The Fate of the U-Boats which Surrendered - Sink or Scrap?

The Development of Allied Policy

by Derek Waller


1. At the end of the war in Europe in May 1945, 156 U-Boats surrendered. Of these, 10 were allocated to each of the three Allies (UK, USA and USSR), one was repaired and commissioned into the French Navy, four were repaired and commissioned into the Norwegian Navy, three were scrapped in the Norwegian ports in which they had surrendered, two were sunk by the US Navy in February 1946, and 116 were sunk by the Royal Navy between November 1945 and February 1946.

2. The fact that 116 U-Boats were sunk by the Royal Navy to the north west of Northern Ireland in Operation Deadlight continues to raise the question as to why they were sunk rather than being scrapped, with the associated recovery of steel and other materials.

3. The bald answer to the question is that this was a decision taken by the Heads of Government of the three Allies at their international Potsdam Conference held in Berlin in July and August 1945, as part of wider decisions concerning the future of all the German naval vessels that had surrendered.

4. The result of these high-level political discussions was the production of the then "Top Secret" Proceedings (Minutes) of the Conference - known as The Potsdam Agreement - which, in respect of the U-Boats which had surrendered, said that the UK, the USA and the USSR had concluded that:

The larger part of the German submarine fleet shall be sunk. Not more than thirty submarines shall be preserved and divided equally between the USSR, UK and USA for experimental and technical purposes.

5. Thus the executive action to dispose of the surrendered U-Boats which followed (especially Operation Deadlight) was mandated by that political decision, and was not open to any variations driven by practical suggestions such as the possible recovery of steel or the use of the U-Boats’ diesel engines for power generation.

6. The purpose of this paper is therefore to set out the provenance of the decision to sink rather than scrap the majority of the U-Boats which surrendered.

The Potsdam Conference

7. The Potsdam Conference between Marshal Stalin, President Truman and Prime Ministers Churchill and (later) Attlee was about a lot more than the future of the German Navy, which was just one small element of the whole series of momentous subjects which were considered at what was essentially a peace conference.

8. Indeed, the decisions about the U-Boats were even a small part of the major military issues which, as set out in the Potsdam Agreement, were that:

The purposes of the occupation of Germany … are:

(i) The complete disarmament and demilitarization of Germany and the elimination or control of all German industry that could be used for military production. To these ends:-

  1. All German land, naval and air forces … shall be completely and finally abolished.
  2. All arms, ammunition and implements of war and all specialized facilities for their production shall be held at the disposal of the Allies or destroyed. The maintenance and production of all … shall be prevented.

9. There was therefore no question of the survival of the majority of the German naval vessels, including the U-Boats. The only question was how this was to be achieved.

The Overall Views of the Allies

10. The prevailing mood of the two Western Allies (UK and USA) at the time can be discerned from President Truman’s Report to the American Nation about the Potsdam Conference in his Statement from the White House on 9 August 1945, which included the following words:


I have just returned from Berlin, the city from which the Germans intended to rule the world. We also saw some of the terrible destruction which the war had brought to the occupied countries of Western Europe and to England.

In the Conference of Berlin, it was easy for me to get along in mutual understanding and friendship with Generalissimo Stalin, with Prime Minister Churchill, and later with Prime Minister Attlee.

Strong foundations of good-will and cooperation had been laid by President Roosevelt. And it was clear that those foundations rested on much more than the personal friendships of three individuals. There was a fundamental accord and agreement upon the objectives ahead of us.

The Conference was concerned with many political and economic questions. The military arrangements made at Berlin were of course secret.

Before we met at Berlin, the United States Government had sent to the Soviet and British governments our ideas of what should be taken up at the Conference.

The Conference of Berlin laid down the specific political and economic principles under which Germany will be governed by the occupying Powers. They seek to rid Germany of the forces which have made her so long feared and hated, and which have now brought her to complete disaster.

They are intended to eliminate … armaments, war industries, the German General Staff and all its military tradition. German economic power to make war is to be eliminated.

11. It would therefore be wrong to believe that the destruction of the German Navy was a one-sided view espoused by any one of the three Allies. Their stated objectives were similar, even if their motivation differed, and even if the means by which they were to be achieved varied in detail.

The Future of the German Naval Fleet

12. The question of what should happen to the German fleet at the end of the war had exercised the three Allies throughout 1944 and in early 1945 as part of their respective post-war planning processes. Naturally, the urgency of the debate and the need to make positive decisions accelerated in 1945.

