Image Credit: Colleen Jessup. Captured German U-Boats at Lisahally
The Battle of the Atlantic was the longest continuous military campaign in World War II and largest and most complicated naval battle in history. Britain was dependant on imports to survive the war it required over a million tons yearly just to keep fighting. The allies had blockaded the Atlantic to stop supplies getting to Germany from the start but rather than try to break that blockade the Germans set up their own blockade to try and stop the supplies reaching Britain.
Derry was the westernmost allied port in Europe meant it had a key role to play in the Battle of the Atlantic. In 1941 the Royal Navy set up a shore base in Ebrington Barracks and named it HMS Ferret, the docks at Lisahally were used to keep ships and the shipyard at Pennyburn docks was used to repair ships. The role of HMS Ferret was to respond to ships being attacked in the Atlantic and escort ships to and from Britain. After the Destroyers for Bases agreement, which saw 50 American destroyers being given to the Royal Navy in exchange for bases happened, the American technicians that came along with the Deal were based in HMS Ferret.
At its peak there were 140 Allied escort ships based in the Foyle, more ships passed through Derry than Liverpool, Glasgow, and Belfast combined and 20,000 Royal Navy, 10,000 Royal Canadian Navy and 6,000 United States Navy personnel were based in the city, some of them left with wives as the Derry Girls of the time liked a man in uniform. The first United States military base in Europe was set up in the city following a secret arrangement before they had officially joined the war, which was later used as a landing point for US Marines joining the war.
Magee University was also used as command centre and a secret bunker was built that is now buried under the lawn. This base was one of 4 command centres used to coordinate a million personal during the Battle of the Atlantic, the main base was at Plymouth but got moved to Liverpool when the focus of the Battle shifted to the North. The command centre at Magee is believed to be the backup main command centre if Liverpool was taken down as it was believed that the Germans weren’t aware of its location.
The Battle of the Atlantic was effectively won in 1943 but attacks by U-Boats still continued till the end of the war. In 1945 the Germans surrendered and U-Boats were brough to Lisahally port, local people were able to view the boats and even go inside to look around to look through the periscopes. After a period of study the U-Boats were sunk in Lough Foyle and Lough Ryan in Scotland.
Churchill acknowledged the contribution of Northern Ireland in keeping open the Atlantic lifeline and Professor J. W. Blake, in his 1956 book Northern Ireland and the Second World War summarised the importance of the work of the base in the city:
"Londonderry held the key to victory in the Atlantic. It became our most westerly base for the repair, the working up and refuelling of destroyers, corvettes and frigates. By that critical Spring (1943) when battle for the security of our Atlantic lifelines finally turned our way, Londonderry was the most important escort base in the north-western approaches."
There are currently plans to open a North Atlantic Maritime Museum in old hospital building of Ebrington. The museum will focus on Derry’s maritime history, including shipbuilding, early trade with American colonies and should contain a major piece on the Battle of the Atlantic and hopefully should be open in time for the 80th anniversary of the end of the Battle of the Atlantic.