HERITAGE - 14: ENIGMA INITIATIVE: Impasse Breached in the U-Boat War

The target: German Navy Enigma codes and keyboards

Enigma settings - the machine and code books from U-559 jump-started the Allies' fight against the German submarine menace
Enigma settings - the machine and code books from U-559 jump-started the Allies' fight against the German submarine menace | Source
Type VIIC U-559 with her crew. She was badly damaged in the attack by HMS Petard in the Mediterranean
Type VIIC U-559 with her crew. She was badly damaged in the attack by HMS Petard in the Mediterranean | Source
Model of Type VII U-Boat, similar to U-559
Model of Type VII U-Boat, similar to U-559 | Source

Basic story: Background and the End of the Beginning

What do the names Brown, Fasson and Grazier mean to you? Had you been to this year's Earl's Court Tournament - an indoor military tattoo, 10-11. December - by the time it was over you would be in no doubt about their identity. For the benefit of those unlikely or unlucky not to have had a ticket (and that includes me) I shall make it easier for you to understand the mystery.

Let's start at the very beginning - it's a very good place to start. To put you in the picture the Atlantic War was at its height, Allied merchant ships were being sunk at an alarming rate and the German Navy had changed its own Enigma settings twice, adding another rotor to their machines to make it practically impossible for Allied codebreakers at Bletchley Park to 'see' into their operations. This was the U-Boats' 'Happy Time', as they put it. Additionally, the air cover gap enabled the torpedoing of merchantmen in mid-ocean.

At the peak of events two Royal Navy seamen lost their lives in the retrieval of Enigma 'Shark' code books from a stricken Type VIIC submarine. A young rating exited in the nick of time before the U-Boat went down and the course of WWII changed drastically. Admiral Karl Doenitz's U-Boats lost their grip in the Atlantic War and subsequent.developments in air cover closed the gap. 'Happy Time' was all but over for the underwater hunters.

Captain Heidtmann - swam back toward stricken U-559 when he realised he hadn't destroyed the code books
Captain Heidtmann - swam back toward stricken U-559 when he realised he hadn't destroyed the code books | Source
First Lieutenant Anthony Fasson
First Lieutenant Anthony Fasson | Source
Memorial plaque in honour of First Lt Fasson
Memorial plaque in honour of First Lt Fasson | Source
Able Seaman Colin Grazier dived into the sea with Fasson to retrieve papers they knew Heidtmann had begun to swim back for
Able Seaman Colin Grazier dived into the sea with Fasson to retrieve papers they knew Heidtmann had begun to swim back for | Source
Tommy Brown, the under-age Canteen staff member who had warned Fasson and Grazier of the submarine's impending sinking
Tommy Brown, the under-age Canteen staff member who had warned Fasson and Grazier of the submarine's impending sinking | Source

Detail: down to the nitty-gritty

[Only months earlier a raid on Dieppe in north-western France had turned disastrous, a 'smoke-screen' to get hold of the latest Ultra coding machines and books that cost the lives of hundreds and capture for many others. Some good had come out of it, but overall the Combined Operations venture was a failure. Something had to be done to curtail ship losses in the Atlantic convoys. Bletchley Park's coders were at a loss with Admiral Doenitz's new, upgraded coding apparatus].

On the penultimate day of October, 1942 over ten hours into the hunt for the U-Boat with depth charges the said crippled submarine surfaced the choppy Mediterranean waters. Its conning tower and deck were raked by fire from British destroyer Onslow class D56 HMS 'Petard' and the crew of U-559 hastily left over the sides.

First Lieutenant Anthony Fasson knew he needed to board the submarine before she went down when he saw the German skipper try to swim back. Gunfire had followed him and he disappeared under the waves. Fasson and Able Seam Colin Grazier leapt into the water and swam to the stricken U-Boat. Fasson knew the Germans would have opened the stop cocks to flood their vessel. They may also have set charges to ensure no-one would retrieve important documents and equipment. The first lieutenant found a set of keys and began opening drawers in the captain's cabin until he spotted what he knew to be the important documents anyone could find on a U-Boat. He passed them to another member of the 'Petard' crew, sixteen year old Tommy Brown who had boarded from a ship's boat that had been launched after Fasson and Grazier's quick departure.

Code books were passed from Brown to the next man in a human chain and so on until all were safe on the boat.

