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GCHQ, Bletchley Park and ‘Hollywood Myths’

In a rare public speech given to mark Turing’s centenary, the current head of GCHQ, Iain Lobban, expressed regret at the way Turing was treated after the war whilst praising his achievements and calling out to Universities and other educational institutes that we must “find the next Turings”. This was a welcome speech, given at an appropriate time and certainly befitting and right.

As I read the report on The Guardian’s website, everything was going great until the last two paragraphs. They literally made my jaw drop.

Lobban also used the speech to explode some of the myths about Bletchley Park, particularly regarding the Enigma machine, which was used by the Nazis to encrypt messages.

“You have probably all seen the Hollywood version of the Enigma story,” he said. “The films showing heroic sailors leaping onto sinking German submarines to recover their Enigma machines. The truth around the initial acquisition is a little more prosaic. In 1926, Edward Travis, who later became director of GCHQ, went to Berlin and obtained an Enigma machine by the simple expedient of going to the manufacturing company and buying one.”

Myths? I hope that was the journalist’s choice of words. Sadly, this seemingly innocuous statement dismisses the sacrifices made by a number of seamen in the Battle of the Atlantic during World War II. Mr Lobban may be referring to the initial acquisition of an Enigma machine but there is so much more to it than that and such a statement, taken out of context, risks belittling those who gave their lives to supply Bletchley Park with information that helped turn the tide of World War II.

It is true that Alistair Dennison and the codebreaker Dilly Knox purchased Engima machines from Arthur Scherbius’ company. At this time Enigma was a commercially available product, targeted at the banking sector. It was a commercial failure but Scherbius was able to sell the rights to the German government, who had seen it’s potential for military application. What must not be implied is that the machines purchased by Denniston and Knox were anywhere near as hard to break as the Enigma machines used by the German military. Enigma was never one product. It was revised often and a family of machines emerged as the war years past. The first Enigmas to be deployed by Germany contained a significant modification; the plugboard or ‘steckerbrett’. This new front-panel, absent on any commercial Enigma, increased the possible combinations by a number in the region of 153,000,000,000,000 whereas the advertising for the commercial machines boasted ‘over 8,000 possibilities!’. I presume you can see the difference? This was by no means the only change made by the German engineers over the course of war.

Commercial Enigma (Photo Credit – Creative Commons)
Miltary Enigma With Plugboard (Wikipedia)

The circa-1926 machines had been broken by many but the same techniques could not be applied to the wartime Enigma machines. Great minds such as Zygalski, Rejewski, and Różycki, the three polish codebreakers, worked with Knox, Turing, Welchman and many others to achieve that feat.

Lets looks at the truth behind the “Hollywood version”, “The films showing heroic sailors leaping onto sinking German submarines to recover their Enigma machines.” What Mr Lobban fails to realise is that is exactly what happened. Yes, our Hollywood friends did rather make a mess of the whole U-571 movie which saw Matthew McConaughey single-handedly bring WWII to a close, the movie getting so many facts wrong in the process it made my head spin. Let’s deal with reality instead.

During World War II, few in German high-command ever believed that Enigma transmissions were being read. One who did was Naval Commander Donitz. His concern was such that he had the Naval M3 Enigma machines modify, adding an extra rotor to the existing three. When these came into use in mid-February 1942, the massive leap in complexity immediately locked out put Bletchley Park. During the next ten months the U-boats sank more ships in the Atlantic than in the rest of the war combined. Britain was left starving as convoys from the United States failed to make the crossing, falling to the ‘wolf packs’.

On the 30th October 1942, HMS Petard successfully depth-charged the submarine U-559. After several hours, during which U-559 lay hiding and damaged on the seabed, it was forced to the surface. A cannon from Petard ripped through the conning tower, ensuring the submarine could not escape. As the German sailors started to swim across to Petard to surrender, a rope net was sent out to create a bridge between it and the U-boat. Realising U-559 would soon sink as a result of damage it had sustained, the race was on to gather intelligence. Two seamen, First Lieutenant Colin Grazier and Able Seaman Anthony Fasson swam across to the U-boat as it started to list. They were joined on-board, unexpectedly, by Tommy Brown, a 16-year-old NAAFI canteen assistant who had lied about his age to serve in the Navy.

A search of the vessel revealed the 4-rotor Enigma and the all-important settings book, which contained information on how this new machine was operated. However, the U-boat started to list violently and as the Enigma was bolted to the table, they were force to leave it. The young men attempted to escape with the settings book but had left it too late. Grazier and Fasson perished with U-559 but Brown made it back on board HMS Petard with the vital information. The book was rushed to Bletchley Park and as a result of this and the capture of an Enigma M4 by HMS Bulldog in a separate raid on U-110, naval Enigma messages could be read once again. Within three months, the U-boats would be withdrawn from the Atlantic.

Both Grazier and Fasson both received the George Cross. Tommy Brown died shortly before he was due to receive the George Medal, trying to save his 4 year-old sister from a house fire. It was award posthumously and he was buried with full honours in Tynemouth Cemetery.

First Lieutenant Colin Grazier
Able Seaman Anthony Fasson
Tommy Brown

This is only one story, and only a summary of it. The fact is, there are many real stories were people gave their lives to recover Enigma machines. These are not myths and heroes like Grazier, Fasson and Brown deserve a better legacy.

Published inBletchley Park

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