Lieutenant Commander David Balme, who has died aged 95, had no idea how important the “funny sort of instrument” would prove to be
By Paul Byrne
Daily Mirror – 6 January 2016
Tributes have been paid to a war hero who found the top secret Enigma cipher machine on board a captured German U-boat. The discovery of the coding device helped change the course of the war. But Lieutenant Commander David Balme, who has died aged 95, had no idea how important the “funny sort of instrument” would prove to be. He had been on board the destroyer Bulldog as it used depth charges to blow U-110 to the surface off the coast of Iceland in May, 1941. After the sub’s crew were either captured or killed, he led a boarding party to the stricken vessel. He said later:
“There was an eerie atmosphere inside the U-boat. It was completely silent except for an ominous hissing noise, which was either from the batteries or a leak in the hull. The U-boat had a 15-degree list to port and there was a plopping noise as she rolled against the Atlantic swell.
“We hadn’t been working for long when the telegraphist asked me to step into the wireless room, where he had seen a machine that looked a bit like a typewriter. But when he pressed its keys the results were peculiar.
"It was the coding machine and after the screws holding it to the table were extracted it was sent up through the hatch too.
“I sat down ... at the captain’s roll-top desk. There I found a sealed envelope which I slipped into my jacket pocket. It was only later that I discovered this contained the June Enigma settings.”
The Engima was sent to Alan Turing’s code-cracking team at Bletchley Park, where the German naval “Hydra” code, the officer-only code, was broken. The success helped them break other German military codes.
The story of the capture of the Enigma was made into a film, U-571, in 2000, with British sailors replaced by US servicemen. But Balme, who died on Sunday, aged 95, refused to be angered by the apparent Hollywood snub to his efforts. He acted as an adviser on the movie, which starred Matthew McConaughey, and said:
“It brings home the whole Battle of the Atlantic to a generation who otherwise would have known nothing about it.”
His mission had enabled British intelligence experts to secretly intercept and decipher all the signals sent from Germany to its submarines operating in the Atlantic. And Sir Winston Churchill later revealed that those involved in the code-cracking operation had helped shorten the war by two years. The top-secret nature of their work meant that Bletchley – and Lt-Cmdr Balme’s role in the success – stayed on the classified list for decades. But last March he was presented with a Bletchley badge and a certificate signed by Prime Minister David Cameron.
MP Julian Lewis, who had presented the awards to the ex-sailor, said:
“Having learned of the vital capture of the Enigma coding equipment from the U-110 when studying wartime history I was delighted to discover that the brave young officer responsible was one of my constituents.
“David had thought that the story of what he had done could never be known.
“Only when the breaking of Enigma was revealed did he get the full recognition, which he richly deserved, for his achievements. He played a crucial role in the winning of the Battle of the Atlantic at a very young age and I am proud to have counted him as a friend.”
Lt-Cmdr Balme, who kept the U-boat commander’s cap and binoculars as souvenirs, had lived in Lymington, Hants, before moving to a nursing home in nearby.
[For a photograph of the badge and certificate presentation, click here.]