• Merrick Wells

HMS Bulldog : The Ship that lived for the 9th of May

Updated: Jan 6


The ship that first captured the Enigma machine and codebooks and accepted the surrender of the German occupiers of the Channel islands.

The British Royal Navy had seven different ships that carried the name HMS Bulldog, from 1794 right through to the last example which was sold for conversion to a private yacht in 2001, although a fire seems to have prevented that conversion from being completed.

Perhaps the most famous actions taken by Bulldog in Naval service was the sixth ship that carried the name, launched in 1930 and scrapped in 1946, she saw through the Second World War, but on 9th May 1941, members of her crew captured a German Enigma coding machine and associated codebooks by boarding a crippled U-boat. A significant and pivotal action that helped to turn the tide of the war.

Laid down on 10th August 1929 at Swan Hunter yards, Wallsend, launched on December 6th 1930 and completed on 8th April 1931 HMS Bulldog was initially assigned to the Mediterranean fleet. Bulldog provided assistance to the survivors of the Lerissos earthquake in 1932 and patrolled the southern Spanish waters during the Spanish Civil War, enforcing the arms blockade put in place by Britain and France on both sides in the conflict.

She was involved in assisting the evacuation of British troops from Le Harve on June 9th 1940, before being damaged by three hits from German aircraft the next day. She was further damaged whilst in dock for repairs during an air raid on Portsmouth Dockyard. Repairs were completed and then refitting before being assigned to 3rd Escort Group for convoy escort duties to and from Iceland. It was during this duty that the great Enigma capture took place.

The Enigma coding machines had been adapted in 1925 by the German military, it was believed to be unbreakable, yet, unbeknown to the Germans the Polish had cracked Enigma in the 1930’s. Once Poland fell, their techniques and equipment were passed to the British. The German Navy however, were using a more complicated machine and maintained much more secure procedures. The need to get hold of the codebooks was enormous, the U-Boat stranglehold on Britain had the country on the brink of defeat.

U-110 was under the command of Fritz Julius Lemp and engaged a British convoy alongside U-201 on the morning of May 9th 1941. Lemp had sunk two ships but had left his periscope up to confirm kills. HMS Aubretia spotted the mistake and moved to attack with depth charges.

HMS Bulldog and HMS Broadway joined the hunt and the depth charging forced U-110 to surface. Bulldog’s Captain, Commander Joe Baker-Cresswell, incidentally also Commander of the Escort group, set a course to ram the stricken U-Boat. Lemp gave the order to abandon ship and the crew mistakenly left the Enigma cyphers and codebooks behind, wrongly assuming the British would sink the U-Boat. Baker-Cresswell realized the possibilities that had been presented to him and changed course at the last moment.

Lemp, realizing the U-Boat was not sinking, attempted to swim back to her and was never seen again. HMS Bulldog sent a boarding party under the command of Lieutenant David Balme. They retrieved the Enigma machine and codebooks and several other useful items over several trips. It was William Stewart Pollock, a Radio Operator on loan to Bulldog, who secured the Enigma machine and Codebooks because he thought they looked unusual when he searched the Radio room.

The crew of the U-Boat were interred on Iceland and the U-Boat scuttled in order to preserve the secrecy of the find. The encrypted messages were being decoded within a day or two and the Germans never suspected anything. U-110 was the first U-Boat captured in the war. U-570 was later captured by the British and the only U-Boat to see active service on both sides of the war. All of this is a far cry from the Hollywood distortion of the film U-571, which raised such ire with its liberties with historical fact that it was damned as an insult to the Royal Navy by Prime Minister Tony Blair and enraged veterans.

HMS Bulldog continued to escort convoys in the North Atlantic and then between Lagos and Gibraltar in 1944 before escorting between Plymouth and Irish seaports. Once more, on May 9th 1945 she made a significant footnote in the World War II history books as she sailed to Guernsey to accept the formal surrender of the German occupied Channel Islands onboard the ship. Before the end of that month, she was placed on reserve category lists before being cleared for scrapping that December. She was cut up without ceremony on January 26th the next year.

With the Royal Navy not choosing to name a new vessel HMS Bulldog, it fell upon us to proudly fly the flag. In September 2017, Bulldog took to the water once again, as the first British vessel to participate in the Bajada del Canal event in Zaragoza. The full story of the day can be found here, but, she limped home after cataclysmic damage during her arduous voyage.

September 2018 will see the Bulldog sail again, as we take to the Imperial canal to wave the flag, but this time we would like to invite further teams to participate in the event with us, to build your own vessel and join us in a flotilla. We will meet monthly to prepare designs and collect materials, enjoying English communication and learning some of the key language of the open seas.

Click here or on the Bulldog Boat Club photo below to find out more

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