October 29th, 2013 ~ Vol. 83 No. 42
Gott Mit Uns - God is with Us
Herald Contributor Photo
One of Hogel's 315 POW paintings in Thunder Bay
Part of my fascination with history reaches into the realm of war stories and I have been devouring books and magazines for many years that tell thousands of remarkable stories of how wars have unfolded.
Some stories are well known depictions but some reveal astonishing and often disturbing stories that are rarely told. Some time back I wrote about: “The Man Who Never Was”, a story of a deliberate ruse by the Allies that fooled the Germans into believing the invasion in the Mediterranean would not begin in Sicily by using an anonymous corpse carrying false top secret invasion plans. It worked and was a pivotal moment in World War Two history.
Many of these pivotal World War Two stories that lay buried in archives sealed for fifty years have recently come to light and war historians have delved into scores of them so as to share what really happened with all of us. It is important that we know and understand the real picture in those dark 2,194 days from September 1, 1939 to September 2, 1945.
Probably one of the most important stories that became a turning point in war history happened at sea in 1941 and involved a captured submarine and an electro-mechanical rotor cipher machine commonly known as “Enigma”. If you have ever seen the 2000 Hollywood movie U-571, a fictitious depiction of this event please set this bit of dramaticized rubbish aside and remember the real event happened in May of 1941 before the Americans even entered the war.
The actual scene unfolded in the North Atlantic where what was known as the Third Escort Group took over guarding Convoy 318 sailing from Liverpool to Halifax in early May of that year. The convoy was being shadowed by one of German Admiral Donitz’s infamous wolf packs, groups of submarines that shadowed these convoys and reeked unbelievable havoc on transatlantic shipping for a good part of the war.
On May 8th the German sub U-94 struck at this convoy and sank the Ixion and the escort group then knew that they were being seriously tracked by the wolf pack. The next day they lost two more ships within minutes to torpedoes and the lead escort ship HMS Bulldog plus the HMS Broadway and a corvette named HMS Aubretia made Asdic (sonar) contact with what turned out to be the German submarine U-110 which they hammered with depth charges.
The charges did serious damage to U-110 including its buoyancy tanks and she went out of control and shot to the surface right next to the Bulldog. They naturally opened up on the sub and both Bulldog and Broadway headed in to ram U-110. At the last minute Bulldog commander Joe Baker-Cresswell had both ships swing away and decided to try and board her and tow her back to their base in Iceland.
It fell to a Bulldog Royal Navy sub-lieutenant named David Balme to organize a boarding party. Balme was to be part of an event that would alter the course of the naval war and it wasn’t until recently that an interview with him revealed what had been, up to then, held in top secret for so many years.
David Balme was first to climb down the conning tower of U-110 knowing there was a good possibility that scuttling charges had been rigged or that there were still Germans submariners on board. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for Balme to climb into the bowels of that sub with his Webley revolver (that he had never ever fired) in his hand not knowing what would happen.
What he found was no one on board and incredibly everything intact. Nothing destroyed. The crew had not had a chance . The sub’s commander had assumed that 110 would sink and had ordered an immediate abandonment. Books and charts lay everywhere and in the radio compartment all apparatus was intact. That included code books, signal logs, pay books and a coding machine that looked like a typewriter still plugged in. Balme eventually came across a sealed envelope with the June settings of the coding machine the Enigma. The May settings were also laying there by the machine.
Bulldog set a towing rope to U-110 which parted as the ship started off to investigate another U-boat contact which left Balme and his boarding party stranded for an hour aboard the sub until Bulldog returned and set up another tow line. The next day in high seas U-110 sank before they could make Iceland.
This it turned out was the best possible outcome as the Germans assumed U-110 had been destroyed. What they failed to realize was that it had been captured intact and that an Enigma machine with its codes had fallen into the hands of British Intelligence. Fifteen survivors of the crew of 32 of U-110 were taken away swiftly in ships in the area and as late as 1981 Admiral Donitz refused to believe that Enigma had been fatally compromised.
England’s renown code-breakers at Bletchley Park headed by the famous Alan Turing decrypted a huge number of Enigma enciphered messages and eventually cracked the code. German high command continued with a steady stream of its coded radio traffic not realizing it was being compromised. It has been said that the decryption of German ciphers advanced the end of the European war by two years.
Both Commander Creswell and Sub-lieutenant Balme received the DSO and the DSC but more appropriate awards were not forthcoming at the risk of tipping off the enemy. The German radio operator of U-110, Georg Hogel, spent from 1941 to 1947 in POW camps in England and Canada. Hogel became an artist and the Thunder Bay Military Museum had an exhibition of 315 of his paintings
I recall reading about a German slogan from earlier wars that was: “Gott mit Uns” (God is with us”). Perhaps it could be said that if Gott was with anyone that fateful day in May 1941, it was the British. Thank Gott.
October 29th, 2013 ~ Vol. 83 No. 42
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