Derry was Allies’ best-kept secret in Battle of Atlantic

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You’ve heard of the spy kings of Bletchley Park and the revered Enigma code-breaking machine, but what happened in Derry in World War II may also be counted among the key factors in the ultimate defeat of the Nazi war machine, writes Ian Cullen.

Derry’s role was one of the “best kept secrets” of the conflict and a key factor in the Allied victory in the ferocious Battle of the Atlantic, according to veteran Royal Navy Commander Peter Campbell.

A leading member of the Roayal Naval Association, which will tomorrow unveil a sculpture remembering the sailors who helped protect the convoys and to defeat the Nazis, Commander Campbell is in no doubt of the vital role played by the city.

During the conflict Derry was home to 20,000 Royal Navy personnel, some 10,000 Canadians and Newfoundlanders, more than 6,000 Americans as well as men from many of the occupied nations and the soldiers and airmen defending the city and surrounding area.

Between 1939 and 1945 when the city took on the mammoth task of supporting the naval ships and crews from over a dozen nations as they escorted the merchant ships and their valuable cargoes across the North Atlantic

They faced treacherous conditions again and again for six long years in what is known as the Battle of the Atlantic. At any one time there were as many as 140 naval ships and over 30,000 sailors in the port.

Commander Campbell described Derry as “the most important and unique” Allied base during World War II, even though he himself didn’t actually arrive in the city until the immediate aftermath of the conflict.

“Winston Churchill said ‘the only thing that frightened me during the war was the Battle of the Atlantic’ and there’s no doubt that the fact the Foyle was spared a German attack was a factor in the final victory,” added the veteran.
Commander Campbell, who lives in Randalstown, pointed out Derry was such a unique base because of its proximity to deep water and air fields to allow the combination of both naval and air forces.

“The enemy subs must be dealt with by ships but to find them you need aircraft. The question at the time was where in the UK there was a port and a base for aircraft close together where sailors and airmen could talk together, work together, train together so that when they get out in the middle of the Atlantic they were speaking the same language.

“The only place in the UK that was geographically right for the Battle of the Atlantic was Derry. The contribution made here in Derry was unique and vitally important.
“To this day I’m still baffled that the Germans didn’t mine this narrow channel going out into the estuary. The Foyle is shallow and was screaming to be mined and closed off altogether but the German’s didn’t take it seriously and there were just a few bombs dropped in Derry, said Commander Campbell who joined the Royal Navy with gusto in 1945, spurred on by the glittering military career of his father, Major General Sir Alexander Douglas Campbell, who served the British Army in both World Wars.

Derry’s role in winning the Battle of the Atlantic was recognised by the Royal Navy at the end of the War when Admiral Sir Max Horton travelled to Lisahally along British Prime Minister Basil Brooke to witness on the arrival of surrendered U-boats May 14 1945. USS Robert I Paine was there to represent the US Navy at the surrender. Also present at the ceremony at Lisahally was the head of Irish intelligence, Colonel Dan Bryan, a subtle acknowledgement of the Ireland’s contribution to the effective operation of the Allied naval bases on the Foyle despite the ongoing ‘Emergency’ south of the border.

When Commander Campbell first arrived in Derry in 1946, the Allied forces were engaged in the major post-war clean-up operation. “I was working alongside the ‘Derry Squadron’, an escort group which fought in the Battle of the Atlantic. “We used to go out for exercises, passing, at that time, the 34 u-boats at Lisahally - they were the ones that were captured and taken here from Scotland.

“The initial idea was that the RAF should practice bombing them to sink them but that didn’t work too well,” he chuckled. “They wouldn’t sink mostly, so they had to be sunk manually or scuttled off Inishtrahull Island.” The commander said he was “fascinated” by the way the Americans got involved in the war in Derry. Six months before the Americans entered the war a lot of them came and built the Lisahally jetties in plainclothes so no one would accuse them of taking part in the conflict.

“People say the Americans only came in because of Pearl Harbour but they were already here long before. “They came in plainclothes and as soon as the US came into the war the same guys came out in uniform.”

Military historian Richard Doherty has stated that Derry was saved from destruction by Hitler’s invasion of Russia in the winter of 1941–2 and the city’s anti-aircraft defences defences remained untested.

“The civilian population carried on a fairly normal life in spite of rationing and the blackout, the two most obvious signs that a war was on. Indeed an almost surreal social life supervened with dances, social functions at which servicemen were guests and even visits to the skating rink set up by the Canadians. Romances flourished between local girls and servicemen with many marrying sailors from the Royal Navy and the US Navy and some marrying Canadians. A large proportion of children with English fathers at local schools in the 1950s bore testimony to the number of marriages.”

May 1943 is recognised as the turning point in the Battle when a convergence of Allied technological and tactical advances started to stem the decimation of the convoys by the German U-boats.

Seventy years on, this weekend, the Londonderry Royal Naval Association will remember of the 100,000 seamen of all nations who lost their lives in the Battle of the Atlantic, by unveiling the statue of the International Sailor in Ebrington Square. The statue mirrors a similar statue in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the sister escort ship base on the other side of the Atlantic.