Between November 1945 and February 1946 the British scuttled 116 of the 156 German u-boats surrendered at the end of WWII during Operation Deadlight. They were towed to deep water off Ireland and sunk. The intention was to scuttle them with explosives. Several sank en route to the location and those that made it were sunk by naval guns.

The Operation Deadlight boats were what was left over after some were used for various types of target practice and a couple kept as museum pieces.

That seems like a whole lot of steel to just throw away. Why were they scuttled rather than having them broken up for scrap? Was this to avoid having to negotiate among the allies who they actually belonged to? Was a similar thing done with other weaponry, such as tanks, guns, etc.?


2 Answers 2



The short answer is that this was considered by the British to be the simplest and most economical way of disposing of the German U-boat fleet. The decision to sink the U-boats rather than salvage or divide them up among the ‘Big Three’ (the UK, the US, the Soviet Union) was part of the Potsdam Agreement (August 1945). It was agreed that the Royal Navy would be responsible for what became known as Operation Deadlight.


Lead-up to the surrender

A week before the German surrender on May 8th, 1945, the U-boat fleet numbered around 470 vessels, most of which were either training vessels or not combat-ready. This was the only substantial element of the German armed forces remaining. With virtually no support available from the surface fleet, and with ports rapidly being overrun by Allied forces, from May 1st U-boat captains began to scuttle their boats rather than surrender them. Thus, by the time of Germany’s formal surrender on May 8th, over 200 (estimates vary) had been scuttled by their commanders, mostly in or near the ports of northern Germany.

The Surrender

Most of the remaining U-boats surrendered and gathered at locations in Northern Ireland and Scotland. Some, though, could not be moved (too damaged or still under construction). Others were in the Pacific, of which six were taken over by the Japanese Navy. When the Japanese surrendered, these were all scuttled by the American, British and Dutch navies.

The decision to sink

Sinking was the final decision arrived at in Potsdam, but it appears that Stalin - initially at least - wanted the Soviet share of the German Navy to be kept afloat. Although the minutes taken by each of the Allies at the 1st meeting of the Potsdam conference are slightly different, the Soviets seemed intent on not sinking their share. On the fleet, the American minutes read:

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

Churchill, though, was insistent that surface ships and U-boats should be dealt with separately, and the Americans concurred. On July 18th, less than ten days before he lost the British General Election to Clement Attlee, Churchill met with Truman. His notes on that meeting state:

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.

Churchill's concern relating to U-boats were long-standing and also extended to U-boat pens, as witnessed by this excerpt from a message he wrote to his chief military assistant, General Hastings Ismay, dated 23 June 44 (more than a year before Potsdam):

I am concerned to hear that the War Office have circulated a report which raises doubt whether we shall be able to destroy the U-boat and E-boat pens in occupied Europe before handing over the ports to the Allied Governments.

Source: Winston Churchill, The Second World War, vol. 6

By the 3rd meeting at Potsdam, the Soviet position seemed to have shifted as they agreed to sinking "a large proportion" of the U-boats, but the number to be kept was in dispute; the Soviets wanted 30 for each of the 3 allied powers (total 90), the Americans and the British would only agree to 10 (total 30). Again, the Soviets gave way on this point (probably in exchange for concessions elsewhere) and agreed to the Anglo-American figure (by this time Churchill was out of power but Attlee pursued the same policy).

enter image description here Despite the Anglo-American insistence on Stalin getting only 10 U-boats, the Soviets salvaged some from ports they overran. They also salvaged and repaired this U-9 series II-B which their air force had sunk in the Black Sea in August 1944. It proved unreliable and was scrapped in December 1946. Image source

The French navy was given six u-boats which were put into service despite being mostly obsolete diesel models. Other countries (including Norway, Sweden and, later, West Germany) salvaged some U-boats from ports. Two U-boats which had fled to Argentina were handed over to the US where they were scrapped, while one boat which had been interned was used by the Spanish navy until 1970. A detailed guide to the fate of U-boats can be found here.

enter image description here U-873 (type IX-D2) pictured in Portsmouth Navy Yard, Maine. It surrendered to the US Navy at sea and was scrapped in 1948. Image source.

In Britain, it wasn't long before various 'interested' parties started raising questions as to the fate of the German fleet (which the Allies kept secret for fear that the Germans might scuttle their ships). According to The Fate of the U-Boats which Surrendered - Sink or Scrap? by Derek Waller,

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."

In effect, "The answer to the question of sinking versus scrapping was...never formally either debated or answered." but Waller goes on to quote an admiralty paper written on November 30th which was prepared "in anticipation that it [scrapping versus sinking] might become an issue which attracted the interest of the Press".

  • 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."

enter image description here

"A mass of surrendered German U-boats at their mooring at Lisahally, Northern Ireland. There are nine of the 21 class (1600 tons carrying 23 torpedoes), four of the 9 class (500 tons) and thirty nine of the 7 class (also 500 tons), a total of fifty two U-boats." Text and image source: Imperial War Museum

The sinking of the U-boats at a pre-determined location did not turn out to be as simple as perhaps the British had expected. Many were in bad shape and some sank before they arrived at the sinking location. The weather also made operations difficult. Of the U-boats sunk by the Royal Navy, 36 were used as aircraft targets.