13. The Soviet Union had indicated informally in early 1944 that, in line with the earlier division of the Italian Fleet in 1943, it expected to be allocated a share of the surviving German warships. Also, the total elimination of the German Fleet and the associated destruction of any remaining U-Boats at the end of WW2 was a long-held objective of many senior Royal Navy officers with memories of the events following the WW1 armistice and the scuttling of German warships in Scapa Flow.

14. The initial focus of the debate in the UK was the actual surrender process, and that was set out in the Chiefs of Staff paper COS (44) 201(0) dated 25 February 1944. As far as the subsequent disposal of the German naval fleet was concerned, the COS paper acknowledged that:

Surrender in UK ports would, of course, be without prejudice to the ultimate disposal of the ships, which would be a matter for settlement between Governments. It went on to conclude that: The question of the future disposal of the German Fleet and the Soviet share will therefore be examined.

15. The need for such an examination was emphasised in November 1944 by the submission of a US Joint Chiefs of Staff proposal to the European Advisory Commission (EAC) that, except for a small number of ships to be retained for experimental and other purposes, the entire German fleet should be destroyed, preferably by sinking in deep water (although this was slightly at odds with a statement apparently made earlier by President Roosevelt who, in respect of the whole German fleet, had said that although he favoured complete destruction, he hoped that steel from the warships could be salvaged).

16. The EAC, which comprised British, American and Russian representatives, had been established after the Moscow Conference of Foreign Ministers in November 1943 to study and make recommendations to their governments on European questions connected with the termination of hostilities. The EAC was not however the most dynamic of organisations, and made only slow progress on any topic.

17. The American proposal to the EAC nevertheless provoked a great deal of attention in Whitehall, and naturally attracted general UK support. Whilst agreeing that it would lead to the total elimination of German naval power, the UK took an equivocal view about the fate of the surface fleet in the expectation that the Russians would demand to be allocated at least a fair share of the remaining warships. Nevertheless, it was hoped that, as part of the inevitable negotiations, it would be possible to achieve the UK objective of destroying all the remaining U-Boats.

18. One of the important aspects of the consideration of this US proposal was that it helped to formalise UK views about the future of any U-Boats that were likely to surrender at the end of the war, and these are highlighted by a number of significant statements in Admiralty File M/012524/44 (“European Advisory Commission EAC (44) 34 - US Draft Directive on Disposition of German and German Controlled Naval Craft, Equipment and Facilities”), which was opened on 23 November 1944.

19. For instance, the Admiralty staff officer responsible for assembling comments on the US proposal (Mr C H M Waldock) stated on 22 January 1945 that:

The policy of destruction proposed by the US is, in my view, in the best interests of the Royal Navy and of the United Nations as a whole and will, I believe, commend itself to the Board. Unfortunately, however, some of our allies may take a different view.

20. Then Minute SM.0312/530 dated 15 February by Admiral (Submarines) said that:

The question of manpower required to maintain surrendered vessels … is of vital interest to Admiral (Submarines). Every German U-Boat which we have to maintain means a direct reduction in our effort against the Japanese, for the maintenance personnel can only be skilled submarine ratings. Apart from U-Boats required for experimental purposes it is therefore very desirable for them to be scrapped at the earliest opportunity.

21. This was followed on 21 March by a statement from the Admiralty’s Director of Plans, who said that:

If the U-Boat fleet was destroyed and German war making industry obliterated, I do not think there would be any harm in letting the Russians have what remains afloat of the German surface fleet. I would therefore say that we can enter upon a policy of supporting the American attitude wholeheartedly.

22. In response to this Mr Waldock said on 29 March that:

I agree with the Director of Plans. … If a policy of total scrapping cannot be agreed then [we should] go for a policy of scrapping the whole U-Boat fleet

23. The UK’s attitude towards the future of any U-Boats that might surrender at the end of the war was therefore quite clear. However, it was also clear that the final decision would need to be taken jointly by the three Allies, and that detailed negotiations would be required. Predictably, the Soviet representative on the EAC was not keen to support the American proposal but, in any case, further debate was overtaken by events as the war in Europe ended, as arrangements began for the high-level Allied meeting at Potsdam, and as the Russians increased the pressure for an early decision about the future of the surviving German warships.

Pre-Potsdam Proposals

24. On 23 May 1945, just 2 weeks after the end of the war in Europe (but whilst the Japanese war was still underway), Stalin sent messages to Churchill and Truman making it clear that, whilst no German naval vessels had surrendered to Soviet forces, he expected at least one third of Germany’s surviving warships to be allocated to the Soviet Union.

