The Royal Navy destroyer HMS Petard was built at Vickers Armstrong Naval Yard on Tyneside, she saw active service during the Second World War in the Mediterranean. On board was 16 year old Tommy Brown from North Shields who risked his life to capture vital documents from a German U-boat, which ultimately helped British code breakers change the course of the war.
Allied shipping was taking a battering in the Atlantic. Winston Churchill wrote ‘The only thing that frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril’. On 30 October 1942, a submarine was tracked on radar near Port Said off the Egyptian coast. HMS Petard, with four other British ships, attacked the U-boat with depth charges forcing it to surface. The German seamen abandoned their vessel.
First Lieutenant Anthony Fasson, and Able Seaman Colin Grazier swam across to U-boat 559. They climbed the tower then went below and gathered together an Enigma machine and code-books. They were helped by NAAFI canteen assistant, Tommy Brown. When asked at the inquiry what conditions were like, he replied:
‘The lights were out — the First Lieutenant had a torch. The water was not very high but rising all the time. There was a hole forward of the tower and water was coming in. As I went down through the tower compartment I felt it pouring down my back. They passed some books to me’.
‘I saw Grazier and the First Lieutenant appear at the bottom of the hatch. I shouted twice ‘you better come up’, they had just started when the submarine started to sink very quickly. I managed to jump off and was picked up by a whaler’.
The U-boat became their coffin as Fasson and Grazier drowned when it sank with them and the Enigma machine inside. HMS Petard left the area signalling that documents had been captured. The treasured codebooks retrieved by Brown were immensely valuable to code-breakers at Bletchley Park in England. But nobody would know the effects of their actions, as for thirty years they were guarded by the official secrets act.
Not long after the three hero’s had blown wide open the German codes – they were read by the Allies. The convoys could now be directed away from known U-boat locations, saving thousands of lives. Long range bombers were called in and an aggressive campaign turned the war. By 1943 the Battle of the Atlantic was won paving the way for eventual Allied victory.
Tommy returned home to 6 Lily Gardens on the Ridges Estate. He was one of eleven children to Mr and Mrs T.W. Brown, his father was also a member of the forces. But when Tommy joined in April 1942 he lied to the Navy about his age. The officers found this out, so he spent his days on HMS Belfast moored on the Tyne, allowing him to spend his nights at home.
But sadly one early morning in February 1945, he died attempting to rescue his 4 year old sister Maureen from a fire at home. Called out at 2.30am and fighting through intense heat and dense smoke, it took fireman one and a half hours to extinguish the fire which destroyed half the house.
Rain poured down on a cold grey day as neighbours stood patiently outside the Brown’s home silently paying tribute to the funeral of Tommy and Maureen. In a full Naval funeral, an escort formed outside the cemetery gates and six members of the ship that Brown sailed in, were coffin bearers. Family and friends attended the graveside service in Preston Cemetery, North Shields.
His family were awarded the George Medal by King George VI, Tommy being the youngest person to ever receive the award. Today, the Exchange Building in North Shields has a stained glass window devoted to Tommy, a permanent reminder of a true hero.
If you have any information about Thomas Brown please don’t hesitate to get in touch.
Research: North East War Memorials project, Celebrating Bletchley Park and special thanks to Joyce Marti for providing archive Tyneside newspaper information.
Gary Alikivi May 2021.