Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Enigma: The Real Ultra Secret or "Sekret Enigmy." By a Guest Author.

A Nazi Enigma machine. Source
Marian Rejewski. Source.
Jerzy Rozycki. Source.
Henryk Zygalski. Source.
There are many unsung heroes from World War Two. I'm a World War Two devotee, and in researching a book on a mystery from that period, I have come across many stories that I've never heard before. Some stories are forgotten. Some of the stories morph into half-truths designed to suit the storyteller's purpose. Repeat the lie enough – including lies of omission – and it becomes the popular notion of history. Make the lie into a movie and the truth doesn't stand a chance.

Anyone who has looked at World War Two history will have heard about the importance of Ultra. "Ultra" was the British code name for, inter alia, the British breaking of the German cipher machine, Enigma. It is arguably the most important secret of the war – the other contender would be radar. Both of these helped turn the tide of the war. The Manhattan Project which created the atomic bomb, also important, had a number of Polish scientists contributing to its success, but this was late in the war. It may make another good topic to discuss for another blog. But I digress!

So, as I was saying, The British broke the German Enigma code…There, I just perpetuated the lie. It is that easy.

Now before everyone starts sending notes saying that I wasn't lying and that the Brits really did break Enigma at Bletchley Park, please read on.

One of the critical factors in the Allied victory and the Nazi defeat during World War Two was the Allies' ability to read Axis secret messages. Enigma was the device used to protect those secret messages. Breaking it became a project called Ultra. The ability to read these messages gave the Allies first-hand knowledge of Axis military plans. This allowed the Allies to take back control of the Atlantic from the marauding U-boat packs, to create tactics to maximize the Allies' efforts with a minimum of resources, and to assure that the Axis battle was costly in resources and men. Many other benefits resulted from breaking Enigma.

This history played a role in my own life.

I was working at a camera store in 1980 with a guy named Pete who was studying math and cryptography at a college in New Jersey. He and his professor, Cipher or Cy for short, were my introduction into codes, ciphers and cryptography. Cy's father had worked on breaking the Japanese equivalent cipher machine, PURPLE, as part of the Magic program run by the Americans.

One day, Cy showed up in the camera store with a wooden box and plopped the box down on the counter. It was a little bigger than an old manual portable typewriter.

It was a three-rotor Enigma! I was in the presence of history.

Cy had purchased the machine in Britain. Unfortunately, the purchase was illegal. It caused Cy years of legal difficulties. Eventually he would have to return the Enigma to Britain.

Years later, I was sitting in a library researching cryptography. I came across references to broken Enigma coded messages. These particular messages allowed the Allies to select among the Axis ships that were headed out of North Africa towards Italy. The Allies would sink some of these ships; other ships were allowed safe passage. Ships carrying military supplies were targeted for sinking, while ships with wounded soldiers were allowed safe passage. This was not for humanitarian reasons, but because one wounded, captured enemy soldier tied up approximately ten support staff and diverted money and supplies to keep them alive – money and supplies that would otherwise go towards bombs and bullets.

My dad was a wounded Nazi soldier. He was on one of those ships out of North Africa that had been allowed safe passage by the Allies.

My dad's ship was saved from being sunk by the Allies because Enigma had told them which ships were which. I wouldn't be here now, most likely, if it weren't for Poles breaking Enigma. A real OMG moment.


Enciphering changes plain text messages into unreadable gibberish through an algorithm for conversion along with an agreed upon key. The encrypted message is then transmitted and decrypted back into the original message using the key on the receiving end. Anyone intercepting the secret, encrypted text without the keys and the device used will have a lot of guesses before they can puzzle out the message. For messages concerning military operations where time is essential, this may make breaking the messages impractical.

The Enigma machine was invented by a German engineer early in the twentieth century. The simpler three-rotor version of the Enigma would allow for something like 10^22nd possible solutions.

Another way of thinking about that number would be to imagine something like a Rubik's Cube with a message written on each mini-cube surface. By twisting and turning the facets we encrypt the message. If we know the magic key – in this case the twists and turns used to encrypt – we can undo encryption easily. If we don't we need a way of recreating the message or figuring the key. Brute force guesses are one way.

The Rubik's Cube example is much simpler than the 10 followed by 22 zeroes of possible combinations to guess for Enigma messages.

The five-rotor version increased the theoretical number of possible solutions dramatically and its messages were considered unbreakable by many experts, with something on the order of 10^92nd possibilities.

For perspective on how big a number that is there were about 10^16th seconds between the Big Bang and WW2.

