The sinking of U-559 – Oct 30

collage of 5 u-boat shapes with labels overlaid with poem text

A black maw in a blacker sea
“your life for my secrets”
It said and three boys answered
Two stayed with the secrets in the deep
One swam and swam and swam
a tattered book under his arm.

I’ve been yearning to do some more history inspired haiku, so I finally sat down with a calendar and got to it! The event for today that I chose didn’t wind up inspiring a haiku, but something a little longer.

On October 30, 1942, the German U-boat 559 was fatally damaged in a British naval attack and forced to surface. The surviving German crew abandoned ship – but left behind their naval cypher code books and naval 4-rotor Enigma encryption machine. In a decision that would prove invaluable to the Allies, they also neglected to open the sea vents to scuttle the ship. Three British sailor boarded the floundering U-boat and seized the cryptographic materials: only one, Tommy Brown, made it out alive with the German secrets. Due to lying about his age to enlist, Mr. Brown became one of the youngest men to be awarded the George Medal for bravery.

The materials Mr. Brown rescued from the sinking U-boat would help the cryptologists at Bletchley Park – including Alan Turing, the subject of my post on Wednesday – finally break the U-boat specific 4-rotor Enigma encryption and bolstered Allied defenses in the Atlantic against the devastating U-boat attacks.


  1. First, I am continually inspired by the strength of the human spirit to take on such harrowing tasks in the face of near certain death. And for ones so young! Second, I’m continually inspired by your work. The layers of the print as metaphor and as background to the lines. And the visual I’m left with of him swimming with all that knowledge under his arm. Really wonderful!

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    1. Thank you so much, Jilanne! I know – it’s so humbling to think they boarded that submarine even as it was clearly sinking and heavily damaged (after a battle that lasted nearly 24 hours too!). Their story of bravery was a refreshing change of pace for me after a week of minutiae surrounding Halloween (trick or treating or no? put out candy and hand sanitizer? what healthy snack for class party? etc etc).

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    1. Thank you, Claudia! Their act of bravery did have a timeless quality – with secrets and the dark unknown – I wanted to convey that.

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