Story by Marek Grajek
Secrecy has never been one of Polish specialities. Sensitive issues that in other countries were kept behind closed doors of political cabinets were in times of the so-called Republic of Nobles openly deliberated in parliamentary sessions.
Only after the country’s partition did several generations of Polish politicians have to familiarise themselves with rules of conspiracy and learn how to cover their tracks with a smokescreen of codes and ciphers. After the rebirth of the Polish Republic many in her service learned to appreciate cryptography even if they were not familiar with the term. And thankfully so, as without understanding its importance, even the sudden manifestation of Jan Kowalewski’s emerging talent in cryptology and his triumph over Soviet ciphers would not have helped Poland when the Soviets arrived at the gates of Warsaw.
The experience drawn by Marshal Jozef Pilsudski and his inner circle from conspiracy helped to understand how to use this unexpected gift. In a matter of months an incidental success was turned into a dynamic organisation capable of delivering up-to-date and reliable intelligence on the opponent’s intentions. The collaboration of officers, who relied on their experience in military service in the armies of former occupants, led to their success in deciphering much more than only Soviet codes. Young mathematicians were enlisted to work in the cipher section of the organisation, at a time a highly unconventional decision. This somewhat improvised group of people has not disappointed their superiors’ trust and delivered intelligence that made it possible to draft the Battle of Warsaw’s victorious plan. Jan Kowalewski must have fought to hide his smile later on when he heard this affair being referred to as the Miracle at the Vistula. He knew that there was nothing supernatural about this Polish victory. He also knew that among the privileged few who were aware of the actual order of events the term ‘cryptologist’ had been inescapably associated with the terms of ‘victory’ and ‘independence’.
Such confidence became beneficial nearly ten years later when the Polish Cipher Bureau was confronted with the Enigma challenge. An obstacle that all foreign cryptography and intelligence services without exceptions deemed insurmountable.
The Polish Cipher Bureau was the first to accept the Enigma’s challenge. A young lieutenant Maksymilian Ciężki, head of the German section of the bureau, came up with a long term strategy of an attack on the cipher. He intended to teach cryptology to a group of mathematicians who, after a couple of years of apprenticeship, would be challenged to break the code. As he presented his plan to his superiors he must have known that he could not guarantee its success. The fact that Ciężki’s proposition was accepted, is a testimony to chiefs’ of intelligence forward thinking. However, their decision probably would have been different if not for Kowalewski’s previous achievements.
Not only did Ciężki outline this innovative strategy, but he also implemented it with unwavering perseverance. He organised a six-month course in cryptology for a group of over twenty students of mathematics at the University of Poznań. He subsequently chose the most promising graduates and for them created a branch of the Cipher Bureau in Poznań. For three long years he visited his protégés at least once a weak to supervise them and check on their progress. During all this time the aspiring cryptologists did not even once hear the name of the machine, the conquering of which was to become their purpose. Finally, in the summer of 1932, Ciężki concluded that the last three men standing were ready to meet the challenge.
The first one to face his destiny was Marian Rejewski. Ciężki handed over to him all the information concerning the Enigma that was gathered by the Polish intelligence. Had Rejewski been an experienced cryptologist he would have probably failed. The Enigma put all the traditional deciphering methods to pasture. Luckily for the civilised world, Rejewski’s mathematician’s temper triumphed. He turned all the information into a set of mathematical equations and tried to solve them. He was not aware that by doing it he steered cryptology towards an entirely new path. Unexpectedly, Ciężki’s educational investment quickly turned into profit. Between Christmas and the New Year’s Eve Rejewski, using nothing but logical reasoning, solved all his mathematical equations, recreating the construction of a machine which he had never seen and would not see for the rest of his life.
Hitler rose to power about a month after Rejewski had managed to decipher his first Enigma dispatch. He did not realise that the tool destined to defeat the Third Reich had just been forged. Following his first triumph Rejewski was joined by two colleagues – Jerzy Różycki and Henryk Zygalski. Together they formed one of the most successful teams in the history of cryptology. There was going to be plenty of work and glory for everyone to share.
At the end of December 1932 by cracking the German Enigma cipher machine Rejewski confronted the Cipher Bureau with the issue of practical application of this success. In order to read German messages in a sensible time frame the Poles needed a copy of the machine. In the first weeks of 1933 they managed to get by, using a less complicated, commercial version of the Enigma with some crucial tweaks applied. At the same time the AVA Radio Company, which cooperated with the Polish intelligence, received an order to manufacture a dozen or so of German Enigma’s doubles. At the end of March the Cipher Bureau was in possession of the equipment required to carry out a systematic deciphering operation.