25. Churchill replied on 27 May that the question should form part of the forthcoming Allied discussions, and Truman replied in similar vein on 29 May saying that it was an appropriate subject for discussion, and that he was sure that a fully acceptable solution could be reached.

26. In the meantime Stalin had also raised the matter on 26 May with the US’ Harry Hopkins during the latter’s mission to Moscow on Truman’s behalf. Stalin said that he had information leading him to believe that the US and the UK intended to reject the Russian request and that: if this turned out to be true, it would be very unpleasant. In response, Hopkins assured Stalin that he had always understood that the German fleet was to be divided, and that as far as the US was concerned there was no objection to whatever disposition the Soviet Government wished to make with its share. Hopkins then assured Stalin that the matter could be definitely settled at the forthcoming meeting of the three Heads of Government.

27. It is clear that Stalin was making the running, but that such an approach was not unexpected by the UK and the USA, who were prepared to accept that the surviving German naval vessels should be shared between the Allies. They agreed that the topic should be discussed at the Conference, and that a mutually acceptable decision was the desired outcome.

28. Since it was obvious that the issue of the German naval fleet would be an Agenda item at the Potsdam Conference, which started on 17 July, both the UK and the US staffs produced "Briefing Notes" for their respective delegations. In the UK’s case, the final papers were produced by the Foreign Office but, in the case of the USA, theirs were produced by the Joint Chiefs of Staff because it was considered to be primarily a military matter.

29. The US Joint Chiefs of Staff advice to Truman dated 10 July stated that the preferred solution remained that, except for a small number of ships to be retained for experimental purposes, the entire German naval fleet should be destroyed by sinking or scrapping. An alternative was to destroy all the larger naval ships and the submarines, and to share the remaining smaller vessels. Failing that, the US Chiefs of Staff were content to agree that all the surface vessels should be shared equally between the Allies. In respect of the U-Boats however, the Briefing Note ends with the statement that: In any event, the United States should press for the sinking of German submarines.

30. There were a number of UK documents relating to the future of the German naval vessels.

31. A Foreign Office Briefing Note dated 6 July included the view that it would be in UK’s interest to scrap the entire German fleet; a situation with which the Soviets were not expected to agree. Thus, it recommended that the UK should support the US proposal for total scrapping as a bargaining counter to obtain USSR’s agreement on other issues. However, it also referred to a compromise proposal being formulated by the Admiralty.

32. The Admiralty proposal dated 7 July, whilst expressing concern about the US view that the whole fleet should be scrapped, did not support the Russian claim to one third of it. Instead, the Admiralty was prepared to handover most of the major surface vessels to the Soviets, but only 10 U-Boats, all in exchange for agreement to scrap the remainder.

33. A Cabinet Meeting on 12 July considered the Admiralty proposal, and it was agreed that the UK line at Potsdam should be to support the US proposal for the wholesale scrapping of most of the German fleet, but if the Russians rejected that approach, then the fall-back position advocated on 7 July should be adopted: the main effect of which was to give the Russians the minimum number of U-Boats.

The Potsdam Meetings

34. The 1st Plenary (Leaders) Meeting was held at Potsdam on 17 July, and almost immediately Stalin raised the question of the division of the German naval fleet which, he said, the UK and the USA had agreed would be discussed at the Conference.

35. There are three slightly different records of the debate at this 1st Meeting, particularly in relation to the question of whether the German fleet should be destroyed or sunk.

36. The US "Thompson Minutes" record that:

“Stalin asked why does Churchill refuse to give Russia her share of the German fleet?

Churchill exclaimed “Why?” and went on to say that he thought that the fleet should be destroyed or shared.

Stalin said, let’s divide it. If Mr Churchill wishes, he can sink his share”.

37. The US "Cohen Notes" record that:

“Stalin: Mr Prime Minister, I should like to know whether you will share with us the German fleet.

Churchill: We will share it with you or sink it”.

38. The UK Minutes record that:

“Premier Stalin asked why Mr Churchill did not agree that Russia should have a third of the German Fleet.

Mr Churchill said that this was not the position. It was, however, for consideration whether the German Fleet should be divided up, or whether it would be sunk.

Premier Stalin said that in his view the German Fleet should be divided up. If other countries wished to sink the ships which made up the share allotted to them they could do so, but he did not intend that the ships allotted to Russia should be sunk”.

