We rarely visit the movie theater. Occasionally, we’ll go and watch a movie, but even “occasionally” is too strong a word. The last time I occupied a theater seat was in December of 2006, when I took my wife to a show as part of a Christmas present. I don’t remember when I went before that, but I remember the movie I saw…U-571.
U-571 is another of those movies that’s “based on a true story“…which can mean just about anything in Hollywood parlance. It stars Matthew McConaughey and is about a U.S. submarine crew that, in 1942, chases down a crippled German submarine (U-571) to capture it and remove the code machine and cipher keys. It’s a decent movie that’s pretty exciting, which you would expect. It’s also not that all that historically accurate, which you would also expect.
So let’s use the platform of Today’s History Lesson the clarify things. The real U-571 was sunk in 1944, but the movie’s story more closely matches that of U-559.
U-559 was a modestly successful German submarine. Her first few patrols were in the Atlantic, but she spent the remainder of her time patrolling the Mediterranean Sea in obscurity, putting holes in a handful of freighters and a frigate. It wasn’t until the day of her sinking that she attained notoriety.
In the early morning hours of October 30, 1942, the sub was spotted in the eastern Mediterranean by a patrol plane, who radioed the destroyer HMS Hero. She, along with four other destroyers, spent the rest of the day chasing and depth-charging U-559.
As night fell, the now-damaged sub was forced to surface. Surrounded by destroyers and thinking his vessel was sinking, the captain decided to abandon it and sink it with explosives. The crew, in its panic to get off the sub, opened the sea valves, but failed to destroy the Enigma machine and its code books.
The German crew was quickly taken into custody and below decks, at which point 3 British sailors volunteered to board the sinking sub and see what they could find. Lt. Tony Fasson knew the sub carried the Enigma, and probably figured it was destroyed. But still, it never hurt to take a peek. He, along with Able Seaman Colin Grazier and Canteen Assistant Tommy Brown boarded the dying sub…
…and found a bonanza. The Enigma machine was quickly removed, along with the code books, cipher keys, and various maps. With Brown waiting outside, Grazier and Fasson re-entered the sub again, looking for more documents. And then the sub gave up its fight with gravity’s pull, and sank in about 200′ of water. Brown could do nothing but swim free, knowing his two mates were now dead.
But those two deaths prevented hundreds, and maybe thousands, of other deaths. For not only had they captured an intact Enigma machine, they also had in their hands the keys for German Navy’s SHARK and TRITON code systems. For the codebreakers at Bletchley Park, this was like winning the lottery…twice.
The British worked very hard keeping their discovery a secret, to the point of not awarding the Victoria Cross (Britain’s highest award) to the three men, fearing it might tip off the Germans.
Like I said, U-571 was a pretty exciting movie. But the story on which it is based would have been just as good a movie. One wonders why Hollywood can’t simply tell the real story. I suppose if that were the case, guys like me would have take up decoupage or something…