An updated version of The Real Enigma Heroes book by East Staffordshire author Phil Shanahan has been published to mark the 75 anniversary of one of the most extraordinary stories ever to come out of the Second World War.
On October 30, 1942, two Royal Navy men serving on HMS Petard drowned while capturing codebooks from a German U-boat. A teenager, who helped them, tragically died two years later.
Able Seaman Colin Grazier was 22 and had been married for just two days before he set out to join the British destroyer. First Lieutenant Tony Fasson was 29. The Enigma material they seized from the U-559 enabled Alan Turing and his team of brilliant codebreakers at Bletchley Park to crack the German naval Enigma code and pave the way for peace.
For decades after the war the Navy men’s heroism remained cloaked in secrecy for fear the Germans would find out their ‘unbreakable’ Enigma code had been compromised.
When author Phil first googled the men's names in 1998, he got no search results back. He was working as journalist at the time and launched a campaign to bring the tale to public attention after hearing the story.
The fight to honour Grazier, Fasson and Tommy Brown, a 16-year-old NAAFI canteen assistant on board the Petard, was to last for years. Along the way the author clashed with Hollywood, met members of the Royal family and discovered Prince Charles has a personal connection with the story.
Phil, who lives in Abbots Bromley, describes the story 'like something straight out of a boy’s adventure comic.'
The Real Enigma Heroes contains numerous eyewitness accounts from the crew of HMS Petard which had forced the U-559 to the surface after bombarding it with depth charges. They were old men when they discovered the true significance of the action.
The codebooks seized from the U-boat included the Short Signal Book and the Short Weather Cipher provided priceless material for the Allies.
It meant the messages used by the German high command to communicate with their U-boat fleet out in the Atlantic could now be read by the Allies. Intelligence gained from the deciphered communications was codenamed Ultra and revealed the positions of the submarines. As a result, convoys bringing essential supplies, including food, to Britain from America could be re-routed to avoid attack.
The tables were turned as the hunters became the hunted. The U-boat wolf packs had been sinking Allied ships at double the rate they were being built, with a terrible loss of life. In contrast the number of U-boats was doubling as the Germans gained the upper hand in the war. Up to 800,000 tonnes of Allied shipping was being lost in the Atlantic on a monthly basis. It was unsustainable and Britain was getting ever closer to the ropes.
Now the U-boats were being destroyed and German Admiral Doenitz, the commander of the fleet, eventually had no choice but to withdraw.
Britain had narrowly averted being starved into surrender and could prepare for the land battles ahead, which came to a head with the D-Day landings.
Phil says the men’s sacrifice should never be forgotten. According to shipmates, Fasson and Grazier stripped naked and swam out to the crippled U-559. In doing so, they headed for the very hell their enemy was fleeing.
They boarded the submarine together and began to smash open cabinets with their guns. They passed the contents, including the codebooks, up to Brown who had joined a boarding party making its way to the vessel on a small boat.
Both Fasson and Grazier went down with the U-boat when it took in a sudden rush of water. Their bodies were never recovered.
Brown had managed to pass the books up to his colleagues. As the submarine sank he popped out of the conning tower like a cork and survived.
Soon the documents were in the hands of the codebreakers who could scarcely believe their luck. It gave them the clues to finally cracking the four-rotor Enigma code which had prevented them reading the scrambled U-boat messages for the previous 10 months.
They were sent by Morse code and then unscrambled by a radio operator at the receiving end, using an Enigma machine which converted the encoded communication back into plain text.
Thanks to the documents the men got from the U-559, the code (known as Shark) was solved at Bletchley Park on December 13, 1942.
Within one hour of the breakthrough 15 U-boat positions were identified. Reading Shark saved an estimated 500 to 750,000 tons of shipping in the following December and January alone. Fasson from Jedburgh, Scotland and Grazier from Tamworth were posthumously awarded the George Cross. Brown received the George Medal, but two years later perished in a fire at his home in North Shields. His little sister also died in the blaze.
The need for secrecy condemned the men to anonymity. Not even their own families could be told what they had achieved. But all that changed when the author took up their cause.
He said: "It started off as a local newspaper story and campaign for Colin Grazier to raise money for some sort of memorial to him in Tamworth, but we soon saw it was much bigger than that and found ourselves carrying the torch for Fasson and Brown too."
The culmination of the campaign was the unveiling of the three-anchors monument in St Editha’s Square, Tamworth. The memorial was created by world-renowned sculptor Walenty Pytel, who produced the Queen’s Jubilee fountain sculpture at the Houses of Parliament. The Enigma heroes sculpture features a genuine ship’s anchor weighing more than two tonnes. Each anchor represents one of the men’s lives.
Many other tributes came about as a result of the campaign. In Tamworth there is now a Colin Grazier hotel and roads have been named after each of the men, Bletchley Park, HMS Petard and even the ship’s captain, Mark Thornton. Beers have also been named after the heroes and last year Phil helped to script a short film about the story at Bletchley Park.
The campaign took on a new intensity when Hollywood released a film which made out the real Enigma heroes were fictional American sailors.
"I had a public spat with Jonathan Mostow, the director of U-571. Our exchange of letters made headlines in the media both here and in the USA. The profile of the campaign went crazy after that."
In 2008, he was invited to present his book to Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall at Bletchley Park. He was also given the Freedom of Bletchley Park for his work on the story and had the honour of opening Hut 8 to the public at Bletchley, where Turing and his team broke the code.
The new print version of The Real Enigma Heroes and the accompanying ebook contains some new material, including Prince Charles’ personal connection to the lieutenant, who took over from Fasson, and a dramatic re-enactment of the incident at the British Military Tournament at Earls Court in 2013.
The updated version of The Real Enigma Heroes by Phil Shanahan is published by The History Press, price £16.99. The ebook is priced at £9.99. Both feature a cover specially designed for the 75th anniversary. To order call 01256 302699 or order direct from the publishers thehistorypress.co.uk.
The book is also available in most bookshops.
The book was first published by The History Press in 2008 as a hardback and was then brought out as a paperback in 2010.
If anybody would like a signed copy of the book they can email firstname.lastname@example.org