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World Wars

Britain declared war on Germany at 11:15am on 3 September 1939. Later that day the merchant ship the Athenia was sunk off the north west of Ireland. The Battle of the Atlantic had began, a campaign by the German navy to break the supply line carrying food, munitions and raw materials to Britain.

By the end of the war 40,000 Allied seamen and 1,000 airmen had died; the Germans lost 28,000 submariners. The German effort had claimed 15 million tonnes of Allied shipping; two thirds of the German U-boat fleet had been destroyed.

The British wartime leader, Sir Winston Churchill, admitted that “the only thing that ever frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril”.

Following the fall of France to the Nazis and with the Irish Free State (as Ireland was then known) being neutral, Londonderry was the most westerly port available to the Allies. It was of immense strategic importance, a major port for Atlantic convoy ships, both merchant vessels and their escort ships.

More U-boats were destroyed from the air than by ships and four airfields were established around Lough Foyle, taking advantage of the proximity to the Atlantic Ocean and the vitally important convoy routes.

A Royal Air Force Coastal Command airfield was operational at Ballykelly by June 1942. Long range aircraft conducted anti-submarine patrols from Ballykelly – United States built Fortresses and Liberators. 120 Squadron was based there for much of the war and it claimed 16 U-boat sinkings during that time. Long range aircraft needed a long runway to takeoff and Ballykelly’s extended across the Belfast to Derry railway – there was a direct telephone link from the base control tower to the railway signal box to ensure there were no accidents!

A Coastal Command station operated from Limavady (also known as Aghanloo) from December 1940. 502 Squadron flew Whitleys from here on anti-submarine patrols. They were the first operational unit to be fitted with ASV (or air to surface vessel) radar. Later in the war, 224 Squadron (flying Hudsons) and 221 Squadron (flying Wellingtons) operated out of Limavady. The base was a training centre from 1942-44, after which it accommodated 612 Squadron, 172 Squadron and 407 Squadron. Limavady RAF base closed on VJ Day (Victory over Japan) 15 August 1945. The base earned some notoriety with flying crews as the flight paths were close to Benevenagh Mountain – known as Ben Twitch to the crews that tried desperately to avoid its lofty cliffs rising sheer from the surrounding flat countryside!

The current site of the City of Derry Airport was established as RAF Eglinton in April 1941, being used by Fighter Command as a base from which to defend Derry and to escort convoys. Hurricanes of 504 Squadron and Spitfires of 133 Eagle Squadron were based here, later joined by the United States Army Air Force 52 and 82 Fighter Groups. In 1942 the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm took over the base, renamed HMS Gannet. It became a training centre for naval fighter units training in Corsairs, Barracuddas, Hellcats, Seafires, Skuas, Roc and Martinets. Ironically, considering its role in the war against Germany, the first squadron of the new air arm of the German Federal Navy was commissioned here in 1958!

Maydown was a satellite airfield for Eglinton. It was renamed HMS Shrike when the Royal Navy took it over in 1943. It supported the largest operational squadron in the Fleet Air Arm. There were 90 Swordfish based here, aircraft that served the Merchant Aircraft Carriers or MAC (usually converted grain ships). These were dedicated to convoy duty, successfully escorting 217 convoys 1943-45. In that time only one U-boat attack on a MAC escorted convoy was successful! The base closed in September 1945.

Of course, it wasn’t just British sailors and airmen who were in and around the city! As illustration, in February 1945, there were 109 Canadian, 35 British and 4 US naval ships in the Foyle. At any time during the war there would have been up to 3,000 Canadians ashore in the city – Canadian ships carried out 48% of the convoy work out of Derry. In addition there were visits by Russian, ‘free’ Dutch, ‘free’ Polish and other allied ships, in Derry for repair, refuelling or based there temporarily.

Typically the convoys applied a tactic of working in groups of 45 merchant ships sailing in 9 columns, each ship half a mile apart, the entire convoy thus spread out over 20 square miles. An escort group of 6 to 9 naval vessels were deployed around the merchant ships, a protective screen best positioned to bring their ASDIC sonar detectors and radar to bear.

The biggest engagement during the Battle of the Atlantic was the attack on convoy ONS5, a convoy of 42 empty merchant ships making their way to America to collect cargo and escorted by the Derry based B7 Escort Group, comprised of 7 naval ships and 2 converted trawlers. A ‘wolfpack’ of 42 German U-boats attacked the convoy. On the night of 5 May 1943 there were 24 attacks, resulting in the loss of 12 merchant ships. The escort group claimed 6 U-boats sank and 5 seriously damaged.

The importance of Londonderry to the Allied war effort is demonstrated by the level of anti-aircraft protection afforded it. There were Heavy Anti Aircraft Batteries at Carmony, Galliagh, Culmore, Campsie, Ballymagroarty and Mabouy. Light Anti Aircraft Batteries were sited at Lisahally and at the city centre docks, including the placement of artillery guns on the roof of Bryce and Westons (now Longs Supermarket). In addition there were numerous barrage balloons flying around the city.

On 8 May 1945 the British Admiralty issued the following instruction:

“U-boats at sea to surface, fly a black flag or pennant, report to the nearest Allied radio-telegraphy station, and proceed on surface to such ports as directed”

Lisahally, at the mouth of the River Foyle was selected as the port where the official, surrender of the U-boat fleet would take place. On 14 May 1945, 8 U-boats were escorted up the Foyle, a token force, followed by 34 more before the month was out, eventually joined by another 30!