Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Fallen in War - Francis Fasson, The Man Who Unknowingly Helped Break Enigma



This memorial plaque can be found in the church in the tiny village of Bedrule. It perhaps, doesn't tell the full story of what Francis Fasson achieved, and what his actions eventually led to.

Francis Antony Blair Fasson was born on 17 July 1913 in the village of Lanton, Roxburghshire.  After attending Jedburgh Grammar School, on 6 September 1930, he enlisted in the Royal Navy, rising through the ranks, as well as being attached to the Royal Air Force in order to train as a pilot.  On returning to the Navy in 1936 he was promoted to the rank of First Lieutenant.

Fasson had already seen action onboard HMS Hostile, in 1939, at the first Battle of Narvik, which was part of the Norwegian Campaign. But it was whilst onboard HMS Petard that his actions, along with two other colleagues, helped in breaking into possibly the most guarded secret of the Second World War - the Enigma Machine, and in particular Shark, the codename given to the German U-Boat Enigmas.


The Enigma Story


Kriegsmarine Enigma

The actual Enigma story began in the 1920’s, when the German Military started using the Enigma machine to send coded message.  Thanks to links with German engineering industries, the Polish, in 1932, were one of the first to crack the Enigma codes, and their Cipher Bureau was subsequently able to reconstruct the Enigma machines.  This meant that between 1933 and 1938, the Polish were able to read all messages sent by the German Wehrmacht.

Government Code & Cypher School, Bletchley Park

With war looming, the Poles took the decision to share their Enigma secret with the French and the British Military Intelligence.  As a result, the first ever Government Code and Cypher School was established, at Bletchley Park, in Buckinghamshire, with the first codes broken during the 1940 Norwegian Campaign.

The Enigma machine worked by allowing an operator to type in a message, then by using the 3 rotors, scramble the message to produce different letters.  These would then by sent via morse code to a recipient.  All that the recipient had to do to read the message,  was to set their Enigma machine to the same rotor settings, type is the letters and produce the original text.

During the War, the Atlantic convoys, brought over large amounts of food and provisions, however these convoys were in great peril from the German U-boats that would pursue them.  In March 1941, Enigma machines, and more importantly the Codebooks, were captured from a German Trawler, the Krebs.  This lead to Bletchley Park being able to read all U-Boat messages.

Unfortunately this success did not last, with the German Navy becoming more and more suspicious that the Enigma code had been broken.  Therefore, they introduced, to their U-Boats, a fourth rotor, thus blacking out Bletchley Park, and rendering the Allied Convoys in extreme danger again.


Act of Courage


HMS Petard

On 30 October 1942, HMS Petard, and other British destroyers, were in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, when they pursued U-559, 70 miles north of the Nile Delta.

After spending nearly 16 hours being pursued and depth charged, U-559’s Commander took the decision to scuttle the submarine.  As the remainder of his crew disembarked from the submarine, Lieutenant Fasson, Able Seaman Colin Grazier and Canteen Assistant Tommy Brown dived into the sea and swam to board U-559.  With Tommy Brown remaining on top, both Fasson and Grazier went into the stricken submarine and were able to retrieve an Enigma Machine, the Short Signal Weather Codes and the Short Signal Codebook.  They passed these to Tommy Brown.  Whilst going back down again, the submarine finally started to sink, taking with it Francis Fasson and Colin Grazier.

The items that they manage to save from U-559, were sent to Bletchley Park, who were able to use them to get back into Shark, the German U-Boat Enigma.

Unfortunately Francis Fasson would never know that his actions helped save so many lives.  Indeed Sir Winston Churchill is quoted as saying to King George VI that “It was thanks to ULTRA that we won the war”; ULTRA being the code name for all intelligence gleamed from the Enigma.

As a direct result of their actions, both Francis Fasson and Colin Grazier were both awarded the George Cross, the Citation of which reads:

“The King has been graciously pleased to approve the posthumous aware of the George Cross to:- Lieutenant Anthony Blair Fasson, Royal Navy.  Able Seaman Colin Grazier, P/SSX.25550 – for outstanding bravery and steadfast devotion to duty in the face of danger." 

Tommy Brown was awarded the George Medal. 

Francis Fasson’s George Cross medal now resides within the National War Museum, at Edinburgh Castle.




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