39. The 1st Meeting of Foreign Secretaries was held on 18 July and, not surprisingly, Molotov suggested that the disposal of the German Fleet should be added to the Agenda of the forthcoming 2nd Plenary Meeting. In response, Eden said that it was not a particularly difficult issue and could be left until later, to which Molotov replied that if the issue was simple there was much to be said for disposing of it without delay. It was however agreed that it would not be included in the 2nd Plenary, but at one soon after.

40. On the same day, 18 July, Churchill had lunch with Truman, and the former’s note of their conversation records that:

“The President asked how I thought we should handle the Russian request for the division of the German Fleet. I said I found it hard to deny the Russians the right to keep their third of the Fleet afloat if they needed it. We British should not have any use for our third of the warships. The President said that the Americans would take their share, but it would be of no use to them. I made it clear that the case of the U-Boats must be considered separately, as they were nasty things to have knocking about in large numbers. He seemed to agree”.

41. The 2nd Meeting of Foreign Secretaries was held on 19 July, one of the purposes of which was to agree the Agenda for the 3rd Plenary to be held later that day. Molotov was keen for an early discussion about the paper he had produced about the future of the German Navy, and Byrnes and Eden both agreed that it should be included in the Agenda for the Plenary.

42. The Soviet proposal submitted to the Foreign Secretaries on 19 July was short and to the point (with just 5 paragraphs on a single sheet) and, in respect of the German Navy, it simply said that: One third of the total German Navy … shall be handed over to the Soviet Union.

43. The 3rd Plenary Meeting was held on the evening of 19 July, and included a lengthy debate about the future of the German fleet. Stalin made the running, but Churchill assured him that he had no objection to the Soviet proposal that the German naval fleet be divided, though he linked this to the need for a satisfactory and amicable outcome to the Conference as a whole. Truman said that he too was agreeable to a three-way division of the German naval fleet.

44. However, Churchill insisted very strongly that the U-Boats should be dealt with differently. With the exception of a small number that should be kept for technical purposes: he thought that the bulk of the U-Boats should be sunk and the remainder shared equally. Stalin stated that: he was also in favour of sinking a large proportion of the U-Boats, and Truman indicated that: he also was in agreement. Finally, once the principle of the three-way split of the surface fleet had been recognised by Truman and Churchill, Stalin agreed that this matter should be settled at the end of the Conference.

45. As a result of the decisions on 19 July, the question of the disposal of the German naval fleet was put on hold, although the need for progress was mentioned (yet again) by Molotov at the 5th Meeting of Foreign Secretaries on 22 July.

46. The topic was next raised at the 9th Plenary Meeting was held on 25 July, when it was the first Agenda item. Churchill and Truman stated that their staffs were still working on the detailed proposals, and Stalin agreed that: further consideration of this matter should be deferred until detailed proposals were available.

47. Action concerning the disposal of the German naval fleet then accelerated as the Conference approached its close, and the staffs of each of the three Allies produced position papers on the topic:

  1. The US Delegation’s Working Paper of 29 July stated that: It is agreed that the German fleet shall at once be divided equally among the USSR, the UK, and the US. A large proportion of the German submarines shall be destroyed, a small number being retained for experimental and training purposes.
  2. The paper by the Soviet Delegation of 30 July proposed that: One third of the German surface navy … shall be transferred to the Soviet Union and that: A larger part of the German submarine fleet shall be sunk.
  3. The paper by the British Delegation of 30 July agreed that German surface ships should be shared equally between the Allies, and that: it was agreed in principle that the German U-Boats should be dealt with separately, the greater part being destroyed. Importantly, it also included the statement that: There is a possibility that any public announcement that German warships are to be divided amongst the Allies may result in German crews scuttling ships. It is therefore desirable that no announcement of the division of the German Navy be made.

48. The 10th Meeting of Foreign Secretaries was held on 30 July, and it was agreed that a Technical Sub-Committee should be established to examine the questions raised in UK and Soviet papers concerning the future disposition of the surviving German naval fleet, both the surface vessels and the submarines, and to report to an early meeting of the Foreign Secretaries. This Technical Sub-Committee was led by three senior Allied naval officers: a British Rear Admiral, an American Vice Admiral and a Russian Admiral of the Fleet. The latter, who therefore out-ranked his colleagues, was Nikolai Kuznetsov the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Navy, and his presence showed just how seriously the Soviet Union was approaching the question of the final disposal of the surviving German naval vessels.

49. At the 11th Plenary Meeting held on 31 July Stalin urged that a final decision be made about the question of the German Fleet. Whilst the report of the Technical Sub-Committee was not yet available to the leaders, Stalin again stated his view that it had already been agreed that Russia would get one-third of the German naval fleet, except submarines - which would be submerged.