German cryptologists proved to be formidable adversaries. They identified flaws of the cipher as swiftly as the Poles and implemented modifications designed to make reading German messages impossible. By confronting these obstacles Rejewski and his colleagues initiated another revolution in cryptology. They came to the conclusion that, from a logical point of view, a ciphering machine should be countered by another, a deciphering one. They started in 1935 by constructing an uncomplicated cyclometer. However, later in the autumn of 1938 Rejewski constructed the so-called ‘cryptologic bomb’, a prototype of all the devices that later, during the war, enabled the Allies to decipher German messages on an industrial scale.
Rejewski’s device has a special place in history of technology. During WW2 his British and American followers mass-produced machines that, similarly to Rejewski’s bomb, helped to execute a precise attack on a particular cipher. Still, plans have also emerged to build a universal device that would enable the cracking of various types of codes. This vision was not to be realised during the war, but only when the battle-hardened cryptologists went back to work in academia and business. On both sides of the Atlantic Ocean mathematicians, veterans of covert work in cryptologic centres, became inventors of the first electronical computers. It is worth remembering that it was Rejewski’s invention that generated the need which was answered by the creation of first computers - ancestors of today’s digital civilisation.
British historiography long advanced the thesis that the Poles owed their Enigma codebreaking success to a machine’s theft. In reality, Marian Rejewski has never in his life, neither before nor after breaking the code, had the opportunity to see the German original of the machine. His reconstruction of it was based purely on logical reasoning, rooted in a general understanding of how the machine should work, and cryptograms intercepted by the Polish intelligence. Given that, it is no wonder that the Polish version was different from the German original in the details of craftsmanship. The real Enigma was supposed to be mobile, used in headquarters that were constantly relocating, hence its electrical wiring was battery powered. The Polish double was to be used only in the Cipher Bureau’s guarded quarters thus it was designed to be powered from an electric grid. Poles knew that the main difference between the commercial and military model of the machine came down to the use of a plug board in the latter one. Unlike in the original version, they decided to locate the plug board not on the front wall of the machine, but on the panel over the rotor section.
Marian Rejewski mentioned in his memoirs that the Enigma doubles’ round-the-clock use resulted in them wearing out fast and they had to be replaced often. We do not know how many copies of the machine were eventually created in the AVA factory. We can only be sure that they were put to good use by the Cipher Bureau’s cryptologists. When in 1938 the Chiefs of the Polish General Staff ordered a military drill for the Cipher’s Bureau German division, Rejewski and his colleagues cracked around 75% of the intercepted cryptograms.
In the autumn of 1938 the Germans made operational changes to Enigma. The Polish decrypting methods kept their validity and effectiveness, but the production of devices which would enable their practical use exceeded the financial and organisational means of the Cipher Bureau. If Rejewski’s and his colleagues’ success was to be beneficial they needed to find partners who would help with the attack on the cipher.
Their initial efforts were not encouraging. The atmosphere during the meeting of the French, Polish and British cryptographers in January 1939 was characterised with a lack of mutual trust. However, the looming prospect of war resulted in an alliance made during the following meeting in July 1939 in Warsaw, which was with time to bring victory in the Second World War. At these meetings the Poles revealed to the future allies all the secrets of their trade that allowed the breaking of the Enigma code, and declared that they would supply each of the partners with one copy of Enigma. The promised machines reached Paris and London in August, moments before the war broke out.
Just like in Paris, the atmosphere at the conference in Pyry was somewhat acerbic, but the flow of events did not allow to dwell on it. Five weeks after the Poles revealed in Warsaw the secret of Rejewski’s ‘bomba’ real German bombs fell on the capital city, bringing death and destruction. The Cipher Bureau’s team did not make any real difference to the September Campaign. The Polish intelligence signal stations were taken by the enemy during the first week of combat. In this situation the cryptologists’ only imperative was to protect the confidential information that has recently become a shared secret of the Allies. The Poles covered all the traces of their activity in Warsaw and nearby Pyry and followed an evacuation trail that in two weeks led them to the Romanian border. From there on, with the help of the French intelligence, they gradually managed to get to Paris, where a decision was made to place them under French command.
Lodged in Gretz-Armainvilliers near Paris the Poles became aware that the French had done nothing to use and develop the information that was handed over to them in Warsaw. The copy of the Enigma handed over before the war had been stashed away in a chest – apparently the hosts did not have any cryptologists available who would have been up to the task. The Cipher Bureau’s supervisors knew that amidst war they would need more machines. Antoni Palluth, the chief engineer of the group, dismantled the machine brought from Poland and using it as a matrix prepared with Edward Fokczyński a documentation that would make it possible to mass produce the machines. Their French supervisor, Major Gustave Bertrand, ordered several dozen Enigmas to be produced by a company called Belin, a manufacturer of cash registers.