Fasson of Jedburgh in Roxburghshire (Scotland) and Grazier of Tamworth in Staffordshire went back to the captain's cabin to retrieve more documents when Tommy yelled for them to get out. [Young Tommy had lied about his age to get into the Royal Navy, worried he'd miss the war, and as canteen staff should not have been there anyway. He had pushed past his superior to get to the destroyer's side and into the boat].

The U-Boat lurched, taking both Fasson and Grazier with it. Their bodies were never recovered. Brown survived that time, popping up from the maelstrom created by the sinking submarine 'like a champagne cork' Within two years, though, he was also a fatality, being killed in a house fire in North Shields (Tynemouth) where he hailed from.

First Lieutenant Fasson had been a popular member of the crew of HMS 'Petard', spoken of by senior naval staff as 'an outstanding leader of men'. Grazier had been married only days before to Olive before taking up his duties again. He may have sensed what was in store for him, an old sailor's supersition played on his mind when he kissed his bride farewell. Olive recalled how he yelled, 'Don't look back at me!' as he set foot on the train.

Neither had died fruitlessly. The code books retrieved from U-559 gave the mathematicians at GCHQ Bletchley Park the best lead over the Germans they could have hoped for.


Written and published by Phil Shanahan, 'The Real Enigma Heroes' tells of the struggle to decode Enigma in the early years of WWII. The book goes on to tell of the capture of code books, of Admiral Doenitz's order for an extra drum to be added to the coding machines and the Allies' need to overcome further technical hurdles.

The Real Enigma Heroes

Outcome: the beginning of the end.

Only six weeks after the sinking of U-559 intelligence gleaned from codes broken with the aid of the Enigma 'Shark' code books led to the convoys being diverted around the North Atlantic from the hitherto established route.

Positions adopted by the Up-Boat 'Wolf Packs' were now well-known. within hours fifteen of them were located on December 18th, 1942. Something in the region of a half million tons of merchant shipping was reckoned to have been saved from torpedoing between December, 1942-January, 1943.

Now the 'Wolf-Packs' were to be the prey. The U-Boats were siddenly being destroyed as fast as they were being built and Karl Doenitz, the Germans' submarine fleet commander knew there was little he could do but withdraw what was left of his Atlantic fleet. Britain's food and war supplies were now more likely to get through and convoy routes were safer than before.

Fasson and Grazier were both awarded the George Cross as opposed to the Victoria Cross due to the fact that they had not lost their lives under enemy fire. Brown was awarded the George Medal for his part in the retrieval of the code books.

However, their families could not be told why their loved ones were seen as heroes. That would remain secret for decades to come - for as long as the 'D' Notices were effective, such 'hush-hush' matters were too sensitive to be revealed even to close kindred.

Other countries are thought to have used Enigma in later years but Britain would not knowingly pass on her secrets, nor even that the German Enigma codes had been broken. Information was judiciously guarded and only what was deemed by No.10 to for Allies' information was divulged. Stalin was never informed of the codes being broken.


Bletchley Park

Bletchley Park House in Buckinghamshire was until fairly recently still shrouded in secrecy. This was the decoding centre for GCHQ, with American and British cryptology experts combining their efforts from 1942
Bletchley Park House in Buckinghamshire was until fairly recently still shrouded in secrecy. This was the decoding centre for GCHQ, with American and British cryptology experts combining their efforts from 1942 | Source
Hut 4 Bletchley Park - now a museum restaurant
Hut 4 Bletchley Park - now a museum restaurant | Source
De-coding centre staff at Bletchley Park with Colossus in 1944 - the computer was developed by GPO engineer Tommy Flowers and dismantled after WWII to maintain secrecy
De-coding centre staff at Bletchley Park with Colossus in 1944 - the computer was developed by GPO engineer Tommy Flowers and dismantled after WWII to maintain secrecy | Source
A plan of the Bletchley Park site
A plan of the Bletchley Park site | Source

The film 'Enigma', describes the struggle to break the Germans' Enigma code, used effectively by the Kriegsmarine on their U-boats to receive orders and send reports. The recovery of code books and coding machine by Lt. Fasson and Able Seaman Grazier from U559 enabled Allied codebreakers to read Admiral Doenitz's submarine communications and break their stranglehold on Atlantic shipping.

Enigma

Top Secret: keep this to yourself, careless talk costs...

The men's selfless self-sacrifice has since been spoken of as the single pivotal moment of WWII. Robert Harris' 'Enigma', made into a film starring Kate Winslet, described the importance of the event,

'Without these three men there may have never been a D-day in 1944. It's' hard to think of three individual servicemen who did more to hasten the Allied victory'.

