The Muenchen and the Enigma Coding Tables

It is worth mentioning that I made an inconspicuous contribution the capture of the Muenchen. By which I mean that I was a member of the Edinburgh's boarding party and escorted the mysterious "civilian" (Capt. Haines RN as he turned out. to be, many years later) to the Muenchen.

For the first time in my life I was equipped with a revolver and we (the boarding party) were under orders to fight our way on board the Muenchen if necessary. But the Somali was already alongside and most of the Muenchen's crew had quickly abandoned ship, leaving only - as 1 remember it - the captain, another officer and a couple of senior ratings to receive us, which they did with great courtesy. And who can blame them with a British destroyer alongside and a cruiser lying about 300 yards away? The boarding party had to search the Muenchen in case the Germans had laid scuttling charges in the bowels of the vessel. In carrying out this duty I was somewhat handicapped by the fact that I didn't know what a scuttling charge looked like.

Incidentally, the TV programmes Station X - about the breaking of the Enigma code by Bletchley Park - gave all the credit for this to HMS Bulldog's capture of U-boat 110. This remarkable feat took place on 9 May - i.e. two days after the capture of the Muenchen. But Capt. Haines was at Bletchley Park by 9 May and there is no doubt that the coding tables which he brought enabled the German "Home Waters" Enigma code to be broken and read on sight. I can understand why the TV programme featured HMS Bulldog: that ship's boarding of U-110 was truly spectacular. And U-110 did yield up the key to two additional naval codes, apart from duplicating the information gained from the Muenchen.


Operation EB - The Capture of the Muenchen

The 18th Cruiser Squadron (HMS Edinburgh, Manchester and Birmingham) commanded by Vice-Admiral L.E. Holland, flying his flag in Edinburgh, sailed from Scapa Flow on Monday, 5th May, 1941 and headed north. At 1130 on 6th May they were joined by the destroyers Somali, Eskimo, Bedouin and Nestor south-east of Iceland, and continued north.

At 1500 on Wednesday, 7th May, just inside the Arctic Circle, the ships were stationed at ten miles intervals, searching for the German weather-reporting ship, the Muenchen; this was known to be operating in northern waters. The plan was, by the use of surprise and speed, to capture the vessel with the hope of securing the coding tables for the enemy's naval cipher system, Enigma.

At 1707 the Muenchen was sighted between Edinburgh and Somali. The latter fired warning shots which caused the Muenchen's crew to begin abandoning ship. HMS Somali went alongside and took possession of the enemy ship. A prize crew from HMS Edinburgh went over to the Muenchen in the port cutter, which also carried a man in civilian clothes. He was, in fact, Captain J.R.S. Haines, of Naval Intelligence.

The Muenchen's captain had thrown the Enigma coding machine over the side as Somali approached. But he had left the coding tables for the months of May and June on his desk. These were duly collected by Captain Haines. Some of Muenchen's crew were taken on board Somali, but most were accommodated in Edinburgh. Somali escorted the captured vessel to Scapa. Nestor took Captain Haines back to Scapa at speed and he was immediately flown to London with the vital documents.

The rest of the task force continued north in search of another German weather ship which was believed to be operating within the Arctic Circle. Although the search was continued to the edge of the ice field, and Walrus aircraft were used, the enemy vessel was not located. As the Muenchen had radioed an "enemy in sight" report it is likely that the other ship had hastened eastwards on picking this up.

Edinburgh secured in Scapa Flow at 2009 on 10th May and the prisoners went ashore. The operation was a great success and enabled Naval Intelligence to decipher German signals quickly and easily to the end of June. Moreover, with the information gained from the Muenchen - plus more from a U-boat captured shortly afterwards - the Intelligence experts at Bletchley began to establish a standard method of breaking the Enigma code on a continuing basis. It was given out that the Muenchen had scuttled itself and the Germans never learned the truth. Remarkably, at no time - even much later in the war - did they realise that their cipher system had been broken.

It seems to me a pity that Vice-Admiral Holland is known only for the fact that, eleven days after he transferred his flag to HMS Hood on 12th May, he died in the disastrous engagement with the Bismarck. He surely deserves some recognition for his key role in the planning and execution of Operation EB.

Colin Kitching
May 1996