It’s 75 years this week since Bletchley Park received the codebooks that helped break the Enigma code. Hugh Sebag-Montefiore looks at the role played by HMS Aubretia.
At midday on May 9, 1941, at the height of the battle of the Atlantic, the corvette HMS Aubretia – paid for entirely by the residents of Horsforth in Leeds, following a £241,000 fundraising drive – was on the right flank of a convoy of British ships sailing from Britain to America when two torpedoes shot past her, and hit two of the merchant ships she, and her fellow escorts, were supposed to be protecting.
A witness on one of these other escorting warships, which formed a screen a mile and a half in front of the convoy, recalled the horror of seeing the cargo of vehicles and cartons on the listing deck of Esmond, the front ship in the convoy’s right hand column, tipping minutes later into the sea as the ship sank. From where he was, it looked as if a child was pouring his toys out of a box.
But for the crew of HMS Aubretia there was no time to stand and stare. While the rest of the convoy made an emergency turn to port (the left), Lieutenant Commander Funge Smith, Aubretia’s skipper, told his helmsman to wheel towards the right where he thought the torpedoes had come from.
Then, after ordering the first pattern of depth charges to be dropped, he demanded that the engines on the ship should be stopped. Like a hunter in the wild, straining for a clue as to the whereabouts of her prey, the great ship was for a moment becalmed as her radar swept the surrounding waters, searching for a contact.
Almost 10 minutes passed before the operator found what he was looking for, whereupon Aubretia’s engines were started with a roar, and she leapt forward once again, towards where her crew now knew a U-boat was hiding somewhere deep down below. Another pattern of depth charges was dropped.
The blasts from the charges produced no immediate signs they had been on target. They also temporarily put Aubretia’s radar out of action. While it was being repaired, thinking that perhaps the other escorts which had arrived on the scene would fare better, Funge Smith took his ship back to where the Esmond had sunk in order to pick up her survivors.
Little did he know the extent of the confusion the latest pattern of depth charges had caused inside the U-boat U-110 down below.
One member of the U-boat’s crew subsequently reported: “The boat is terribly shaken, and it seems as though all the instruments are out of action. Chlorine gas is escaping and the captain gives the order to blow the tanks. But the blower has been smashed, the batteries are out of action and there seems scarcely any possibility of reaching the surface.
But then the boat begins to roll. For some inexplicable reason, the boat reaches the surface whereupon the Captain opens the conning tower hatch and shouts: ‘Abandon ship!’”
Funge Smith reported the reaction on his ship: “As the Esmond’s survivors came up the scrambling nets on the port side, a U-boat came to the surface on the port quarter with the destroyers HMS Bulldog and HMS Broadway in close attendance. A spontaneous cheer swept over the ship in which men from the Esmond were probably the most vociferous.’
Their reaction was shared by Joe Baker Creswell, the commander of the Escort Group who was also the commander of the destroyer HMS Bulldog.
The appearance of this U-boat provoked him to such an extent that he gave the order to ram their erstwhile tormentor.
He only pulled up 100 yards short because by then his rage had subsided, and because he realized that he might be able to wreak his revenge in a way which would be far more damaging for the Germans: by following the instructions that had been handed out to all destroyer commanders to seize the codebooks of any U-boat that was captured.
David Balme, a 20 year old sub-lieutenant, was instructed to take the Bulldog’s boarding party across to the U-boat in a whaler. He was to climb down the conning tower so that he could collect as many codebooks as he could find.
He described his descent into the conning tower: “I felt sure there would be somebody on board. The worst moment of the boarding was going down the last vertical ladder from the lower conning tower to the control room.
“Going down bottom first, I felt very vulnerable to any German still down below. I needed both my hands, so my revolver was back in its holster. But on my arrival in the control room, I got it out.
“The most eerie feeling was the complete silence except for an ominous hissing and a plopping sound as the U-boat rolled against the Atlantic swell. I walked forward and aft and decided that the Germans really had abandoned ship.”
He called down the remainder of the boarding party and told them to transport the U-boat’s confidential books and papers to a speedboat sent over from the destroyer HMS Broadway as fast as they could.
There was a constant fear that they would stumble across and set off scuttling charges that could put an end to their raid at any moment.
Keeping one eye on what was happening on the U-boat, Baker-Creswell did not neglect to give credit where it was due for the capture. Applying the etiquette which he was used to applying on his estate back in the north of England, he signalled to Funge Smith on HMS Aubretia: “This is your bird.”
Funge Smith was ordered to pick up the U-boat crew who, buoyed up by safety jackets and in some cases by breathing appraratus, were still floating in the water.
Aubretia’s Sub-Lieutenant Newman saw about 20 of the U-boat crew being plucked to safety on the starboard side of the ship. The remainder were picked up in ones and twos on the port side and he reported to Funge Smith that all those displaying signs of life had been rescued.
Shortly afterwards, the U-boat which was being towed to Iceland sank. But the codebooks and Enigma machine were taken back to the Scapa Flow naval base in the Orkneys, and flown from there to London.
Three hours later the car carrying them drove through the gates leading into Bletchley Park where they enabled the codebreakers to break the Officer’s Enigma code that had once been considered unbreakable.
HMS Aubretia, funded by the generosity of Yorkshiremen and women, not only played a pivotal role in the capture of the first coding machine it helped tilt the war in the Allies’ favour and in doing so influenced the course of history.
The updated 75th Anniversary paperback edition of Hugh Sebag-Montefiore’s, Enigma: the Battle for the Code, published by Orion’s Weidenfeld & Nicolson, is out now priced £10.99.
Leeds rallied to the war effort
As the German U-Boats threatened to triumph in the battle of the Atlantic during the Second World War, every town and village in Britain was asked for money to buy more ships.
Within a week, following a whirlwind fundraising drive, the people of Horsforth, in Leeds, raised £241,000 – double the amount asked for and enough to buy two boats, one of which was HMS Aubretia, a corvette.
At a time when the average weekly wage was about £4, each person raised the equivalent of a month’s wages.
With poetic Yorkshire lyricism, Horsforth Urban District Council chairman Harry Wilcox sent a telegram to the Defence Ministry reading: “Ship bowt and paid for. What’s tha want next?”