By John Peterson
The long sleek hull emerged from the early morning fog, the blunt bow cutting through the water as the diesel engines propelled the U-boat steadily north towards Lerwick.
A few men moved about the deck watching the coast move steadily past while one figure, wearing a thick white sweater against the cold, looked out from the conning tower at the southern entrance to the harbour beginning to form in the distance. He peered through a pair of binoculars at the horizon, checking for any ships entering or leaving the harbour. Behind him an unmanned anti-aircraft gun aimed low at the horizon. Soon Bressay came up on their starboard side and then they passed into the busy harbour sheltered by land on either side of them. They sailed around the Knab and turned in towards Victoria Pier as crowds of people began to gather along the seafront to watch them.
It was a sight that just a few months before would have sent a wave of panic rippling across the harbour and through the town beyond. But on this occasion, in August 1945, it was merely a source of keen fascination. Because the war was over, the U-boat was unarmed and the flag fluttering behind the conning tower was the White Ensign of the Royal Navy.
The German U-boat entered the harbour and sailed past the growing crowds towards Alexandra Wharf where it was secured and a gangway put in place. Over the next three days the U-boat was visited by hundreds of fascinated Shetlanders, keen to inspect one of the elusive and enigmatic war machines which had caused the loss of so many ships, taken so many lives and cast such a dark shadow over the last six years.
When the war against Germany ended in May 1945 the Allies gained control of some 156 U-boats which had either surrendered at sea or which they had captured in ports across Western Europe. A few of these were shared out between the USA, the UK and the Soviet Union for use in their own navies or for testing purposes, but the vast majority of them were simply not required. Therefore the Royal Navy was left with the responsibility of disposing of the remaining 116 boats without exception as soon as possible after the war ended. A plan was formed called Operation Deadlight which consisted of gathering the remaining U-boats together, towing them out into the deep waters around the coast of Northern Ireland and sinking them. The Tripartite Naval Commission set a deadline of the 15th February 1946 by which time all remaining U-boats had to be destroyed. This meant that within a few months of the war ending there was only a handful of U-boats left anywhere in the world.
While this was being agreed, another plan was formed by the British Admiralty who felt that there would be significant public interest in viewing up close these extraordinary submarines which had posed such an enormous threat to the survival of the British nation, and they felt that it could be an excellent opportunity to raise money to help some of their many victims. Therefore it was agreed that two of the many captured boats would be chosen to take part in a nationwide publicity tour so that the general public could have a unique opportunity to inspect them and make donations to the King George’s Fund for Sailors, a charity set up after the devastation of the First World War to help people affected by the war at sea.
The two U-boats that were chosen to take part were U-776 and U-1023, both boats that were lying impounded at Weymouth on the south coast of England. Both were ultimately destined for destruction in Operation Deadlight but first they were sent on a tour of the country before joining the other condemned boats which were gathering in Northern Ireland and at Loch Ryan on the southwest coast of Scotland. Both boats were assigned a Royal Navy submarine crew before setting out from Weymouth, and they each headed in an opposite direction around the country. The Type-VIIC/41 boat U-1023 headed west from Weymouth and visited Plymouth, Brixham, Falmouth, Bristol, Cardiff, Swansea, Holyhead, Liverpool, Manchester, Fleetwood, Belfast, Rothsay, Glasgow, Greenock and Oban before finally heading across the North Channel to Lishally near Londonderry to await final disposal. Meanwhile the Type-VIIC boat U-776 headed east around the UK visiting London, Southampton, Dover, Chatham, Harwich, Great Yarmouth, Hull, Grimsby, Middlesborough, Blyth, Newcastle, Sunderland, Edinburgh, Rosyth, Dundee, Aberdeen, Invergordon, Kirkwall and finally Lerwick before sailing on to Loch Ryan near Stranraer to be destroyed.
