Phil Shanahan, managing editor of Enigma Communications, was one of the guests at the unveiling of a green plaque in memory of Tommy Brown, a young NAAFI canteen assistant who helped shorten WWII.
The heritage nameplate records Tommy’s courage in boarding a sinking U-boat to retrieve codebooks which provided vital intelligence in the battle to defeat the Nazis.
He was just 16 when he took part in the mission on October 30, 1942 after his ship, HMS Petard, had depth-charged the U-559 forcing it to surface.
Able Seaman Colin Grazier, from Tamworth, and Lieutenant Tony Fasson, from Scotland, drowned in the incident and were posthumously awarded the George Cross for their bravery. Tommy, who survived, received the George Medal. Tragically, three years later he died in a fire at his parents’ home, which also claimed the life of his four-year-old sister.
The documents seized by the three crewmates enabled codebreakers at Bletchley Park to crack the Germans’ four-rotor naval Enigma code. It meant the Allies could plot the movements of U-boats in the Atlantic and re-route their supply ships, avoiding the deadly submarine torpedo attacks which had been destroying the convoys.
John Reed, 82, who nominated the teenager for the award, unveiled the plaque at a house in Earl Shilton, Leicestershire where Tommy Brown lived with his uncle, aunt and cousin before going off to war. Tommy spent 18 months in the village working in the Abbots shoe factory after leaving his native North Shields to find employment.
Phil led a successful newspaper campaign over several years to bring the men’s achievements to public attention, culminating in the creation of the Three Anchors sculpture in St Editha’s Square, Tamworth. Each anchor represents one of the heroes. He also wrote a book, entitled The Real Enigma Heroes, about the campaign.
He said: “It’s wonderful to see Tommy Brown getting further recognition for his courage. The details of the action took several decades to come to light because of the Official Secrets Act. The need for secrecy robbed the men of the glory they deserved. Their actions played a decisive part in helping to win the peace. It resulted in the Allies winning the Battle of the Atlantic, a battle Churchill described as critical to the outcome of the entire war.”
Iain Standen, CEO of the Bletchley Park Trust, who was also among the guests at the ceremony, said the ‘pure courage’ it took to leave the safety of a vessel to board a sinking U-boat came at a crucial time.
“Twelve U-boat locations were immediately passed to the Admiralty and 500,000 to 750,000 tonnes of shipping was saved between December 1942 and January 1943 alone,” he said.
Also present at the event were David Biggs, chairman of Tamworth and District Civic Society, relatives of Tommy Brown, civic leaders, Royal Navy representatives and local schoolchildren. Folk singer Tom Patterson performed a song he wrote about Tommy Brown at the event. Phil also mounted an exhibition featuring historic photographs related to the story at a reception at the Constitutional Club in Earl Shilton.
The green plaque award scheme is run by Leicestershire County Council, with the public voting who should be honoured.
Tommy is also remembered in North Shields with a magnificent stained glass window at The Exchange.