By Chris Yandell
Southern Daily Echo – 21 December 2016
David Balme was only 20 when he became a national hero – even though his history-making exploits were known to only a tiny number of people. Mr Balme was a young sub-lieutenant serving aboard the frigate HMS Bulldog when he led a daring mission that changed the course of the Second World War and saved thousands of lives.
He and some of his fellow crewmen boarded a newly-abandoned German submarine and made a discovery that was dubbed “untold gold”. Tucked away in the bowels of the vessel was one of the Enigma code machines used to receive top secret messages from Nazi commanders. The dramatic find enabled codebreakers at Bletchley Park to intercept and decipher the signals. As a result, Atlantic convoys taking vital supplies to England were diverted away from lurking U-boats and thus spared the fate of their predecessors, which were sunk with huge loss of life.
Now the tale of Mr Balme's courageous act on May 9, 1941 is told in a new book by naval historian Captain Peter Hore. Enigma – the Untold Story of the Secret Capture describes how the U-110 as attacked and damaged by HMS Bulldog after surfacing in mid-Atlantic. The Nazi sailors abandoned their stricken vessel but Mr Balme was warned that “one or two” crewmen could still be aboard. As the first member of the boarding party to enter the partially-submerged submarine he risked being shot, blown up by a booby trap or drowned.
An extract from his memoirs, quoted in the book, says:
“I holstered my revolver and started climbing down the three ladders. This was a very nasty moment because both my hands were occupied with the rungs of the ladder. I was a sitting target to anyone down below.”
Relieved to discover that the whole crew had fled, Mr Balme began to search the vessel. He and his fellow sailors returned to Bulldog with a treasure trove of vital intelligence, including an Enigma machine and months' worth of associated cipher material. The book describes the find as an “absolute gift” to the Bletchley boffins, who were able to read virtually all the German signals for several months. Desperate to prevent the Nazis from discovering that Britain now knew how to crack their codes, the authorities kept Mr Balme's mission a closely-guarded secret even from the Americans.
Later in the war the young officer served aboard the battlecruiser HMS Renown, which took Winston Churchill and his entourage to various conferences. Another extract from Mr Balme's memoirs says:
“He'd never drink tea or coffee in a ship because once, some years ago, he'd had a slight taste of diesel in the water. He only drank brandy and other spirits, so at breakfast he'd have a brandy and his cigar, with his nightcap on. He'd take down a signal from the Admiralty, look at it and grunt.”
Mr Balme later joined an admiral's staff at HMS Daedalus, Lee-on-the-Solent, where he first met his future wife, Susan. Captain Hore writes:
“When she was sent to his office to get him to decipher his illegible handwriting, 68 years of happy marriage followed.”
Leaving the navy in 1948 Mr Balme joined the family firm – a London-based wool broker – and later took up ocean racing. In the 1980s he retired to Lymington, where he continued to sail. He also hunted with the now defunct New Forest Buckhounds.
In 1998 Mr Balme was praised in the Commons by Julian Lewis, Tory MP for New Forest East, who has also written the book's foreword. Dr Lewis tells how Enigma and the role of Bletchley Park gradually became public knowledge in the 1990s. He writes:
“Central to the narrative was the boarding of U-110 by David Balme, a very junior naval officer just out of his teens, and a handful of brave seamen who had rowed to the submarine in a tiny open boat.
“I became a friend of this delightful and courageous man, whose perilous mission and its consequences had been too little known for half a century.
“Now this stirring biography should ensure a permanent place for David Balme in the roster of quiet heroes on whom a country like our depends.”
Following the capture of the Enigma machine Mr Balme was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. At his investiture on February 17, 1942 King George VI told him:
“This should be a much higher award but the Germans would wonder why. It will be put right at the end of the war.”
But Mr Balme, who died earlier this year, aged 95, never succeeded in calling in the Royal promise.
Enigma, the Untold story of the Secret Capture, is published by Whittles Publishing at £16.99.