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.