Polish and American Enigma Codebreakers

One of our earlier shows addressed some of the myths and misunderstandings about cracking the “uncrackable” German Enigma code during World War II. But perhaps the biggest popular misconception about Enigma really deserves more detailed attention. That biggest myth is that British codebreakers, led by Alan Turing, were solely responsible for breaking the code during World War II.

Buzzkillers in Dayton, Ohio, will be very proud to hear that one of their native sons, Joseph Desch, was an Enigma-cracking hero. And Buzzkillers in Poland will be ecstatic that that we’re gonna remind everyone that Polish cryptanalysts were the first to crack Enigma.

As you know, Enigma was a machine that the Germans used to encrypt military messages and to protect military secrets from the Allies. And the codebreakers at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire, England, especially Alan Turing, deciphered the German code during the war. This crucial work, in effect, shortened the war and saved tens of thousands – if not hundreds of thousands – of lives.

The accomplishments of Bletchley Park are the stuff of legend, especially after the enormous success of the 2014 film The Imitation Game, which dramatically portrays the real-life accomplishments of Turing’s team, with a little Hollywood flair, of course.

What is not readily apparent in the well-deserved accolades bestowed upon Alan Turing’s and the Bletchley Park team is that there were two other World War II codebreaking operations that cracked Enigma, and are equally deserving of our admiration.

In the first place, the version of the machine that the British built to decipher the German Enigma code was based upon an earlier version developed by the Polish Cipher Bureau. Polish scientists developed their original machine in 1932, and named it the Bomba (spelled B-O-M-B-A), most likely because of the noise it made while operating. The Poles designed and built the Bomba through pure mathematical analysis, aided by an intercepted German Enigma machine, and a little help from a German spy.

The British team at Bletchley Park developed their version of the machine between 1939 and 1940, respelling the name from B-O-M-B-A to B-O-M-B-E. This British version, known as the Bombe, is still the most well-known deciphering device of World War II – but it was not to be the last, nor the best.

The Codebreaking Team at the United States Naval Computing Laboratory in Dayton, Ohio, would soon improve upon the British design by creating their own version of the Bombe that would prove indispensable to Allied intelligence operations.

Led by Joseph Desch, a senior engineer at the National Cash Register Company, the Dayton lab built an American version of the Bombe that was considerably faster than any of its predecessors. The first American prototypes of the Bombe went into operation in 1943, and by the end of that year there were 120 American Bombes in full operation. This meant that German coded messages could be cracked faster, and with greater frequency, as the war progressed.

The bottom line is this: Polish and American contributions to Allied codebreaking efforts were at least as significant as those of the British. We should not forget that the British team at Bletchley Park stood on the shoulders of Polish giants, and still couldn’t have made it over the wall without a lot of help from allied American cash register engineers.

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