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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

In 1939, the Poles presented one of their replicated machines to the head of British Secret Intelligence Service, Sir Stewart Menzies. The Polish Enigma machine was a prize beyond compare and materially aided the codebreakers located in an innocuous country manor house called Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire, the site of the Government Code and Cypher School, to crack the German naval codes. The British called their code-breaking effort Ultra and it became the greatest secret of World War II, so covert that its existence was kept for more than a quarter of a century after the war despite the fact that 10,000 men and women worked at Bletchley (see “Spy Wars” article, Armchair General magazine, May 2007).

The interception of valuable German message traffic was a monumental contribution to the winning of the war. However, none of it would have been possible without the contribution of the Poles, who literally stole Nazi Germany’s greatest secret and made it available to the British.


What is troubling is that until recently the Poles have never received their due for this great achievement. The myth that the British were the first to crack Enigma gained prominence with the publication of a book that revealed the Ultra secret. In 1977, former RAF Group Captain F.W. Winterbotham blew the lid off what had been kept secret by those 10,000 men and women who had worked at Bletchley Park during the war. However, the publication of Winterbotham’s self-serving The Ultra Secret only gave credit to the British – and to himself. There is no mention of the Polish contribution. Like so many other contributions of the Poles during World War, credit for their role in Enigma was slow in coming. Historians were either unaware of the Polish role or failed to attribute it when the information became known.

Two American Presidents finally helped redress the balance. In 1989, Pres. George H.W. Bush traveled to Gdansk and declared that: “Before Poland fell, you gave the Allies Enigma, the Nazi’s secret coding machine. Breaking the unbreakable Axis code saved tens of thousands of Allied lives, of American lives; and for this, you have the enduring gratitude of the American people. And ultimately, Enigma and freedom fighters played a major role in winning the Second World War.” In 1994, Pres. Bill Clinton paid a similar tribute before the Polish Parliament.

Lewin tells us how several Enigmas were saved after the Germans subjugated Poland, and “an irreplaceable team expert cryptologists had been preserved intact. As the war ran on the Poles would work for the joint cause memorably – in fighter and bombers squadrons of the RAF; in besieged Tobruk: on the Italian heights of Cassino and the battlefield of Normandy. Nevertheless, their most distinctive achievement was their first. They had carried out impeccably the momentous peacetime decisions of their General Staff: ‘In case of a threat of war the Enigma secret must be used as our Polish contribution to the common cause of defence, and divulged to our future Allies.’  They had made Ultra possible.”(4)

Ronald Lewin’s remarkable words are the reason why it remains essential that the Polish story be told. There is much more to the tale of Enigma but it is hoped this brief introduction to how it all began will serve as a basis for further reading by those interested in this little known aspect of World War II.

Suggested further reading

Jan Bury, “The Engima – A Polish View, The Greatest Secret of World War II, The Enigma Code Breach.” (An informative account on the web can be found here). 

Wladyslaw Kozaczuk and Jerzy Straszak, Enigma: How the Poles Broke the Nazi Code (New York: Hippocrene Books, 2004). This book is an excellent source for the background on how the Poles broke Enigma. 

Ronald Lewin, Ultra Goes to War (London: Hutchinson, 1978).

David Kahn, The Codebreakers (New York: Macmillan, 1967).


1. Wladyslaw Kozaczuk and Jerzy Straszak, Enigma: How the Poles Broke the Nazi Code (New York: Hippocrene Books, 2004), “Enigma Before 1940.”

2. Ronald Lewin, Ultra Goes to War (London: Hutchinson, 1978), pp. 30, 32-33.

3. Kozaczuk and Straszak, Enigma: How the Poles Broke the Nazi Code. The remarks of Bush and Clinton appear on the dust jacket. 

4. Lewin, Ultra Goes to War, pp. 49-50.

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