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Quiet naval hero who rescued Enigma machine dies aged 95

Quiet naval hero who rescued Enigma machine dies aged 95
6 January 2016
The naval family has lost a quiet hero whose actions helped change the course of the Battle of the Atlantic – and World War 2.

The bravery of Sub Lt David Balme in the chilly waters of the North Atlantic off Greenland in May 1941 ensured the most prized piece of equipment in the German war machine fell into Allied hands: the Enigma coder.

Balme, who died at the weekend aged 95, led a boarding party on to crippled U110 when the submarine was brought to the surface by depth charges after the boat attacked a convoy.

The U-boat’s captain Fritz-Julius Lemp – a seasoned submariner who had infamously sunk the first ship in the Battle of the Atlantic, the liner Athenia, on the very first day of WW2 – lost his head and ordered his men to abandon ship, without first destroying top secret material and equipment.

The story of the seizure of the machine by Balme and his shipmates was kept secret until the mid-1970s

While the Germans jumped into the Atlantic, a 20-year-old David Balme and small team of sailors climbed into a rowing boat with simple instructions: Get what you can out of her.

Balme, who’d been in the Navy for seven years, could not believe the Germans “would have just abandoned this submarine” and was convinced U110 was either booby-trapped, or armed crewman were still on board, lying in wait.

Instead, the boarders found U110 deserted. Telegraphist Allen Long quickly located the coding device which looked like a typewriter. Long “pressed the keys and. finding results peculiar, sent it up the hatch”.

Balme’s party spent six hours salvaging what they could from U110, all the time compressed air hissed from broken pipes and the boat shook under the distant detonations of depth charges being dropped as the convoy escorts harried other suspected German submarines.

Bulldog tried to tow the crippled U110 to Iceland, but she foundered the following day. The destroyer continued on to Scapa Flow in the Orkneys, the RN’s main base in both world wars, where the ‘typewriter’ was handed over to an intelligence officer. “We have waited the whole war for one of these,” he gratefully thanked Balme and his shipmates.

The salvage operation – codenamed Primrose – was, the Admiralty ordered, “to be treated with the greatest secrecy and as few people allowed to know as possible.”

And so when George VI presented David Balme with the DSC for his part in the mission later in 1941, the monarch apologised that “for security reasons” the award could not be higher.

But he did tell the junior officer it was “perhaps the most important single event in the whole war at sea.”

The Enigma machine and accompanying codebook ended up at Bletchley Park, where they would be exploited by maths genius Alan Turing and his colleagues, allowing some German radio traffic to be read by British intelligence.

The story of the seizure of the machine by Balme and his shipmates was kept secret until the mid-1970s and ‘Hollywoodised’ in 2000 in the blockbuster U571; the fictionalised account has American submariners, not British destroyermen, rescuing Enigma from a crippled German boat.

David Balme’s career in the RN after Bulldog/U110 was no less dramatic; he commanded a detachment of gunners protecting a merchant ship on the Malta convoys (which was sunk), transferred to the Fleet Air Arm as an observer and flew missions in the Mediterranean; and was the youngest lieutenant commander in the RN when promoted to that rank.

After the war he worked in the family wool business in Hampshire.

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