A Pivotal Moment in World War Two

The WWII movie film U-571, is set in the Spring of 1942. Its plot-line surrounds the capture of a German Enigma machine and top secret crypto documents from a crippled U-boat. This single act would enable the Allies to break German ciphers and turn the tide of war in the Battle of the Atlantic. The trailers and press releases portrayed the film as authentic.

So why did this film by Universal, cause so much uproar in the intelligence community when released in Europe and around the world? Firstly, U-571 was actually sunk by an Australian Sunderland aircraft on 28 January 1944. And more importantly the 'lifting' of the U-Boat Enigma occurred in 1942, and was a heroic act carried out by three sailors from HMS Petard. Just as important, the boat's number was U-559.

The Film's Plotline
Following reports that the British had a radio fix on a crippled U-boat a submarine is rebuilt to resemble a German resupply U-Boat and leaves the United States at two hours notice. The US submarine finds the drifting Nazi submarine in the vast expanse of the North Atlantic during a violent storm. It appears on their radar screen a thousand or so yards away. They dispense with the usual coded identification signals and settle for a few flashes on their signalling lamp. That fools the Germans. The boarding party paddle over in inflatable boats, the exact type the Germans are expecting. Then starts the obligatory fire fight with special bullets that do not ricochet around the cramped compartments. And eventually the US succeed in overcoming the Germans resistance. But what of Enigma?

Capture of the mess steward and his friends reveal the fact that the US knows the secrets of German encryption and the secrets of radar. "Eat you heart out Bletchley Park, Alan Turing, the Poles and even Watson Wyatt... they should have asked the steward," said one intelligence writer who wrote a review of the film for Eye Spy in 2002.

Finally, after dispatching an attacking German battle cruiser with a single torpedo, the US raiding party climbed into a small rubber boat, and drifted into the sunset. "Did they get the Enigma? Beats me, ask the Mess Steward. I did not see one," said the writer.

The Facts: U-559
As a prelude to this most important moment in intelligence history, it should be noted that there is no single machine called an 'Enigma'. There are many variations and cracking the 'Enigma code' on a three rotor machine became useless when the Germans added a fourth rotor. The successes gained against the U-boat fleet had been wiped out by the adoption of this new four rotor variant. Bletchley Park's codebreakers could not crack the code. What did the fourth rotor do? How was it wired?

The crucial date in history was 30 October 1942. HMS Petard, along with HMS Pakenham, HMS Hero, together with escort destroyers HMS Dulverton, and HMS Horworth had been pursuing a German submarine across the Mediterranean Sea. Sixteen hours into the chase, and just off the coast of Egypt, the captain of U-559 decided to abandon his damaged submarine and scuttle her using demolition charges. This factor should be kept in mind when reading this account.

The German crew had opened all the valves letting in sea water and planted explosive timers on all torpedoes. During the incident that followed the British sailors boarding U-559 did not know how many seconds or minutes to the detonation of the explosives, nor how long the submarine would stay afloat. Submarine Captain Oblt. Hans Heidtmann, believed he could get his men clear before the boat sank. It was a gamble. The men from HMS Petard believed they could secure the code books and Enigma machine before the submarine went down. They were not ordered to make the attempt... they volunteered.

Lt. Tony Fasson, according to some accounts, knew the value of the code books and Enigma machine to the war effort. He asked for volunteers and without any hesitation jumped into the cold water and swam over to the sinking submarine. He was accompanied by Able Seaman Colin Grazier and NAAFI canteen assistant Tommy Brown. (The similarity between casting the mess steward on U-571 and Tommy Brown now becomes apparent.)
They climbed down into the enemy submarine not knowing if they would be shot, or trip booby traps left by the abandoning crew. They then located the radio room and disengaged the Enigma machine from its mount. Lt. Fasson realised the crew had not destroyed anything and grasped the significance of the huge windfall to Allied codebreakers.

Buffeted by waves and with water streaming around him and into the sinking submarine, Tommy Brown hung on at the top of the ladder: the demolition charges ticked away. Lt. Fasson and Seaman Grazier battled their way through the strange compartments and passed the Enigma to Brown who threw it into a whaleboat, which by now had reached the submarine.

Fasson and Grazier knew that they were wise to get out then whilst they still had a chance. But realising how many Allied lives could be saved they went back into the dark flooding compartments of the submarine and brought out code books, keypads, maps and all the cryptographic materials they could find. Just as Brown managed to scramble across the deck and throw the codebooks into the whaler, the crippled German submarine started to sink. Sadly, Fasson and Grazier were trapped deep inside. Brown managed to jump clear and was pulled out of the water as the whaler rapidly drew clear.

Tommy Brown was the only survivor... and he held a secret. The canteen assistant who volunteered to jump into the cold water and risk his life should not have been in the Navy at all. He was too young, only 16-years-old. He wanted to fight for his country and had lied about his age. He was immediately discharged and sent home. Two years later Brown was killed, trying to pull his two sisters from their burning slum tenement.

Lt. Tony Fasson and Able Seaman Colin Grazier received Britain's second-highest honour for bravery: The George Cross. Brown received the George Medal. Both Lt. Fasson and Seaman Grazier were considered and should have won The Victoria Cross - the highest honour for bravery. But that award would have signaled to the Germans their death whilst seizing an Enigma machine and code books. To protect the codebreaking activities of Bletchley Park a lesser award was made and the incident kept secret for decades. And the ruse worked perfectly.

The seizure of materials from U-559 was critical to the Allied battle in the Atlantic. For the Enigma machine, the soaked manuals and tables contained the keys to the major German U-boat codes Shark and Triton. Once Bletchley Park received that information they begin to read the signals. Thousands of Allied lives and hundreds of merchant ships were saved. And the work that followed at Bletchley Park allowed the Allies to secure a plethora of secrets... shortening the war and saving millions of lives.

As a sidebar to this incident, and seventy five years since the end of WWII, Bank of England Governor Mark Carney announced that in honour of his codebreaking and computer work, Alan Turing was to become the 'face' on the UK's new 50 Pound note. Also featured, some of the machines used to break the Enigma code.