The Polish Enigma


Dermot Turing, the nephew of the famous code breaker and one of the fathers of the computer, Alan (“The Imitation Game”, pretty good movie) writes about a very little known sub-chapter of one of the lesser known chapters of the Second World War:

The British are rightly proud of the code-breaking centre at Buckinghamshire’s Bletchley Park, which famously cracked the Enigma cipher machine and, according to one historian, helped shorten the Second World War by as much as two years. The story has almost passed into legend, perhaps tempting us to visualise the man most closely associated with this episode – Alan Turing, my uncle – battling alone against prejudice and a mountainous, intellectual problem. The truth is a little more complicated, but just as interesting.

The reality is that Turing had help from Poland – the country that Britain pledged to defend in 1939. It was there, seven years earlier, that a different team of code-breakers had already got to the bottom of the Enigma problem. One of them, Henryk Zygalski, will finally be celebrated in a discreet ceremony in Chichester on Saturday, when the Polish ambassador to the UK unveils a monument in his honour. It was in 1932 that he and other Polish code-breakers recreated, through pure mathematical analysis, the way the military Enigma machine worked. From then on, the Germans made frequent changes to their Enigma machines – any one of which could have blinded the Poles to the content of the messages – but the code-breakers were able to find a way around each development. They invented new machines called “bombas”, as well as manual techniques to tackle the code-breaking challenge. Among Zygalski’s inventions was a method involving perforated cardboard sheets, representing Enigma rotor settings, which were piled on top of a light-box, progressively blocking more perforations until only one – the likely set-up – was left.

At a crucial meeting in Warsaw in July 1939, the secrets of Zygalski’s sheets, the workings of the bombas, the wiring of the Enigma machines and much more were divulged to an incredulous group of intelligence officers from Britain and France. It was this handover of priceless know-how that gave my uncle and his co-workers at Bletchley Park the information they needed to provide an Enigma code-breaking capability to the Allies for the rest of the war.

It’s debatable – and still being debated to this day – whether the Allies’ ability to read German codes actually had any significant impact on the course or the duration of war, but either way this shouldn’t detract from the purely intellectual achievement.

As an aside, [spoiler alert] I’ve never forgiven Robert Harris, whose “Fatherland” is still one of my favourite pieces of popular fiction ever, for his follow up “Enigma” (later turned into a movie with the post-“Titanic” Kate Winslett). While it is the only book I’ve stayed up until ungodly hours to finish because I wasn’t able to put it down, I was hugely let down when at the end the villain turned out to be a Pole. I know that fiction is fiction, but the whole set up was so far fetched and ridiculous so as to overshadow the great enjoyment of this book until then (kind of like reading an Agatha Christie murder mystery only to discover on the last page that it wasn’t the butler but a space alien).

P.S. Anyway, Dermot Turing’s ‘X, Y and Z: The Real Story of How Enigma Was Broken’ (£20, History Press) is out on tomorrow. I think it will more satisfying than Harris’.