U-776 was a Type-VIIC U-boat, the most produced and most successful U-boat design of the war, popularly known as the ‘workhorse of the Kriegsmarine.’ She began life at the Kriegsmarinewerft at Wilhelmshaven in northwest Germany and was one of 27 U-boats built there between 1940 and 1944. Her keel was laid on the 4th March 1943 and she was launched exactly a year later on the 4th March 1944 and commissioned the following month under the command of Kapitanleutnant Lothar Martin, a 27-year old from Engelsdorf near Leipzig.
U-776 was Martin’s first command and it would be several more months before the new U-boat and her crew would be ready to go out on a combat patrol. The crew required training and the new boat had to be tested and made ready for war service. Therefore it was not until early 1945 as the war was drawing to a close that U-776 was finally ready to go into active service. When the crew had first joined the boat they had been attached to the 31st Flotilla which was a training flotilla based at Hamburg but on the 12th March 1945 with their training finally completed they sailed from Kiel in Germany to Horten in Norway, to prepare for their first patrol. Normally at this point they would have been reassigned to one of the many combat flotillas but with Nazi Germany crumbling and the war so close to being over this never happened. They departed Norway and headed west into the North Sea, sailing north of Shetland and then around the coast of Scotland to the Atlantic. But as their hunt for merchant shipping to attack was just beginning, the war in Europe was rapidly coming to an end.
When Germany surrendered in May 1945 all operational U-boats still at sea were ordered to surface immediately and fly a black flag of surrender before setting a course to a designated Allied port. Kapitanleutnant Lothar Martin surfaced his boat as ordered and eventually surrendered to two Royal Navy frigates which escorted the U-boat to Weymouth on the south coast of England. They arrived there on the 12th May and U-776 was impounded while the crew immediately became Prisoners of War; interestingly Kapitanleutnant Lothar Martin was not released from captivity until May 1948 though in time he returned to the German Navy, finally retiring in 1970 at the rank of Fregattenkapitan.
While the other captured U-boats were being transported for destruction U-776 was temporarily commissioned into the Royal Navy and given the pennant number N65 in preparation for her return to sea. The scheduled tour of ports on the east coast was to last for 60 days with U-776 spending a few days in each location but before the tour even got underway it had been decided that they would make a special visit to London. This visit was important for two reasons; firstly to mark the beginning of the tour and allow the thousands of interested Londoners to visit the boat and donate their money, but also because of the fantastic propaganda opportunity it presented for the victorious British government by having the German U-boat, symbol of the defeated Third Reich, being sailed through London under the control of the Royal Navy. Immediately after U-776 left Weymouth on the 21st May they made their way to the Capital. They sailed up the Thames watched by crowds of people on either side of the river and they were closely followed by a boatload of press photographers. Every bridge they passed was crammed with onlookers desperate to see the U-boat and the photographs of U-776 sailing past the Houses of Parliament appeared in newspapers all over the world, the triumph of British democracy over the beaten German fleet. They tied up at Westminster Pier where they stayed for the next 10 days to allow thousands of fascinated people to step aboard.
The 10-day visit to London was, understandably, the longest and busiest phase of the tour. An incredible 166,000 people filed through the cramped U-boat pressure hull and thousands more inspected her from the edge of the pier. It was reported that on the first day they opened to the public there was a queue of over 9000 people waiting to step aboard.
For the duration of the tour from when they left Weymouth until they finally arrived at Loch Ryan U-776 was operated by a Royal Navy submarine crew of 35 men led by Lieutenant Peter Barnsley Marriott DSO. This crew had already spent some time in Shetland during the war years with their submarine HMS Graph when, during December 1942 and January 1943, they had called in at Lerwick on their way north to provide protection for the convoys heading to Northern Russia. Interestingly Graph had begun her career as U-570, also a German U-boat which had been damaged and captured after a British air attack south of Iceland in August 1941.
After they left London the tour commenced up the east coast of England and then Scotland, ending up at Invergordon before they finally headed to the North Isles for the final two stops. They arrived in Orkney on Monday 13th August 1945 to a great deal of public interest. The Orcadian dated 16th August 1945 reported that ‘Kirkwall was the mecca of many this week for the visit of U-776, the ex-German submarine. People came by land and sea routes from nearly ever district of the country.’
