The U-boat surrender
Winston Churchill commented that the thing that frightened him most during the war was the threat posed by the German submarine fleet, the U-boats. In the early months of the war U-boats took a heavy toll of merchant shipping and this continued into 1940. Such was the success they had that U-boat crews referred to this period as ‘the happy time’. The struggle against the U-boats became known as the Battle of the Atlantic, which began on 3 September 1939, the first day of the war, with the sinking of the liner Athenia off the north coast of Ireland and ended only on the second-last day of war in Europe with the sinking of a small merchant vessel in Scottish waters.
There were many developments that allowed the Allied navies to turn the battle against the U-boats. These included improvements in detection equipment, such as Asdic or Sonar (underwater radar), surface radar, the mounting of radar in aircraft, long-range aircraft to patrol the sea lanes, small aircraft carriers to provide constant air support for convoys, the interception of German radio transmissions (High Frequency Direction Finding or HF/DF, known as Huff-Duff) which indicated the locations of vessels and Enigma, the interception and decoding of highly-secret German naval communications as well as new and improved weaponry.
However, one of the critical factors, especially in the early days when the Battle could so easily have been lost, was the availability of the port of Londonderry and the additional facility at Lisahally. By May 1943, when the Battle of the Atlantic finally turned in the Allies’ favour, there were over 100 British, Canadian, Indian and other Allied ships based in the city with a large element of the US Navy, about another thirty ships, making regular visits. It was this domination of the Atlantic sea lanes that allowed the invasion of France to take place in 1944 and led eventually to Allied victory in Europe.
By late-1944 there were about 140 ships in Londonderry, mostly Canadian and British, the US Navy having departed for the Pacific or to cover convoys into the Mediterranean. Londonderry, or HMS Ferret, was one of four bases covering the North-west Approaches and the city’s importance can be estimated from the fact that the combined total of ships in the other three bases, at Liverpool, Belfast and Glasgow, was less than the number based on the Foyle.
When Germany surrendered in May 1945 all U-boat captains were ordered to surrender their boats to the nearest Allied warship. The order read:
All U-boats. Attention all U-boats.
Cease fire at once. Stop all hostile action against Allied shipping.
Each of the forty-three boats at sea was to surface, report its position and fly a black flag. Most captains obeyed the order although some chose to scuttle, or sink, their own vessels rather than surrender. (Admiral Dönitz, the head of the Kriegsmarine, who succeeded Hitler as Führer, had ordered all but a few boats to be scuttled but was forced to cancel this order by the Allies, although over 200 boats were scuttled.) The surrendered U-boats were then taken under escort to Allied bases before being transferred to Britain; this included those that had surrendered in ports in Germany, Norway and elsewhere.
Dönitz had issued the scuttling order – Operation REGENBOGEN – to preserve the honour of the Kriegsmarine. To counter this, Admiral Sir Max Horton, Commander-in-Chief (CinC), Western Approaches, decided that there should be a formal surrender of the U-boat fleet. This would emphasise that the German navy had been defeated by the Allies and prevent any future claims that the U-boat fleet had been undefeated. Rather than staging this ceremony in Germany, Horton chose to have it in the port that had played the most important role in the battle against the U-boats. In his view this was not Liverpool, where he had his headquarters, but Londonderry.
The surrender ceremony was arranged for 14 May 1945 and Horton flew into the Royal Naval Air Station at Eglinton, HMS Gannet, now City of Derry airport, to take the formal surrender of a representative flotilla of eight U-boats. The submarines carried only skeleton Kriegsmarine crews who were under the supervision of armed Royal Navy personnel. As they sailed into the Foyle the U-boats were escorted by three warships, one each from the Royal and Royal Canadian Navies and the US Navy. This escort represented the major elements in the naval alliance that had won the Battle of the Atlantic.
When the U-boats tied up at Lisahally their senior officers stepped ashore to salute Horton and make the formal surrender of the U-boat fleet. They were led by Oberleutnant Klaus Hilgendorf, who had commanded U-1009 since February. As well as Horton the official party on the jetty at Lisahally included representatives of the Canadian and US Navies, invited personnel from HMS Ferret and the air stations at Eglinton and Maydown, HMS Gannet and HMS Shrike respectively, Army personnel and RAF personnel from RAF Ballykelly. There was also a representative of the Irish Defence Forces, Colonel Dan Bryan, who attended in civilian clothes. His presence was an acknowledgement of the assistance given by the Irish government in the Battle of the Atlantic.
Eventually about sixty U-boats were brought into Lisahally. Some were taken upriver to the city and tied up near the Guildhall so that the public could view the vessels that had almost won the war for Germany. Then, gradually, the boats were towed out to sea in Operation DEADLIGHT and sunk by gunfire, torpedoing or bombing although some broke their tows, filled with water and sank. Hilgendorf’s U-1009 was sunk by naval gunfire on 16 December 1945.
Churchill was right to fear the U-boats. Had the Germans won the Battle of the Atlantic then they would have won the war against Britain and the United States and it is arguable that a treaty might then have been negotiated with the USSR. Winning the Battle of the Atlantic did not guarantee victory in Europe for the Allies but without victory in the Atlantic, victory in Europe would have been impossible. Northern Ireland, with its air bases and the Londonderry Naval Base, had played a vital part in that final victory in Europe.