Before the Enigma could be used, the rotors were set to an agreed on sequence, changing the path of the electrical circuit. A cable is plugged into the front of the keypad, further randomizing the path of the circuit. Once this is done, pressing a key on the keyboard sends a signal through the rotors, lighting up the enciphered character on a display above the keyboard. The electromechanical device rotates and changes the path each time a key is pressed. Typing an 'A' one time may give an encrypted 'U' one time and another letter the next time it is pressed.


Movies and books, both fiction and non-fiction, have created popular impressions about Enigma that just aren't true.

The 2001 film "Enigma" is one of my favorites. It stars Academy-Award-winner Kate Winslet, it was produced by Rolling Stone Mick Jagger and Saturday-Night-Live creator Lorne Michaels, and written by multiple Academy-Award- and Tony-Award-winning Tom Stoppard.

"Enigma" is an entertaining, fictional account of how the British, working with some foreign nationals, figure out how to break Enigma messages.

There is an opening scene with German soldiers uncovering the unmarked mass grave of slaughtered Polish soldiers.

The film then moves to Bletchley Park in England, where cryptographers are at work breaking Enigma's coded messages.

The protagonist is a character named Jericho, a genius responsible for figuring out how to tackle Enigma messages through flaws in how the encryption occurs. His love interest is Claire, who may or may not be a Nazi spy.

A convoy of essential goods is sailing from America to England. The convoy is at risk from a U-boat wolf pack sitting in the Atlantic waiting to pounce. Jericho and a helpful, female clerk named Hester, who has a crush on the clueless Jericho, weave through a maze of intrigue and eventually figure out that there is a spy, but that the spy is not who the film's characters, nor the audience, suspect.

The real spy is a Polish cryptographer. He wants to disclose to the world that the Russian allies, not the Nazis, had killed the Polish soldiers buried in the mass grave shown in the opening scenes of the movie. This disclosure would reveal to the world that the British have broken Enigma. The disclosure would do serious damage to the Allied war effort.

Jericho saves the day, the Pole is blown up and the secret that the British have broken Enigma is kept safe. The Nazis continue unwittingly to reveal their battle plans.

Why do I like this cheesy film? There aren't many movies with cryptography at the heart of the story.

Since this is fiction, a little literary license and suspension of disbelief are in order and acceptable. But I worry that so many people "learn" history through movies. "It must be true. I saw it in a movie."

It is odd that they picked a Pole as the traitor though, don't you think?

In non-fiction, there should be no such freedom, right? Factual unadulterated truth, right?

Well, not so much.

Let's look at two canonical, authoritative, non-fiction books about Ultra.

One is "The Ultra Secret" by F.W. Winterbotham. The other, written by Ronald Lewin, is entitled "Ultra Goes to War". Enigma was a state secret until the 70's, and these two books were some of the first to deal with the subject.

Winterbotham's book tells the story of how the Brits broke Enigma, repeating the popular half-truth. Polish contributions and breakthroughs are never mentioned. The lie of omission.

Lewin's book tells the story of how Polish cryptographers, from 1928, started to work on breaking the Wehrmacht and Kriegsmarine ciphers. In 1929, coded messages were picked up by electronic intelligence listening posts, also known as ELINT, at stations located in Warsaw, Starogard near Danzig, Poznan and Krzeslawice near Cracow. Attempts at breaking the messages were fruitless and the Cipher Office, or Biuro Szyfrow of the Polish Army's General Staff, reached out for academic help. That help came from the Dean of the Mathematics Department at the University of Poznan, Professor Zdzislaw Krygowski. He made up a list of his students who would be the best candidates for the Ciphers Office. These candidates then went through a cryptography course developed by the Cipher Office.

Marian Rejewski, Jerzy Rozycki and Henryk Zygalski would reverse engineer replicas of the German Enigma machine, develop early electromechanical computers called the Bomba, or bomba kryptologiczna, which exploit weaknesses in the starting positions of the Enigma messages, allowing them to break Enigma.

They did all this without the fanfare they deserved.

That's the real Ultra secret!

Slowly bits and pieces came out, but "history" is more or less set in stone that the British did it all!

Machines were developed to test potential guesses of the key used for that day's messages. These devices were called Bombes. The attempts at guesses were based on weak hints or cheats called, cribs. A Bombe was set to try and break the message with a crib, until a word might appear and give the cryptographers an idea that a solution was found. The Bombe was a precursor to the modern computer. The British scientist, Alan Turing, the head of Hut 8 at Bletchley Park, is credited with inventing the Bombe. While he did do the groundwork for modern computing, giving Turing credit for the Bombe is another fallacy.