50. The 11th Meeting of Foreign Secretaries held on 1 August considered the Technical Sub-Committee’s report, which recommended that: The surface fleet should be divided equally between the Allies, and that the larger part of the submarine fleet should be sunk. There was however disagreement about the number of U-boats to be retained. The UK and USA members recommended 10 to each of the three Allies, but the USSR wanted the figure to be 30. The Sub-Committee also recommended that there should be no public announcements about the division of the German Navy because of the danger that the German crews might scuttle any ships that were ordered to sail to Allied ports. In discussion, the Foreign Secretaries agreed that the surface ships should be divided as recommended and, after a very strong statement by Bevin, the new British Foreign Secretary, speaking on behalf of both the UK and the USA, Molotov agreed that the Allies should be allocated just 10 U-Boats each, with the remainder being destroyed.

51. At the 12th (and penultimate) Plenary Meeting, also held on 1 August, the Allied leaders endorsed the conclusions that had been reached by their respective Foreign Secretaries earlier that day concerning the disposal of the German naval fleet.

52. Immediately after this, Attlee, the new British Prime Minister, wrote to Churchill saying that:

The Conference is ending tonight in a good atmosphere. I would like you to know the broad results before the communiqué is issued. We have, of course, been building on the foundation laid by you, and there has been no change of policy.

53. The letter then ended with a postscript which said that:

We have reached a satisfactory agreement on the German Fleet, especially on U-Boats. Of these all are to be sunk except 30 which are to be divided equally between the Three Powers for experimental and technical purposes.

54. Thus, by the end of the Potsdam Conference, each of the Allies had achieved what they wanted. The German Navy had been eliminated. As expected, Stalin had raised the issue, and he had achieved his requirement for the Soviet Union to be allocated one third of the surface ships, as well as 10 of the U-Boats that had surrendered. The other 2 Allies had been allocated similar shares, albeit that they had no aspirations to be allocated any surface vessels, and the US proposal to sink almost all the U-Boats had been achieved, as had the UK’s similar proposal.

55. However, the agreement that the military arrangements should be kept secret, mainly because of the fear that the surface ships, particularly those allocated to the Soviet Union, would be scuttled by their German crews, was to cause considerable difficulties for the UK Government.

Post-Potsdam Actions

56. The final agreement at Potsdam had also stated that: The Three Governments agree to constitute a Tripartite Naval Commission to submit agreed recommendations to the Three Governments for the allocation of specific German warships and that: The Three Governments agreed that transfers shall be completed as soon as possible, but not later than 15 February 1946. Thus, the Tripartite Naval Commission (TNC) began its work on 15 August 1945 to decide which surface ships and submarines would be retained, their allocation between the three Allies, and the disposal arrangements for the remainder.

57. During the TNC review there was an internal debate within the US Delegation concerning the possibility of salvaging material from the U-boats that had surrendered. A specific suggestion concerning diesel engines was made on 19 August, and there were others concerning electric motors and batteries. However, a briefing note for the Head of the US TNC Delegation on 27 September foresaw that a number of objections would be raised by the Russians who would, it was expected, demand a one-third share of all equipment stripped from German submarines. The note highlighted that the Potsdam Agreement stated that the larger part of the German submarine fleet was to be sunk and that, unless a specific exception was made by the three Governments, the Agreement prohibited the removal of any material from the submarines which were to be sunk. The matter was therefore taken no further.

58. The initial allocations of the U-Boats were agreed at the 13th Meeting of the TNC on 10 October 1945 and, as a result, of the 135 U-Boats in the UK, eight were allocated to the UK, one to the USA and 10 to the USSR. This therefore left 116 U-Boats in Loch Ryan and at Lisahally awaiting final disposal by the Royal Navy.

59. The TNC then made two important decisions relating to these U-Boats at its 18th Meeting on 29 October. These were that: All unallocated submarines should be destroyed and that: All unallocated submarines which are afloat shall be sunk in the open sea in a depth of not less that one hundred metres by 15 February 1946. Thus, when taken together with the decision of the Potsdam Conference that: The Three Governments agreed that transfers shall be completed as soon as possible, but not later than 15 February 1946, it was clear that urgent action was required in order to implement such decisions, especially in view of the onset of winter, the prospects of stormy seas in the North Atlantic, and the annual freezing of the Baltic.

