Poles' Enigma role overlooked

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON - London newspapers are up in arms over the movie "U-571" because it changes history and has U.S. commandos capturing a German submarine and a priceless encoding machine, when in fact the feat was performed by British sailors.

Ignored in the trans-Atlantic tempest is the fact that it was neither Britons nor Americans who swiped Hitler's famous "Enigma" encoding machine, but Poles.

More than a half-century after the end of World War II, the crucial involvement of Polish intelligence in breaking the Enigma code is still largely unknown to the public.

Possession of the device, which the Germans thought was producing an unbreakable code for military communications, has been cited as a critical Allied advantage in World War II.

"Enigma intelligence enabled Britain to defeat German forces - without it, it is no exaggeration to say that Germany might have won the Second World War," wrote Cmdr. Patrick Beesly, a former British Navy intelligence officer, in his 1977 book, "Very Special Intelligence."

Polish-American groups have responded philosophically to Hollywood's treatment of the history of Enigma.

"U-571 claims credit for the Americans for Enigma work done by Poles and Brits," one Polish-American wrote on an Internet discussion site.

"Some may see no problem in this; after all, it's a Hollywood movie, fiction and all that. Some others of us may be a bit annoyed at this rewrite of history."

Media indignation

The British press has been less laid-back.

"Whupped by the Yanks Again," declared the Times of London in a May 13 article bemoaning the decision of Universal Pictures to ignore in "U-571" that a crew of sailors from a British destroyer captured an Enigma from a German submarine in 1941 - six months before the United States entered the war.

Other British papers were similarly indignant.

"Saving Private Ryan was bad enough," the Times declared. "Ignoring your partners is one thing: pretending you pulled off one of their more spectacular coups looks like outright theft."

Speaking of ignoring your partners, the British might remember the Polish Military Cypher Bureau, which turned over the Enigma machine to British intelligence shortly before Adolf Hitler's army attacked Poland in 1939.

The story of how Polish mathematicians not only figured out how the Enigma machine worked, but built several working models, is often relegated to footnote treatment in World War II histories.

An exception was "Ultra Goes to War," published in 1978 by McGraw Hill. The book is primarily an account of "the Ultra Secret," a guarded British program of using Enigma to monitor and decode German military radio traffic.

But author Ronald Lewin credits Polish cryptanalysts with learning how the German Enigma code was generated and how to break it.

In 1926, Lewin wrote, Polish military commanders realized that the military buildup then under way in Germany was accompanied by the appearance of a new and evidently unbreakable code. Alarmed, they set out to learn how the code was generated and how to break it.

Three of the most brilliant young mathematics students from a Polish university with knowledge of German were selected for special training in cryptology.

In "Operation Wicher" (Gale), with pieces of information provided by spies in Germany and endless calculations by the young mathematicians, the Poles figured out how Enigma worked.

They used plans of the Enigma machine sold to the French intelligence service by a German General Staff clerk. French, British and U.S. cryptologists thought the plans were not enough to break the code.

But the Poles used them to build the first working Enigma device. The only problem was, they did not know how to use it to read German messages.

Basically, the device consisted of a succession of turning wheels somewhat like the dials of an automobile odometer. With these wheels and a profusion of electric circuitry, Enigma would change a "typed" letter to the encoded substitute.

The ingenious - and at that point unprecedented - element was the machine's capability to change the code after each letter. For instance, a typed "K" might appear as an "X" the first time it was used in a message, then as a "B" the next time. Only someone with another Enigma machine could decode the message.

The settings used to let two machines communicate with each other were another mystery. Marian Rejewski, a Polish mathematician in his early 20s, finally determined how to decode these settings and spent several months breaking the code.

A crucial decision

Lewin wrote that when it became clear that Polish spies and cryptanalysts had successfully solved the Enigma mystery, the Polish General Staff secretly adopted a policy: "In the case of a threat of war, the Enigma secret must be used as our Polish contribution to the common cause of defense and divulged to our future allies."

Two months before the German invasion of Poland, the Polish intelligence service secretly met with French and British officials in France and turned over to their Western allies two working copies of Enigma with instructions on how to decode Enigma settings.

One went to Paris, the other to London.

"To quantify the value of Enigma's arrival in London is beyond mathematics," Lewin wrote. "If the Polish General Staff had decided to keep their secrets to themselves, things might have gone differently."

A month after the invasion of Poland, 15 Polish code breakers and two more Enigmas were secretly slipped into France, by way of the Orient Express, and from there to England.

Shortly before the British acquired the Polish-made Enigmas, however, German cryptologists had added two more wheels to the machine, greatly complicating the code and making it impossible to use the three-wheel Polish models to decode messages.

Moreover, wheels could be moved around and wires attached in different ways, enormously increasing the coding possibilities.

It became an urgent goal of "Ultra" to locate a five-wheel device.

Victory at sea

The goal was achieved in May 1941, when the German submarine U-110 attacked a North Atlantic convoy near Greenland. U-110 was depth-charged by the British destroyer Bulldog and forced to surface.

Although the German commander set charges to destroy the submarine after ordering his crew to abandon it, the charges failed to go off.

British sailors immediately boarded the U-boat and recovered a five-wheel Enigma and enough precious code papers to fill several shelves.

For three hours, a whaler shuttled back and forth through the rough North Atlantic waters, ferrying the Enigma and documents to the Bulldog.

That was the heroic action that became the basis for Universal Studio's rewrite of history in "U-571."

But without the decision of Polish officers, on the very eve of the destruction of their country, to share the Enigma as "our Polish contribution" to the war that loomed ahead, there never would have been even an attempt to capture the machine.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
63°