Other weaponry

Of the German surface fleet, little remained at the end of the war. In the last week,

Pocket battleship "LUTZOW" at Swinemunde and heavy cruiser "ADMIRAL HIPPER" and light cruiser "EMDEN" at Kiel, all badly damaged in April bombing raids, were scuttled in the first week of May. When Germany surrendered, just three cruisers survived. "Prinz Eugen" was used in A-bomb trials in the Pacific; "Leipzig" scuttled in the North Sea in 1946 loaded with poison gas munitions; and "Nurnberg" ceded to Russia. A dozen or so big destroyers also remained afloat.

Other weaponry was mostly scrapped; equipment (including allied) was often sent to a “strip-out yard” where reusable parts might be extracted before the rest was either shipped on or sold for scrap.

enter image description here "a primary assembly point in northwestern France in late 1944, with a variety of Allied and German vehicles awaiting transport to a “strip-out yard”." Image & text source

enter image description here "This pile of vehicle carcasses at Vilvorde, Belgium was a common sight in the Low Countries and occupied Germany after WWII. In some cases, entire piles of unwanted war salvage was bought as one lot by a local speculator, who would hold it until scrap metal prices rose." Image & text source

Other equipment was simply abandoned, for example in the Libyan desert. Some German weaponry was used by Allied armies; France used the PzKpfw. V Panther until 1950 and had a Besnier squadron of Panzer IVs which were later sold to Syria and used in the 1967 Six-Day War, "last appearance by WWII German tanks on the world’s battlefields". German weaponry was also used in the Korean war.

enter image description here

Syrian army Panzer IV. Image source

Other source:

Collectors, ready to cry? What happens to weapons after war….

  • 14
    I sense an implicit undercurrent here of, if we all publicly go ahead with sinking, we won't find an unexpected increase in the size of anybody's Navy... Commented Aug 1, 2018 at 18:11
  • 5
    Further to your last paragraph, I remember reading that many German aircraft found their way to Israel as (or shortly after) it became independent and many British aircraft found their way to Egypt with the result that Israeli Messerschmidts and Egyptian Spitfires were fighting in the skies over the Middle East! There's an obvious irony in the Israelis flying German aircraft so soon after the Holocaust and using them to avert, perhaps, another Holocaust at the hands of their Arab neighbours.
    – Henry
    Commented Aug 1, 2018 at 21:05
  • 5
    I'm sure the symbolism of sinking vs. scrapping had to play a role? There's a certain catharsis at play in consigning such a terrible weapon that killed so many British men to the bottom of the sea.
    – Wes Sayeed
    Commented Aug 1, 2018 at 21:17
  • 4
    @WesSayeed Yes, quite possible, which why I included Churchill's note "they were nasty things to have knocking about in large numbers" (although he was probably also concerned at Stalin getting his hands on them). Commented Aug 1, 2018 at 22:41
  • 1
    @ThorstenS. People are actively going after those sunken ships - theguardian.com/world/ng-interactive/2017/nov/03/… . Commented Aug 4, 2018 at 23:50

An anecdotal addition to the excellent points in the existing answer:

At the end of WWII, my mother was discharged from the ATS before my father was discharged from the army, so she got a job as bookkeeper to a scrap metal merchant operating near the base where they were stationed.

Her boss was the winning bidder on a contract to scrap some damaged, stripped tanks. The contract required him to cut the metal down to a specified size before removing it from the base. Unfortunately, he had seriously underestimated the amount of labor, oxygen, and acetylene it was going to take. The cost of cutting up the tanks was a significant fraction of their scrap value.

That leaves me wondering what it would cost to cut up a whole U-boat into scrap metal sized pieces, and whether prudent scrap metal merchants would even bid on them, rather than on more familiar ships.

  • Interesting info on the cost of handling scrap which seems to support one of the reasons given by the admiralty. Commented Aug 2, 2018 at 7:18
  • 3
    To salvage ships, you need specialised facilities - I expect the economics of breaking a ship were pretty well known by those who operated them, with the relatively smaller items going to smaller outfits like the scrap metal merchant in your answer who didn't have the experience.
    – Baldrickk
    Commented Aug 2, 2018 at 9:15
  • 2
    @Baldrickk It is really a cautionary tale about the risks of bidding on cutting up unfamiliar things. I suspect the ship salvage businesses would be too sophisticated to fall into that trap, and would not have bid on the U-boats. Commented Aug 2, 2018 at 14:24
  • @PatriciaShanahan I've only seen the one in Liverpool, but a U-boat seems, structurally, very similar to a ship in terms of construction. A tank on the other hand is built in a completely different manner to an old tractor or a car, both of which are a frame with a thin skin, whereas a tank is an essentially a extremely big block of thick metal. Definitely a cautionary tale though.
    – Baldrickk
    Commented Aug 2, 2018 at 14:48
  • @Baldrickk My understanding is one difficulty with U-boat salvage was the variety of materials, including non-ferrous metals. Commented Aug 2, 2018 at 20:01

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