60. A number of prompt executive actions were therefore necessary to implement these decisions, including the transfer of the 10 U-Boats in the UK to the USSR (in Operation Cabal) starting on 24 November. In respect of the sinking of the 116 unallocated U-Boats located in the UK, on 31 October the Admiralty ordered the RN Commander-in-Chief Rosyth to initiate the necessary disposal arrangements and, as a result, the Deadlight Operation Order was issued on 14 November, with a start date of 25 November.

61. The recommendation in the British Delegation’s Potsdam paper of 30 July that it was desirable that no announcement of the division of the German Navy should be made because of the possibility that any public announcement that German warships were to be divided amongst the Allies might result in German crews scuttling their ships, and its subsequent inclusion in the Potsdam Agreement, now began to cause considerable difficulties for the British Government.

UK Press and Public Involvement

62. Whilst the decisions to allocate 10 of the surrendered U-Boats to the USSR, to sink most of the remainder, and to keep these details secret until after the remaining German Navy’s surface ships had been moved to either the USA, the UK or the USSR had been made at Potsdam on 1 August, almost all of the U-Boats were already held in the UK at Loch Ryan and Lisahally. Also, whilst the final decisions about those U-Boats to be moved to the USSR and those to be sunk were not made by the TNC until October, UK press and public interest in the U-Boats and their fate had been building-up ever since the first two had surrendered at Loch Eriboll and Weymouth on 10 May.

63. Thus newspapers in Scotland and Northern Ireland had carried details of the surrenders throughout May, and interest had heightened in June and July as more and more U-Boats were transferred to the UK from Norway and Germany as part of Operation Pledge.

64. Wartime press censorship no longer applied, and there were a number of "leaks" to the Press, with - on 10 October, the very day that the TNC decided the initial allocations to each of the three Allies - the Times and the Manchester Guardian publishing stories under the headline "Disposal of U-Boats". A similar story was published in the Daily Express a week later.

65. Coverage continued during November, and included a detailed piece in both the Daily Telegraph and the Scotsman on the 15th - the day after the security classified Deadlight Operation Order was published - stating that:

Plans are almost complete, I understand, for the greatest wholesale scuttling of war vessels since the Grand Fleet went down in Scapa Flow after the 1914-18 war - sunk by the German crews who had been left aboard. These plans, which are likely to be fulfilled within the next two or three weeks, concern the final disposal of the remains of Germany’s U-boat fleet. There remain more than 100 U-boats which have been collected at Loch Ryan, on the west coast of Scotland, and at Lisahally, in Northern Ireland. These are to be towed into the Atlantic and sunk outside the 300 fathom line.

66. This report was written by Commander Kenneth Edwards, the Daily Telegraph’s and the Scotsman’s Naval Correspondent, who was a retired pre-war RN submarine commander, and who was also a life member of the Wardroom Mess at Fort Blockhouse (HMS Dolphin) in Gosport - the home of the UK submarine fleet. It was followed by a similar report in the Daily Express on the 17 November under the headline “Destruction of 120 Surrendered German U-Boats”.

67. At the same time, the TNC in Berlin was aware of the British plans and, on behalf of the Admiralty, the UK representative requested his colleagues on 16 November to agree that, as the destruction of the unallocated U-Boats in Operation Deadlight could not be kept secret, the TNC should issue a joint communiqué from Berlin on 20 November which would include the words that: It has now been agreed between the Three Powers that U-Boats not required for Allied purposes should now be sunk or destroyed. However, in his reply the same day, the US representative did not support such action, as the original decision had been taken by the Allied leaders at Potsdam, and he believed that any announcement should be made jointly by the three Governments in their respective national capitals. This US line was also strongly supported by the Soviet representative, who stated unequivocally on 17 November that:

In connection with the release of the announcement, the TNC is not authorised to do so.

Independent of the official announcement, the transfer of submarines to the USSR should not be delayed.

The sinking of submarines should be considered independently and has no relation to the transfer of submarines to the USSR.

68. The Admiralty therefore had a problem. Ten U-Boats were to be transferred to the USSR in Operation Cabal on 24 November, and 116 U-Boats were to be sunk off Northern Ireland in Operation Deadlight starting on 25 November. However, there was no Allied authorisation to announce either of these security classified activities. On the other hand, the Press clearly already knew all about Operation Deadlight, and the expected arrival of Russian naval officers at Lisahally would be difficult to keep secret. Thus, the ongoing reports in the papers were not well received in Whitehall by a UK Government which was precluded from making any affirmative comments.