The Orcadian reported that specially employed Naval drifters had been used to transport people from Rousay, Sanday, Stronsay and Eday to Kirkwall especially to visit the U-boat, such was the high level of interest in the islands. In addition to visiting the U-boat people also flocked to a special exhibition of Naval photographs which were being shown in huts on the Kirkwall pier and which included a series of photographs documenting the building of the causeways linking the parish of Holm with the islands of Lamb Holm, Glimps Holm, Burray and South Ronaldsay, better known locally as the ‘Churchill Barriers.’ The exhibition was run with the assistance of the Kirkwall Sea Cadets and the Girls Training Corps who also helped collect money for the King George’s Fund. During the time in Kirkwall an official visit was also made to U-776 by members of the Orkney County Council and the Kirkwall and Stromness Town Councils. The weather on the first day of the visit was described in the local paper as ‘magnificent’ and though it did deteriorate over the following days the overall visitor numbers were high as were the donations.
Throughout the tour wherever the U-boat stopped collection boxes were set out for the public to make donations to the King George’s Fund for Sailors, a charity which still operates today under the name Seafarers UK. The money raised was used to support seamen of all kinds and their families, providing homes and hostels, clubs, schools, orphanages, hospitals and rest homes as well as providing educational facilities and libraries on ships, and helping to provide grants for seamen’s widows and their families. There was no set charge for visiting the U-boat but people who did were encouraged to make a donation. In some of the ports special souvenir brochures were produced for the occasion and given out in exchange for donations.
Throughout the entire tour of the country a total of 368,065 people passed through U-776 and a total of £6,195 was donated to charity. This worked out as an average donation of around 4d. (old pence) per person. But of all the ports visited across the country, the Northern Isles proved to be the most generous of all. During her stay in Kirkwall a total of 3500 people passed through U-776 and donated a total of £214 which worked out at as an average of 14d. per person; the highest average donation per visitor of the whole country. Lerwick came in second with 3270 people donating £152 which averaged 11d. per person and Invergordon was third with an average donation of 8d. per person. It is interesting that the last three stops on the tour ended up giving the highest donations per head, and particularly when Shetland had not originally even been one of the planned tour destinations.
When the details of the U-776 tour were first announced by the Admiralty in May 1945 Lerwick had not been included in the list of ports which were to be visited despite the strong local connection with the U-boat war. The most northerly port for U-1023 which was touring the west coast of the UK was Oban while the most northerly for U-776 was to be Kirkwall. The local Council discussed the decision and was keen to see Lerwick included in the tour. In the Shetland Times dated 8th June 1945 it was reported that ‘Baillie Aitken called attention to the Admiralty decision to send German submarines to be shown to the public as far north as Kirkwall and Oban while neither Stornoway nor Lerwick had seen German submarines in a surrendered capacity and he moved that strong representations be sent to the Admiralty that a submarine be sent to Lerwick. Mr R J H Ganson stated that in the capacity as Convener of the County he had immediately sent a strong worded protest to the Admiralty on this matter, mentioning the great services that Shetlanders had given at sea and the important part that the islands had played in the war. The meeting concurred.’
The protest clearly had the desired effect because the Admiralty immediately added Lerwick to the roster, making it the final port of call on the tour after Kirkwall. The high level of visitors to the U-boat in both of the Northern Isles and the high level of donation was perhaps understandable because of the direct experience that both island groups had of the U-boat war. The vast number of Shetland seamen that served in the Royal and Merchant Navies during the war meant that right throughout the Battle of the Atlantic they had faced the peril of the U-boats, often with tragic consequences. Meanwhile Orkney had seen a great deal of U-boat activity around her shores both because of her geographic position at the north of Scotland but also because of the strategic significance of Scapa Flow which was the main base of the Royal Navy fleet. This had led to one of the most notable U-boat attacks of the entire Second World War when in October 1939 U-47, an almost identical U-boat to U-776, penetrated Scapa Flow and torpedoed the battleship Royal Oak with the loss of 833 lives.
