Incident at sea, 30 October, 1942
During the Second World War the British had been reading top-secret German codes messages sending orders to their Navy, Army and Airforce, thanks to the team at Bletchley using their Ultra machine to crack the difficult codes set by the Nazi Enigma machine. Millions of tons of shipping in the Battle of the Atlantic had been saved by the Ultra code-cracker, and the German High Command did not know until 1945 that their orders were being read by the Allies. But in February 1942 it had been the Germans’ turn; they had cracked British Naval Cipher No. 3 and soon could see the size, destination and leaving times of Allied convoys. At the same time, the Germans added an extra rotor wheel to their Enigma machines used by U-Boats in the Atlantic, thus greatly increasing the number of solutions to their encrypted text. They knew this had happened at Bletchley, even calling the new effort Shark. They set about finding a way to crack it, but for more than ten months Bletchley was in the dark, its de-codifier producing rubbish. German submarines in the Atlantic sank 7 million tons of Allied shipping in 1942 at a cost of eighty-six U-Boats. In November alone 860,000 tons of shipping went to the bottom. It was more than essential to get hold, somehow, of one of the new data and associated documents from a German submarine, but how?
On Friday 30th October, 1942, U-559 was forced to surface in the eastern Mediterranean by depth-charge action from four British destroyers whose sharp-eyed crew had spotted her. The German captain ordered the entire to abandon ship via the boats, and the sub’s stopcocks were withdrawn to scuttle her. Here was the chance. Young Lieutenant Fasson and Able-Seaman Grazier volunteered to swim from their ship to the slowly sinking submarine to search for the required machinery and data. They were joined by a sixteen year old boy called Brown, an assistant in the ship’s NAAFI canteen, who had joined the Navy by lying about his age. These three stripped off and swam to the stricken U-Boat from their destroyer, HMS Petard; climbing on board, they broke into the captain’s cabin, used a machine gun to break into a locked cabinet where they found all the codebooks and documents. While Fasson and Grazier continued the search, young Tommy Brown made three journeys through the waves to and from his ship with the invaluable information in a waterproof satchel on his bare back. But then the submarine suddenly sank, taking Fasson and Grazier with it to be drowned, but Brown made it back to his ship.
Soon Bletchley received the documents which included the needed indicator list, code and weather tables which allowed to them to break into Shark on 13 December. It was an altogether unprecedented breakthrough. The warriors at the Admiralty decided that though the gallantry shown by the three men had been up to Victoria Cross standard, and all three were serving, fighting members of the Royal Navy, the incident had not taken place ‘in the face of the enemy’. Naturally, as ‘the enemy’ were all in boats paddling like hell to capture and safety and the end of their war. Fasson and Grazier got the George Cross posthumously, and the lad who swam three times to the submarine and got all the data back to his ship, Tommy Brown, got the George Medal from the King. He was also dismissed from the Service for lying about his age.