May 2, 2012

Reaping secrets

In May of 1919, the Cipher Section of the Polish Army was created – it soon proved its value in the ensuing Polish-Russian border war, the result of some imprecise wording in the Treaty of Paris.  (Poland had regained its independence after WWI and was eager to extend its borders.)

A military enigma machine. Photo by Karsten Sperling

The decrypting of more than a hundred separate Russian ciphers and thus thousands of signal messages gave the Poles a definite tactical advantage. By the winter of 1927-28, the Section had become the Cipher Bureau, expanded its staff and in July of 1928 it tackled the biggest job it would ever have.

It started with a package gone astray.  Officials at the Warsaw Customs House were holding a box that according to its declaration was radio equipment.  But before it could go through customs, a representative of the German shipper appeared, said a mistake had been made and demanded that it be returned to Germany.

Classic.  No one was paying much attention until the fuss started, but then they did.  Someone remembered that the Army’s Cipher Bureau was always interested in new radio technology and so they were called in. When the Bureau experts opened the box, it was found to contain a mass market cipher machine intended for commercial use.  It had been named by its inventor – Artur Scherbius – the Enigma machine.

Marian Rejewski, probably 1932.
Photo courtesy of Janina Sylwestrzak, Rejewski's daughter.

The German Navy had adopted an Enigma almost two years earlier.  Soon, the Army would as well.

During the summer following a careful examination of the Enigma machine, the Poles intercepted the first of many German machine-encypted signals.  But even with the Enigma machine on the shelf, they were unable to crack the code.

The Enigma machine was – and continued to be for many years – a near-perfect encryption device. A detailed description of why it works so well is here. No one would ever have been able to decipher German signals if not for a number of events.

First, the French had a mole inside the German Cipher Office and a resident spy who got the information from the mole to the Intelligence service.

Second, in 1932, the Poles hired a young cryptanalyst right out of university, a mathematician named Marian Rejewski.

French Intelligence came to the Poles in 1932 and offered to share their info – during the previous four years they’d gotten copies of the Enigma machine’s instruction manual, operating procedures, and lists of key settings, but they still weren’t able to decrypt signals.

Using the information from the French, Rejewski turned to a branch of pure mathematics called the ‘theory of permutations and groups’ and very soon the first decryptions began to emerge.  Over the next six years the Polish Cipher Bureau decrypted upwards of 75% of the German signal traffic.

Then, in 1939, the Poles shared their work with the Allies and the spotlight shifted to England and ‘Captain Ridley’s shooting party.’

Next, Bletchley Park.



  1. Wow! Interesting and mysterious. Always interested in the offerings of the Poles.

    Comment by GALYA TARMU — May 2, 2012 @ 5:11 pm | Reply

  2. What an extraordinary invention- and don’t we love the name ‘Enigma Machine’ ?? I just read Diane Ackerman’s ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife,’ re Jan and Antonina Zabinski saving 300 Polish Jews by hiding them in the Warsaw Zoo during the Nazi occupation. Another view of Poland is offered in Massie’s bio of Catherine the Great. As citizens of a country partitioned often by the great powers, I think many Poles show an aptitude for courage, subterfuge and amazing adaptability.

    Comment by Celia Carroll — May 2, 2012 @ 5:14 pm | Reply

  3. Very informative thank you

    Comment by avery zia — May 3, 2012 @ 8:57 am | Reply

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