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article imageOp-Ed: The truth about breaking Enigma code

By Joseph Boltrukiewicz     Feb 13, 2015 in Technology
A week before the Oscars are given away and amid growing popularity of one of the most visible candidates for the award, Morten Tyldum’s “The Imitation Game”, let’s take a quick look at how the truth of Enigma code breaking came to be.
Machine Enigma and its coding system were designed and patented for both civil and military service by a German engineer Arthur Scherbius in February 1918. It was a cipher machine based on rotating wired wheels, what is now known as a rotor machine and the purpose of its applications in the military was to avoid human error when coding and decoding secret messages.
As the German power was growing fast after the 1st World War, the French intelligence services were very much interested in deciphering German’s Enigma messages as they had some code breaking traditions and achievements from the time of the previous war.
In June 1931 the French were approached by a German spy Hans-Thilo Schmidt (“Asche”) who was an employee at Armed Forces' cryptographic headquarters and provided them with the book of system code breaking keys along with many technical details of how Enigma was constructed and worked. The problem was that the French couldn’t find people to take the task of deciphering Enigma and had hoped they would have bought the information first. In the early 1930’s they contacted the British secret services but the British side ignored any attempts to cooperate having been fully convinced that the Enigma code was unbreakable and the Asche’s codes without the real machine were useless.
Then the French decided to share their information with Polish secret services by contacting Polish General Staff's Biuro Szyfrów (Cipher Bureau) and gave them Asche’s information late in 1932. Polish Intelligence Services missed introduction of Enigma to the service in German Navy (Kriegsmarine) in 1926 but when it was introduced by the land forces two years later, the Cipher Bureau started analyzing German communication codes. As soon as it was found out that the code was generated by a machine, there came a decision to hire a team of the best students of mathematics (German speaking) from the University of Poznan (Marian Rejewski, Jerzy Różycki and Henryk Zygalski) to undergo a secret cryptography course which was based" on French General Marcel Givièrge's 1925 book, Cours de cryptographie (Course of Cryptography). Another decision was to buy a commercial version of Enigma by a decoy company. There was an assumption that both the military and commercial versions of the machines were somehow similarly designed. There was only one part that made the difference between the two versions - instead of a typical keyboard layout, QWERT…, there was a simple, according to alphabetical order, ABCDE...
In the beginning the Cipher Bureau had achieved little success reading Enigma and in late 1932 set Rejewski for some 3 months to solve the problem. After a few weeks, he figured out the secret internal wiring of the Enigma. For the first time Enigma code was finally deciphered on Dec 31, 1932. Then the team of three developed an assortment of techniques for the regular decryption of Enigma messages. Rejewski's contributions included devising the cryptologic card catalog, derived using his cyclometer, and the cryptologic bomb when working with only mathematical logic, reasoning, setting up the system of equasions, constant checking, evaluating, and verifying them. When working with his own design, cyclometer, which was a sort of anti-Enigma, Rejewski concluded that there could be 105,456 different default settings of Enigma for a day. He was working with only one available and commercial version of Enigma machine but soon after breaking the code, several duplicates of Enigma were built by Warsaw’s radio-telegraph company AVA. These Polish made, more than 10 Enigmas duplicates started working successfully on deciphering the codes as early as 1934. Interesting is the fact that the countries like Sweden and the United States started their cipher bureaus based on mathematical logic exactly at the same time.
Before the war, both Polish and French intelligence were getting together for quite a times, sharing limited information. The French were plugging into the codes and the Polish side was deciphering them. In the beginning of 1933 almost all Enigma coded pieces of information were fully decoded until the Germans started to introduce more changes to Enigma’s layout of both rotors, wheels, other subparts and coding procedures. In June 1933, during the Night of the Long Knives (Röhm-Putsch), German messages were decoded minutes after they were sent by radio when using the Morse alphabet. The hardest part was messages related to Kriegsmarine as three versions of codes existed there. Until November 1938 the Polish Cipher Bureau achieved average 75% efficiency in deciphering information generated by Enigma working for the German land forces. Soon after, a new Enigma machine was introduced and the efficiency of deciphering dropped down to 10%.
As a result of these combined efforts, Polish code breakers were able to read the German information more than five years before the British came up with the idea for Bletchley Park and six years before the war broke out.
It’s worth mentioning that as a previous and one of the first lucky coincidence at Okecie airport in Warsaw early in 1929, Polish secret services took over and photographed a commercial version of Enigma (without knowing its real purpose at that time) that was sent to one of German companies in Poland.
In 1938, for the first time in deciphering game, the British came to the stage of coding by setting up their own centre at Bletchley Park. It’s now hard to say if their admiral, Hugh Sinclair, gave the growing Enigma problem a second look and gave up an idea of decoding game based on grammar, syntax and language differences. The fact is that in July 25, 1939, five weeks before the 2nd World War broke out, the Polish, French, and British representatives with Alastair Dennison had gotten together in Pyry near Warsaw where the Polish side revealed the secrets of code breaking and all advanced works that had already been done to the British and French. First they didn’t believe what they saw and Alfred Dillwyn Knox ridiculed when witnessing the results of Enigma code breaking works. Then they were upset that the Polish side hadn’t shared any details of the new war games with them. As a freebie, both visiting sides from Britain and France received a real time presentation in decoding the message that was just intercepted.
As a result of that meeting, a few days after, the British started heavy duty hiring of mathematicians to Government Codes and Cipher School after having seen in Warsaw that maybe grammar differences in languages was not the way to go in the whole decoding game. British intelligence chief, Stewart Menzies, pumped up huge financial funds to develop both new and continue old projects at Bletchley Park. That’s exactly where Alan Turing came up with his skills, wit, previous achievements, and knowledge. At the wake of upcoming war the Poles had to pass over the secret of the code breaking to someone else and couldn’t continue anymore. Soon after Poland was invaded by the Germans, all decoding game stopped, codes and Polish versions (duplicates) of Enigma coding machines were passed over to the French and British along with the documentation and the team of three along with a small group of their supervisors had to leave the country.
This is exactly when Polish role in the whole Enigma case finished. There’s a continuation of the story - they came to France where they found a temporary shelter and marked their presence in Britain - but the team of three hadn’t been given a second chance to work as cryptologists the way they worked in Poland. Early in 1940, before the Hitler’s French campaign, all had to leave France for Algeria. In January 1940, Alastair Dennison wrote to Stuart Menzies a letter where he mentioned that the efforts and experience of the team of three (Rejewski, Różycki, and Zygalski) could save a lot of allied forces in future war against Hitler.
Another thing is worth mentioning – the British had never given any credit to the Polish mathematicians working on Enigma code breaking until Poland joined NATO in 1999. Did the history of Enigma change for them because of another country's decision to join this or that organisation? For the facts that history has always been and will always be the same, the simple fact is that it’s not only Alan Turing who deserves recognition but those who laid grounds for pioneering an unimaginably massive work deserve recognition first.
The imitation game started well before Alan Turing came to Bletchley Park. It’s highly doubtful that “The Imitation Game” could even accent this simple fact, let alone mentioning about this in any of its scenes. Seeing Alan Turing as an Enigma code breaker without context of Polish contribution to the whole project – not only patriots but also smart, knowledgeable, and wise people – is like missing a point. I wish Morten Tyldum would come up with more accurate idea for the Oscars.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about The Imitation Game, enigma code, Bletchley Park, marian rejewski, jerzy rozycki
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