Derry hopes to recover one of the many German vessels scuttled off the Irish coast
Owen Bowcott, Ireland correspondent
Monday August 20, 2007
Sixty years ago the Nazi U-boat fleet that menaced wartime Atlantic convoys and threatened Britain with starvation was scuttled off the north-west coast of Ireland. The sunken hulls and rusting torpedo tubes are encrusted with coral.
Salvage plans are now being explored to see whether one of the German submarines could be raised from the deep and brought ashore. The vessel and its wartime technology could be put on display as the central attraction for a new maritime museum in Derry.
The wreck of U-778 which lies 16 miles north-west of Malin Head, the most northerly tip of the Irish Republic, has been identified as the best candidate for recovery from among the estimated 116 U-boats that litter the ocean floor off the northern Irish coast.
U-778 was built at the end of the war and had never seen action before being sunk.
"It's about 70 metres down," said Geoff Millar, a deep-sea diving specialist who is awaiting instructions to descend to the wreck and film it. "It's not stuck in the mud but sitting on a gravelly bottom. Any recovery operation would take a large salvage platform out to the site and lower slings down to the sea bed that could be slid underneath the submarine and then used to raise it up."
A similar operation was carried out in 1993 when U-534 was raised from the sea bed between Sweden and Denmark at a cost of around £3m. It was later put on display in Birkenhead on Merseyside.
With several Royal Navy bases no longer in use in Derry, the city council is eager to make use of one of the former sites to commemorate the city's wartime link with the campaign in the north Atlantic. A salvaged U-boat, councillors hope, could become a popular tourist attraction giving the city an alternative historical focus to its more prominent sectarian past.
Derry's main port at Lisahally was the command post for British naval patrols on convoy and anti-submarine duty. It was also the scene on May 8 1945 of the mass surrender of the remains of the German U-boat fleet.
Under Operation Deadlight, the British navy was ordered to destroy the surviving U-boats to ensure they could never again endanger international shipping.
The submarines were towed out of Lisahally one by one and sunk. The operation began on November 25 1945 and the last U-boat was sunk on February 12 1946.
Some submarines were scuttled after explosive charges had been placed around hatches and torpedo tubes. Others were used for target practice by aircraft or what was then a top secret ship-to-ship missile, the Squid. U-3514, the last submarine to go down, resisted a wave of strafing and bomb attacks before it finally upended and slipped below the water.
Shaun Gallagher, a Social Democratic and Labour party councillor and former mayor of Derry, has been one of the driving forces behind the proposal to raise a U-boat. "We have written to the Department of the Marine in Dublin to try and establish who has salvage rights for these boats," he said. "We have arranged for dives to take place this summer and for films to be brought back so that people can see what's down there.
"The U-boats are in international waters off Malin Head. There's one [U-778] in very clear water and completely intact because it sank when being towed into Lisahally from Norway. Because no one died on the submarines, they are not war graves.
"All the Enigma code machines were taken off before they were sunk but there's lots of valuable brass and other metals on them. Our plan is to raise one of the U-boats, restore it and put it on display in a former naval site."
A Derry city council spokesperson said: "The Museum and Heritage Service is ... consulting with statutory agencies in relation to maritime and archaeological legislation with regard to the removal of [a U-boat]. The council is also working to identify funding sources to assist this project."
A tripartite agreement between Britain, the US and Russia requires permission from all three former allies before any salvage work is done.
Richard Lafferty, of the diving firm Aquaholics, in Portstewart, County Derry, has been down to investigate U-boat wrecks. "Some are damaged by shelling," he said. "Others are intact."
"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."
The Battle of the Atlantic, a term coined by Winston Churchill, was the most protracted but decisive campaign of the second world war. "The only thing that ever really frightened me," Churchill confessed in his memoirs, "was the U-boat peril." The first German submarine attack came on September 3 1939 - the day Britain declared war - when U-30 sank the liner Athenia off north-west Ireland, mistaking it for an armed merchant cruiser. Operating from France's Atlantic ports and directed to their targets by long-range Kondor aircraft, the U-boat fleet threatened to throttle Britain's war effort. In July 1942, 143 ships were sunk in a single month. But improved anti-submarine tactics and the entry of the US into the war tilted the advantage. The turning point came in March 1943 when the cracking of German naval codes used by the Enigma machines enabled the Royal Navy to hunt U-boat packs. Around 3,500 merchant vessels and 175 warships were sunk overall. The Germans lost 783 U-boats.