Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Germany Surrenders Her U-boat Fleet


A German U-boat Surrendering to a British Ship

The terms of the Armistice were, in many ways, punitive to the Germans. In part, the British and French sought through the Armistice to disarm Germany, in a misguided attempt to ensure that there would be no further outbreaks of "German militarism." This was clear in the naval terms of the Armistice—particularly with regard to submarines, which were to be surrendered in totality. Article XXII of the agreement instructed the German government thus:

To surrender at the ports specified by the Allies and the United States all submarines at present in existence (including all submarine cruisers and mine layers), with armament and equipment complete. Those that cannot put to sea shall be deprived of armament and equipment and shall remain under the supervision of the Allies and the United States. Submarines ready to put to sea shall be prepared to leave German ports immediately on receipt of a wireless order to sail to the port of surrender, the remainder to follow as early as possible. The conditions of this article shall be completed within 14 days of the signing of the Armistice.

While the Armistice terms were clear, what was less clear was exactly how they would happen—or if it could, for that matter. By November 1918, Germany was in the grip of a revolution. The revolutionary tensions in Germany and her armed forces meant that negotiations of the arrangements of the submarine surrender in the days after the Armistice were signed were tinged with uncertainty. On 16 November Eric Geddes, First Lord of the Admiralty, reported to the Cabinet on a meeting held between the British commander-in-chief of the Grand Fleet and Rear Admiral Meurer, a senior German naval officer, which demonstrated these difficulties.

Meurer had sounded a note of caution. He stated that, while he and his superiors were content to carry out the surrender terms, it was possible that the British did not "appreciate the chaotic conditions existing in Germany, which render the execution of the Armistice Terms extremely difficult … action can only be taken with the consent of the Workmen’s and Soldiers’ Council."

A U-boat on Display in London

However, these fears seem to have been misplaced, as Geddes reported that on 15 November the Soldiers’ Council of the German Submarine Flotillas had released a communiqué stating that "the whole of the crews of Submarine Flotillas conscious of the serious position of the Fatherland and after having striven for their Fatherland for 50 months in need and privation will not refuse to the Fatherland the last and hardest service; they will bring all the submarines to the place which they are ordered."

On 18 November, instruction as to how the surrender would take place began to be issued. The German submarines were to gather off the coast of Harwich at the latitude and longitude of 52º05', 2º05'. The flotillas were to be accompanied by transports so that the crews could be ferried back to Germany after their warcraft had been handed over. The submarines would then be led to Harwich by a force of British destroyers and cruisers.

Once at the surrender anchorage, the German crew of each vessel (except for those who had to tend to machinery) were to parade on the forecastle and await the boarding of a British officer, who would take command of the vessel. On the officer’s arrival, the German officer commanding the submarine was to hand over a full crew list, as well as a signed declaration stating that the submarine was in the following condition:

(1) Batteries fully charged up

(2) Full complement of torpedoes on board, launched back clear of torpedo tubes and without warheads

(3) That no explosives of any sort are on board

(4) That the submarine is in running condition, fully blown

(5) That all of the periscopes are in place, and in working and efficient condition

(6) That all sea valves are closed and in efficient condition

(7) That no infernal machines or booby traps of any sort are on board

With these formalities dealt with, the German crews would leave for motor launches which would take them back to their transport (none set foot on British soil), while the German captain would show the British officer around the submarine, "and give him details of his vessel and every facility for taking over."

The surrender began on 20 November 1918, with Admiral Meurer informing the British that 20 submarines would present themselves to be taken over that day. Over the course of November 1918, a total of more than 160 submarines would give themselves up at Harwich. Some were left around the estuary at Harwich to rust, leading to the port being sometimes nicknamed "U-Boat Alley." However, from before the surrender the government had designs on the propaganda use of the vessels. On 19 November 1918, Prime Minister David Lloyd George explained his desire that captured submarines, "should be distributed and shown in the Thames, the Mersey, the Tees, the Tyne and the Clyde."

Source: UK National Archives Blog, 22 November 2018


  1. The first photo shows an understandably fed-up looking crew! It must have been taken from another ship that the submarine was alongside.
    Note that all contemporary correspondence refers to submarines, not U-boats. The term U-boat did not enter popular English-language usage until early in the Second World War.

  2. A interesting adjunct to the surrender of these boats is that it inspired Stephen King-Hall, a Royal Navy submariner, to write 'Diary of A German Submarine Commander'. It can be found on YouTube as a audio book of remarkable interest. The social and especially the romantic experiences of a German submarine officer, based in occupied Brussels, are the paramount themes, rather than the actual sub operations, but wow! what a intriguingly mysterious, near operatic tale it is!