69. Of the two Operations, the one that really concerned the Admiralty was Cabal - the move of the U-Boats to Russia - and they had even proposed on 16 November that the "Admiralty, War Office, Air Ministry and Press Committee" should issue a "D Notice" which would prevent any mention in the papers of the proposed transfer. However, despite the Admiralty saying that any disclosure would render the UK liable to a charge of bad faith, the Press members of the joint Committee refused the request on the basis that defence security was not involved. This was despite the fact that there were genuine fears that disclosure could initiate sabotage by the German naval crews, especially those manning the remaining surface vessels in Wilhelmshaven.

70. As a result, the Admiralty sought a compromise with the Press, whilst still pursuing the official line they were unable to make any detailed comments due to the restrictions of the Potsdam Agreement. The First Lord himself held a meeting with a large number of newspaper editors, news agencies and representatives of the BBC on 19 November under the heading "Transfer of U-Boats to Russia". At this meeting, the Admiralty put its cards on the table, and discussed both Cabal and Deadlight, with a very strong point being made about the very real danger of any publicity whatsoever concerning Cabal.

71. On the other hand, the Admiralty’s briefing note for the meeting records that: The Admiralty are nevertheless anxious that the Press should have full opportunities of witnessing and publishing the operations for sinking surplus U-Boats. Invitations are therefore being issued to the Press to witness the operations, though the agreement of our Allies to publicity has not yet been obtained.

72. The meeting ended with two requests from the Admiralty. Firstly, an unequivocal one: To meet our request for the preservation of complete secrecy concerning the allocation of U-boats to any of the Three Powers. Secondly, a more equivocal one: To refrain from publicity concerning the sinking of surplus U-boats until the permission of our two Allies has been obtained to publication.

73. Whilst the implicit but unwritten agreement concerning Operation Cabal held firm, the requested restraint about Operation Deadlight did not last long. On 25 November, the Daily Express and the Evening Standard published full details, followed shortly afterwards by many other articles from the reporters who (by invitation) were aboard the RN naval vessels involved. However, even then, because of the lack of Allied agreement, the Admiralty were forced to hide behind a cloak of sham secrecy, issuing a message on 29 November to the naval forces involved which said that: In spite of breach of faith by Daily Express and Evening Standard, Operation Deadlight is still to be treated as secret.

74. There was one final and important consequence of the publicity concerning Operation Deadlight, and that related to the question of the sinking of the U-Boats rather than their scrapping and the recovery the metal and other useful materials.

75. Several Members of Parliament, including the MP for the Loch Ryan area in south west Scotland, some businessmen and a number of individuals raised questions, some of them directly with the First Lord of the Admiralty, and some of them in Parliament itself. They were all however met with the standard and bland Government response that: the arrangements for the use and disposal of the surrendered German fleet had been agreed in principle at the Potsdam Conference, and a joint statement by the three Governments setting out the details would be issued in due course.

76. Despite considerable diplomatic pressure throughout November and December 1945, the Soviet Government declined to accede to the UK appeal for any sort of early announcement, and due course eventually turned out to be 22 January 1946, by which time almost all of the unallocated U-Boats had already been sunk. The answer to the question of sinking versus scrapping was therefore never formally either debated or answered. However, in anticipation that it might become an issue which attracted the interest of the Press, the Admiralty prepared a paper on 30 November which set out the answers to what was to become essentially a hypothetical question:

  1. The reason why surplus German U-Boats are being sunk rather than scrapped is primarily because it was expressly agreed at Potsdam between the three Governments that they should be sunk. It is not possible to say what considerations influenced our Allies in making this agreement because the decision was reached without discussion of the merits of the two alternative courses of sinking or scrapping.
  2. The reason which led the United Kingdom Government to join in this decision was that the sinking of surplus boats would plainly be the simplest and most convenient course. If the U-Boats were not to be sunk, they would have to be divided equally between the three Powers for scrapping. This would have involved complicated and expensive operations for the removal of the U-Boats from the United Kingdom. Moreover, it would have increased the manpower commitment for the maintenance of the boats, a burden which would have fallen almost entirely upon the United Kingdom.
  3. Although U-Boats have some scrap value, this is extremely small compared with the large tonnage in United Kingdom ports already laid up awaiting scrapping. At a rough estimate, there is upwards of a million tons of British warships and auxiliary war vessels, including 27 submarines, available for scrapping, whereas the British third share of surplus U-Boats would equal slightly less than 20,000 tons. There is already several years of work for the ship-breakers.
  4. Submarines contain a higher proportion of non-ferrous metals than surface vessels. The Admiralty is, however, advised that non-ferrous scrap is not at present wanted so badly as other types, so that with ship-breaking capacity at a premium, submarines would in this country almost certainly have to take a second place in ship-breaking programmes.
  5. Accordingly there can be little question that, taken by and large, the sinking of the German U-Boats is not only the simplest but most economical course for their disposal.


