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Digital Subscriptions > History Revealed > October 2016 > Enigma

Enigma

One of the toughest missions of World War II took place in the British countryside, as the codebreakers of Bletchley Park fought to end the Battle of the Atlantic. Jonny Wilkes reveals their secrets
SILENT BATTLE In order to stop German U-boats from prowling the Atlantic, it was vital for the British to break the Enima code
ALAMY X2, GETTY X3

The alarms ring out over the Atlantic at midday, 9 May 1941, sending sailors rushing to action stations. A German U-boat, lurking beneath the surface of the choppy waters, is attacking their convoy south of Iceland. Before the crews of the three dozen merchant ships and their escorts know the position of the enemy submarine, two vessels are smashed by torpedoes and sink. The 28-year-old captain of U-110, Fritz-Julius Lemp, congratulates his men and orders another salvo.

Before that happens, though, the hunters become the hunted. Knowing the dangers of crossing the Atlantic – where ‘wolfpacks’ of Nazi Germany’s Kriegsmarine prowl and pounce without warning – Royal Navy destroyers and corvettes are escorting the convoy for part of its voyage to America. They pepper U-110’s position with depth charges, forcing Lemp to order the now-damaged sub to surface and his men to evacuate with the words “Last stop, everybody out!” as if he were a bus conductor. The crew pour out of the hatches, and 15 are killed (including Lemp) by leaping into the water and drowning, or by the heavy fire from the advancing HMS Broadway and Bulldog. The attack over, a boarding party is dispatched to collect anything left by the fleeing crew, who hoped that they would go down with the sub.

What Sub-Lieutenant David Balme and his party retrieve turns out to be so remarkable that the capture of U-110 (termed ‘Operation Primrose’) hastily becomes a tightly held secret, and leads First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, to send a signal to HMS Bulldog, reading: “Hearty congratulations, the petals of your flower are of rare beauty.” But why exactly is no time wasted in whisking these discoveries – codebooks and a strange typewriter used to send encoded messages – from the Atlantic Ocean to a quiet mansion house in the Buckinghamshire countryside?

BOFFINS’ LAIR

Bletchley Park was one of the frontlines of World War II. It may not have seen any actual fighting, and the events that took place there didn’t make for rousing, victory-fuelled newspaper headlines, but that would have defeated the point. In fact, few people – not even those on the side of the Allies, let alone the Axis Powers – knew of its existence. Bletchley, or Station X, served as the home of the Government Code & Cypher School’s codebreakers, who worked day and night to decipher intercepted radio signals coming from the Germans, Italians and Japanese.

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The November 2016 issue of History Revealed.
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