The Enigma Code Machine

Capture of the German Enigma coding machine and breaking it's code changed the course of World War II. This article looks at Enigma.

Until the recent movie U-571, few people had heard of Enigma. In the film, brave navy men capture a U-boat and perhaps more significantly, the Enigma secret coding machine which was on board. Once in the hands of the British, the decoding process could begin, ultimately changing the course of the war.

The word enigma means a mystery or a riddle. The British faced a major riddle during World War II, as they attempted to crack the German messages encrypted with the Enigma cipher machines. It was no simple task.

To assure success, on land, sea and air, the Germans needed the fastest and most secret communications system available for the time period. The Enigma cipher machine, designed to protect the secrecy of business messages, was adapted for the purposes of combat. Additional refinements to the machine, during the war increased its complexity, thus making the messages harder and harder to decipher.

In fact, the German Navy started buying Enigma machines as early as 1925 and the Germany Army following shortly thereafter. The Germans placed a great deal of confidence in the Enigma, believing it to be completely unbreakable. They obviously underestimated their enemies. Contrary to such high expectations, the Enigma codes were broken.

The Enigma machine looks a like an old-fashioned typewriter, but it has several components unlike a typewriter: a plug board, a light board, a keyboard, a set of rotors and reflector (half rotor). The machine has several variable settings that affect the operation. Basically, the letters were scrambled, but not consistently and each day the rotors were swapped around. The Germans also had manuals the operators used to set the parameters of the machine for each day. (This is a simplified description, but you get the idea...)

Fortunately for the British, Polish scientists had been quietly working behind the scenes and learned much about the Enigma in late 1930s. They pooled their information with the British when Poland was invaded by the Nazis.

Two gentlemen, Alan Turing and Alfred Knox, were instrumental in the final breakdown of the Enigma. The created a gigantic machine called Colossus, which helped decipher complex intercepted Enigma messages.

Colossus performed thousands of mathematical calculations at unheard-of-speed, at least for that time.

The "computer" could read and check about 5,000 characters per second.

Two other things helped the British overcome Enigma. They eventually learned each message included an eight-character prefix and they determined how it worked to create a key.

Thanks to the hard work of the code-breakers, the German positions were pinpointed, saving many ships and many lives. Indeed, some German code books and Enigma machines were taken from captured U-boats, just like in the movie. Who needs fiction, when history provides us with such sensational stories?

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