The destruction of Nazi Germany's submarine fleet was one of the most important outcomes of World War II. In the early days of May 1945, submarine warfare in the European and Atlantic waters was coming to an end.
On April 29, a fierce battle ensued in the Barents Sea between German U-boats and the escort forces of Convoy RA-66. At about 10pm, a Type VIIC U-boat U-286, commanded by Oberleutnant Willi Dietrich, fired a torpedo at HMS Goodall, causing the British frigate to sink just 7 miles off one of the Soviet ports—the last torrid success of Nazi submariners in the North. That very night, the submarine was destroyed.
As early as May 1, the Northern Fleet commander, Admiral Arseniy Golovko, received a radiogram from the Navy Main Staff in Moscow with instructions for the surrender of German submarines amid expectations of Germany's capitulation:
“All U-boats currently at sea must surface and fly a black flag or pennant; All crew are to be lined up on the upper deck. U-boats are to clearly transmit their position to our onshore station using the 500 kHz (600 m) frequency. At night, U-boats are to have their lights on. U-boats located in the operational area of our fleet are to proceed to the base clearly indicated to them by radio.”
On May 2, 1945, Berlin fell, and on May 4, Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, the new head of the falling Third Reich, signed the partial surrender of German forces operating in the North of Germany to the British forces. That same day, the following radiogram was sent to the commanders of all U-boats currently at sea:
“ATTENTION ALL U-BOATS. CEASE-FIRE AT ONCE. STOP ALL HOSTILE ACTION AGAINST ALLIED SHIPPING. DÖNITZ.”
In that moment, submarine warfare formally ended.
However, not all of the 64 U-boats at sea received the order properly or were willing to comply; some of them continued to sink allied ships until May 7. But the Allies responded in kind.
The last U-boat sunk by warships of the Royal Navy
The day that the cease on underwater hostilities was announced was deadly for four German U-boats. Only one of them, which had engaged in active operations since September 1942 under her long-time commander Hans-Günther Lange, perished in combat. The Type VIIC U-711 U-boat spent more than 300 days at sea, taking part in 12 combat missions, but made history as the last 'U-boot' sunk by the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm during World War II. 'Avengers' and 'Wildcats' operating off British escort aircraft carriers Searcher, Trumpeter and Queen attacked U–711 in a Norwegian fjord near Harstad when she approached Black Watch, a depot vessel. Both ships were also sunk.
A Battle in the Kattegat Strait
On May 5, the Kriegsmarine submarine forces, which were formally ordered to cease all action, lost three more U-boats. Truth be told, U–2367, a Type XXIII U-boat, was not, in fact, lost in action. She went down after a collision with an unknown German submarine. At the same time, the Type IXC U–534 U-boat that had, by that time, completed three unsuccessful raids, continued to fight in the strait of Kattegat for an entire battle: the first British 'Liberator' to attack the U-boat was knocked down by her AA gunners, but the second one delivered a successful hit. Except for three dead submariners, the U-boat's crew and the only survivor of a crew of six aviators aboard the bomber plane were pulled out of the water by rescuers from the nearby Danish lighthouse. Just four hours later, another 'Liberator' sank U–579 (Type VIIC) in that same strait. Although this U-boat entered service on July 17, 1941, she had served as a training vessel throughout the war and her crew hadn’t suffered any losses until that fateful day in May, which claimed the lives of nearly half of her submariners.
The last anti-submarine operation involving surface warships
On May 6, two U-boats whose commanders had likely failed to respond to Dönitz's radiogram found themselves in the firing line of the U.S. anti-submarine forces operating in the Atlantic. To the south-west of Newfoundland, escort destroyer Farquhar sank U–881, a Type IXC U-boat, with all her crew, during the U-boat's first mission, which started as she set out to sea on March 1. In the morning, off the coast of Rhode Island and to the south of Newport, escort destroyer Atherton and patrol frigate Moberly sank (with all crew) U–853, a Type IXC U-boat that been in three combat raids since mid-1943.
Earlier, on April 23, near Portland, this U-boat had destroyed patrol ship PE–56 with most of her crew. On May 5, when exiting the Newport harbor, U–853 sank Black Point, a transport ship. The motives behind the actions of U–853's 24-year-old commander Oberleutnant Helmut Fromsdorf will remain unknown, but Black Point was the last U.S. ship to perish from an attack by a German U-boat, and the strike against the U-boat herself turned out to be the last anti-submarine operation by surface warships during World War II.
Who was last?
The final German U-boat to be sunk is believed to be U–320. On May 7, she was badly damaged by the British flying boat Catalina at sea, and scuttled the next day off a small island to the west of Bergen (Norway). During interrogations, the German submariners told the British that their boat had been sunk by an air strike, apparently to avoid punishment for the destruction of their ship at their own hands after Germany had signed an unconditional surrender on May 7. But the truth was revealed, though much later.
As of May 8, after all U-boat commanders of the Kriegsmarine were informed about the conditions of surrender, 12 submarines still remained in English coastal waters, one U-boat operated in American waters, 16 U-boats were en route to their bases, and 21 were heading out for a hunt. The whereabouts of another six submarines are still unknown and the remaining operational submarines were in ports: 84 in Norway; one in France; six in the Far East; six in Germany; and four in Denmark. All of them surrendered to the Allies at sea, and were transferred to the ports of Great Britain, the USA, and Canada, or captured afloat in their bases, with the exception of two U-boats that escaped to be interned in Argentina and another one interned by Spain in 1943.
This is how the history of the Kriegsmarine's 'wolf packs' ended, putting an end to naval warfare. An anticipated calm settled over the seas.