„Enigma”

Wars are won not only in the trenches, but also in the solitude of research labs. If not for the Polish mathematicians who deciphered the Enigma, World War II would have certainly lasted much longer.

„Enigma” was the name of a cipher machine, used by the German army and diplomatic corps during the Interwar period and during World War II. Naturally, the machine piqued the interest of Polish counterintelligence, which in the interwar years accomplished a number of feats in its counter-surveillance struggle against Germany and the USSR. The coding system was broken by three mathematicians from the University of Poznan: Marian Rejewski, Jerzy Rozycki and Henryk Zygalski, who worked for the Polish Army’s Cipher Bureau. This enabled the construction of a replica Enigma in 1933 and the deciphering of German messages. A special operations center was established for this purpose in Pyrach outside of Warsaw.

German encryption machine “Enigma” Photo: National Digital Archives
German encryption machine “Enigma” Photo: National Digital Archives

In July 1939, with war clouds looming, the Poles shared their discoveries and their replica Enigma with the intelligence services of France and Great Britain. This enabled the Allies, specifically the British, to decode German and later Japanese cables (Operation Ultra). Thus the Allies could foresee operations undertaken by the Axis and act to oppose them. Allied codebreakers were supported by Polish specialists, who escaped from Poland in September 1939 and who after the fall of France manage to get themselves to Great Britain.

The Breaking of the Enigma was perhaps the greatest Polish contribution to the Allied victory. Nevertheless their accomplishments, as much of the history of the Enigma, was classified until the 1970s. And even afterwards, Poland’s contribution was underappreciated. However recent studies conducted in Poland as well as the West have confirmed the crucial input of mathematicians, engineers and counterintelligence officers from Poland to the Enigma story.

Cryptologists cooperating during the cracking of the German code 1939-1940. From left: Colonel Gwidon Langer (Poland) Colonel Gustave Bertrand (France) and Captain Kenneth McFarlane (Great Britain). Photo: National Digital Archive
Cryptologists cooperating during the cracking of the German code 1939-1940. From left: Colonel Gwidon Langer (Poland) Colonel Gustave Bertrand (France) and Captain Kenneth McFarlane (Great Britain). Photo: National Digital Archive