Despite the July transfer of knowledge and hope neither the French nor the Brits could cope with decoding the Enigma cipher once the war broke out. It was suspected for a while that Germans could have again modified the construction or operation of the machine. At last, in mid-January 1940, the Brits delegated to Paris, and equipped him with Zygalski’s sheets, the one and only Alan Turing. On January the 17th the Poles, in the presence of Turing, cracked the Enigma code for the first time during the war. Thus the colossal Allied deciphering operation finally had its debut.
The engineers’ efforts were largely in vain. Not one machine from the new source had been delivered before the military campaign in the West started. The Polish cryptographers tried to support the French Army by any means available, but the task proved to be too great. After a few weeks they again found themselves in the roles of escapees hiding their most treasured secret. The French temporarily evacuated the team to North Africa and later to the unoccupied South of France where the intelligence service set up a covert decrypting centre. Bertrand managed to contact the manufacturer of the machines. During several missions to Paris, then located outside of the demarcation line, he managed to carry the necessary parts which later were used by Palluth and Fokczyński to build four Enigma doubles. Neither those machines, nor the cryptologists were to play any important part in the unfolding events of WW2. The Poles reported later that the French had not provided them with a sufficient amount of captured data from the listening stations that were analysing German transmissions. Besides, the French were primarily interested in other types of German ciphers, to which they tried to divert the Polish cryptographers’ attention.
Following Germany’s occupation of the South of France, the covert intelligence centre Cadix at Uzès was shut down in November 1942 and the station’s equipment was concealed right before the personnel’s evacuation. Part of the Polish cryptology team managed to get away to Spain and further to Great Britain. Unfortunately, some of the group were betrayed by French guides and captured by Germans.
In May 1945, after the war, Rejewski and Zygalski returned to the South of France to retrieve their personal effects and probably some of their remaining cryptologic equipment.
It is most likely that among the items recovered was the unique Enigma double on display at the Jozef Pilsudski Institute in London. From the analysis of its specification, it has been identified as one of the four machines produced in France and assembled by the Polish engineers. The complicated history of this machine is a sad parallel to the fate of the members of the team whose success contributed to the Allies’ victory in the Second World War.
The most important part of Rejewski and his colleagues’ work survived against all odds and triumphed in the end. However, the triumph of their minds came at a high price. After the victory over the Third Reich it transpired that the former Soviet ally used ciphering machines built on the same theoretical foundation as Enigma. The theory generated by the Poles, formerly the most guarded secret of the Second World War, now of the Cold War, was to maintain its secretive status for the following thirty years. Today, when declassification of the archival documents enabled historians and cryptologist to fully reconstruct the adventure of attacking the Enigma’s code, it has become clear that the theoretical and intellectual foundation of Enigma’s deciphering had been laid by the Polish team before the outbreak of the Second World War. A veteran of the British cryptology and a Bletchley Park staff member during wartime, Professor Jack Good, described one of the theorems Rejewski formulated during his pioneering attack on the Enigma code as "the formula that won the Second World War". An idea always prevails. It stays strong against manipulation and falsehoods and stands the test of time.
When the war ended the Allies’ cryptologists were coming back to their academic departments trying to apply the knowledge gained during their struggle with enemy’s ciphers to civilian use. However, the Polish could not do the same.
The Allies’ victory in the Second World War did not bring Poland’s independence. The triumph over the Enigma cipher did not translate to its authors’ recognition for their work. Jerzy Różycki died in a marine accident in the Mediterranean in 1942. Antoni Palluth, betrayed by the French, was imprisoned in Oranienburg-Sachsenhausen concentration camp. He died during American bombardment of a factory where he worked with other prisoners. Edward Fokczyński died several weeks later in the same camp of exhaustion and starvation. Due to family reasons Marian Rejewski needed to return to the communist-dominated Poland. To keep himself and his family safe he needed to abandon his ambition of academic work. He spent the rest of his days working as an accountant for various insignificant companies in Bydgoszcz, his hometown. Although Henryk Zygalski has found the love of his life in Great Britain his professional achievements have never been acknowledged. His academic diploma was not recognised and in order to teach mathematics in British schools he needed to repeat his studies at the University of London. Colonel Gwido Langer, Head of the Cipher Bureau, died in Scotland in 1948, just several weeks after the demobilisation. Maksymilian Ciężki, his second in command, survived him by just three years and died in Cornwall in 1951.
Only after the end of communism era in Poland were the Poles able to stand up for their heroes. Langer’s and Ciężki’s remains were ceremonially brought to their land of birth and laid down in peace in their hometowns. The achievements of the Cipher Bureau’s team are being commemorated by books, exhibitions and various projects such as the Enigma Relay.