Naval officer who helped to break the Enigma code
A writer has told the thrilling story of a naval intelligence officer from West Wittering who helped to break the Enigma code.
Marking the 75th anniversary of the Enigma codebooks arriving at Bletchley Park, which took place last Friday, Hugh Sebag-Montefiore has released an updated paperback version of his book Enigma: The Battle For The Code.
The writer tells the story of Lieutenant Allon Bacon, who captured the books - which were so vital in the breaking of the Enigma code - from a German U-boat.
Hugh said: “Lieutenant Allon Bacon was probably the last man the residents of West Wittering, where he lived after the war, would have linked with spying and acts of derring do. He was a very tall, modest, quiet man who kept his war record to himself.
“But when I was researching my book about the breaking of Germany’s naval Enigma code, his name kept popping up, and when I traced his widow to their house in West Wittering, she handed me a brown envelope containing what he had written before he died.
“It made for interesting reading. His account described how on December 27, 1941, when, as a 37 year old naval intelligence officer attached to the Bletchley Park codebreaking centre, he evaded real bullets fired at him by German snipers while he clambered on board one of their armed trawlers beached on Vagsoy Island, off the coast of Norway, so that he could seize her Enigma codebooks. This was news to me. I knew about the codebooks taken from a couple of U-boats. But no one had ever talked before this additional raid.
“No one could have guessed from his early career path that he was destined to participate in such high octane adventure. He had started off his working life as a travel agent rather than a secret agent. But his interest in sailing – during the 1930s he had been part of the British sailing team’s reserve crew at the Kiel Olympic games – led him to gravitate towards the Navy on the outbreak of World WarII. His fluent German, polished while reading modern languages at Cambridge University, made him the ideal person to represent Naval Intelligence at Bletchley Park, whose most important work was the breaking of the Enigma code used by the German armed forces.
“He started off on the sidelines. He was to play a peripheral role in the seizing of the first Enigma codebooks from a captured German U-boat. After U-110 was captured in mid-Atlantic along with her Enigma codebooks and cipher machine on May 9, 1941, and after the U-boat sank, Bacon was dispatched from Bletchley Park to collect the booty from the destroyer HMS Bulldog, which had brought back what had been taken to Scapa Flow, the British naval base in the Orkneys.
“First he had to dry the soaking wet documents over the stove in Bulldog’s skipper’s cabin. Then he had to photograph them so that there would be copies if the originals were lost in transit. Finally he had to swear the destroyer commander to secrecy. ‘Never mind about losing U-110,’ he told him. ‘From our point of view it was a good thing, so we can now keep all of this quiet. For God’s sake never breathe a word about this to anyone.’
The writer continued: “The adoption of yet another set of codebooks by the Germans made another capture essential. This time, Bacon proactively helped to plan the next operation. Using intelligence supplied by a Norwegian fisherman, he identified several possible targets on or near the coast of Norway that appeared to be using the Enigma machine. They could conveniently be attacked during a couple of raids which were to be made during December 1941. He decided he should accompany the British forces participating in Operation Archery, an attack on two islands off the coast of north west Norway,.
“While the British troops were landing on the island, HMS Onslow, the destroyer carrying Bacon, chased a three ship German convoy, one of which was one of the targets he had identified. The ships were eventually beached on Vagsoy Island. That gave Bacon and his boarding party the chance to seize their secret documents before they were destroyed. As the motorboat that was to take him and his boarding party from the destroyer to the beached ships was about to be lowered into the sea, a British sailor standing beside her was shot dead.
“Fohn, the armed trawler that had been escorting the two merchant ships in the convoy, was to be their first target. As they approached, they saw that her captain was throwing the ship’s secret documents into the sea. At least he was, until Onslow’s skipper shot him with the Lewis gun he had to hand.
When Bacon and his fellow boarders climbed over the captain’s corpse so that they could enter his cabin and the ship’s radio room, there was no sign of any codebooks. However after sending off the majority of the party to the other ships, Bacon searched the cabin more carefully. He levered open the captain’s locked desk drawer. Inside he found a piece of pink paper covered with Enigma settings. By the time he was ready to go back on deck, he had filled two of the canvas sacks he had brought with him with books and papers. The sack also contained five Enigma rotors, the scrambling elements that could be inserted into the ship’s Enigma machine.
“What Bacon had seized, combined with what was captured the previous day during another raid, was to be critical to Bletchley Park’s codebreakers’ success.”
The updated 75th Anniversary paperback edition of Enigma: The Battle For The Code, containing new material, is out now, published by Orion’s Weidenfeld and Nicolson, priced £10.99, as is the paperback of his book Somme: Into The Breach published this month by Penguin, priced £9.99.