Anthony Fasson's family only learnt of the importance of his role from reading about it in a boy's adventure paper published in 1969. The boy's weekly publication 'Hornet' put the story on its cover, giving the names of those involved and letting it be known they had the knowledge from secret documents. This was strange, the documents then still being covered by the Official Secrets Act. How the 'Hornet' editor acquired access was a mystery.

Interestingly the Germans never realised the significance of Enigma being 'cracked' for several more years.

In 2000 the Hollywood feature 'U-571' starring Harvey Keitel was inspired by the story of HMS Petard and a similar attack on the Germans on May 9th, 1941 when an Enigma encrypter was captured by the crew of HMS 'Bulldog'. At that time U-110 had to surface near Iceland after 'Bulldog' inflicted severe damage with depth charging the submarine. A boarding party then climbed aboard quickly to retrieve the equipment.

The 2000 film showed US Navy personnel capturing the Enigma apparatus at some time in 1942, several months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that brought the Americans into war. It was Hitler declaring war on the USA, however, that President Roosevelt exploited to rid Europe of the Nazis, as they posed a greater threat to peace, before finishing off the Japanese forces in the Far East.

At the end of WWII when Hitler was trying to communicate his orders to his High Command, it has been suggested they would have been best advised to consult Bletchley Park to know his orders, as the decoders knew them almost as soon as they had been sent!

Alan Turing, OBE FRS, 1912-1954, central to decoding Enigma

Alan Turing, wartime portrait
Alan Turing, wartime portrait | Source

Born 23rd June, 1912 at Maida Vale in North-west London, Alan Turing, OBE, FRS: was a Fellow of the Royal Society, he was a mathematician, logician, cryptoanalyst, philosopher, pioneer computer scientist, mathematical biologist and long distance runner. What schoolboys would call a 'cracking all-rounder'.

Yet he was in modern parlance 'a sad case' like many men of genius. A loner, brilliant at tasks he was given and a ceaseless, hard worker. A round peg in a square hole by common understanding. Alan Turing's open secret was his undoing and led to arrest and committal for trial in February 1952. When the case came to trial at the end of March, 1952 he pleaded guilty... He submitted to 'treatment', but in just over two years such was his state of mind that he took poison (suspected cyanide ingested within an apple) on 7th June, 1954 at Wilmslow in Cheshire. His housekeeper found him the day after. .

Such was the sordid end of a brilliant man. Now he's something of a national hero. Homosexuality was decriminalised in the mid-60's in the UK.

The film, 'The Imitation Game' ...

covers the background to Alan Turing's personal life. The 'The Imitation Game' stars Benedict Cumberbatch (you'll have seen him as an unconventional Sherlock Holmes) as Alan Turing and Keira Knightley as colleague Joan Clarke.

The film was directed by Morten Tyldum based on a book by Andrew Hodges titled 'Alan Turing, The Enigma' and covers Turing's arrest in the early 1950's.

Turing did a job well at the right time and we owe him that much. The term 'blind eye' was not applied to him, perhaps because of his high profile security status. He was the loser in the 'Imitation Game'.

The Imitation Game

Harder to decrypt was Lorenz

With its potential 16 million, million possible variations, the Lorenz system - used by the Wehrmacht (German Army) in addition to Enigma - was impossible to get hold of. Unlike the Kiegsmarine version of Enigma, used by the U-Boats for communication with their land bases, Lorenz was centred on North Germany near the Baltic and used to communicate across occupied Europe as well as Italy and North Africa. The Rotor Stream cipher equipment was developed by C Lorenz AG of Berlin with several variants. Model name 'SZ' referred to 'Schluessel Zusatz' or 'Cipher Attachment'.

Lorenz employed wireless telegraphy and sent non-Morse encrypted messages twice over, and with twelve wheels was virtually impossible to crack for much of the war. Mathematicians were recruited by Bletchley Park to tackle this problem. Two men were instrumental in seeing through Lorenz. Tommy Flowers was a Post Office Telecommunications engineer who worked on the first working computer, Colossus. Because of wartime security Colossus was unknown beyond the cipher section, and being the modest fellow that he was, Flowers never pushed for recognition. The computer, when in the process of assembly and testing was kept secret even from most of Bletchley Park's personnel. Testing the first time was successful, another test, and another was carried out to make sure early success was no fluke. It worked!


