David Balme has died. He was 95.
Never heard of him? Neither had I. But Balme warrants a tip of the hat from all of us for having contributed in no small measure to the winning of the Second World War.
His heroic act, as it proved to be, was performed somewhere off the coast of Iceland in 1941, when he was a Sub-Lieutenant in the Royal Navy, serving aboard HMS Bulldog, a destroyer. A British destroyer, one ought to mention, for reasons shortly to become clear.
HMS Bulldog had come upon a stricken German U-boat, U110, which had been forced to the surface after being depth-charged by other warships. The captain promptly despatched young Balme and a couple of seamen in a rowboat to board the submarine, by then abandoned by its crew, to see if there was anything aboard worth salvaging.
Balme found just one object that might conceivably be useful, although he himself had no idea what it was. It resembled a typewriter, though nothing like any other typewriter he had ever seen. Alongside it, on a table in the radio room, were some documents that seemed somehow connected to the function of the machine. He scooped up the device, and the documents, and ferried them back to his ship.
His curious cargo was, of course, an enigma machine, an essential tool in deciphering German naval codes. The documents were the code books.
What we know now, which neither he nor anyone else did at the time, was that the odd-looking machine was in fact a precious cargo. Not just worth its weight in gold but worth the weight of all the gold in the Bank of England vaults. It had been vital to the German war effort at sea and would soon prove to be even more so to the British. Breaking the codes was of inestimable value in the naval campaign that we now call the Battle of the Atlantic, perhaps the difference between defeat and victory.
Now, some of you might have been under the impression until now that the officer in question was, in fact, one Lieutenant Andrew Tyler, of the United States Navy. That is probably because you once saw an American film depicting such a character. In case you have forgotten the film – an understandable oversight, I might add – I should mention that the aforementioned Lt. Tyler was played by a hunk of Hollywood beefcake called Matthew McConaughey.
I have seen the film, which is titled U571. It is a typical piece of Hollywood hokum; that is to say it is mildly enjoyable, entirely inaccurate and instantly forgettable – unless, of course, you are a devoted fan of Mr. McConaughey.
And forgotten is what it would have been if a couple of Members of Parliament had not seen fit to enquire, in the House of Commons no less, whether the government was going to ‘allow’ gullible British audiences to emerge from the cinema under the distinct impression that the capture of the enigma machine had been an American rather than a British triumph.
The British government, as far as I know, took no action, and for the perfect reason that no action could be devised that would rectify such an inaccuracy, short of declaring war on California, where it was presumably made, or at least financed. Anyway, since when was a Hollywood film pinching the credit from the British for winning the war single-handed unique? Also, it must be said, such slights have always fallen well short of constituting a threat to the realm.
Hollywood had been stealing the glory from the gallant but ineffectual Brits, for years. Watch The Longest Day, a three-hour tribute (that seems even longer) to Allied courage and ingenuity in the Normandy landings, of which about ten minutes is devoted to the British contribution, and then mostly for comic relief. And then there is Patton, in which the eponymous general, as played by George C. Scott, spends most of his screen time fulminating about his incompetent and effete British colleagues. Why, with himself in sole command, and the Brits kept out of the way, the war would have ended a year earlier than it did.
Going back further, to 1945, in a film called Objective Burma, Errol Flynn won the war against the Japanese almost single-handed, not a Brit in sight, or even on site. By denigrating – actually ignoring – Britain’s biggest contribution to the war in the Far East – the retaking of Burma – the film infuriated many influential figures in Britain, including, it is said, Prime Minister Winston Churchill himself, so that it was denied distribution there until 1952, despite having been a box-office hit in America and France.
Mind you, British war films are probably as adept at ignoring or downplaying the role of Americans. Off-hand I am hard-pressed to think of one, but I think that is because British war films are as often about defeats as victories. That Dunkirk spirit has never died on Wardour Street.
None of it really matters, of course. These days half the country, and probably more of the younger half, has scarcely heard of the Second World War, many unable to say who fought it or why. (Hands up those can say what happened at El Alamein.)
Meanwhile, to Lieutenant Commander Balme, who died last weekend, and HMS Bulldog, scrapped in 1945, hats off and three hearty cheers! And to Hollywood, please in future stick to westerns and spaceships, to avoid offending anyone.