As you drive west out of Belfast, you notice the word London painted over on the roadsigns. My theory? It was done by a midget, because all the tall signs survived.

I was going to get a picture on the way back, but I was caught up in serious (ok, really shitty) weather, and most signs were completely painted over—by snow.  The road was so bad I was even quiet for a while, trying to stay off the brakes on the long grades over the Glenshane Pass.

The weather seems to have hit the Northern Hemisphere with gusto—Southwest England is technically underwater, and when I flew through London on Thursday the papers were calling Cameron the Duke of Wellingtons, and occasionally the Duck of Wellington.

There’s a misconception that the Northern Irish are cold and distant, perhaps even hostile, but I can’t agree—they’re a people full of humor and fortitude. Obviously there is a historical background of violence, and you’d be stupid to ignore it, but you can get killed or seriously hurt just about anywhere in the world—bad luck or foolishness, often in combination, might do you in Lisbon, Ontario, or up the Lisburn Road.

Northern Ireland takes up the twelve to three area on the watch face that is the Emerald Isle, and Londonderry is bang on top of the hour. I wish I could have seen the old walls of Derry, maybe gone into the pub and got some of the old guys talking about it all, so I could have more to tell, but I was on a schedule.

I did get a chance to hear about the U-boats.

The U stands for Untersee, or under the sea. I’d prefer in rather than under, pedant that I am, but then some German wording can be rather bizarre. Ben Schott, who seems to have made this quest his leitmotiv, tells us of Speichelgleichmut, when someone “pretends they haven’t been accidentally spit on during conversation.”

The man is obviously a cunning linguist, and I immediately bought his German word extravaganza, although I think I’d prefer it as a videobook (a movie, duh), since I loved the imagery of the triumph of nimble fingers—you’ll notice it includes the word ‘Tanz’, or dance.

It was my first analog book purchase in a good while, since no digital version exists. There’s probably a German compound word for that too, meaning impulseshopperangst.

I admire nimble. It was the mathematical nimbleness of the great Alan Turing that was behind the Bletchley Park triumph of breaking the Enigma code in World War II, which literally sunk the U-boat program.

Her Majesty’s government rewarded this achievement by arresting him for homosexuality in 1952, shortly after Queen Elizabeth was crowned, after which Turing voluntarily submitted to one year of chemical castration, before commiting suicide in 1954. Clearly he didn’t enjoy getting in touch with his feminine side.

The Enigma code was cracked, and by late 1942 the British were regularly eavesdropping U-boat communications. Churchill made his landmark ‘End of the Beginning’ speech at the Lord Mayor’s luncheon, and by 1943 the Admiralty were already drawing up plans for the post-war destruction of the Kriegsmarine. When the war in Europe was over, the surrender of the German submarines was negotiated, and the process took place in May 1945.

German submarines docked at the port of Londonderry after the surrender to the allies.

German submarines docked at Lisahally after the surrender to the Allies.

The submarine fleets were directed to various ports, including Portsmouth, Felixstowe, and Liverpool in England, as well as the east coast of the United States. One group, which presumably lurked in the upper part of the Northeast Atlantic, was ordered to sail into Lough Foyle, and surrender at the port of Lisahally, which serves the city of Londonderry.

There is little written material to be found on this, and the image record is scarce. Wikipedia devotes half a page to the port, which played a key part in the Battle of the Atlantic. A few lines document the surrender of the U-boats to Admiral Horton, but the most reliable account I can find speaks mainly of decommissioning at Lisahally, with the delivery of vessels that had already surrendered in other parts of Europe.

A portion of the German submarines was divided up among the Allies, and led to two U-boats seeing service in the U.S. Navy for a number of years after the war. One of them, a type XXI with registration U-2513, hosted Harry Truman in the first presidential dive in history. The sub lies at 65 m off Tortuga—not a dive for the faint-hearted.

Operation Deadlight was designed to sink 116 German U-boats off Northern Ireland. The thirty subs at Lisahally were manned by German skeleton crews on the way out through Lough Foyle, and after reaching open water the vessels were to be towed, unmanned, to the disposal site, one hundred-thirty miles north of the Foyle.

The operation can best be described as ‘cock-up’: it took place around this time of year, and I can attest to the unfriendly weather; the U-boats were to be sunk with demolition charges, or if the weather allowed (chance would be a fine thing), torpedoed. If all else failed, they would be sunk by gunfire.

All else did.

Not a single sub was scuttled by demolition charges, one was torpedoed, and the others either sank while in tow or were sunk by gunfire, well short of the designated disposal area. Most ended up on the seafloor off Malin Head, in County Donegal—not far off the coast at all.

Malin Head is apparently highly sought after in the summer months for diving, with the nearest U-boat being the U-861, only three miles off the coast, at a depth of about one hunded-forty feet. I wonder how many of those divers are Germans…

The best way to re-live the U-boat experience is to watch the movie Das Boot, by Wolfgang Petersen. I saw the dubbed version, but you could watch the German original with English subtitles, for a more realistic experience of life in the Kriegsmarine.

U-995 beached at Laboe, in Northern Germany. The vessel was offered to Germany by the Norwegians in 1965 at a cost of one deutschmark.

U-995 beached at Laboe, in Northern Germany. The vessel was offered to Germany by the Norwegians in 1965 at a cost of one deutschmark.

All these things made me wonder where you can visit a real U-boat. The two most promising options are the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, which holds a U-505, and the German memorial site near Kiel, where a  U-995 is open for visitors.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.


One Response to “Derry”

  1. Laura Says:

    In Helsinki, we have a submarine (“diving boat”, if you translate directly from Finnish) built in 1933 that you can visit ( The ship had a crew of ~20 men, and I doubt I would have lasted a day in that cramped space with so many people… The crew was selected on a volunteer basis and not tested for suitability in any manner.

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