One night, when Flowers went off duty after an arduously long shift his deputy Bill Tutt was left in charge of the equipment. During the night he sensed something was wrong. In walking around Colossus he was sloshing around in shallow water. This was highly dangerous, in view of the high voltage electrical apparatus linked to the computer. He had to find the source of the water and investigated. On finding a leak in the central heating system, he set about welding the radiator thermostat control. That still left the shallow water on the hut floor. Owing to strict security in force at the centre cleaning staff could not be brought in to mop up and personnel were obliged to slosh about in rubber wellington boots, ensuring it did not come into contact with the electrical equipment.

With the aid of Colossus the Lorenz permutations were cracked, as well as a very useful insight gained through one of the German operatives sending a message twice without changing the setting. Through breaking the Lorenz code information was received about German intention to throw a large tank force into the Eastern Front around Kursk. The knowledge was shared with Soviet High Command and a retreat was forced on the Germans following the loss of much of their armour.

Some aspects of Bletchley Park's work were kept secret long after the end of WWII. Personnel were never allowed to pass on the knowledge even to close family according to stringent Cold War security measures. 'D-Notice' (Government Security Enforcement) restrictions on information release extend from thirty years to permanent, so some aspects will never be cleared for release.

Lorenz SZ42 cipher machine on display at Bletchley Park gives an idea of the complexity of the system when you see the number of cylinders (12) that gave a range of possibly 16 million million message possibilities.
Lorenz SZ42 cipher machine on display at Bletchley Park gives an idea of the complexity of the system when you see the number of cylinders (12) that gave a range of possibly 16 million million message possibilities. | Source

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18 comments

aethelthryth profile image

aethelthryth 3 years ago from American Southwest

Glad to hear that somebody had the wisdom not to mention this to Stalin! As compared to the atomic bomb, which Truman sort of mentioned to Stalin, but Stalin didn't need him to as a couple (maybe more) spies in Los Alamos had already given him lots of information.

Interesting article which I will leave open for other family members to see!


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 3 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

Glad you liked it, aethelthryth. Churchill guarded our secrets jealously, and only because he needed US help to push the Germans back from North Africa, Italy and France etc did he share the Enigma secrets - even then not everything. It was only when US codebreakers set foot in GCHQ that they were given less restricted access.

Ike and Monty ignored warnings from Bletchley Park in December, 1944, about the build-up of German armour on the Belgian border. The Battle of the Bulge was only won after Christmas when the skies cleared over the Ardennes to let the air services in with their tankbusters. Monty realised he wasn't 'God' by then, having already ignored warnings from Dutch resistance about SS Panzer units refitting near Arnhem.


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 2 years ago from England

Hi alan, this was fascinating, and filled in a lot that I didn't know. I recently watched a tv programme about it, I think it was something to do with giving one of the Enigma guys a medal, and nobody, not even his family knew he had been involved! Thats how far the secrets still stand, great read! Hope you had a wonderful New Year!


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 2 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

Hello again Nell. Glad you enjoyed this.

There were lots of people who couldn't say what they'd done in WWII. One episode of 'Heartbeat' dealt with that. A farmer had to put up with jibes about his wartime record, not having been in the army etc. The story came to a pitch with him threatening the life of his main detractor. The upshot of the story being he'd been sworn to secrecy about his underground arms and ammunition cache and bomb-making training a la SOE.

Who knows what your uncles had to keep 'hushed up' (walls have ears - and great bangers).


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 2 years ago from England

So true alan, my mum was always talking about her time as a Sergeant in the RAF, but my dad who was in the Army never said a word, we eventually found out that he had been shot! when he was on a secret mission, which he never said what it was! amazing!


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 2 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

Hello again Nell.

She might have been in the WRAF. I think the RAF was all men. My father-in-law worked on Lancasters in the UK and Egypt. My Dad was in the Green Howards to start with in 1941, then transferred to the Royal Engineers. He had a Combined Services badge amongst his mementos.

One story I heard about him - from him - is described from another man's angle in my Hub page 'HERITAGE - Salerno Sally' (sorry I can't remember which number it is in the series. Scroll down the list on my profile). I know he took a sniper's bullet in one arm, which would have been awkward for him as he carried a Bren gun.


WriterJanis profile image

WriterJanis 2 years ago from California

I understand the reason for secrecy, but it's ashamed their families couldn't know more about their heroic ats at the time.


