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Did HMS Bulldog shorten World War II – BEFORE the U.S. entered the war?

May 9, 1941, may have been the turning point of World War II – a full seven months before the United States entered the war. If so, the free world can thank the crews of three British warships;  a brand new, but tiny corvette, a 21-year-old former American Clemson class destroyer, and a smallish 11-year-old B-class destroyer

These three ships were part of the 10-ship escorts for Convoy OB 318 in the North Atlantic east of Iceland when they were attacked by several U-boats. The corvette HMS Aubrietia, just 205 feet long and displaying just 940 tons, found a sound contact and dropped a spread of depth charges. To the surprise of the B-class destroyer HMS Bulldog and the Town class HMS Broadway the U-110 popped to the surface. The crews of the Bulldog and the Broadway (the former USS Hunt-DD-194) began peppering the submarine with small arms fire. Even more surprising, the German crewmen began boiling out of the submarine.

The captain of the Bulldog saw an opportunity to capture the submarine. He put together a six-man boarding team as the rescued German crewmen were rushed below decks on the Aubrietia so they could not see what was happening.

Lt. Commander David Balme carefully climbed down the U-boat’s open hatch, fully expecting to be shot by a crewman who had stayed behind to set explosive charges. Another crewman, a telegrapher, searched the submarine’s radio position and found: “a coding machine…plugged in as though it had been in use when abandoned. It resembled a typewriter; hence the telegraphist pressed the keys, and reported to me that the results were peculiar. The machine was secured by four ordinary screws, soon unscrewed and sent up the hatch to the motor boat alongside.”  Two hours later, while eating a sandwich while sitting at the captain’s desk, Balme found the July codes for the machine.

What Blame’s boarding crew had found was an intact Germany Navy Enigma machine used to encode messages, the first operational one captured during the war. Eventually the machine would be packed off to the top secret Bletchley Park where Alan Turing and a team of code breakers used it to help them break and stay abreast of the German naval codes.

Once the code was broken, the British were able to track the locations of German submarines and judiciously order course changes to Allied convoys to avoid some attacks.

The original plan of the Bulldog’s captain was to tow the captured U-110 to Iceland to examine the technology of the Type IX-B, a 9-boat sub-class of a very successful design. Fortuitously, the sub sank while under tow, but without any loss of any British seamen. Had the sub reached Iceland, it seems certain that German spies would have seen it and passed word back to Germany that the sub’s Enigma machine was likely captured.

Instead of examining the submarine, the British got to examine its first Enigma machine. The Germans never realized that their complicated codes were broken. Just how many Allied ships survived because of the capture is unknown. It is known that it was a top British secret. Prime Minister Winston Churchill did not tell President Franklin Roosevelt about the Bulldog’s capture of the Enigma machine until nine months later.

All three of these British warships survived the war. Not a single crewman spoke a word about the capture of the U-110 and its Enigma machine during the war and even decades later out of respect for their duty to remain silent about an important mission.

3 Comments

  1. DaleS on January 21, 2019 at 7:59 pm

    Great story Clint!

  2. Neal on February 12, 2019 at 9:23 am

    Just heard your interview (or at least the last 5 minutes of it) on the radio WLW Cincinnati about your new book on Destroyers. Only one I was ever on was the Sullivans in Buffalo before it was even made into a museum – in 1982. It was not yet set up for people to walk on and I kept wandering past chains and into rooms on the deck or one below the deck that were full of cabinets that seemed to have pull-out electrical equipment drawers full of vacuum tubes. Not sure if this was still WWII type equipment. The boiler room with the see-through steel grid floor seemed extremely complicated full of vales and gauges and may have been 2 or 3 levels deep – I will bet it was like 100 degrees in there when underway. I think the actual throttles were the two large overhead wheels (steam valves) mounted at slight angles overhead the grid floor and up against a bunch of brass-looking gauges. It seemed you would need a trained mechanical engineer to run all this stuff.

    It was good to hear a topic I enjoy on the radio instead of all the political BS these days. Since reading Zero Fighter (Martain Caidin) in the 5th grade – or at least looking at the pictures – I have been somewhat of an amateur WWII historian.

    Anyway I have two questions, were the Gleaves really just as good at the Fletchers?
    And more important on D-Day it seems destroyers are entirely underrated – on that day and it there were more of them to take out the cliff guns – would there have been a lot less problems on the American side?

    • Clint Johnson on February 25, 2019 at 8:32 am

      Neal, the Gleaves class was the most recent class of destroyers in the U.S. Navy when the war started with 66 copies manufactured from 1938 through 1942. Its production would be replaced by the more familiar Fletcher class. 175 Fletchers would be built. The Gleaves was a good ship, but it did have what some would call a “design flaw” in that it was somewhat top heavy. Its beam was 36 feet. The Fletcher design would widen that to 39 feet. That extra three feet in width made it more stable than the Gleaves. You are correct that the destroyers on D-Day are not well known, but they went in close and provided shelling support. Several of them hit mines and went down. The USS Merridith, an Allen Sumner class, sank within two months of its commissioning after striking a mine. The cliff guns were so high above the water that it was difficult to reach them by naval gunfire. Or, at least, the cliff guns that were supposed to be there. As the Rangers discovered, those guns were not there on the day of the invasion.

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