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Polish cryptologists crack the Nazi code

9 Aug 2011
Old machine that looks similar to a typewriter
One of the Engima machines. Photo by J Brew.

The Enigma machine was invented near the end of World War I. An electro-mechanical cypher machine that allowed the German military to send encoded messages, the Enigma evolved to become a powerful tool the Nazis would soon use before and during World War II.

But did you know that this powerful and complicated machine was deconstructed and decoded by a clever group of Polish mathematicians? Plus, as a result of their efforts, many agree the war in Europe ended two years sooner than it could have!

Read more to learn about this great (and often overlooked) moment in Polish history!

The Enigma machine

After World War I, as the German military worked to improve their Enigma machine, Polish intelligence worked on deciphering the code. But with each invention of an even more advanced Enigma, the Polish were falling behind.

After all, the Enigma had over 155 million million million (!) possible encryption settings. Cracking the code seemed nearly impossible!

Cracking the code

But all that changed in 1932, when Poland's Biuro Szyfrów (Cypher Bureau) hired three young mathematics graduates from Poznań university, who also understood the German language: Marian Rejewski, Jerzy Różycki and Henryk Zygalski. By rebuilding various commercial Enigma machines, they were able to create a near copies of the military versions.

Amazingly, they were not only able to break the code, but they were also able to keep up with the code changes as the Enigma evolved. One impressive device the code crackers used they named bomba, which means bomb in Polish (the story behind this name is disputed).

On July 25th, 1939, they presented their findings to British and French military intelligence. With the Enigma in the hands of the Nazi party, the timing couldn't have been better: just five weeks later, Germany invaded Poland, beginning World War II.

Because of the advanced work of the Polish Biuro Szyfrów, Allied forces were able to decode many of the encrypted German signals before and during World War II. Allied forces gave the military project the codename "Ultra." After the war, Winston Churchill told King George VI, "It was thanks to Ultra that we won the war."

The controversy

The Polish have long gone unrecognized for their code cracking expertise, which was critical to the Allied success during World War II. Marian Rejewski, Jerzy Różycki, Henryk Zygalski and the Biuro Szyfrów were essentially written out of history for quite some time. Some claim the British wanted all the credit, some claim the information was lost in the confusion of the war, but whatever the reason, these great Poles deserve recognition and respect for their important role in world history.

In 1989, on the 50th anniversary of the start of World War II, George Bush formally recognized the Polish code breakers in Gdańsk: "You gave the Allies Enigma, the Nazi's secret coding machine. Breaking the unbreakable Axis code saves tens of thousands of Allied lives, American lives - and for this, you have the enduring gratitude of the American people."

Since 1999, Bletchley Park (the British cypher intelligence headquarters during the war) has held an annual Polish Day, celebrating Britain's formal recognition and appreciation of the genius of the Polish code breakers.

But even as recently as 2001, the (albeit fictional) film Enigma gave all the credit to the British, while the Polish character was labeled a traitor. Polish historians and officials were sure to speak out!

Hopefully people around the world will continue to credit the Poles for all their heroic achievements in World War II.

Anonymous's picture

Some nice quote :)

"Ultra would never have gotten off the ground if we had not learned from the Poles, in the nick of time, the details both of the German military version of the commercial Enigma machine and of the operating procedures that were in use."

Gordon Welchman, a British cryptologist in "The Hut Six Story" (1982)

Posted by: Anonymous (not verified) | Wednesday, August 10, 2011 - 18:17
David Snopek's picture

That's an awesome quote, thanks!

Posted by: David Snopek | Wednesday, August 10, 2011 - 20:29
Anonymous's picture

The war would end up - anyway. This is because of nuke weapon...

Posted by: Piotr (not verified) | Thursday, August 11, 2011 - 13:59
David Snopek's picture

I, for one, am very happy that no nuclear weapons were dropped in Europe! Could you imagine if, for example, Berlin and Frankfurt were nuclear wastelands? It's already disturbing enough all the damage that was caused by the bombs dropped on Japan.

If the Poles contributed to stopping that from happening, it is a noteworthy accomplishment!


