Saturday, September 15, 2018

Forgotten Heroes of the Enigma Story

From Nature:
Alan Turing’s crucial unscrambling of German messages in the Second World War was a tour de force of codebreaking. From 1940 onwards, Turing and his team engineered hundreds of electronic machines, dubbed bombes, which decrypted the thousands of missives sent by enemy commanders each day to guide their soldiers. This deluge of knowledge shortened the war. Bletchley Park, UK — the secret centre where it all happened — rightly gained its place in history. But as with all breakthroughs, many more people laid the foundations.

In his book X, Y & Z, Dermot Turing, the great mathematician’s nephew, tells the gripping story of a band of Polish mathematicians who figured out much about how German Enigma encoding machines operated, years before Alan Turing did. The Poles shared their secrets with French and British intelligence services before and during the Second World War — the letters X, Y and Z were shorthand for the French, British and Polish codebreaking teams, respectively.

The author’s research is painstaking. After the war, military documents were scattered across Europe, and key French records were declassified only in 2016. Many original Polish papers were destroyed, but the mathematicians’ families have shared personal letters. Turing unearths a remarkable tale of intellect, bravery and camaraderie that reads like a nail-biting spy novel.

Polish skills in cryptography and radio engineering came together during the 1920 Russo-Polish War. Signallers decoded a telegram from Red Army military commander Joseph Stalin, which indicated that an attack on Warsaw was imminent. Jamming the Russians’ radio communications bought enough time to secure and save the city. Maksymilian Ciężki and Antoni Palluth were among those signallers. After the 1920 conflict, Ciężki became leader of a radio-intelligence unit. Palluth set up a business making electronic equipment, including radios the size of a credit card for Polish secret agents. (Read more.)

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