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 2 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

Hello Janis. It is a shame, but once the Cold War started Churchill and Truman were reluctant to let the cat out of the bag (Stalin was mistrustful at the best of times, if he or his successors found out about the western allies reading Enigma they'd know we were reading their signals. The word was 'Be like Dad, keep Mum' - rhymes with 'shtum').


billybuc profile image

billybuc 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

I actually knew a tad about this from an article I had to write for a customer, but you certainly went into some serious depth about it. Great information. The secrecy part bothers me a bit, but such is the nature of war sometimes, and there was too much at stake to risk it becoming common knowledge. Well done, Sir!


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 2 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

Thanks Bill. Some things are worth a read, others you'll never GET to read. The secrecy is a form of self-defence. No point barring the front door if your enemy has other ways of getting at you. We could put the KGB or the SD to shame when it came to undercover shenanigins.

Ever heard of 'D' Notices? They're effective at blocking access to information, to most of us anyway. There was an instance of an Englishman passing naval aeronautics information to the Japs in WWII. MI5 kept tabs on him but Churchill kept them at arm's length because he was a peer of the realm and had influential friends at Westminster and Admiralty House. This information was only recently made available, long after the deaths of both parties.

Do you sleep well at night?


Gap4 profile image

Gap4 2 years ago from Charleston, WV

Well, some people say I'm an enigma you know. That's cool in 4th grade I made a code and sold dry erase boards (which consisted of plastic wrap over top of a piece of paper) and dry erase markers (Highlighters) I then made a code to talk to girls, which came from flipping the abcs so a was z, y was b etc.. This was because the teacher would read the notes aloud if she caught us with them, and read one that was about this girl liked this guy named Austin. I made $19, then eventually got shut down because I charged this one kid $5 (because he said he would give me $5 for it) and his mother complained because all the other kids paid $1. I however, did not get a medal of honor, just a bunch of unsold pieces of paper with plastic wrap on them. Cool story, good read, nice halter.


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 2 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

Born entrepreneur, aren't you. Bit on the mercenary side (good on yer)! Which side would you have been on though, when the chips were down?


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 2 years ago from England

My uncle was a pilot in a Lancaster bomber, and my mum was in the wraf as you say, I always say raf! lol! its funny really because when my mum and dad used to speak about it sometimes we never took any notice when we were kids, but now its just so amazing what they did!


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 2 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

Hello Nell,

We don't pay much attention to the 'real world' when we're kids - or else everyone over the age of ten is in another world. Even if we're told, we don't know what it is that's been said. We can't picture things that we've never seen for ourselves.

When I was in Austria in the 50's with people my Ma knew, I raised the matter of aircraft carriers. Everyone there was open-mouthed because they didn't know what that was, and they'd lived through the war as adults. German propaganda didn't mention them, so they were like kids - thinking I was the 'oddity' -

As far as they were concerned, I'd invented the things. Every ten-twelve year old I knew here in England was aware of things like aircraft carriers, tanks, weaponry and so on. We played it on the streets, the hills (escarpment behind Eston) and so on. There were bomb craters where the Luftwaffe had ditched their un-dropped bombs, and some had crashed - shot down. You read about it in boys' comics and magazines etc.

It's what you know, what you're aware of that shapes your world. TTFN


JPB0756 profile image

JPB0756 2 years ago

The Polish might have a bit to add. Superb British perspective, Alan; my Dad served w/both Clarke and MacArthur, on their respective "OSS" staffs (staves,lol?), so my perspective may differ, but Dad thought the British were some of the finest he had ever served with. Pardon the preposition.


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 2 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

Consider yourself pardoned, JPB. The Poles smuggled their Enigma machine out of the country whilst the Germans pushed in. Paris was the first stop and a lot of interest was engendered but the French didn't seem to appreciate its importance. Luckily WSC thought otherwise.

The work of the OSS shouldn't be under-estimated. They and SOE were brave souls who often 'came a cropper' under the Nazi's jackboot (witness Klaus Barbie, the 'Butcher of Lyon').

Glad you enjoyed your sojourn.


Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 2 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

Can't wait to read more of your work. Thanks for the effort that went into this excellent hub. Phdast7 is a hubber who will see my comment and hopefully find her way to these hubs. She is a history professor (her dissertation is on WWII) who teaches often through the use of films. She says young people remember a movie better than a textbook! Sharing.


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 2 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

Hello Kathleen, thanks for the vote of confidence. There's plenty of scope yet, a lot of mileage for more pieces like this. For the time being I've got to catch up with the book writing - take a look at the RAVENFEAST page for what's going on on that front.

WWII is an interesting era, but my 'baby' is the span 7th-12th Century.

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