While Turing's Bombe used a different methodology for attacking Enigma, conceptually it originates with the Pole's Bomba created by Rejewski in 1938. Clearly, Turing is every bit of the genius history credits him, maybe more, but the Poles were just as amazing. To put it into perspective, think of trying to recreate television without a working model of a TV set. All you have is rough, second-hand knowledge of what TV looks like and how it operates. Further, imagine that the frequencies change daily.

In the book "British Intelligence," it is suggested that the Poles decided to share their Enigma-breaking techniques and equipment with the French and British because they had encountered technical difficulties. Rejewski refuted this, saying "No, it was not cryptologic difficulties that prompted us to work with the British and French, but only the deteriorating political situation."

Using a weaker, commercial version of the Enigma the team was able to start working on mathematical attacks towards breaking the code. With the help of the French Deuxieme Bureau, a Reichswehr cipher clerk handed over old keys, and in December of 1932, Rejewski was able to reverse engineer the military grade Enigma machine's internal connections of rotors. Between 1933 and 1939, the Poles were able to decode 100,000 transmissions. AVA Radio Workshops in Warsaw built replicas and by August 1939, seventy units were produced.

In 1938 the Germans upgraded to a new version of the Enigma with five rotors, inhibiting the Poles from reading messages, with sixty Bombas necessary instead of six.

Chief-of-Staff Lt. General Waclaw Stachiewicz authorized the Cipher Office to share everything they had learned about Enigma with the Allies in July of 1939. Poland gave the Allies Enigma replicas during a meeting in Warsaw July 24-26, 1939, enabling the British to start reading messages in August of 1939.

With the fall of Poland in September of 1939, the Cipher Office moved to Romania. Towards the end of September of 1939, Rejewski, Zygalski, and Rozycki escaped to France and in October, set up a French-Polish radio intelligence center, codenamed "Bruno," with links feeding the British Government Code and Ciphers School.

In June, 1940 the unit deciphered preparations by the Germans to attack France and were evacuated to Algiers, with the Poles enrolled into the Polish Armed Forces, Branch 300 of the II Directorate.

They would return to France in October, 1940 working for an underground unit named "Cadix" in the city of Fouzes.

Tragically, Jerzy Rozycki died January 9, 1942 when the ship he was traveling on, the Lamoriciere, was sunk.

Henryk Zygalski passed away in Liss, England August 30, 1978.

In November, 1942, due to the threat that ELINT efforts by the Germans might capture the cryptographic unit, Rejewski and Zygalski were sent to Spain, then Gibraltar, and finally England.

All the while they were breaking key messages from campaigns in North Africa and European fronts!

The British refused to allow the Poles access to the full suite of British efforts for security reasons.

More than a slap in the face of the true inventors! Stupid pride that most likely hobbled Allied efforts.

Marion Rejewski passed away at the age of 74 on February 13, 1980. A year and half before, he gave a tape-recorded interview with Richard Woytak. The text was transcribed and published in a book entitled, "Cryptology: Machines, History and Methods" by Deavours, Kahn, Kruh, Melen and Winke.

Small rewards for such a giant contribution to the world and humanity.

It is my hope that we can give these heroes the tributes they so richly deserve.

We should broadcast the real story of how Polish efforts broke Enigma and helped save the day. For those of you who are religious, keep these men in your prayers. The rest can thank their lucky stars for these guys!

Slowly, people are telling the truth. In newer editions, "The Code Breakers" – the Bible of everything crypto – added corrections telling the true story of Poland's contribution. Be forewarned through, this is not a book to curl up with on the couch in front of a fire; it's almost 1200 pages long – and every bit a great crypto-geek read!

There is a 1979 Polish film, "Sekret Enigmy", directed by Roman Wionczek, written by Stanislaw Strumph-Wojtkiewicz and Roman Wionczek. I haven't seen it yet. I'll let you know how it is, once I do – but let's be frank, it's a war movie about cryptography!!! It's going to be great and I'm going to love it!

I don't begrudge the British and American efforts in cryptography during the war. There are many more unsung heroes – sadly too many. My own work is attempting to bring light to a group most have never heard of, and each time we can we should all make sure the whole story sees the light of day.

The dedication for Lewin's book, "Ultra Goes to War" reads:

"To the Poles who sowed the seed and to those who reaped the harvest."

