Ancient history

The true story of the capture of U559

The HMS Petard she was one of those four destroyers. She was very popular with her flotilla mates for her reliability in sightings and her precision in maneuvering. Both qualities were the product of the punctilious obsession of Captain Thornton, a veteran of anti-submarine warfare in the North Atlantic. He paid for her popularity among the captains with the resentment of the crew, fed up with continuous drills and draconian punishments for the slightest mistake.

The established procedure for the hunt was to form a triangle with three destroyers at the corners locating the submarine with the sonar, while the fourth dropped depth charges on the position given . He started by launching HMS Pakenham, which was the flagship that day. From the beginning it was seen that the commander of the submarine was a seasoned veteran. He sailed on a straight course until he heard the charges hitting the surface. He then he would turn ninety degrees and move away from the place where they would explode. The bubbles created by the explosions blinded the sonar for a few minutes, so each time it had to be located again to start the maneuver from scratch. The sequence was repeated many times throughout the day, with the boats taking turns launching and the crews becoming more fatigued from the strain. The skill of the commander of the submarine made it gradually gain deeper waters. The theory in the manual was that the submarine's electrical batteries would die, but night fell without that having happened. Two destroyers had run out of cargoes and headed for port to replenish them.

The Petard still had ammo and took the throwing position for the third time since she had started the hunt. Around eleven at night, Eric Sellars , the commanding officer of the sonar operators reported to Captain Thornton that they had lost the submarine. However, shortly after he reported that they had found a very weak and diffuse signal. He was standing on the bottom very deep.

The officers of HMS Petard held a meeting on the bridge. In Sellars's opinion, the submarine no longer had the batteries to continue maneuvering and that is why its commander had placed it on the bottom. It was below the maximum exploding depth of the charges, which was supposedly also the maximum navigation depth of the submarines. At Navy school where he had majored in sonar, Sellars learned what to do in that situation. The mechanism that detonated the charges was a small inner container that was filled with water through a hole. Changing the size of the hole graduated the depth of detonation. If the submarine was on the bottom, you could plug the hole with ordinary bar soap. This delayed the explosion a lot but since the charges were on the bottom, it did not affect the aim. Eight simultaneous charges were launched and when they all exploded at once, the effect was so violent that more than one feared that their captain's immoderateness would bring about the destruction of HMS Petard. When the waters became transparent to sound again, Sellars' expert hearing confirmed that the submarine was rising to the surface. A few minutes later the spotlights on the turret illuminated a gray-black turret with a small white horse painted on it. The crew of the submarine began to leave and from the boat they riddled them with anti-aircraft weapons. Six Germans were killed outright and several more wounded as they climbed out and jumped into the sea. Captain Thornton held his fire, and soon the waters around the sub were abuzz with waving Germans.

Two boats were launched, one of them under the command of the second officer, 28-year-old Lieutenant Tony Fasson. Amidst the darkness and confusion, 16-year-old bartender Tommy Brown snuck into that boat without anyone noticing. The English sailors rowed with difficulty, trying not to hurt those in the water but unceremoniously letting go of those clinging to the rails. Fasson couldn't wait to get to the sub. Months ago he had done a secret training on boarding submarines and now the wait seemed eternal. Knowing that Seaman Colin Grazier who was in the same boat was a good swimmer, Fasson ordered him to jump into the water with him and they both swam towards the turret. Bartender Tommy Brown watched them swim from the bow of the boat and down into the submarine. When the boat was alongside the submarine, Brown jumped onto the deck, climbed into the turret and tried to secure a line but the movement of the sea broke it.

The unsung heroes of the capture of U559

While asking the ship for another rope, Tommy Brown with the unconsciousness of youth he threw himself down the ladder hatch. He went down two floors to the control room where he found an eerie sight. The water was up to her knees and a steady stream fell from the ceiling. Navy Lieutenant Tony Fasson and Seaman Colin Grazier moved like ghosts in the eerie light of flares.

The first was in the captain's cabin, rifling drawers with rifle butts with a submachine gun. Behind the door he found some keys and with them he opened a cupboard from which he took out a pile of books. He stuffed them into a tarpaulin tote bag and handed it to Tommy, who was staring at him. He went up the stairs and before reaching the top he met the sailor Lacroix to whom he passed the bag. He went back downstairs and watched as Fasson and Grazier tried to rip out a box that was attached to the table with several cables. Tommy noticed that the water was higher than before.

Fasson ordered a rope to be thrown down the stairwell to hoist a box larger than the previous one and with glass on one side. Lacroix and another sailor hoisted her up. Tommy went up with a second bag of documents and when he was going to go down he heard the cry of "Abandon ship!". He leaned out the hatch. he looked down and saw someone who he thought was Fasson or Grazier but was probably Lacroix. He shouted the order to her and as he did so he found himself in the water, in the middle of a whirlpool that sucked him in. He half-drowned, not knowing where the surface was, until he felt his hair being pulled and his head sticking out of the water. The boat headed back toward the Petard with Tommy Brown in tow with a sailor by the scalp, Lacroix spewing water over the rail, and a couple of wounded Germans eyeing the bags apprehensively, knowing they shouldn't have allowed the capture. Although he searched for them for much longer than was reasonable, Fasson and Grazier did not appear. Captain Thornton conducted a formal deck review, then noted his absence in the log. Fasson and Grazier had gone down with the sub .

The Petard docked in the port of Haifa at dawn. The prisoners were disembarked and handed over to the military police. They would be kept in isolation and correspondence to their relatives would be censored to prevent news of the boarding from reaching Germany. When all the sailors had gone looking for an open joint at such an early hour, an unmarked car appeared from which two SIS officers got out. They boarded the ship to join Sellars and Thornton who were waiting for them. They gave them the bags and promised not to reveal the secret to anyone. A few weeks later the bags were in Bletchley Park . They contained the abbreviation book and the meteorological code book, two likely word sources to be used in deciphering encrypted messages with the Naval Enigma.

Fasson and Grazier were unsung heroes for many decades until a Hollywood movie assigned the feat to US Marines. A British newspaper launched a national campaign of vindication that culminated in the lifting of official secrecy. Public interest led reporters to the home of the sole survivor, an elderly Eric Sellars – the man who had proposed sealing the loads with bar soap 60 years earlier – who agreed to speak publicly about the episode for the first time in his life.

This article is part of the II Deserta Ferro Historical Microessay and Microstory Contest in the microessay category. The documentation, veracity and originality of the article are the sole responsibility of its author.