Enigma (1)

In previous posts I have occasionally written a review of a book which I found particularly interesting. I have then related to the reader what the author found to say, in an effort to whet the potential reader’s appetite so that, hopefully, he or she might want to buy the book. This time, I decided to select an extremely interesting book which was not only fascinating but which taught me a great deal and introduced me to things that I had never previously known.

In this category belongs…….

“Code Wars

How ‘Ultra’ and ‘Magic’ Led to Allied Victory”

by John Jackson

One of the best things about this book is that it doesn’t try to instruct you on how the German “Enigma” machine encoded its messages. Such subjects are way beyond the capabilities of my brain and I enjoyed being able to read the book without proving to myself that I was a complete thickhead. Incidentally, along with encoding important messages, I also find Quantum Mechanics an equally impossible subject and most of Relativity too, even though much of the latter topic is getting on for being around a century old nowadays.

This is an Enigma machine. It’s a bit like one of those old fashioned portable record players, but without the turntable.

To spare my readers’ feelings, and my own, I have therefore decided to concentrate on the method by which we eventually acquired our knowledge of this famous German code, along with putting a special emphasis on the events in World War Two which turned out differently from how they might well have done, thanks to the British knowledge of Enigma.

After all, from 1945-1975 at least, nobody was aware of Enigma because it was still top secret. Before 1975, more or less every event in the war which unfolded in a particular way because Enigma had had a role to play in it, had to have a different story invented to explain its outcome. If you don’t understand that, don’t worry, you’ll soon see what I mean.

In the years immediately before the Second World War, the invention of the Enigma code machine had not really interested the British at all. Nor were the French or the Americans particularly bothered either.  No, it was the Poles who realised how crucially important the knowledge of the Enigma codes would be, if  a second world war broke out, as seemed likely.  For this reason, the Poles had, at the first opportunity, bought a commercial Enigma machine, in late 1932. Yes, you saw it right! Late 1932.

The purchase was made by Antoni Palluth of the Polish Cipher Bureau. In his private business life, he was also the co-owner of the AVA radio manufacturing company. AVA always wanted to help the Cipher Bureau as much as possible, and by February 1933, the company had back engineered their own replica of a commercial Enigma machine, and then produced a prototype according to the specifications of the three Polish “Five Star Codebreakers”. More of them. later.

Here’s the rather handsome Mr Palluth….

Four years previously, in 1928-1929, the Poles had worked out for themselves that the codebreakers of World War One would not be clever enough to crack the new type of codes now being introduced. What was needed were not men with secret pens and bottles of invisible ink which people kept throwing away because they thought they were empty, but whizz kid mathematicians with first class degrees at the top universities in the land. So the Poles cast around and found their own three whizz kid mathematicians and gave them the job. Their names were Marian Rejewski, Jery Rozycki and Henryk Zygalski. And here they are……

The Poles’ reward for taking the initiative like this was a bizarre event, a once in a lifetime event, an unforgettable occasion when, even though it wasn’t Christmas, Santa Claus brought them a very special present indeed.  It was a gift from God, a present from heaven.

Events began to kick off, when somebody rang up Anton Palluth, now the Head of the Cipher Bureau, and told him that a rather peculiar, rather large, parcel had been sent in error to Warsaw’s main Post Office.  Nobody knew what it was. Nobody had a clue. When the Great Gift was opened, they found that it was a military grade Enigma machine, brand new, state of the art.

Somebody, somewhere had committed a war-changing boo-boo.

This crass mistake was way beyond building the fastest jet fighter in the world and then slowing it down by putting bomb racks on the wings. No, this was the first steps in a process which would save the lives of millions of people and shorten the war by at least a couple of years.

Next time we see what Anton Palluth did with his gift from God, and he didn’t put it on ebay.




Filed under History

26 responses to “Enigma (1)

  1. This is a real thriller, John. I knew none of it

    • And neither did I, Derek. John Jackson’s bookc ontained a great deal of material that was complete news to me, despite years of reading about WW2. I think it’s because he concentrated on the history and not on how the messaging system worked.

  2. GP

    Amazing how some can see the possibilities and others can not. I read a story once that a Navy man from Demark noticed the Japanese fleet in a precarious position in the Pacific Ocean days before Pearl Harbor, but no one was interested. Makes a person wonder, eh?

    • It certainly does. My memory isn’t great nowadays, but I’m sure that I recently read about the opposite situation. The Japanese task force could have attacked American aircraft carriers, apparently, but the commander decided that he must follow his plans of attack on Pearl Harbor to the letter, and so he just pressed on.
      I just love a “What if ??” scenario !

