“X, Y & Z” — Polish Codebreakers Paved Way for Alan Turing to Decrypt Enigma (Today’s “Planet Earth Report”)

Alan Turing’s crucial unscrambling of German messages in the Second World War was a tour de force of codebreaking. From 1940 onwards, Turing and his team engineered hundreds of electronic machines, dubbed bombes, which decrypted the thousands of missives sent by enemy commanders each day to guide their soldiers. This deluge of knowledge shortened the war.

Bletchley Park, UK — the secret center where it all happened — rightly gained its place in history, continues Joanne Baker in Nature. But as with all breakthroughs, many more people laid the foundations.

In his book X, Y & Z, Dermot Turing, the great mathematician’s nephew, tells the gripping story of a band of Polish mathematicians who figured out much about how German Enigma encoding machines operated, years before Alan Turing did. The Poles shared their secrets with French and British intelligence services before and during the Second World War — the letters X, Y and Z were shorthand for the French, British and Polish codebreaking teams, respectively.

The author’s research is painstaking. After the war, military documents were scattered across Europe, and key French records were declassified only in 2016. Many original Polish papers were destroyed, but the mathematicians’ families have shared personal letters. Turing unearths a remarkable tale of intellect, bravery and camaraderie that reads like a nail-biting spy novel.

Polish skills in cryptography and radio engineering came together during the 1920 Russo-Polish War. Signallers decoded a telegram from Red Army military commander Joseph Stalin, which indicated that an attack on Warsaw was imminent. Jamming the Russians’ radio communications bought enough time to secure and save the city. Maksymilian Ciężki and Antoni Palluth were among those signallers. After the 1920 conflict, Ciężki became leader of a radio-intelligence unit. Palluth set up a business making electronic equipment, including radios the size of a credit card for Polish secret agents.

Antoni Palluth (left) and his cousin Sylwester Palluth stand in front of a chart of North African military operations
Polish codebreakers Antoni Palluth (left) and his cousin Sylwester stand in front of a chart of North African military operations in 1942, when they were working with French intelligence officer Gustave Bertrand in southern France. Credit: Anna Zygalska-Cannon

 

 

In 1926, the German navy began to send messages that were scrambled in a more random way, making them almost impossible to decipher. They were encoded using the typewriter-like Enigma machine. The keyboard was wired so that typing one letter lit up a different one in a set of bulbs on top. Rotors altered the path of the electric circuit with every keystroke. The machines were commercially available but modified for German military use. Without knowing the precise setting of a machine, there was no way to unpick the code.

The book tells how Ciężki hired a group of mathematics students to crack the problem. They worked quietly in basements and in a bunker deep in the woods. Marian Rejewski, an alumnus of Poznań University in Poland, was one. At the helm was Gwido Langer, a Pole who had worked in radio intelligence for the Austrian army.

Meanwhile, in France, Gustave Bertrand headed the equivalent unit. The French had a more conventional approach to gathering information: good agents, clandestine meetings and generous pay-offs. Bertrand managed two formidable spies. Rudolf Stallmann — code name Rex — was a German card-sharp who had posed as a baron to fleece casino-goers; he picked up languages and people with ease. Rex recruited Hans-Thilo Schmidt, or Agent Asche, whose brother was a colonel in the German army. Schmidt supplied cases of military documents to the French, which Rex received and Bertrand and his colleagues photographed in hotel bathrooms.

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Image top of page: from The Imitation Game, movie.

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