Enigma 2

Last time we finished with a really strange episode from the book which was the story of Enigma, the German encrypting machine…..

A rather large and peculiar parcel had been sent in obvious error to Warsaw’s main Post Office.  Nobody knew what it was. Nobody had a clue. When the Great Gift was opened, though, it was found to be a military grade Enigma machine, brand new, state of the art, and, as yet, unused.

So what did Anton Palluth, the Head of the Cipher Bureau, do with it? Well, we found out last time that the Poles had worked out for themselves that World War One codebreakers would not be clever enough to crack the new type of codes  being introduced at the time, that is to say, the early 1930s. They found three whizz kid mathematicians, all with first class degrees, at the top universities in Poland and gave them the job. Their names were Marian Rejewski, Jery Rozycki and Henryk Zygalski. As leader, Anton Palluth picked the man that he thought was the cleverest and the one likeliest to defeat Enigma. It was Marian Rejewski.

Marian was also given a file which contained everything that the Poles had already discovered about Enigma machines, both commercial, and military. Anton asked him to work on their brand new Christmas present n his spare time. After a reasonable interval, Marian finally cracked it. He knew how Enigma worked.  He knew how to programme it and he knew how to read the messages. This feat was called in the book by author John Jackson….

“a breakthrough in cryptography on a global scale”.

Marian deciphered his first Wehrmacht communication in January 1933. I could not resist saying that the first message he found was….

“Come home Machine No 476. All is forgiven.”

Here’s another shot of Marian Rejewski. He must have saved millions of lives with what he had discovered, and we all owe him a debt of gratitude that we cannot begin to repay.

At a meeting with the British and the French in January 1939, it was obvious that the two western countries knew very little indeed about Enigma. They had more or less no ideas whatsoever about how it worked.

On that occasion, the Poles kept their mouths firmly shut, but, in July 1939 at a second meeting in Warsaw, as German forces prepared to invade their country, the Poles realised that they had to come clean and to tell the British and the French everything that they had found out. There was nothing for them to lose. In actual fact, the Poles knew an enormous amount about Enigma. By September 1st 1939, the day the Germans violated the frontier, the Poles had intercepted and decrypted so many Wehrmacht messages that they know the exact identities of some 98% of the German units involved…..

The British and the French, who included a Professor of Mathematics from Cambridge, were dumbfounded to find out that the Poles had cracked Enigma.

They were dumbfounded and then, quite simply embarrassed at their own stupidity, when they asked the Poles for one particular thing that had totally beaten their cryptographers for months, namely……

“How are the wirings inside the Entry Disc set up? We have made no progress whatsoever on this one!”

And the Poles replied:

  “Well, the wiring sequence is “A-B-C-D-E-F-G-H-I-J-K-L-

and so on ”.

These Polish secrets saved the British at least twelve months’ work on Enigma. This was because the first Enigma machine was not captured in Norway until May 1940. Until then, any progress whatsoever would have been impossible for the British and the French.

Later in the war, the three Poles, Marian Rejewski, Jery Rozycki and Henryk Zygalski, came to England to help with code breaking. They were never allowed to work at Bletchley Park. I cannot imagine why.

In October 1944, Marian Rejewski asked for the return of the Enigma machine they had given to the British in 1939. The British refused.

Marian also asked the British to share what they had discovered about German codes since 1939.  They refused that too.

Marian also asked that the British should share any intercepted material with the Poles so that they could decipher it and, presumably, help the war effort. This too was refused.

Conceivably, these slaps in the face were connected with the celebrations in London at the end of the war in 1946. The British Labour government failed to invite the Polish forces in exile who had fought under British High Command to participate in the Victory Parade which celebrated the end of the war in Europe. A number of MPs including Winston Churchill protested against the decision, which was described as an affront to the Polish war effort as well as an immoral concession to communist power, namely Stalin and the USSR.

The things we did to make jovial Joe Stalin feel better!! Here’s a bit of the celebrations:


There were no Soviet forces invited to participate either.




Filed under France, History, military, Russia

25 responses to “Enigma 2

    • Thank you,. you are very kind. I have always thought that the Poles were treated badly by the Western Allies. In 1939-1940 they came in their thousands to fight in the Polish Air Force, and my Dad, who had experience of them, gave them his ringing endorsement, “They were good blokes”.

      • Has anyone published a comprehensive book on the World War II contributions of people from Axis-occupied countries?

      • Not as far as I know. It’s more a question of a book about the Battle of Britain may mention the Poles, the Czechs, the Free Frnch and so on. For the army, I know that there were Polish units, particularlly in Italy, but as for the Navy, no idea I’m afraid!

      • There seems to be a multitude of information on foreign troops serving with the Axis, especially German military entities and particularly the SS, during World War II. It is difficult to imagine that there weren’t at least Dutch and Norwegian naval vessels serving with the Allies at the same time. I wonder if we haven’t had an inordinate fascination with our enemies, one that continues to the present day.

      • There were at least two squadrons of B-25s of the Dutch Air Force, within the RAF, who were based in Cornwall and who flew maritime patrols. Norwegian personnel operated in the Shetlands and Orkneys, I think, and flew the Heinkel He-115s they had had in their own air force, as long as the spares lasted. They were also painted as Luftwaffe aircraft and used for clandestine work.

  1. Incredible work by the Poles and attitude of our post war government

    • You can see one or two motivations, though.
      If you lived to the east of Hitler’s Germany in 1939, you might want to try a little code cracking, if only as a hobby.
      And at the end of the war, the Western Allies did not want to upset Uncle Joe, because they were really worried that his troops would sweep west as far as France and occupy the lot. They also had their eyes on Denmark, Austria and Greece.

