Monday, 28 October 2013

Enigma: changing the course of history

This week we remember Colin Grazier and Francis Fasson, killed on the night of 30 October 1942 during a mission that turned out to be one of the most important of the Second World War.

By 1942 the biggest threat to the Allies was from U-Boats, which the Germans used in ‘wolf packs’ to attack shipping and disrupt supply convoys. Finding and destroying enemy submarines had become a top priority for British forces, with Churchill later commenting that the only thing that really frightened him during the war was the U-Boat peril. So when, on 30 October, a U-Boat was identified in the Mediterranean Sea, travelling westwards some 70 miles off the coast of Egypt, several destroyers were sent to hunt it down.

The U-Boat – later found to be the U-559 – was located by HMS Petard, which immediately launched an attack. It took almost 10 hours of fighting for the sub to be forced to the surface, but it eventually appeared in the destroyer’s search lights at around 10.40 pm. The crew were evacuated and placed under arrest, but not before they had scuttled the sub. Knowing there could be important information inside, Petard’s Captain, Lt Commander Mark Thorton, asked for volunteers to search the damaged vessel.

Three men, who must by this time have been physically and mentally exhausted, accepted the risk: Lieutenant Francis Fasson of Jedburgh, Able Seaman Colin Grazier from Tamworth and, just 16 years of age, NAAFI canteen assistant Tommy Brown. Jumping naked into the freezing ocean, they swam to the stricken sub. Fasson and Grazier went inside to search for anything which might prove useful, managing to pass books and documents to Brown, who stayed on the conning tower. But the U-559 finally went under, and Fasson and Grazier were unable to escape in time.  

They had, however, changed the course of the war, because the books they passed to HMS Petard contained code keys to the now-famous German Enigma machine.

Enigma was used to encrypt Nazi messages and was so sophisticated that it was calculated the odds of breaking the code without a key were 150 million million million to one. It had been invented as a commercial device in 1923, but was picked up and refined by the German military, who believed its ciphers to be unbreakable. The Poles, with their knowledge of German engineering industry, had managed to re-create an Enigma machine as early as 1933, and had had some success in reading the Wehrmacht’s messages. But, come the Second World War, analysts were unable to break the stream of information sent by German forces on land, sea and air.

It took three weeks for the code books taken by HMS Petard to reach Bletchley Park, the secret base set up by the British government to intercept and crack enemy communications. But because of the books, analysts at Bletchley were finally able to break the codes used by the Germans to plan U-Boat attacks. The breakthrough occurred on 13 December 1942, and within an hour of the news being given to the submarine tracking unit the position of 15 U-Boats in the Atlantic had been revealed.

It has been said that the war was shorted by as much as two years because of the actions of Fasson, Grazier and Brown, with countless lives saved. Certainly the number of British vessels sunk in the months following the discovery was halved. However, with anything to do with Bletchley Park being subject to the Official Secrets Act, their heroism was not widely publicised and they did not get the recognition they so deserved.

Lieutenant Fasson and Colin Grazier were recommended for posthumous Victoria Crosses but, as they did not actually die ‘in the face of the enemy’, were instead awarded the George Cross. Tommy Brown was awarded the George Medal. Tragically, he was killed in a house fire in North Shields in 1945.

Today Tamworth has begun to acknowledge the debt owed to Colin Grazier and his comrades, and visitors to the town might find themselves on Grazier Avenue, Fasson Close, Brown Avenue, Bletchley Drive or Petard Close. A memorial to the men has also been built in Church Square, where a service is held on Colin Grazier Memorial Day.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Lightning never strikes twice …

Blooming in health and strength I gazed
Where my Creator’s lightning blazed
Nor for a moment thought that He
Had such a shaft prepared for me
He gave command – the thunder peal’d
And my eternal doom was sealed
This is the epitaph of Hugh Dolman, buried at the Baptist chapel in Melbourne, Derbyshire. As you might gather from the inscription, Hugh was killed by lightning – unusual enough, you might think. But what makes this even more extraordinary is that Hugh wasn’t the only victim; his neighbour William Bailey was also killed. The incident, which ‘created a great sensation in the neighbourhood’, was recorded by local historian and writer, John Joseph Briggs in his diary on 19 June 1846: 
about 6 O’clock this evening occurred a most aweful and distressing circumstance. At that time a heavy shower came on accompanied by thunder and lightening. Two persons in Melbourne named Willm Baily (hair dresser) and Hugh Dolman (Baker) were standing in the Potters Street talking together, Baily being in his own garden within a few yards of his own house, and Dolman in the street, just opposite to him. Just at that moment a loud peal of thunder was heard which in an instant [was] followed by a flash of vivid lightening, which stuck these poor men, and only a few minutes elapsed before they were both corpses.
Baily was taken across the road to his own house and expired immediately and the only mark visible upon him was a small place on one of his cheeks. Dolman lived a few minutes after being struck, his clothes seemed scorched or burnt with the fluid and [literally] kept dropping from him piecemeal as he was carried up the street. His hair, whiskers, & also his shoes were also burnt. The faces of both men went black and discoloured immediately. Just before Mr Bailey left the house his wife remarked ‘I would not go out something may happen to you’. He replied naturally enough as many a one has before him ‘Oh! One knows thunder and lightning … occurs a hundred times and nobody ever hurt by it’. 
Hugh and William were buried side by side two days later. The fire gods hadn’t finished with Melbourne yet, though, because the day after that (22 June) Briggs writes about another curious episode:
Fearful thunder storm. A ball of fire descended at a distance of not more than 50 yards from the spot [where Hugh and William were killed] and entering a house set fire to a quantity of paper in a room where a sick person was lying and then passing though the chamber entered a lower room. In its passage a portion of a scythe attached to the wall was melted and then [it entered] the chimney [carrying] with it the iron apparatus employed to hang kettles &c upon.  
This time there was a happier ending, with the house’s occupants escaping unharmed.