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Posted on Mar 29, 2007 in Carlo D'Este, Front Page Features

The Valiant Poles – Pt 2

By Carlo D'Este

Last month’s installment was the first of a multi-part series on the exploits and contributions of the exile Polish men and women who fought with the Allies, far from their occupied homeland and under difficult conditions. Having met many of those who served in World War II has only magnified my deep admiration for their contributions. The Poles were the only nation to have fought on every front and in the major sea battles of the war. Their suffering was beyond the pale and, besides the brutal occupation of their homeland, included the massacre of an estimated 4,500 Polish officers at Katyn, originally thought to have been perpetrated by the Germans, but later revealed to have been the work of the Russian NKVD; the Warsaw ghetto and the establishment of the extermination camps, the largest and best-known of which was Auschwitz, where an estimated 1.1 to 1.6 million people – most of them Jews – were killed. Poland’s torment came not just from the Germans. In 1940 alone, the Soviets murdered an estimated 22,000 Polish prisoners that included officers, university professors, lawyers, doctors and engineers.


Last month I made brief mention of a letter received in the spring of 1984. That tale is forthcoming in a future installment. But first, by way of background, this month’s article is a brief look at one the most significant achievements of World War II.

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In 1933, three Polish mathematicians accomplished the impossible, an event that later helped alter the course of World War II: they unlocked the secret of a German cipher machine thought to be impregnable. It was called Enigma. A Dutchman patented the first design for a commercial cipher machine in 1919, and in 1923 a German engineer began commercial production to market the Enigma machine. Created primarily for the purpose of keeping bank transactions secret, the Enigma was a portable cipher machine designed to encode and decode messages. Enigma employed a series of electro-mechanical rotors that created one-time codes, thus enabling a party at one end to encrypt a message that another machine could then decode by its owner, all with complete security. Before long, the Enigma’s military potential soon came to the attention of the German military. The navy adopted the Engima machine in 1926 and the army followed suit in 1928. By the mid-1930s the device, whose settings could be changed daily, was in use by all of the German armed services and by the secret intelligence service (the Sicherheitsdienst). During World War II, the Engima became a primary means of sending and receiving classified messages. Because of its unique capability the Germans believed the Enigma system was foolproof. They never learned that in Poland their great secret was about to be unlocked.

Although its commercial benefits were obvious, outside of Germany only Poland, Japan and the United States even expressed interest. American interest proved perfunctory and soon waned, a reflection of the isolationism of the interwar period and the outlook espoused by Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson’s now famous declaration that: “Gentlemen do not read other people’s mail.”  Polish intelligence, however, was very interested and in 1928 managed to divert an Enigma machine being sent to the German embassy long enough to inspect its interior workings. This soon led to the purchase of a commercial machine and an effort began to master the secrets of the Enigmas used by the German military. (1) Ultra historian Ronald Lewin has pointed out that simply having an Enigma machine was only the beginning; “the Poles had to discover not only how it was put together, but also the theoretical principles that governed its performance.” How did Enigma work? “If they were to be able to read the Germans’ signals . . . they would have to find not only how to construct the machines for themselves but also the means of discovering, for every day, the correct method of setting them up. The keys to the setting were vital.” (2) The difficult task undertaken by the Polish Secret Intelligence Service was spurred by the swift rise of Hitler in the early 1930s that left them wary of German intentions. Relations between Germany and Poland worsened as Hitler and the Nazis consolidated power, aligned themselves with Italy’s fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, and became the equivalent of Europe’s 800-pound gorilla. The Poles quite rightly saw themselves as the next victims, particularly after the fall of Austria and Czechoslovakia.

Polish cryptologists and mathematicians accomplished the impossible: they managed to replicate the internal workings of the Enigma machine used by the German military, thus enabling them to break the German codes. In 1933, the geniuses recruited to work in the Ciphers Office of the Polish Army’s General Staff finally cracked the secret of the German machine, and by 1934 the Poles had deciphered and read some 10,000 German messages sent through the Enigmas. With war clouds growing darker over Europe, the Polish effort took on critical importance. That effort included the manufacture of fifteen Polish Enigma machines. (3)

The Enigma machine

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