As the nation marks the 75th anniversary of VE day, naval historian Derek Waller writes about the immediate aftermath when, over a period of 12 days, 33 surrendering German U-boats arrived at their designated ‘Port for Final Examination’ at Kyle of Lochalsh
The sheltered anchorage at Loch Alsh had been a major base for the Royal Navy’s mine-laying activities during the war. However, in May 1945 Loch Alsh became a centre of activity for processing German U-boats that had surrendered at the end of the war in Europe.
With the objective of ensuring total German naval disarmament, the Royal Navy intended that, at the cessation of hostilities, any German U-boats that surrendered in and around Europe would be moved to the UK prior to their destruction.
To this end Admiral Sir Max Horton, Commander-in-Chief Western Approaches, advised the Admiralty that he intended to use Lisahally in Northern Ireland and Loch Ryan in south-west Scotland for laying-up the surrendered U-boats pending joint Allied agreement about their future.
The whole process was to be known as ‘Operation Pledge’, and on 19 March 1945 decisions were concentrating on three main strands of action.
The first related to the surrender orders to be issued to the U-boats at sea at the time of the expected German capitulation.
The second concerned the reception arrangements for the U-boats surrendering from sea, and the third concerned the arrangements for the reception of the U-boats that had surrendered in German and German-controlled (mostly Norwegian) ports and which were then to be transferred to the UK.
Loch Eriboll near Cape Wrath in the far north-west corner of Scotland was designated as a ‘Port for Preliminary Examination’, Loch Alsh on the north-west coast of Scotland, was designated as a ‘Port for Final Examination’ and Lisahally and Loch Ryan were designated as ‘Ports for Laying-Up’.
Loch Alsh was selected for the final examinations because it was sheltered, because it could accommodate 33 U-boats on buoys at any one time, and because it possessed both a resident naval organisation and a railhead.
As Loch Ryan did not become operational until after 1 June, all the U-boats handled in Loch Alsh in May 1945 were destined to be transferred to Lisahally.
Loch Alsh’s principal role was to remove the U-boats’ torpedoes, as well as to take the majority of the German crews into captivity, and this was influenced by the fact that it was already a formal, but small naval anchorage.
However, although it had a resident Naval Officer-in-Charge, Captain Brian Gourley, who was to be responsible for the overall organisation, it did not have sufficient staff or facilities to process the number of U-boats that were expected to pass through in transit from Loch Eriboll to Lisahally.
As a result, the 5th Escort Group (5 EG), comprising HMS Aylmer, HMS Tyler, HMS Bligh, HMS Grindall, HMS Keats and HMS Kempthorne, which was commanded by Commander Bertram W Taylor, was ordered to Loch Alsh to organise this intermediate part of the surrender process,arriving there on 10 May.
In the meantime the general German capitulation came into effect, and this led to the issue of the Admiralty order that all U-boats were to surrender with effect from 0001 hours on 9 May, and that those still at sea were to head for a number of designated reception ports, the prime one of which was Loch Eriboll.
The first U-boat to arrive in Loch Eriboll was U-1009 on the morning of 10 May and, by 18 May seventeen more U-boats had arrived in the Loch.
None of the U-boats which had surrendered from sea spent long at Loch Eriboll.
Instead, after the preliminary examinations, they were moved quickly, and under escort, to Loch Alsh.
The dates and pattern of departures of the U-boats from Loch Eriboll to Loch Alsh generally followed their surrender pattern, with the escort vessels being provided by the 21st Escort Group (21 EG) which was based in Loch Eriboll:
- 10 May U-1009 and U-1305
- 11 May U-1058 and U-1105, U-293 and U-826
- 12 May U-802 and U-1109
- 13 May U-825 and U-956, U-532 and U-1231
- 14 May U-1010
- 15 May U-244, U-516 and U-764
- 17 May U-255
- 18 May U-2326
On 16 May the Norwegian Navy destroyer HMNoS Stord had sighted a convoy of German naval vessels, including 15 U-boats (U-278, U-294, U-295, U-312, U-313, U-318, U-363, U-427, U-481, U-668, U-716, U-968, U-992, U-997 and U-1165), which were being moved to Trondheim from Narvik where they had surrendered on 9 May.