  2. GP

    The Polish mathematics experts were fantastic, what happened later was uncalled for and downright rude.

    • I’ve just read a book about an English soldier in WW1 and he made the point that when the peace came, it should have been the ordinary soldiers who decided what happened with the defeated combattants, but instead it was the self serving politicians who made all the decisions and made WW2 a virtual certainty.
      What happened with the Poles was a perfect example of the same thing being repeated.
      On one side, the British and the Americans were very suspicious and worried about the Russians’ intentions and felt that it was fine to treat the Poles very badly so that they would get a good deal with the Russians. The Russians, as nowadays, wanted limitless land, thought they could grab Poland, and tried very hard to engineer things so that all the strong, talented Poles, (who would have opposed them) were excluded, or dead.
      And ultimately, the way that the Poles were treated by the people they had helped so much, was “downright rude” and desperately ungrateful.

  3. Chris Waller

    What Rejewski did must be rated as one of the greatest intellectual achievements of the century. That he, and his compatriots, were treated so abysmally by the British government is shameful. Perhaps the British political establishment thought that their obsequious behaviour towards Stalin might prompt him not to be so nasty. Or was it just that the British establishment wanted to project Britain as still a global hegemon with a ‘we won the war’ posture? I recall a television interview with an American historian. He was asked if he thought Britain won the Second World War. He thought for a few moments and then said, “Let us say just that they didn’t lose it.” I continue to despair even now of those who govern us.

    • You are 100% correct. The British political establishment just wanted Uncle Joe to treat them gently, and the gallant Poles were sacrificed on that particular altar.
      As for “Did Britain win the war?”, for me the answer is that Britain continued to fight alone in 1940, the only country that wanted to fight back against Hitler. Nobody else was interested. They had either surrendered more or less immediately or not even started fighting in the first place. I can only think of Poland who fought back against the Nazis in a determined way, and maybe the USSR, but I’m sure that they would have lost had it not been for British and American aid.
      One mistake the British made was to abide by the rules. When the United Nations told us to get rid of our colonies, we lost our Empire. Neither the USA nor the Soviet Union did that. For them it was business as usual, whether in all the old familiar places or in new colonies acquired after the end of WW2.
      Similarly, we shared our technology with our allies. Russia got the Derwent jet engine. The Americans got the know how to split atoms, build atom bombs, and we showed them how to build jet fighters and jet airliners. Whaty did we get back ?

  4. I am going to read this book. I wasn’t aware of the Polish work on this.

  5. Considering how much the Poles helped us, we treated them absolutely terribly. Perhaps it was out and out jealousy over the fact that they had worked out enigma before we had even got out of bed!

    • It could well have been, Perhaps the bosses at Bletchley Park were afraid that people were bound to ask questions such as “Why are you giving all that top secret stuff to Marian Rejewski, Jery Rozycki and Henryk Zygalski?” A truthful answer might well have left bits of various eggs on the faces of quite a few well known top decoders.
      On a separate subject, the Poles provided enough men to form the Polish Air Force with their headquarters at Newark-on-Trent, but as far as I am aware, there were even more Czech volunteers than Poles.
      One similarity, though, was that the Czechs were just as upset with their British bosses as the Poles were. It came about when Heydrich was assassinated in Prague by Czech members of the SOE. The Czechs had begged the British not to carry out the mission because of the revenge the Germans would exact on innocent people but the British insisted the assassination took place.
      And sure enough, the villages of Lidice and Ležáky were burnt down; the men and boys aged 14 and above were shot and most of the women and children were deported and murdered in Nazi concentration camps. Around 400 people died.

      • You do wonder whether such an act was justified with so many deaths happening as a result. That I suppose was the Nazi security card, kill one of us and we will kill many hundreds of you, quite a strong and persuasive threat to hold over a population.

  6. Thanks for this episode in what was a critical aspect of winning the war. How selfish of the British to take all of the credit!

    • It certainly was! I suppose that the people at the top who give the orders can select the exact details of what happened.
      And, human nature being what it is, nobody is very likely to tell a story where they are the stupidest people in it!

  7. John, in reading this story what came to mind ….. please excuse me if this is deemed inappropriate …. that the world then and so much of it now, is based on what man does versus woman. How much of our history is patriarchal and perhaps IF there had been more women involved in these huge decisions and these circumstances, the outcomes may have been different.

    Totally enjoyed this post. Thank you.

    • I’m delighted you enjoyed the post, Amy, and I fully agree with you, Amy. If there had been more women involved in decisions over the course of history, there would have been nowhere near as many wars as we have had to put up with with men in charge!

  8. Thank you for sharing and using today’s technology to help everyone have a better understanding of what transpired during the conflicts.. for showing the peaceful efforts saving countless lives.. it is sad that elements of the leadership chose image over reality, which is still present today… 🙂

    Hope all is well and until we meet again…
    May the dreams you hold dearest
    Be those which come true
    May the kindness you spread
    Keep returning to you
    (Irish Saying)

  9. Yes, it is always a pity when image is deemed to be more important than reality. It just makes me wonder how clever could those leaders have been when they thopught that Joe Stalin wass the man to cosy up to!

  10. The decisions politicians take!! It is the same everywhere. Thank you for this post. Years ago I used to read books set in the times of the World wars.

    • I’m glad you ejoyed the post, Lakshmi. As far as I can tell, politicians will do anything if they think it will be of benefit to them, and they can get away with it!

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