The true story of the retrieval of parts from an Enigma machine from a sinking german submarine, as told by The Hornet, issue 304.

An Enigma machine.

A German Enigma machine.

See The Hornet front and back covers issue 304, 15th July 1969.
Writer:- The Hornet editorial team, based on true events. Artist:- Keith Shone.

Time period:- The Mediterranean Sea, 30th October 1942, during the Second World War.

I recently visited Bletchley Park in Northamptonshire, to the north of London, U.K. During the Second World War, it was home to the British and Allied code breakers. The main house still stands as do some of the surviving single-storey makeshift cabins, some of which are sadly in need of repair work. The world's first computer Colossus, (the first of the electronic digital machines with programmability, albeit limited in modern terms), was installed there to help break encrypted German codes including Enigma Codes that the Germans were using to send coded messages between their forces. The codes were so complicated to decipher, that it needed Colossus to help break the codes. It could take up to eight hours to break one simple message. By the end of World War Two, ten Mark 2 Colossi machines were in use.

In one of the huts I read about the following story. On the 30th October 1942, a German U-Boat (submarine) U559, was caught on the surface in the Mediterranean Sea by British warships including HMS (His Majesty's Ship as it would have been then), Petard. The British warships had been depth charging the area after reports of a German U-boat being sighted in the area. The Germans eventually surfaced and abanded the submarine. Royal Navy personnel Lieutenant Tony Fasson, Able Seaman Colin Grazier and canteen assistant Tommy Brown went aboard the now fast flooding submarine in an attempt to retrieve any secret documents. In the event they managed to salvage moveable parts of an Enigma machine and other documentation.

Sadly, Fasson and Grazier lost their lives as they were unable to escape from the submarine before it sank. (Brown had remained in the submarine's conning tower to receive the documents and hand them on to other personnel). Their act of bravery helped to save lives and to shorten the war. This could be regarded as a wild claim, but the code books retrieved by Fasson, Grazier and Brown helped the code breakers at Bletchley Park, break the German codes. In September 1943, Fasson and Grazier were awarded the George Cross medals posthumously for their heroism.

Their deaths were reported in the local newspapers in 1942, but with no mention of what they had retrieved from the submarine. This was not made public until a much later date. Accompanying this story I was surprised to find the front cover of The Hornet, issue 304.

The Hornet published the story in its 5th July 1969 issue, thus in theory breaking the British Official Secrets Act, as the events hadn't been officially released. (I haven't so far been able to find out when the story was officially released). The Hornet tells the story of Fasson and Grazier's brave actions. (No mention is made of Brown's contribution). (Please see the front and back covers below).

Artist Keith Shone. © D.C. Thomson Co. Ltd Artist Keith Shone. © D.C. Thomson Co. Ltd

The events of this story were told in a dreadful Hollywood film, U-571. Hollywood made a complete hash of the true events and in the film it is members of an American ship which rescues the Enigma parts and documentation. This didn't go down well with many people and a successful campaign was started to get Hollywood to recognise the true events of what really happened.

An informative account of the men's story has been told in a book by Phil Shanahan called The Real Enigma Heroes published by Tempus Books, 2008 (ISBN 9780752444727), 19.99.


B.B.C. website news story.

Bletchley Park Museum.

Bletchley Park Museum's, Colossus history page.

History of H.M.S. Petard page.

Smith, Lindsey New Chapter Dawns for Tamworth's WWII Hero. In Tamworth Herald, 6th, March 2008.- p.6.

© Adrian Banfield, 2009.