  3. Interesting stuff. Cracking that code was important to wining the war. Sounds like an interesting book.

    and I almost know how enigma worked but you can hurt your brain thinking about it too much.

    • Yes, it’s a book well worth buying if you can get a copy at a reasonable price.
      And with reference to your last point, I fully agree with you. There’s absolutely no point in overtaxing your brain at this stage.

  4. An informative and fascinating story, John. Now you make me want to re-watch the 2014 movie, The Imitation Game (now streaming on Netflix), about British crypt-analyst Alan Turing’s work in analyzing the Enigma machine used by the Nazis for sending coded messages during the war. I don’t recall any mention of the Pole Anton Palluth.

    • There’s a lot more to come about the history of cracking the messages sent by the Enigima machines, but I think it’s safe enough to say that once the Poles passed on everything they knew to the British, the British just forgot their contribution.
      A similar thing happened with the thousands and thousands of Polish men who left their native land in 1939, and eventually came to Britain to form the “Polish Air Force” who operated with Bomber Command. By the end of the war, they were even refused permission to participate in the Victory Parades and Fly Past, as for the Labour Government, they were the wrong kind of Poles if you didn’t want to upset Stalin. (ie not Communist).

  5. I learn so much from your posts. Thank you. I wonder if it was a mistake or sent deliberately.

    • I’m glad to hear that, Lakshmi. I learn a lot from your posts too! As for the machine, personally, I think it was a mistake, as it must have been a German who organised putting the machine in the Post, and at this time, there were very few anti-Nazi Germans around.

  6. Without messages, an Enigma is nothing more than a wooden box with wires, gears, and typewriter keys. You might want to review Kenneth Macksey’s book The Searchers: Radio Intercept in Two World Wars. ISBN: 0304365459.

  7. Chris Waller

    Fascinating! I didn’t realise that there were two different grades of Enigma machine. As you say, the Polish contribution to cracking the Enigma code has been lamentably discounted.

    • It certainly has! I knew about the quarrel between the British and the Americans as to which one of them was the first to capture an Enigma machine, but I had no idea whatsoever that the Poles were the pioneers in this field.
      Pretty amazing too was the attitude of so many nationalities, British, French and American to name but three, none of whom were in the slightest bit interested when the Poles offered them all their newly published “A Dummies Guide to Enigma”. We were so lucky that the Poles themselves realised the importance of this new way of encoding secret messages.

  8. After having been to Bletchley park some time ago, I still fail to understand the enigma that’s is Enigma. I’ve tried to get my head round it’s workings but failed miserably. That aside, I was aware of the Polish connection, however I didn’t know the machine was sent in error to the wrong place, that certainly was a boo boo of the highest order!

    • I fully agree with you. I’ve tried to read a couple of books but they were spoiled because all they managed to do was to prove what a thickhead I was. I would love to hear who sent that machine if it was an error.
      I doubt, though, that very much was done to him/her. One thread that runs through this book is that if the Germans are the Master Race, then their codes will be uncrackable because they have been invented by the cleverest people in the world. In other words, whatever the enemy manage to get hold of, it will be of no use to them because it has been set up by a German.

      • They certainly held themselves in great esteem, and whilst they did indeed employ some of the the most ingenious people in Europe, they were not infallible. Looking forward to more.

  9. WOW!!! I’ve got goosebumps, John!! I had no idea about what you disclosed here. I am fascinated with quantum physics especially as I am now seeing energy beyond our physical realm. These things are real!! Oh my Goodness to think we are heading into the quantum energy age. I know this to be true but what boggles my mind this type of energy was known years ago. This is nothing new yet how many of us know about it? OH I could dive into this and never come up. Thank you so much for sharing this information.

  10. Thank you for sharing another page of history and help us better understand the conflict!.. well done!.. it is amazing what the small, seemingly mundane machine in appearance, was able to accomplish!… 🙂

    Hope your world is filled with peace and until we meet again..
    May your troubles be less
    Your blessings be more
    And nothing but happiness
    Come through your door
    (Irish Saying)

  11. As we shall see, the Enigma machine saved millions of lives by shortening the war by, it is thought, at least one, if not two years. On occasion though, the British had to let the Germans go ahead with their plans, if that prevented them from finding out that their codes had been cracked. That must have been a difficult decision to take, but it was the No 1 Rule about the use of Enigma decrypts.

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