Susan Balme: Kept secret husband’s role in capturing Nazi Enigma machine

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susan balme obituary
David and Susan Balme at their son’s wedding

SUSAN BALME, who for decades kept secret her husband’s key role in breaking the Nazi war codes, has died aged 93.

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The story was finally told in 2000 in a blaze of publicity by a film about the Enigma machine – which led to Susan and David Balme strolling down the red carpet at a premiere feeling like Hollywood movie stars.

Lieutenant Commander Balme was the man who led a boarding party which captured the secrets of Enigma from a German U-boat during the Battle of Convoy OB138 in May 1941, a turning point in the Battle of the Atlantic.

He later recalled how telegraphist Alan Long told him he had found “a funny sort of instrument, sir. It looks like a typewriter but when you press the keys something else comes up on it”.

The “typewriter” was, in fact, an Enigma machine, a device the German forces used to communicate in code. The boarding party had also recovered the settings for the machine which, at Bletchley Park, Alan Turing later managed to crack.

David’s find was to prove pivotal to the British fleet winning the Battle of the Atlantic and the war.

But as the couple’s daughter Fenella revealed, for a long time neither Susan nor her husband, who died in 2016, realised just how crucial his role in the battle against the Nazis had been.

Fenella said: “Father basically lobbed a whole load of papers and the machine into sacks, sent it off to his bosses and was not contacted again. He did not realise the importance of what he had found.

“He was never told then, or for years to come, exactly what the machine was.

“It was only when the first book about the Enigma machine came out that everything exploded. It then became clear how crucial what my father had done was in defeating the Germans. They had been living as a very ordinary couple and suddenly my father was thrust into the limelight.”

The first movie, released in 2000, about the Enigma machine was an American production called U-571, which rewrote history by having the machine captured by a US naval unit, not a British one.

Fenella said: “A lot of people were very upset by that. But my father took the view that it was actually a good movie and at least it made the public aware of what his team had achieved.

“Our parents went to Malta where the film was being made. They met the stars and were even flown out first class to America for the premiere where they were given the red carpet treatment.

“It was only thanks to my father that at the end of the movie there was a message stating that the Enigma machine had been captured by the British, not the Americans.”

David was a consultant on the next movie made about the German coding machine – Enigma starred Kate Winslet and came out in 2001.

The couple’s son Robin said: “After the importance about the Enigma machine came out, my father went around the country doing a lot of lectures about how he had captured it.
“Mother was very proud of him and the role he had played in history.”

The couple had met at a naval base in Lee-on-Solent where they were both based in the 1940s. Susan, who was born on 15th March 1926 in Cornwall, had joined the WRENS after leaving Queens Secretarial College.

She was posted to the naval base where David was serving, and one of her roles was to write up reports.

Fenella said: “The funny thing was that she couldn’t read father’s writing, so she was told to track him down. I think she was going to tick him off. But when they met, they both fell for each other.

“She became the envy of all the girls there when they got together, as he was a very distinguished officer and extremely handsome.”

In 1947 the couple married in Winchester Cathedral. David left the navy two years later to take up a post in his family’s wool-brokering business.

Based at first in Yorkshire, the couple, who by then had their first child Anthony, born in 1948, moved to Chobham, Surrey, while David commuted to London for work.

In 1950 Robin was born, followed by Fenella three years later. Robin said his mother was very much a “homemaker”, saying: “She was always taking us out for trips and cycle
rides. Playing tennis with us after school, horse riding, and sailing.

“My father and her loved to sail, they owned several yachts during their lifetime, and school holidays would be spent sailing over to France or the Channel Islands.”

The couple moved their boat to Lymington in 1968 and then bought a house there in 1970.

Robin said: “My parents loved it as soon as they moved here. My mother got very involved in the local British Heart Foundation, helping them out as much as she could.”

Fenella added: “She was also a very talented flower arranger and absolutely loved gardening. My parents were both good riders and owned a pair of hunters.”

The couple went on to become grandparents of eight and great-grandparents of 12. Robin said: “Mother loved doing so many things with all of them. She lived in the same house they had moved into when first coming to Lymington, Lisle Court House, until her death.

Fenella said: “She told me recently, ‘I’ve had a wonderful life. I’m 93, I feel ready to go and be with David’.”

A thanksgiving for Susan’s life was held this week at Boldre church.

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