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How Northern Ireland hosted Nazi U-boat fleet's defeat


German U-boats surrender at Lisahally, near Londonderry, at the end of May 1945

German U-boats surrender at Lisahally, near Londonderry, at the end of May 1945

HMS Dianthus, one of the Flower-class corvettes that were the backbone of the escort groups protecting convoys from the U-boats

HMS Dianthus, one of the Flower-class corvettes that were the backbone of the escort groups protecting convoys from the U-boats

Karl Donitz

Karl Donitz

Max Horton

Max Horton

German U-boats surrender at Lisahally, near Londonderry, at the end of May 1945

Last Friday, Europe remembered VE Day, 70 years on, with the picture of German senior officers signing surrender documents in the presence of Field Marshal Montgomery one of the lasting images of those days in 1945.

Less well-known is that two major elements of the German navy surrendered in the UK. At Felixstowe, on May 18, the German fast torpedo-boats - "E-boats" to the Allies - acknowledged defeat.

Four days earlier, however, a much more significant surrender occurred - that of the submarine, or U-boat, fleet. The U-boats were described by Churchill as his "greatest fear", since their attacks on merchant convoys in the Atlantic Ocean threatened to sever Britain's maritime lifeline.

So where did the U-boats surrender? Liverpool's Derby House was the Battle of the Atlantic nerve centre. From there, Admiral Sir Max Horton controlled Western Approaches Command.

But Horton didn't order the U-boats to surrender in Liverpool. Instead, he instructed his staff to arrange the surrender in the port that had played the most important role in the long, bloody campaign against the U-boats. That port was Londonderry.

On Monday, May 14, 1945, a small flotilla of eight U-boats, flying the White Ensign, with Royal Navy seamen overseeing their skeleton Kriegsmarine crews made their way up Lough Foyle, past Culmore Point and into the River Foyle, to tie up at the Royal Navy's jetty at Lisahally.

The U-boats were escorted by three warships - the Royal Navy's HMS Hesperus, the Royal Canadian Navy's HMCS Thetford Mines and the US Navy's USS Paine. All three had, at some stage of the Battle of the Atlantic, operated from the Foyle.

Those three ships represented all the Allied warships that took part in the Atlantic campaign. Royal Navy ships bore the brunt of the battle until the Canadians came to the fore from late 1943 to the end of the war.

In spite of a folk memory of a massive American contribution to the battle, only two in 100 warships in the Atlantic were from the US Navy, or US Coast Guard.

Derry had been thrown into the frontline of battle in June 1940, when the Germans overran France and U-boats could operate from the French Atlantic ports.

Until then, the main anti-U-boat efforts had been directed on the south-western approaches, around southern Ireland, and on the submarines' transit routes around the north of Scotland.

Suddenly, the Admiralty needed to rebalance its forces. As the westernmost port in the UK, Derry became very attractive, especially as the harbour commissioners had recently increased the depth of the channel in the Foyle.

There was also an old shipyard at Pennyburn, which the Admiralty already intended to reopen as a destroyer repair and fuelling facility. And the city possessed a dry dock.

With the quiet approval of the Irish government, HMS Ferret, the Londonderry shore base, was born in the summer of 1940 and escort ships were based on the Foyle. By 1943, the number of ships there exceeded the combined totals of Liverpool, the Clyde and Belfast.

At one point, some 139 oceangoing ships had their home base either in the city, or at Lisahally, where the Admiralty had built a new jetty; this was joined by a second to facilitate the US Navy and Coast Guard, even before the USA entered the war.

Some of the most famous U-boat hunters of the war saw service in the city. Donald Macintyre, "Johnnie" Walker, Peter Gretton and West Corkman Evelyn Chavasse commanded escort groups operating from the city.

Along the shores of Lough Foyle, the Royal Air Force added its contribution, with airfields at Limavady, Ballykelly, Eglinton and Maydown. Both Eglinton and Maydown were handed over to the Admiralty in May 1943, as was the Army's Ebrington Barracks, but RAF Ballykelly became one of Coastal Command's most important stations.

The naval air stations at Eglinton and Maydown assumed considerable significance. Eglinton - now City of Derry Airport - was an important training station, while Maydown, today the site of the Du Pont factory, became home to Swordfish biplane bombers that flew off converted merchant ships (MAC-ships) supporting convoys from mid-1943 onwards.

The co-ordination of escort ships and aircraft, together with improved radar, radio interception and the breaking of the German Enigma naval cyphers, all came together to bring about the defeat of the U-boats.

But it had been a hard-fought campaign, the longest of the Second World War, beginning on the day Britain declared war, September 3, 1939, with the sinking of the liner Athenia off the north-west coast of Ireland, and ending only on May 7, 1945, less than an hour before VE Day, with two sinkings in the Firth of Forth.

In between, almost 2,500 merchant ships were sunk in the Atlantic. The Merchant Navy lost over 30,000 men, women and boys in the battle and 11.5 million tons of shipping. Almost half the 341 Royal Navy warships lost during the war went down in the Atlantic, along with a large proportion of the more than 51,500 sailors who perished.

The U-boat fleet lost almost 700 boats and more than 32,000 men killed, with 5,000 captured. Their death toll was frightening - some 82% of personnel; the boats lost represented almost 84% of those built and commissioned. No other combatant arm of any nation in the Second World War suffered such a high death rate.

In all, more than 100,000 individuals lost their lives in the Battle of the Atlantic. When Hitler's successor as Fuhrer, Grand Admiral Karl Donitz, ordered the U-boats to surrender on May 4, he also told their crews that, "undefeated and spotless, you lay down your arms after a heroic battle without equal".

Donitz's words echoed a myth: that Germany's army hadn't been defeated in 1918, but had been betrayed by those at home. It thus raised the spectre of a resurgent militaristic Germany.

The U-boat fleet had to be seen to surrender and the ceremony at Lisahally was arranged so that the world could see that the U-boats had been defeated.

Horton almost didn't make it. He set off from RAF Speke - now Liverpool Airport - but weather conditions were poor and his pilot was forced to fly low and take a circuitous route before landing at Eglinton. However, he was present that afternoon when Hesperus, Thetford Mines and Paine escorted the eight U-boats into Lisahally.

So, too, were representatives of various elements of the services that had fought the long campaign, including Wrens from HMS Ferret (of 300 female Royal Navy personnel in Derry, over half were Irish), sailors, airmen, soldiers and US marines who had guarded the American base.

Northern Ireland's Prime Minister, Sir Basil Brooke, was there. He was in unusual company: also present was the head of the Irish Intelligence service, Colonel Dan Bryan, to mark the contribution the Irish services had made to Allied victory.

More than two decades earlier, Bryan had been a prominent member of the Irish Volunteers fighting against Britain in the War of Independence.

Their formal surrender accepted by Horton, most of the U-boatmen boarded a train that would take them to a prison camp. With their defeat, Churchill's greatest fear had ended.

The hunters had become the hunted and had finally been beaten.

Richard Doherty's Victory in Italy: 15th Army Group's Final Ca mpaign 1945 is published by Pen & Sword Military (£25)

Belfast Telegraph