I hope you've found the truth about Enigma enlightening and inspiring. Tell others about this and the other proud moments in Polish history. Don't let your heritage be subverted or ignored and do your part to make sure this story is no longer secret.



Otto's previous contribution to the blog, "Ripples of Sin," can be read here.


  1. An Oxbridge accent gets you 20 extra unwarranted IQ points.


  2. This is a fascinating topic. For a list of self-reviewed books on Polish espionage, and especially the Poles' breaking of the "invincible" Nazi German ENIGMA code, please click on my name in this posting.

    1. Thanks Jan.
      It's hard to admit but I have only read or was aware of about half the books you had in your list. Looks like great stuff.
      I'll need to play catch up!
      Sounds like you could add a thing or two to this topic.

  3. Thanks for the interesting post, Otto.


    1. Thank you Nemo. So glad you enjoyed it.
      It's an exciting subject. Danusha will be back online before you know it, but in the meantime we'll see what else may present itself.

  4. Thanks Otto.

    You say: "It is odd that they picked a Pole as the traitor though, don't you think?"

    I suppose that is a kind of rhetorical question, expecting the answer "No". As its sadly not odd at all.

    The Official Media Version of WW2 seems to be spinning the Evil Axis Powers into Poland, Poland and Poland. I also remember that the Inspired Scriptures have warned us for two thousand years that the present world system of things lies in the power of the one who is called "the father of the lie".

    "We know we originate with God, but the whole world is lying in the [power of the] wicked one." - 1 John 5:19

    "You are from your father the Devil, and you wish to do the desires of your father. That one was a manslayer when he began, and he did not stand fast in the truth, because truth is not in him. When he speaks the lie, he speaks according to his own disposition, because he is a liar and the father of [the lie]." - John 8:44.

    And how often these lies are designed to get us to fear, fight and kill each other. Whoever it was said that "the first casualty of war is truth" had noticed that.

    An important lesson we can learn, if we will, is to refuse to be affected by "the world", but to stay out of it, to stay neutral, and to try to do good to all.

    That is the silver lining to our cloud. And its much bigger than the cloud, in my opinion.

  5. Hi Sue,
    The question was intended as thought provoking. I view Poland and the Poles as victims during the war, and so from my perspective it did seem like a weird choice for a movie plot. But I do see your point.
    It's been an eye opening lesson since I started reading D's book and her other writing. Whatever the cause, the lie needs to be addressed.
    To paraphrase the saying, all that is required for good people to sit and do nothing for the lie to spread. I may be Don Quixote tilting at windmills, but I believe it's every person's ethical responsibility to speak up and fix the wrong.

    "The lip of truth shall be established for ever, but a lying tongue is but for a moment." Proverbs 12:19 ... that is if we put a light on the lie and the liars.

    It was my hope that people would discuss this, pass it on to a friend - including non-Poles - and that the next time something on the topic comes up, someone will speak up, armed with facts, and correct the lie.

    Thanks for the comments Sue.


  6. Hi Otto, yes, I do believe that the truth will prevail. In every area. Jehovah is the God of truth. And I believe that the best, the perfect, corrective to all the horrors, is the door to door preaching work, trying to get people to see what the Bible on their shelf is actually saying.

    Christianity is called "the way of the truth" - and we are to teach that truth to all who will listen.

    I was out this morning - but didn't find much response. It was also a bit cold to keep people talking on their doorsteps. I did leave some Bible literature with a lovely Filippino lady though.

    There are so many lies. What about the idea that a war between Hitler and Stalin is a war between the Goodies and the Baddies? Didn't both sides shed oceans of innocent blood?

    I also know now what a terrible revenge was taken on the German civilian population as WW2 ended and in its aftermath. A revenge taken in blatant defiance of Jehovah's command that we leave all such things to Him. How was that good?!

    But we - Jehovah's Witnesses - do believe that Bible prophecy indicates that we are living in the darkest hour before the dawn and that soon Paradise will be restored. Not only will there be no more war then - there won't even be an unkind word or an unkind thought.

  7. Very nice piece about a critical aspect of the Second World War, and I truly appreciate the research that went into it.

    That said, I would remind us of the quote attributed to Winston Churchill: "History is written by the victors." Churchill may have been right, but truth is written by the survivors.

    And the two are not necessarily congruent.

    So am I shocked to discover that it was some brilliant guys from Poland, and not the actor, Dougray Scott, who broke the enigma code and made winning the war a lot less costly in Allied lives than it might otherwise have been?

    No, alas, I'm not. And were such a historical injustice done to people for whom I feel an emotional tie, I would be -- at best -- upset.

