15-Year-Old Whose Heroics Helped Shorten World War II Honored By Hometown

Photo Credit: 1. Royal Navy Photographer / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain (Colorized & Enhanced by DeepAI) 2. Ministry of Defence / Wikimedia Commons / Open Government License 1.0
Photo Credit: 1. Royal Navy Photographer / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain (Colorized & Enhanced by DeepAI) 2. Ministry of Defence / Wikimedia Commons / Open Government License 1.0

The 15-year-old NAAFI canteen assistant whose heroics at sea helped shorten the Second World War has been honored by his hometown. Thomas “Tommy” Brown helped retrieve codebooks from a sinking U-boat in 1942, which helped codebreakers at Bletchley Park break the German Enigma System, shortening the conflict by at least a year.

HMS Petard (G56) at sea
HMS Petard (G56), 1943. (Photo Credit: Royal Navy Official Photographer / Imperial War Museums / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Thomas Brown joined the NAAFI – the Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes – in 1941, lying about his age to secure a role as a canteen assistant aboard the P-class destroyer HMS Petard (G56). On October 30, 1942, the ship, along with HMS Pakenham (G06), Hurworth (L28) and Hurworth (L63) and aircraft from No. 47 Squadron RAF, was investigating radar contact with a German U-boat in the waters near Port Said, Egypt.

For 10 hours, the group dropped depth charges, prompting the enemy submarine – U-559 – to surface, prompting Petard‘s crew to begin firing the ship’s four-inch guns. Before long, U-559‘s crew was ordered to abandon ship, as the U-boat had suffered far too much damage and was sinking.

Petard sent a boarding party to the sinking submarine. Brown,  Able Seaman Colin Grazier and Lt. Francis Anthony Blair Fasson, boarded the vessel and found two codebooks: the Short Signal Book and the Short Weather Cipher. When it became evident U-559 was close to fully sinking, the trio tried to make their escape, but Grazier and Fasson were unsuccessful. Brown was initially pulled down with the U-boat, but managed to reach the surface.

Exterior of the mansion at Bletchley Park
Main building at Bletchley Park. (Photo Credit: DeFacto / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

For their actions, Fasson and Grazie were posthumously awarded the George Cross, while Brown received the George Medal – the youngest ever recipient. The documents proved invaluable to the efforts underway at Bletchley Park to decipher German Enigma, allowing the codebreakers there to figure out the previously unbreakable “TRITON” key.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill applauded the efforts of Petard‘s crew, saying the documents they collected were critical to the outcome of World War II.

Brown, however, never learned of his importance in history, as he died before information regarding the work with Engima was declassified. In 1945, while on leave from his posting aboard HMS Belfast, he lost his life attempting to rescue his sister from a fire that had broken out at the family’s residence. He was buried with full military honors.

In August 2023, North Tynside Council put out a call to the public, asking for their help in selecting the name of North Shields’ new public square from a shortlist of four options: Charles Minto, Thomas Brown, Ellen Lee and Mary Ann Macham. Residents voted overwhelmingly for Brown, with him recieving 2,149 of the 4,247 votes cast.

A six-foot, six-inch granite memorial commissioned by the family was unveiled in his honor during the ceremony on March 15, 2024. The inscription reads:

“A memorial to Thomas Brown GM. A North Shields boy who helped shorten World War Two by capturing vital Engima code books from a sinking German U-boat. Two of Thomas’ shipmates drowned in the operation carried out from HMS Petard during October 1942 in the Mediterranean. Thomas was awarded the George Medal but died before he could receive it. The medal was presented to his mother by King George VI in 1945.”

Artist's rendering of Thomas Brown Square
Artist’s rendering of what the new North Shields town square would look like prior to its construction. (Photo Credit: North Tyneside Council / News Release)

Regarding the decision, Lynn Melville, Brown’s neice, said, “When it came to the naming of the town square, for us Thomas was the only choice, and we were confident but relieved that the vote was his. Lots of people in North Shields still don’t know his story and we want to change that. The other two men, Lieutenant Anthony Fasson and Able Seaman Colin Grazier have memorials in their home towns. It’s right that Thomas is remembered in his.”

North Tyneside Mayor Dame Norma Redfearn added, “He’s a young lad whose heroic actions helped shorten WWII. We can’t say for sure how many lives he saved by that moment of bravery, it could be many thousands. It’s a real privilege to unveil this memorial and officially name the Town Square after Thomas. We hope this helps keep his memory alive for future generations and gives people in North Shields a real sense of pride.”

Eight individuals standing together in Thomas Brown Square
Thomas Brown’s family attending the naming ceremony for the new North Shields town square, 2024. (Photo Credit: North Tyneside Council / News Release)

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The other nominees have been honored in separate ways in North Shields. Lee and Minto received a blue plaque, while Macham will have a sculpture erected on the Riverside Embankment Walkway.

Clare Fitzgerald

Clare Fitzgerald is a Writer and Editor with eight years of experience in the online content sphere. Graduating with a Bachelor of Arts from King’s University College at Western University, her portfolio includes coverage of digital media, current affairs, history and true crime.

Among her accomplishments are being the Founder of the true crime blog, Stories of the Unsolved, which garners between 400,000 and 500,000 views annually, and a contributor for John Lordan’s Seriously Mysterious podcast. Prior to its hiatus, she also served as the Head of Content for UK YouTube publication, TenEighty Magazine.

In her spare time, Clare likes to play Pokemon GO and re-watch Heartland over and over (and over) again. She’ll also rave about her three Maltese dogs whenever she gets the chance.

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