Enigma machine captured

The boarding party led by David Balme approaches U-110

One of the outstanding intelligence break-throughs of the war came on 9th May with the capture of an intact Enigma machine, the German encoding device that they believed to be impossible to break. The British had assembled a team of brilliant academics at Bletchley Park who were making steady progress with the task of deciphering German messages encoded with ‘Enigma’ machines. They already possessed one Enigma machine, passed on by Polish Intelligence before the war. What was needed were the internal rotors in the machines that were currently being used. A number of schemes had been devised to capture these but the boarding of U-110 came as an unexpected bonus.

The U-boat had been forced to surface after depth charging, the crew had abandoned ship believing that the U-boat was already sinking. The surviving crew were rescued and quickly taken below decks so that they would not be aware that the boat was to be boarded. The commander of the boat Lemp died, possibly shot as he attempted to swim back to the boat to sink her.

The Captain of HMS Bulldog reported:

H.M.S. Bulldog stopped within 100 yards of the submarine and sent away an armed whaler’s crew. No sign of a white flag was seen and two men appeared to be manning the submarine’s forward gun. Fire was again opened by Lewis gun and two or three men were hit. My object was to keep the crew rattled. They already appeared dazed and uncertain what to do. By the time the whaler was alongside the submarine, the whole crew appeared to have jumped into the water. There was a moderate sea running and waves were breaking over the U. boat’s deck. The officer in charge of the whaler, appreciating the necessity of speed, ran his boat hard on board the submarine and a wave carried it on to the deck where it was smashed. The crew found that the conning tower hatch was closed. They opened it and went below without delay. ( Their orders were to seize all books and anything that looked important). Shortly afterwards they signaled that the U. boat had been abandoned, and appeared to be sound and in no danger of sinking.

Sub-Lieutenant David Balme reported how he boarded U-110:

At 1245 9th May, I left [HMS] Bulldog in charge of a boarding party to board an enemy submarine which had surfaced. The crew consisted of 6 seamen, 1 telegraphist and 1 stoker. “Bulldog” was lying to windward of U boat and there was a heavy swell running so to save valuable time I made for the weather side (Port).

There were numerous holes in the Conning Tower casing caused by “Bulldog’s” 3″ and Pom-pom. As no small arm fire was opened up at the whaler from the U boat, I was fairly confident that there was no one in the Conning Tower. This proved correct after having entered conning tower through opening on starboard side. The hatch down was closed tight. (This hatch was 18″ to 24″ in diameter, spherical surface with wheel for screwing down; on unscrewing this the hatch sprung open as soon as a clip was released).

I went down the ladder to the lower Conning Tower where there was a similar closed hatch. On opening this hatch I found the Control Room deserted! hatches leading forward and aft were open and all lighting on. On the deck there was a large splinter from the conning tower. There was a slight escape of air in the control room but no sign of Chlorine so gas-masks which had been taken were now discarded. So also were revolvers which now seemed more of a danger than an asset.

The U-boat had obviously been abandoned in great haste as books and gear were strewn about the place. A chain of men was formed to pass up all books charts etc. As speed was essential owing to possibility of U boat sinking (although dry throughout) I gave orders to send up ALL books, except obviously reading books, so consequently a number of comparatively useless navigational books etc were recovered.

All charts were in drawers under the chart table in the Control Room; there were also some signal books, log books etc here. The metal sheet diagrams were secured overhead. Meanwhile the telegraphist went to the W/T office, just forward of the control room on starboard side. This was in perfect condition, apparently no attempt having been made to destroy any books or apparatus. Here were found C.B’s., Signal Logs, Pay Books, and general correspondence, looking as if this room had been used as ship’s office.

Also the coding machine was found here, plugged in and as though it was in actual use when abandoned. The general appearance of this machine being that of a type writer, the telegraphist pressed the keys and finding results peculiar sent it up the hatch. This W/T office seemed far less complicated than our own-sets were more compact and did not seem to have the usual excess of switches, plug holes, knobs, ‘tally’s’ etc on the outside.

An attempt was made to take U-110 under tow for the 400 mile trip back to the nearest base on Iceland but she sank the next day.

The original British reports are available online at U Boat Archive.

The Wireless Telegraph area on board U Boat U-124 in March 1941, where the Enigma machine, similar to a typewriter, can be seen bottom left.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Alec Bowman January 2, 2017 at 1:24 pm

The capture of U559 by HMS Petrel was the event where two of the boarding party were drowned as they recovered intelligence material. You are right that the third member of the boarding party was the under aged NAAFI canteen assistant. See Wikipedia


Alasdair McDonald October 9, 2016 at 9:24 pm

Total fiction, but the book Moral Chains by Richard A. McDonald details the capture of an enigma machine together with a harrowing account of the siege of calais and the setting up of a SOE team for such clandestine operations out of Bletchley Park. Well worth a read and available on Amazon for a pittance.