At the end of a busy three days in Kirkwall, it was time for U-776 to carry on to the last stop on the tour and at around 9pm on the evening of Thursday 16th August the U-boat moved away from the pier and headed north into a night of very dense fog. The poor visibility did not hamper the U-boat on her passage north but caused wide disruption for many of the people who had travelled from the outer isles of Orkney to visit her. According to The Orcadian dated 16th August 1945 the people who had travelled from Rousay had been ferried home safely in the evening but their drifter had later ran aground, while the people from the other north isles had their boats cancelled altogether due to the foggy conditions and had been ‘marooned’ in Kirkwall overnight.
Meanwhile the crew of U-776 travelled north without incident and on the Friday morning arrived in Lerwick to meet the last of their public. They sailed into the harbour and berthed at the north end of Alexandra Wharf, tying up there at around 11am in front of a swelling crowd. According to The Shetland Times dated 24th August 1945 they were officially welcomed by Commander Colley who was the Naval Officer in Charge at Lerwick. Lieutenant Peter Marriott from U-776 then accompanied Commander Colley on a visit to the Provost, Major Magnus Shearer before all three men along with the Town Clerk returned to the pier to be shown around the U-boat. After they had inspected the boat Provost Shearer declared the vessel open to the public, and the crowds of people that had gathered along the pier began filing aboard.
Between noon when it was first opened to the public and 7pm that evening around 1000 people passed through U-776 contributing £48 of donations. Then on the remaining two days the boat was open between 11am and 7pm; Saturday was the busiest day with 1300 people stepping aboard, a rate of 162 people per hour, and on Sunday another 970 inspected the boat. Donations on these two days were £62 and £42 respectively.
During the tour the crew only lived aboard the boat whilst travelling between ports because once they were in port the boat was cleared for the visiting public and so the crew was billeted ashore. In Kirkwall they were given accommodation at the Royal Navy Air Station at Hatston on the outskirts of the town; known during the war as HMS Sparrowhawk while in Lerwick they stayed at the Naval Camp at the Knab. On one of the evenings in Lerwick the officers and crew were invited to attend an informal dance at the Town Hall.
Then at 7pm on Sunday 19th August 1945 U-776 closed to the public for the last time marking the end of the tour which by now had taken them the entire length of the country from south to north. The relieved crew moved back onboard and the boat was prepared for sea. In The Shetland Times dated 24th August 1945 it was reported that the crew ‘all expressed themselves as pleased with the reception here, and all were quite glad that the tour was ending as it undoubtedly imposed a strain on crews unused to acting as showmen.’
At 8am on the morning of Tuesday 21st August they slipped their mooring at Alexandra Wharf and headed out of the harbour, eventually setting a course around the coast of Scotland towards Stranraer and Loch Ryan where they would join the other U-boats still waiting to be destroyed. After a somewhat unusual few months playing host to the general public, the crew were allowed to return to their normal duties as submariners. Lieutenant Peter Marriott who had been awarded the DSO and DSC during his war career returned to more serious responsibilities and by the time he retired from the navy in 1964 he had achieved the rank of Captain.
U-776 was one of 86 U-boats that were gathered at Loch Ryan in the aftermath of the war and between the 27th November and the 30th December 1945 they were all taken out and sunk in the deep waters around the coast of Northern Ireland. On the 3rd December the tug Enforcer towed U-776 out from Loch Ryan and headed to the open sea. At around 1855 hours when they were in position 55.08N x 05.30W, a point about midway between Scotland and Ireland and about 15 miles south of the Mull of Kintyre, they let the tow lines go and U-776 began to founder. Having never had the chance to fulfill the role for which she was built, U-776 slipped beneath the waves for the last time.
Darkest before dawn: U-482 and the Sinking of Empire Heritage by John Peterson is out now, published by The History Press