As Bletchley Park celebrates 75 years since the capture of Enigma codebooks from a sinking German U-boat, HUGH SEBAG-MONTEFIORE, the author of a newly-released updated book about the breaking of the code, describes the controversy which has dogged the story ever since – and lets the criticised skipper of the ship which lost two men during the action answer back
Triumphant crowings in Britain about how Bletchley Park was able to break the German Enigma code frequently give all the credit to codebreaker Alan Turing.
So, many readers will be surprised to learn that when he could not at first break it he sought assistance from the Royal Navy.
The Senior Service did not disappoint. During 1940 and the first seven months of 1941 it seized a string of German vessels on the high seas along with their Enigma documents. As Turing had anticipated, this enabled him to devise a codebreaking method.
But on 1 February 1942 the Bletchley Park codebreakers were ‘blinded’ when a fourth rotor was inserted into naval Enigma machines where there had previously only been three.
They only started reading Enigma messages again after a U-boat was blasted to the surface in the Mediterranean and her new codebooks seized.
Heaven help anyone whom he spotted not keeping a look-out as they walked around on the deck below
It is the 75th anniversary of this game-changing capture which is being celebrated at Bletchley Park.
But the celebrations will be muted, because during the raid, the U-boat sank with two of the British sailors on board. They were never seen again and must have drowned.
There are competing claims about how the sailors came to lose their lives. According to the official version, when on October 30, 1942, the U-559 was depthcharged to the surface by destroyer HMS Petard on the convoy route from Port Said, Egypt, to Haifa, Palestine, the British destroyer’s 35-year-old commanding officer, Lt-Commander Mark Thornton, mounted an orderly snatch operation. He took Petard, alongside the U-boat so his men could jump on to the German vessel. Then he had an officer standing on the U-boat conning tower monitoring the safety of the men who had climbed down into the U-boat’s control room.
When the U-boat began to sink, the officer shouted to the men inside to come up, and the only reason they drowned was because they failed to react to his command quickly enough. Conspiracy theorists question these facts. They do not for example remember Petard going alongside the U-boat. They subscribe to the romantic legend – mentioned in Bletchley Park’s permanent exhibit commemorating the capture.
It describes how the two men who died, the 29-year-old First Lieutenant Tony Fasson and Able Seaman Colin Grazier, 22, stripped off their clothes, and dived into the sea so they could swim across to the U-boat, with 16-year-old canteen assistant Tommy Brown following in their wake.
Nor do these conspiracy theorists recall seeing any officer on the conning tower monitoring the safety of the operation. They say no warning was given to the men inside the U-boat that U-559 had sunk dangerously low in the water, until it was too late.
They also query whether Petard’s skipper’s bossy behaviour during his obsessive hunt for a U-boat ‘brainwashed’ his men into believing they must recover the codebooks even if that meant taking unjustifiable risks.
There certainly was nothing restrained about Petard’s Lt-Cmdr Mark Thornton. A thick set, stocky man with a huge head set on powerful shoulders and the pugilistic features of a boxer, the seeds of his fearsome reputation were sown on his first day as Petard’s commander. He told his assembled company that his war experience to date had proved that his methods made him indestructible and that while he was their leader they must also adopt them.
He backed up his promise to protect them by introducing training methods which, while effective, might have been described today as cruelty. He understandably insisted that his men should always be on the look-out for submarines. He would frequently climb above the ship’s crow’s nest and strap himself to the mast so he could lead by example. Heaven help anyone whom he spotted not keeping a look-out as they walked around on the deck below: they would be pelted with pebbles, pieces of chalk and sometimes even teacups.
On one occasion he let a fire cracker off in the men’s sleeping quarters and then had a fire hose turned on his men as they rushed from their hammocks to their action stations.
On another, he ordered his officers to climb out of a wardroom porthole during a gale so they could swim around the stern of the ship and climb in through a porthole on the other side of the
room. His order was only countermanded after a senior officer, backed by Fasson, refused to obey his instructions on the ground that compliance would be tantamount to committing suicide.
The wardroom chef collapsed and died during one simulated exercise. His corpse was thrown into the sea.
It was a miracle other men were not washed overboard whenever Petard left harbour. Thornton would turn the ship into the waves with such ferocity the rushing water would completely swamp the men dealing with securing the anchor who had to hang on for dear life. Forty years afterwards Thornton justified his behaviour in a statement which has only just come to light: ‘In the first six months of a commission, the captain must be very hard on his crew. He must also handle his ship with marked confidence and success. Then gradually what were hardships become the norm and the subject of rueful boasts to the crews of other ships lying alongside.
‘We settled down together and gradually our team spirit gave life to the normal lightness and laughter on bridge and mess deck.
‘On the way north (from Cape Town) I called a specially tough Action Stations. Soft soap and water on the deck in the main mess space. All was in darkness, full speed, wheel hard over one way then the other. The noise was terrific. Sadly during the worst of it the ship’s cook at his action station died in the tiller flat. It was a sad blow to us all.’
It is no surprise to find that, drilled as they were by such a bully within the suffocating confines of a ship from which there was no escape, a time would come when the officers and crew would go to almost any lengths to please him, or to get him off their backs.
That moment arrived at 10pm on October 30, 1942, when, following a tip-off from the pilot of a British plane who had been flying over the Mediterranean, and a 10-hour search for the submerged U-boat, punctuated by the dropping of numerous patterns of depth charges by Petard and four other destroyers, Petard’s company heard the sound of the damaged U-boat blowing her tanks, as she had to in order to surface.
Tommy Brown’s subsequent report highlights what happened after First Lieutenant Fasson and AB Grazier climbed down the conning tower into the U-boat:
‘The lights were out. The First Lieutenant (Fasson) had a torch. The water was not very high, but rising gradually all the time. First Lieutenant was down there with a machine gun which he was using to smash open cabinets in the Commanding Officer’s cabin. He then tried some keys which were hanging behind the door and opened a drawer, taking out some confidential books which he gave me.
‘After finding more books in cabinets I took another lot up (he was describing the fruits of his second descent inside the U-boat).’
Brown recalled going down into the U-boat again: ‘The water was getting deeper and I told First Lieutenant they were all shouting on deck. He gave me some more books from the cabin. I took these up on deck.
‘First Lieutenant appeared at the bottom of the hatch. I shouted: ‘‘You had better come up’’ twice, and they had just started up, when the submarine started to sink very quickly.’
It was only then that Brown leapt into the sea.
Gordon Connell, the junior officer in the whaler that had been rowed to U-559 from Petard, later wrote: ‘We yelled the names of our shipmates. Only Tommy responded, his head bobbing up almost alongside the sea-boat.’ He was pulled dripping wet into the whaler and he, and the all-important codebooks, were rowed back to Petard.
The codebooks were taken with the German prisoners to Haifa, and eventually ended up in the hands of Alan Turing’s codebreakers at Bletchley Park. Within weeks the U-boat Enigma messages were being read regularly again, and apart from a brief crisis during 1943, the code was broken on most days for the rest of the war.
• The updated paperback edition of Hugh Sebag-Montefiore’s Enigma: The Battle For The Code, containing new material, is out now, published by Orion’s Weidenfeld & Nicolson, as is the paperback of his book Somme: Into the Breach, published by Penguin.