England,  ER,  Western Europe



U-571 was an exciting thriller made in 2000 about how an the crew of an American submarine attempting to steal an enigma machine from a German U-Boat.  Enigma machines were used by the Germans in World War II to create a very difficult code to send their messages.  It was based on the work of Polish mathematicians in 1932.  The code was nearly unbreakable for the first part of the war.  In the movie, U-571 is disabled from a destroyer attack and our heroes are dispatched to pretend to be the German rescue sub to pick up the remainder of the crew.  Their mission is to capture or kill the crew and capture the enigma machine on board to turn over to Allied codebreakers and turn the tide of the war.  They do all this by locating the stricken U boat in a terrible storm, all before GPS, subduing the crew and getting away after being pursued by a German destroyer.  Yay America and the Allies.   Except that wasn’t the way it was.


The film was set in 1942, however, the allies had already broken the enigma code on June 1,1941.  The British had captured several Enigma machines by this time, the first being in 1940 where three of them were hidden in a German sailor’s pants.  That must have made it hard to sit down.  These were sent to Bletchley Park, where most of the German codes were broken, and duly studied and deciphered.  Also the U boat in question, U-571, was sunk by an Australian plane off the coast of Ireland in 1944.  So two strikes.

Scene from U-571
Scene from U-571

The movie seems to be based on a real event in the war in May of 1941, Operation Primrose.  In this operation, U-110 attacked a convoy of allied ships.  Part of the convoy was HMS Bulldog, who damaged the U boat with depth charges.  The British sailors from the Bulldog boarded the disabled U boat and took all the papers they could find along with an Enigma machine.  By this time Bletchley Park already had several Enigmas, however, they did not have the matching codebooks.  This was the real achievement of Operation Primrose.  However, Enigma machine sounds much “sexier” than boring old code books.

Note, the crew of the ship was British not American.  This was a big enough deal at the time that Tony Blair, the Prime Minister of England, complained.  He felt it was an insult to the efforts of the Royal Navy.  

It goes without saying that all the men who served to defeat the Nazis were heroes, whatever color uniform they wore, however, we should remember who did what more accurately to ensure the memory of their sacrifices are not forgotten.


Sources available on request.