    But the sad fact of the matter is that it happens all the time, to people -- bright, likeable, heroic people -- all the time, because their nation, their cause, their race, either lost, or was only peripherally involved in the victory.

    Which is not to say that we shouldn't try, regardless of where and who we come from, to set the record straight.

    So, for whatever it's worth, Otto has my respect and appreciation for a valiant effort to do the right thing. The world would be a better, more honest, more interesting place, if we had more Ottos.


    1. don thanx 4 reading & commenting

      i know from knowing u that bs gets u more upset than u reveal here :-)

      my own argument is that the distortion of poland's ww II role is not random or casual but methodical & ideologically driven

      the bieganski stereotype distorts big queations & it should b stopped ... by polonians

      they owe their heroic ancestors no less

    2. Thank you Don.

      I often have a feeling that I'm Don Quixote. I couldn't agree more with you on survivors being responsible for the truth. I believe that each little bit adds to the evolution of a greater collective consciousness. Every little bit helps.

  8. Danusha, I totally agree with you that the distortions should be stopped. Each one of us should stop them, at every level, writing, commenting, making a noise. It seems that today Polish Embassies are reacting. In France they don't let many historical distortions through without making official complaints. And it works. The press have become a little more careful.
    And I have managed to make a documentary about the real contribution of the Polish Secret Service to WW2, which talks of Enigma too. You can see it in French at : http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xet9qf_les-ombres-de-casablanca-1_webcam
    I've just discivered your blog, and love it. Carry on the good work, Malgosha

    1. Malgosha, terrific. Can you say more about your film? Thank you.

  9. It is about the real story behind the film "Casablanca" that portrayed a Czech and a Norwegian as the only members of the Resistance in 1941, when the action of this film takes place. Americans were neutral, the French were collaborators, and Ingrid Bergman symbolized Europe in need of help. In fact, at the time, there was a Polish Intelligence officer sent there by the Sikorski government who set up a network of over 2500 spies and informers. This network made a great contribution to the success of the allies landings in North Africa. But like the whole of the Polish Army in the West, our hero was forgotten after the war. I wanted to show the Polish contribution to WW2 and mention one of the thousands of unsung heros.

    1. Malgosha, that is wonderful! I hope you will release the film with English subtitles. What was the intelligence officer's name?

    2. Mieczyslaw Slowikowski, code name Rygor. The film was aired in France, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Poland, Finland and others. There is an English version, but it hasn't been sold to any Anglo-saxon countries.

    3. What is your next project? May I suggest one to you?

    4. Hello Malgosha. Your story sounds fascinating. I hope you'll tell us more. I look forward to seeing your film and I hope my French is up to the task.
      Hopefully you can contribute a story to D's blog on the topic. I look forward to hearing more and I'm so glad you found us.


    5. Danusha: "Code Name Rygor" is the name of Slowikowski's memoir as well, available from the usual suspects.

  10. I would like to make a funny documentary about Polish Jewish relations, but the more I read, the more I cry.
    What is your suggestion ?

    1. I wrote up a detailed proposal for a film about Markowa. I presented it at the university where I work and the funding experts were enthusiastic. I had a health problem and was unable to pursue it. I've been thinking of posting the description on the blog for others to pursue if they are interested. I may do that soon. I hope you will watch the blog and read the proposal when It goes up.

  11. Very interesting. I hope someone will pick it up. I am a bit over-fed on the Holocaust issue myself. Too often I've been told that I'm making an apology for the Polish attitude etc... You know the song. What's interesting is that they don't even know if I'm Jewish or not. I've made a recent report about the Rebirth of Jewish culture in Poland and there I met so many great people who understood the historical context. Today I find that the youth, in France, are less bigoted about Poland than their parents and the youth in Poland more interested in Polish multicultural roots. I would like to make something that would bring these two communities together, preferably using humour. But I sill have a long way to go.

    1. I hope you will stick around the blog long enough to see the proposal. I hope to post it before the end of the month. It has everything to do with youth and bringing communities together.

      But, I have no contacts, no power, no money, no support.

      I have just been looking for a filmmaker to bequeath the project to.

  12. I am reading your blog all the way. I'm on May 2012 now. But I don't know how not to be anonymous.

  13. I've just arrived in Poland. I don't have internet every day so I'll react after I get back to France. But during the flight I have thought of a lot of things to say. Amazon informed me that your book will arrive on the 28th Dec. So sorry if I voice my ideas without having read your book, but this is a subject that concerns me intimatly. Malgosha


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