Posted by: David Snopek | Sunday, August 14, 2011 - 09:12
Anonymous's picture

Cześć! Piszę trochę nie na temat, ale niech będzie :)
W jednym z Twoich pierwszych postów pisałeś, że byłeś w Lublinie. Mieszkałam tam przez rok. Myślę, że spodobają Ci się piosenka, którą znalazłam
Co do II WŚ polecam serial Czas Honoru, jest emitowany na kanale TVP Polonia do którego jest ogólnoświatowy dostęp :)
Polecam też książki Stanisława Grzesiuka i "Wspomnienia wojenne" Karoliny Lanckorońskiej oraz moją szkolną lekturę "Kamienie na szaniec"
Pozdrawiam :)

Posted by: nieważne (not verified) | Thursday, August 11, 2011 - 14:00
David Snopek's picture

Hehe, to bardzo zabawna piosenka i filmik. To bardzo mi się podoba. :-)

Dziękuję bardzo za polecenia!

Pozdrawiam serdecznie,

Posted by: David Snopek | Sunday, August 14, 2011 - 09:20
Anonymous's picture

Ofcourse it's noteworthy! It was mathematical marvel imho:)
My point is that Germany was weak country in 1944-1945 and the only real danger was Russia.
Even before 1939, German troops was trained by... Russian troops.

Posted by: Piotr (not verified) | Sunday, August 14, 2011 - 10:11
Anonymous's picture

Eh I am sorry - I commented wrong post:)

Posted by: Piotr (not verified) | Sunday, August 14, 2011 - 10:12
Anonymous's picture

Na tej stronie można do końca sierpnia oglądać Czas Honoru za darmo

Posted by: nieważne (not verified) | Friday, August 12, 2011 - 06:38
David Snopek's picture

Aha, i nawet działa w Stanach! Bardzo często się zdarza, że coś z telewizji jest dostępne w Polsce ale kiedy sam tam zajrzę, jedynie dostanę komunikat z tekstem, że nie jest dostępne poza Polska.

Będę się starał znaleźć czas na oglądanie tego przed końcem sierpnia. :-)


Posted by: David Snopek | Sunday, August 14, 2011 - 09:24
David Snopek's picture

To bardzo ciekawa strona! Dziękuję za linka!


Posted by: David Snopek | Tuesday, August 16, 2011 - 08:50
Anonymous's picture

Hi David,

We have the same problem with English/American content, almost always is available in the USA (Hulu for example) :(

Solution is to have Polish/American IP (VPS or something that with VPN or VPN itself service), so you can tunneling traffic via right address (witch is mandatory for this service)

All the best

Posted by: TomFromPoland (not verified) | Friday, August 19, 2011 - 03:00
David Snopek's picture

Hi Tom,

Thanks for the advice! It's sad that even in the "internet age" you're physical location is still so important. Particularly for people looking for interesting language learning content!


Posted by: David Snopek | Friday, August 19, 2011 - 06:34
Anonymous's picture

Jeśli lubisz polską historię, jestem pewna, że spodoba ci się książka "Dywizjon 303" . Nie jest to książka historyczna tylko powieść, ale, o ile wiem, zgodna z historycznymi faktami. Do tego, moim zdaniem, świetnie napisana. Wydano również audiobook.

Polecam również "Medaliony" Zofii Nałkowskiej (znów angielski link, polska wersja wikipedii jeśli chodzi o polską literaturę jest nieco żałosna...). Pozycja krótka, ale bardzo wstrząsająca (po jej przeczytaniu miałam problemy z zaśnięciem). To już jest literatura faktu. I również świetnie napisana.

Posted by: Arie (not verified) | Tuesday, February 14, 2012 - 08:11
David Snopek's picture

Dziękuję bardzo za sugestie i linki. Te książki wyglądają naprawdę interesująco! Ale druga na pewno jest również dość makabryczna. :-/

Wolę książki do słuchania i nawet znalazłem pierwszą w,produkt.html

Pozdrawiam serdecznie,

Posted by: David Snopek | Wednesday, February 15, 2012 - 07:55

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