German weather ship Lauenburg

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Lauenburg from HMS Tartar.JPG
HMS Tartar's boarding party prepares to board the weather ship Lauenburg north east of Jan Mayen
Career (Nazi Germany)
Name: Lauenburg
Namesake: Lauenburg/Elbe
Laid down: 1 July 1936
Launched: 1938
Acquired: 1940
Commissioned: November 1940
Fate: Sunk 28 June 1941
General characteristics
Class & type: Converted trawler
Complement: 19-21 crew
8 meteorologists

The Lauenburg was a German weather ship used in the early years of the Second World War to provide weather reports for German shipping, particularly German U-boats. Her capture and subsequent sinking on 28 June 1941 allowed the Royal Navy to acquire important German code books and parts of an Enigma machine, and came after the German use of such vessels had been identified as a weakness that could be exploited to break the Enigma code.

Early life[edit]

The Lauenburg had been built in 1938 as a fishing trawler, named after the town of Lauenburg, and with the identification number 'PG 532'. She operated out of Geestemünde for her owners, H. Bischoff & Co, of Bremen. She was acquired by the Kriegsmarine in 1940, and entered naval service in November that year, having been converted into a weather ship, but retaining the name Lauenburg. In her new guise she carried a crew of between 19 and 21, as well as eight meteorologists. She was to be used to provide detailed weather reports for naval units, including Germany's U-boat fleet.

The weather ships and Enigma[edit]

The British cryptologist Harry Hinsley, then working at Bletchley Park realised at the end of April 1941 that the German weather ships, usually isolated and unprotected trawlers, were using the same Enigma code books as were being used on the heavily armed U Boats. The trawlers, which were transmitting weather reports to the Germans, were in turn being sent naval Enigma messages.

Although the weather ships did not transmit enciphered weather reports on Enigma machines, they still needed to have one of the machines on board if they were to decode the Enigma signals transmitted to them. Hinsley realised that if the code books could be captured from one of these vulnerable trawlers, the naval Enigma system could be broken, with British intelligence able to decipher messages to U-boats and discover their locations. The problem remained that if the navy were to attempt to capture one of the weatherships, the German crew would have time to throw their current Enigma settings into the sea before they were boarded. Hinsley instead reasoned that the following month's Enigma settings would be locked in a safe aboard the ship, and could be overlooked if the Germans were forced to hastily abandon ship. On being informed, the Admiralty despatched seven destroyers and cruisers to the northeast of Iceland at the beginning of May 1941. The target was the München, one of the weather ships operating in the area. In the course of the raid, the weather ship, and the Enigma settings for June 1941 were captured. As a result, naval Enigma messages transmitted during June 1941 could be quickly deciphered.

Halfway through June 1941 the Germans replaced the bigram tables used in Enigma. This would have resulted in a codebreaking blackout unless further settings could be captured. Hinsley and the Admiralty were concerned that capturing another weather ship might alert the Germans to their vulnerability and cause them to immediately alter them again. It was eventually decided to take the risk and on 25 June 1941 four warships, the light cruiser HMS Nigeria and the destroyers HMS Tartar, HMS Jupiter and HMS Bedouin, were despatched from Scapa Flow to capture the codebooks from the Lauenburg, another weather ship operating north of Iceland, which Hinsley had selected.[1]

The Lauenburg is sunk by Royal Navy gunfire.

Capture and sinking of Lauenburg[edit]

At around 7pm on 28 June, a lookout aboard HMS Tartar sighted the Lauenburg off Jan Mayen, and Tartar began firing. The Lauenburg's crew quickly abandoned the ship in two lifeboats. Minutes later, Tartar steamed alongside and a boarding party seized the Lauenburg. A large amount of material was collected and transferred to the Tartar. The Allied warships then fired on and sank the Lauenburg.

The recovered material allowed further understanding of the Enigma codes and resulted in faster decoding of encrypted messages, as well as providing an up-to-date set of codes.

References[edit]

See also[edit]

Coordinates: 71°00′N 8°20′W / 71.000°N 8.333°W / 71.000; -8.333