This Narvik group was intercepted on 17 May by the 9th (Canadian) Escort Group (9 EG), but instead of being allowed to continue to Trondheim, the Admiralty directed that the U-boats should be escorted to Loch Eriboll.
The 15 U-boats were therefore escorted across the North Sea to Loch Eriboll by the 9th EG, and they all arrived off Loch Eriboll at 1915 in the evening of 19 May where they were met by ships of 21 EG before moving into the anchorage for initial processing.
After that, the ex-Narvik U-boats were quickly transferred to Loch Alsh, sailing in three separate batches of five:
The first batch comprised U-294, U-481, U-716, U-968 and U-997, and they were escorted from Loch Eriboll by four ships from 9 EG on 20 May.
The second batch comprising U-278, U-427, U-668, U-992 and U-1165 left Loch Eriboll on 21 May escorted by two ships from 21 EG and one from the 30th EG.
The third batch comprising U-295, U-312, U-313, U-318 and U-363 escorted by three ships from 21 EG also left Loch Eriboll on 21 May.
It had originally been intended to berth the U-boats singly alongside Loch Alsh’s railway pier where, with the aid of its steam crane, their torpedoes would be disembarked.
However, it soon became clear that the rate of arrival of the U-boats from Loch Eriboll, the lack of on-shore accommodation at Loch Alsh and the general shortage of personnel, would result in a very slow turnover if this plan continued.
Fortunately there were two ex-seaplane carriers HMS Engadine and HMS Athene moored in Loch Alsh awaiting disposal by the Royal Navy.
However, these two ships were well suited to the U-boat handling task in every way, particularly as each possessed an electric crane whose lifting capabilities were ideal for the task of disembarking torpedoes from the U-boats.
Commander Taylor therefore berthed HMS Aylmer and HMS Tyler alongside HMS Engadine and HMS Athene respectively, and made the necessary reception arrangements, especially for the temporary accommodation of the German prisoners in the two ships – soon to be dubbed ‘Altmark 1’ and ‘Altmark 2’.
HMS Aylmer was in charge of clearing the U-boats berthed alongside HMS Engadine and the custody of prisoners in that ship, and HMS Tyler performed similar duties for the U-boats berthed alongside HMS Athene.
The four remaining ships in 5 EG were employed in providing guards for the U-boats on arrival and for escorting them to Lisahally after they had been processed.
Early on 11 May, U-1305 and U-1009 arrived from Loch Eriboll, and the final examination process began.
This started with the removal of all the German officers and men from each U-boat, except for a steaming party.
A Royal Navy submarine inspection party which had been delivered to Loch Alsh on 8 May then began the formal inspection of each U-boat and, as soon as the torpedo compartments were pronounced clear, the removal of the torpedoes started.
Within the first 54 hours, eight U-boats had been cleared, 54 torpedoes had been removed, and 23 German officers and 260 ratings had been searched and landed as Prisoners-of-War.
This routine resulted in a rate of clearance of four U-boats per day at Loch Alsh, and by midday on 12 May the NOIC Loch Alsh was able to advise the C-in-C WA that 8 U-boats (U-293, U-802, U-826, U-1009, U-1058, U-1305,U-1105 and U-1109) would be available to be transferred to Lisahally on 13 May.
The prospect of up to eight U-boats being transferred to Lisahally so quickly after the German capitulation provided an ideal opportunity for Admiral Sir Max Horton to stage a public multi-national surrender ceremony to celebrate the successful end of the anti-U-boat war in the North Atlantic.
He therefore ordered more than a dozen representative vessels to Loch Alsh to form an escort force for the movement of the eight U-boats to Lisahally, and on the evening of 12 May he issued instructions for what he called ‘Operation Commonwealth’ which took place on 14 May.
Despite the considerable pressures created by the need for speed, Commander Taylor’s arrangements for the processing of the U-boats at Loch Alsh turned out to be exactly
right in the circumstances, and after clearing the first eight U-boats, the process settled down to run smoothly.
Prisoners were cleared every other day, so that there were never more than 180 men in either depot ship at one time.
The later U-boats had few torpedoes, many none at all, so the rate of handling went up to six per day at times.
U-532 had arrived at Loch Alsh from Loch Eriboll on 14 May, and aroused considerable interest because of its cargo of strategic materials from the Far East, and it was then sailed for Liverpool on 15 May.
The U-boat arrived in Liverpool on 17 May for its cargo to be unloaded in the Gladstone Dock.