Stephen E. Goll August 25, 2016 at 5:53 am

My dad was on the ship after during the actual U-boat and the enigma machine. In fact, he was part of the armada of ships that actually captured the Enigma machine, and part of that armada that escorted the sub back to an American port.

Andrew Shakespeare May 11, 2016 at 11:34 am

Nothing is ever secret for long. Obviously, the British went to immense efforts to hide the fact from the Germans they they could decipher the Germans’ codes. What I find remarkable, however, is why the Germans didn’t start to think to themselves, “Surely the British must have figured it out by now?”

They were clearly very confident in their Engima machines, but one can’t help suspecting there was an element of complacency in the German intelligence services.

Jason M. Pilalas June 23, 2015 at 12:50 pm

The unsung hero of the U-110 Enigma capture was Telegraphist Alan Osborne Long, R.N. Long was a member of H.M.S. BULLDOG’s boarding party. He had the presence of mind to put a couple of tools in his pockets, so when he got into the W/T compartment he was able to unscrew the machine from the desk and place it, with all the associated key lists and other publications, in a canvas bag and pass it into the whaleboat. The picture of the waterlogged U-110 in heavy seas reveals how easily the heavy bag and it’s priceless contents could have been lost. Long was awarded the D.S.M. for his actions, although the need for secrecy made the citation very bland. He was killed on 15 November 1942 when the escort carrier H.M.S. AVENGER was torpedoed and sunk with very heavy loss of life when returning to the U.K. from Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa.

Rick March 25, 2015 at 9:15 am

Jeanette Night Crossing is a 1982 drama film starring John Hurt, Jane Alexander and Beau Bridges. The film is based on the true story of the Strelzyk and Wetzel families, who on September 16, 1979 escaped from East Germany to West Germany in a homemade hot air balloon during the days of the Inner German border-era when emigration to West Germany was strictly prohibited by the East German government.

Jeanette February 15, 2015 at 7:18 am

All this talk about the Enigma machine and the brilliant movie The Imitation Game has set me thinking about a book I read many years ago where an Enigma was obtained in Germany I think and then smuggled over a border by train and on to U.K.
The books title was something like A Night’s Crossing. Do you know of this book and if you do were the accounts fact or fiction???

Jeanette February 15, 2015 at 7:17 am

All this talk about the Enigma machine and the brilliant movie The Imitation Game has set me thinking about a book I read many years ago where an Enigma was obtained in Germany I think and then smuggled over a border by train and on to U.K.
The books title was something like A Night’s Crossing. Do you know of this book and if you do were the accounts fact or fiction???

Edward February 7, 2015 at 6:26 pm

For Marylou Haugland, to answer your query.

The film “U571” about the American capture of the enigma machine is pure fiction, as usual Hollywood has changed history, which is not very nice for the brave persons who did give their all to achieve victory. This film is taking place before the USA joined the war effort.

Also the code breakers were based at Bletchley Park (England), and all information retrieved from the machine was carefully screened before being passed onto the allies, in case Too Much info was seen to be being used by the allies and the German High Command would get suspicious of their codes being broken.
The Germans never caught on.

mister blobby June 12, 2014 at 1:19 pm

I love this website, it realy helped with my school project

Jan Warne November 2, 2013 at 1:50 pm

As I was born in 1942,I have always taken an interest in the events leading up to WW2, and as my father never spoke about his experiences( he was in the RAAF) I have read extensively of this dark period in world history.With human ingenuity, displayed throughout for good as well as evil, one would hope that in 2013 and beyond, human beings will realise that war is futile, causing untold displacement of families, and causing irreparable environmental damage to life raft, Earth,
our only home for humankind. Human beings must learn to forgo violence, or we on Planet Earth
will reap our own destruction.

Marylou Haugland September 10, 2013 at 4:50 pm

I am totally confused about this capture of the Enigma machine…that is, which one was the first and where did each of these enigma machines end up? US or Great Britain?

This one: 110, or the one captured by the British U-559? This latter involved three British sailors who boarded a sinking U-boat and were able to capture the machine. However, two of the three drowned.

thanks, ml

pjmoggridge November 2, 2012 at 12:59 am

I was under the impression that an under arged asst cook was also involved in this operation

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