77. At the end of the war in Europe considerable numbers of serviceable German naval warships, including 156 U-Boats, surrendered to the Allies, the majority to the UK, and none to the USSR. Prior to that, each of the three Allies had formulated their own views on the disposal of these warships, guided by a common determination to see the total elimination of all German naval vessels and facilities. The USA wanted to see the majority destroyed, as did the UK (which was especially keen to see all the U-Boats sunk), but the USSR’s prime wish was to be allocated at least one-third of any warships that surrendered.

78. Whilst the topic had been discussed by the Allies earlier, the future of the German naval fleet was specifically raised by Stalin within two weeks of VE Day, and Churchill and Truman agreed that the topic should be considered at the forthcoming Potsdam Conference. Neither the UK nor the USA had any particular desire to be allocated any of the surrendered surface vessels. They therefore used this as a bargaining chip in their discussions with the USSR, eventually agreeing that each would be allocated one-third of the remaining surface vessels, but that - with the exception of just 30 U-Boats for experimental and technical purposes - the remainder would be sunk no later than 16 February 1946.

79. Despite an earlier comment by President Roosevelt that he hoped that steel could be recovered from any captured warships, throughout the Potsdam Conference the disposal method perceived by each of the Allied leaders for the destruction of the unallocated U-Boats was that they should be sunk. There was no suggestion whatsoever that they should, instead, be scrapped in order to recover metal and other useful materials.

80. Thus it was that the Potsdam Agreement stated clearly that all unallocated U-Boats were to be sunk, a decision that was accepted and reinforced by the TNC which set a target date of not later that 16 February 1945 for such action. At an early stage in the TNC’s deliberations there was an internal US staff suggestion that items such as diesel engines and electric motors might be usefully salvaged, but this was ruled out on the grounds that the Potsdam decisions had already been taken, and that the TNC's role was to implement rather than change them.

81. The urgent implementation of the Potsdam/TNC decisions (which were all classified secret) led to the writing and implementation of the Royal Navy’s plan (Operation Deadlight) to begin sinking 116 of the unallocated U-Boats held in Loch Ryan and at Lisahally beginning on 25 November 1945. However, despite the official secrecy because of the fear that the German crews might scuttle the surviving surface ships, details of the process leaked to the UK press, and this led to some suggestions from MPs and others that the U-Boats should be scrapped rather than being sunk. In response, the Admiralty had to maintain the cloak of secrecy which had been agreed at Potsdam, and therefore declined to comment on any of these suggestions. Instead, it offered the UK Press full access to the Operation Deadlight sinkings, and this took the heat out of the criticism that the U-Boats were being sunk rather than scrapped.

82. The Admiralty was however prepared to justify the decision to sink the U-Boats if necessary. The prime reason was that it was part of the Potsdam Agreement between the leaders of the USA, UK and USSR, and therefore not open for review. Also, it was estimated that there was more than a million tons of British warships and auxiliary war vessels, including 27 submarines, already available for scrapping, and that this would provide several years of work for the UK ship-breakers.

83. Finally, whilst there was an perhaps an emotional case for scrapping rather than sinking the unallocated U-Boats, this did not become a serious political, economic or industrial issue in the UK and, in any case, by the time that the Allies issued their joint communiqué in January 1946 giving details of the Potsdam decisions, almost all the U-Boats had already been sunk.

Derek Waller February 2011

Main Sources

  1. The Potsdam Agreement - 2 August 1945 - available on-line.
  2. President Truman’s Address to the American Nation - 9 August 1945 - available on-line.
  3. Chris Madsen - The Royal Navy and German Naval Disarmament 1942-1947(1998).
  4. Butler and Pelly - Documents on British Policy Overseas: The Conference at Potsdam 1945 (1983).
  5. Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS): Diplomatic Papers: The Conference of Berlin (The Potsdam Conference) 1945 - Volumes I and II (1960) - available on-line.
  6. UK PRO Files: DEFE 53/6, ADM 1/18689 and ADM 1/16180.
  7. US NARA Files: Tripartite Naval Commission 1945-47, RG 333, Entry 15, 190/31/10/01-02.
  8. David M Hird – The Grey Wolves of Eriboll (2010).

This article was published on 13 Mar 2011.

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