David Balme, the Royal Navy Officer who seized a top-secret Enigma machine and codebook while storming a captured German U-Boat has died at the age of 95.
Lieutenant Commander David Balme, who died on Sunday, was credited with helping to shorten the Second World War by two years after he led the boarding party that raided U-110, east of Cape Farewell, Greenland in 1941.
David Edward Balme was born in Kensington, west London, on October 1, 1920. He joined Dartmouth Naval College in 1934 and served as a midshipman in the Mediterranean in the Spanish Civil War before being reassigned to the destroyer Ivanhoe in 1939. Balme was appointed to the destroyer HMS Bulldog, which he described as a ‘happy little ship’, as her navigator in the early 1940s. It was while he was serving on this ship that he came across the German submarine.
On May 9, 1941, U-110, under the command of Kapitanleutnant Fritz Julius Lemp, had been attacking a convoy in the Atlantic south of Iceland together with U-201, when Lemp left his periscope up too long. Escort corvette HMS Aubretia sighted it and rushed to the scene and began depth charging. HMS Bulldog and HMS Broadway followed and U-110 was forced to surface. HMS Bulldog immediately set course to ram the U-Boat at which Kplt. Lemp gave the order “abandon ship”. However unlike the U-Boat commander would suspect, the U-Boat did not sink and according to the former crew, he tried to swim back to U-110 in order to destroy the top-secret machine and code-books which were still left but he wasn’t seen again.
Lieutenant Dabid Balme was then ordered to ‘get whatever’ he could from the U-110. After rowing across to it, he made his way to the conning tower and had to holster his pistol in order to climb down three ladders to the control room. Recalling the incident many years later, he said: ‘Both my hands were occupied and I was a sitting target for anyone down below.’
He was said to have had no idea what the ‘funny’ instrument was when he initially picked it up – but his mission enabled British intelligence experts to secretly intercept and decipher signals sent from Germany to its submarines for the remainder of the War.
Sir Winston Churchill later credited the code-breaking operation, which sometimes cracked 6,000 messages a day, with saving lives across Europe and giving Britain the crucial edge in battle.
But the top-secret nature of their work meant Lt Cmdr Balme’s role in the operation’s success stayed on the classified list for decades.
The ‘typewriter’, which was actually an ‘unbreakable’ code machine designed by the Germans to protect military communications, proved invaluable to Alan Turing and his team of code-breakers at Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire.
After the war, Lt Cmdr Balme married his wife Susan in 1947 and they had three children. He was said to enjoy hunting and was also a member of the Royal Yacht Squadron. His significance in the Allie’s victory was not revealed until the Seventies, when the secrecy shrouding Bletchley Park and the code-breakers’ work finally began to lift.
He was presented with a Bletchley badge and a certificate signed by Prime Minister David Cameron and local MP Julian Lewis. Last night Dr Lewis paid tribute to the former sailor, who kept the U-boat commander’s cap and binoculars as souvenirs.
He 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.