However, this did not prove possible, and so U-532 was moved to Barrow-in-Furness on 25 May for completion of the unloading process.
In the meantime, while in Liverpool, the U-boat was inspected by Admiral Horton amid considerable publicity, giving rise to the oft-repeated, but incorrect, story that it had surrendered there.
The movement of the remaining U-boats from Loch Alsh to Lisahally went equally smoothly, with the U-boats and their escorts departing regularly:
- 15 May U-825, U-956, U-1010 and U-1231
- 16 May U-516 and U-764
- 18 May U-244 and U-255
- 19 May U-2326
- 21 May U-294, U-481,U-968 and U-997
- 22 May U-312, U-716, U-992 and U-1165
- 23 May U-313, U-318, U-363 and U-427
- 24 May U-295, U-278 and U-668
On 23 May there was a certain amount of excitement in Loch Alsh when smoke was seen to be issuing from the vent holes in a torpedo on a lighter alongside HMS Engadine.
As warheads were also stored in the lighter, steps had to be taken to keep the fire localised and prevent the heat reaching the explosives.
A drifter remained alongside all night, prepared to tow the lighter clear if necessary, but the fire was contained and the drama ceased.
The fire had occurred in the battery compartment and propelling motor of the torpedo, and was the result of chemical action after acid from the batteries was spilt whist the torpedo was being handled.
Finally, on 24 May, HMS Aylmer and HMS Tyler sailed from Loch Alsh with the last three U-boats (U-278, U-295 and U-668) bound for Lisahally. Thus, as stated in HMS Aylmer’s Report of Proceedings:
The operation at Loch Alsh was completed.
Thirty three U-boats had passed through in twelve days [32 en-route to Lisahally and one toLiverpool], 92 torpedoes were removed and disposed of, and in nearly all cases the warhead had been parted from the torpedo. 1627 Huns and their personal gear were searched, and 1,073 of them were landed for transfer to POW Camps.
The conclusion of the operation, facetiously known in the Group ‘Operation ANY OLD IRON’, brought to an end the 5th Group’s part in the European war and we face our disbandment with dismay and sorrow.
Loch Alsh was therefore no longer needed as a ‘Port for Final Examination’ once the last Loch Eriboll U-boats had been processed, and in his fortnightly diary of events dated 31 May 1945, the Flag Officer-in-Charge, Greenock, Rear Admiral Sir Richard Hill, reported to the C-in-C WA that:
Arrival of surrendered U-Boats [at Loch Alsh] continued until 22 May. Seventeen arrived during the period under review, making a total of 33 in all.
The organisation already in existence for removal of torpedoes, stores and surplus German personnel continued to function. A further 828 prisoners were handed over to the Army up to 25 May, after which date no more have been handled.
Instruments and stores removed from the U-Boats have been stored in HMS Athene and Engadine. Torpedoes have been sent to Greenock, and warheads to Crombie as ordered, and surplus heads and bodies have been dumped at sea.
In summary, for two weeks in May 1945, Loch Alsh was a centre of U-boat-related activity. It had been designated as the ‘Port for Final Examination’ of the surrendered German U-boats that had arrived earlier at Loch Eriboll, both directly from sea and from Narvik, and thus was involved in the processing of 33 of the U-boats that were to be held in the UK awaiting decisions about their final demise.
Loch Alsh was an established, albeit small, naval base, and it had the advantage of a railhead. However, even after the arrival of 5 EG, its berthing and mooring facilities were inadequate for handling the ex-Loch Eriboll U-boats at the required speed.
Fortunately, there were two Royal Navy ex-seaplane carriers (HMS Engadine and HMS Athene) moored in Loch Alsh awaiting disposal, both of which were well suited to the U-boat handling task in every way, particularly as each could accommodate the disembarking German crews and each possessed an electric crane whose lifting capabilities were ideal for the task of disembarking torpedoes from the U-boats.
They were therefore pressed into service, and between 11 May and 24 May facilitated 5 EG’s processing of the U-boats.
In that short time 32 of the U-boats were escorted to Lisahally and one to Liverpool, 92 torpedoes were removed and disposed of, 1627 German crew members were searched, and 1,073 of them were landed for transfer to POW Camps.
If any of readers have any memories or further information on the U-boat activity at Kyle? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org