|U-Boats moored at Lisahally, Londonderry.|
IWM Public Domain
The Battle of the Atlantic was the longest battle of the Second World War beginning with the sinking of the liner SS Athenia by German submarine U-30 a matter of hours after the British declaration of war on 3rd September 1939. German submarine or U-Boat activity continued until the VE Day on 7th May 1945. During this battle the German Navy the Kriegsmarine attempted to cut off the United Kingdom’s overseas supply lines most notably the transatlantic routes. The U-Boat was the Kriegsmarine’s workhorse in this regard. So critical was this battle to the survival of the United Kingdom that Britain’s wartime leader Winston Churchill described it as his greatest fear.
Though the command of Western Approaches was in Liverpool many of the escort vessels that protected Allied convoys were based in Northern Ireland ports most notably the port of Londonderry. Derry as the city is also commonly called is the UK’s most western port and a stone frigate (naval shore base) HMS Ferret was established there in 1940. Londonderry is Northern Ireland’s second city and is situated on a tidal section of the River Foyle just before it flows into Lough Foyle and into the North Atlantic. The importance of Derry to the battle is shown that by 1943 more ships were stationed there than Liverpool, the Clyde and Belfast. At its peak the city and its outlying port facilities at Lisahally just beyond the city limits catered to 139 ocean going vessels. Following the entry of the United States into the war the city hosted a strong American presence although the bulk of Allied naval personnel were British and Canadian.
On 4th May 1945 as Berlin fell Grand Admiral Karl Donitz who had following Hitler’s suicide three days earlier inherited the leadership of Nazi Germany ordered his U-Boats to ceasefire. The message he sent them read “Undefeated and Spotless, you lay down your arms after a heroic battle without equal.” From that date U-Boats began surrendering whenever they met an Allied ship although some commanders scuttled their submarine before it fell into Allied hands.
|Allied warships docked at the Londonderry Quay|
While many of the crews did fight a heroic battle, Winston Churchill himself paying tribute to the ‘fortitude of the U-Boat Service’ they had quite decisively been beaten in the Battle of the Atlantic. The Commander in Chief of Western Approaches Admiral Sir Max Horton took issue with this statement. He was a veteran of the 1st World War (ironically as a submarine commander) and was aware that the Germany had blamed its defeat in that conflict on the stab in the back myth. This was the myth that the German armed forces in the field were undefeated and that Germany had lost the war because the civilians and politicians at home gave in and betrayed them. This was a myth but Horton was aware that the Nazis had used this belief to their advantage during their rise to power and it played into their rearmament and expansionist policies. Fearing that a similar myth regarding the German armed forces in the Second World War might lead to history repeating itself. Horton sought to dispel it before it could take hold so he planned a formal surrender ceremony.
Londonderry was chosen to be the place where this ceremony would take place due to the role it played but also probably for practical reasons regarding the range and seaworthiness of some of the U-boats. The first eight U-Boats sailed into Lough Foyle on Monday 14th May 1945 with a skeleton Kriegsmarine crew and under the Royal Navy command. The U-Boats flew the British white ensign and were escorted by the British, Canadian and American destroyers HMS Hesperus, HMCS Theford Mines and USS Robert I Paine. The U-Boats docked at Lisahally and their crews led by Oberleutnant Klaus Hilgendorf commander of U-1009 formally surrendered to Admiral Sir Max Horton, who had flown into nearby Royal Naval Air Station Eglington (HMS Gannet) that morning specifically for the occasion. Horton was joined by the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland Sir Basil Brook and Colonel Dan Bryan the Irish Free State’s Director of Military Intelligence. The event was also witnessed by many of the locally based Allied soldiers, sailors and airmen, most notably the WRNS from HMS Ferret and Fleet Air Arm personnel from HMS Gannet and HMS Shrike (RNAS Maydown).
|Free Polish destroyer ORP Krakowaiak toes U-2337 out of Lough Foyle|
for scuttling as part of Operation Deadlight 28th November 1945
Following the surrender more U-Boats found themselves moored on the Foyle from where they were towed of the coasts of Counties Londonderry and Donegal and systematically sank in what was known as Operation Deadlight. 116 boats were destroyed this way, being towed to three main zones where they were sunk either by scuttling, naval gunfire or aerial target practice depending on which zone they were towed to. This operation commenced on 17th November 1945 and completed on 11th February 1946.
Thus the end of Hitler’s U-Boat fleet happened in Northern Ireland. Winston Churchill said of Northern Ireland’s role
“By the grace of God Ulster stood a faithful sentinel”
“That was a dark and dangerous hour. We were alone, and had to face single-handed the full fury of the German attack raining down death and destruction on our cities and, still more deadly, seeking to strangle our life by cutting off the entry to our ports of the ships which brought us our food and the weapons we so sorely needed.
Only one great channel remained open. It remained open because loyal Ulster gave us the full use of Northern Irish ports and waters, and thus ensured the free working of the Clyde and the Mersey.
But for the loyalty of Northern Ireland we should have been confronted with slavery and death and the light which now shines so strongly throughout the world would have been quenched.
The bonds of affection between Great Britain and the people of Northern Ireland have been tempered by fire and are now, I believe, unbreakable.”
“We have traveled a hard and darksome road to victory in Europe, and at every turn in this memorable journey the loyalty and courage of Ulster have gleamed before the eyes of men.
The stand of the Government and People of Northern Ireland for the unity of the British Empire and Commonwealth and for the great cause of freedom, for which we all risked our survival will never be forgotten by Great Britain. A strong loyal Ulster will always be vital to the security and well-being of our whole Empire and Commonwealth”