG Gannet and HMS Shrike stood side by side.
The U-boats’ senior officer stepped ashore and saluted Horton as they surrendered. Oberleutnant Klaus Hilgendorf, commander of U-1009 from February 1945, led the way. The Royal Navy sank U-1009 with heavy gunfire on 16th December 1945. Allied forces escorted German submariners by train to prisoner of war camps in Co. Down.
By the end of the surrender, between forty and sixty U-boats moored on the banks of the Foyle. Operation Deadlight was the codename given to the systematic destruction of the U-boats. Never again would the German submarines endanger international shipping.
One-by-one, the Royal Navy towed the submarines out of Lisahally, Co. Londonderry and sank them off the Irish coast. Operation Deadlight commenced on 25th November 1945.
The Navy placed explosives in most of the craft while planes used others for target practice. Some U-boats sank after strikes from The Squid, a top-secret ship-to-ship missile. Before scuttling, the British removed all vital technology such as Enigma code machines from the boats.
On 12th February 1946. U-3514 was the last of the U-boats to sink beneath the waves. Today, an estimated 116 sunken hulls and rusting torpedo bays remain covered in sea-life. None of the vessels are war graves as no one died on board during the operation.
Some are in relatively shallow water, about 40 metres deep. They are amazing wrecks that have attracted an incredible amount of marine life. There’s soft coral and sponges growing on them with shoals of fish swimming in and out.
Richard Lafferty – Aquaholics Diving, Portstewart.
In 2005, the city of Derry~Londonderry made plans to raise one of the sunken U-boats. The aim was to display the vessel as an attraction at a maritime museum in the city. U-778 lies sixteen miles off Malin Head, Co. Donegal, Ireland. It was built in 1945 and had seen no action before its sinking. U-778 sank as the Navy transported it to Lisahally from Norway.
As the U-boats stood on the river banks, the people of Derry~Londonderry had the chance to explore. Father Arthur O’Reilly was 13-years-old and taking a break from exam studies. A British naval officer showed him around one of the vessels. The young O’Reilly used the periscope and observed deactivated torpedo bays.
He allowed me to look through the periscope and I could see people walking on the quay. You could identify people, I was amazed at the technology, you could see people’s features.
Father Arthur O’Reilly – 2015
70th anniversary in 2015
The city of Derry~Londonderry marked the 70th anniversary in 2015 with an exhibit of artefacts. Photos from the time accompanied equipment including binoculars used by a U-boat commander.
The events of 1945 were fresh in the mind of 91-year-old Muriel Nevin in 2015. She was a Liverpool born former member of the Womens’ Royal Naval Service. Nevin recalled the feeling in Derry~Londonderry with the Canadian and American servicemen. There was even a chance encounter with a U-boat captain.
I quickly came over to Northern Ireland and was posted with the A36 and A37 Fleet Air Squadron in Maydown. The atmosphere was great. Everybody helped everybody, no matter who you were.
Muriel Nevin – Former WRNS at Maydown – 2015.
Events took place in the Guildhall, the Tower Museum, and Harbour House. Reenactors, tour guides and staged drama brought the 1940s to life once more.
While other surrenders and events to mark the end of the war are better remembered, the surrender of the U-boats was crucial to the Allies. Had the Germans been victorious in the Battle of the Atlantic, Britain and the United States would likely have been defeated. Those ports and airbases in Co. Londonderry can never downplay their role in defeated the Nazi forces and securing victory in Europe.