From travel agent to a secret agent; Today Bletchley Park celebrates the 75th anniversary of the breaking of the Enigma code, thanks to the capture of a German U-boat with her codebooks on board. Author and historian HUGH SEBAG-MONTEFIORI highlights the part played by a naval intelligence officer from Newcastle.
LIEUTENANT Allon Bacon may have watched some dramatic scenes on the screens owned by his father, a cinema magnate, while they lived in Gosforth, Newcastle.
But nothing he watched then could ever compare with what he witnessed on December 27, 1941, when, as a 37-year-old naval intelligence officer attached to the Bletchley Park codebreaking centre, he evaded 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.
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 - he had been part of the British sailing team's reserve crew at Kiel, which hosted the sport during the 1936 Olympic Games - led him to gravitate towards the Navy on the outbreak of the Second World War.
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 began 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 Turn to Page 28 From Page 27 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."
Hours later he was seen marching into Bletchley Park, triumphantly holding the briefcase containing the most important documents over his head, like an athlete who has just won a gold medal at the Olympics, something he had not quite achieved during his sporting career.
The documents recovered from U-110, combined with documents seized from a series of previously captured German vessels, helped Alan Turing and his Bletchley Park codebreakers to read German U-boat messages currently for the first time. However, every time the code was changed, more codebooks had to be captured if the codebreaking operation was not to be 'blinded'. Another alteration to the code explains why just over six weeks later Bacon was dispatched on another mission, on board a British warship.
Her commander had been instructed to take out a German weather ship north east of Iceland, which was believed to have an Enigma machine on board.
On June 28, 1941, the weathership, Lauenberg, was duly captured and Bacon was rowed across from the warship to collect the Enigma codebooks left on board by the crew who had abandoned ship.
After heading back to England, Bacon again took the priceless codebooks down to Bletchley Park.
He must have been pleased at how quickly the operation was completed. At the end of his report, he wrote: "Overall time from north of Jan Mayen Island to Bletchley Park: three days 14 hours."
Thanks to the possession of the captured documents, German U-boat messages encoded on Enigma machines were, for a time, an open book as far as British codebreakers were concerned. But then the adoption of yet another set of codebooks by the Germans made another capture essential.
This time, rather than participating in raids planned by other Bletchley Park staff, Bacon proactively helped to plan the 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 to encode communications.
He realised they could conveniently be attacked during a couple of raids which were to be made during December 1941 as part of Churchill's plan to disrupt operations in countries occupied by the Germans. He decided he should accompany the British forces participating in Operation Archery, an attack on two islands off the coast of north west Norway that was later dubbed the Vagsoy raid (one of the islands targeted was Vagsoy Island).
While British troops were landing on the island, HMS Onslow, the destroyer carrying Bacon, chased a threeship German convoy, one of the targets he had identified before the Operation commenced. 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.
Enigma: The battle by Hugh Sebag-It was a dangerous moment because there were German snipers all over the place and Bacon, because he was 6ft 4ins tall, was particularly vulnerable.
As the motorboat that was to take him and his boarding party to the beached ships was about to be lowered into the sea, a British sailor standing beside him was shot dead. Then, as the motorboat sped towards their target, a line of bullets fired by a machine gun punctured the wooden canopy over their heads. A few inches lower and there would have been a blood bath.
Fearing that stealth might be required, Bacon slipped a pair of thick socks over his boots so that, if necessary, he could move silently around the beached ships. The socks had been with other items he carried in his rucksack which he referred to as his 'pinch pack'.
It also contained a double skinned waterproof bag, a burglar's jemmy, a large supply of blotting paper and six canvas bags, as well as a supply of 'Top Secret' labels addressed to the Director of Naval Intelligence, along with sealing wax and a seal. They would, if necessary, enable him to send documents he captured back to the Admiralty in London as soon as the task force returned to base.
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. At first it seemed Onslow's skipper might have closed the stable door after the horse had bolted. When Bacon and his fellow boarders climbed over the captain's corpse and entered his cabin and the ship's radio room, they couldn't see any codebooks.
However, after sending most of the party to the other ships, Bacon searched the cabin more carefully. It was here that the jemmy he had brought with him came in useful. He used it to lever open the captain's locked desk drawer and inside found a piece of pink paper covered with Enigma settings.
He found another treasure in the wardrobe amongst the captain's immaculately laundered shirts.
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, scrambling elements that could be inserted into the ship's Enigma machine.
Bacon finally made it back to Onslow in one piece. When asked whether he had found anything useful, he nonchalantly replied that he had picked up a few charts. No one pressed him for more detailed information. They had guessed he was an intelligence officer and, behind his back, referred to him and a colleague, who had accompanied him on the destroyer, as 'Cloak' and 'Dagger'.
for the Code Montefiore But what Bacon had seized, combined with what was captured the previous day during another raid further up the Norway coast, was to be critical.
Armed with them, the so called Home Waters Enigma code used by Germany's surface ships, and by her U-boats in the Arctic, was broken more or less continuously during the rest of the War.
| The updated 75th anniversary paperback edition of Hugh Sebag-Montefiore's book Enigma: The Battle For The Code, containing new material, is out now, published by Orion's Weidenfeld & Nicolson , priced PS10.99, as is the paperback of his book, Somme: Into The Breach, published by Penguin at PS9.99
German weather ship Lauenburg with boarding party waiting to come alongside
German crew members of the captured Lauenburg, blindfolded so they wouldn't see what had been taken
Enigma: The battle for the Code by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore
Allon Bacon, who was Bletchley Park's pincher in chief of Enigma codebooks during the war, and who became a commander and the assistant director of Naval Intelligence after the war
Author Hugh Sebag-Montefiore
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|Publication:||The Journal (Newcastle, England)|
|Date:||Dec 13, 2017|
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