Monday, April 21, 2008

Anecdote For Today

If I am interested in a topic, I read all I can. I am about to read my third book on the exploration of the Tsangpo Gorge, even though vivid descriptions of giant leeches and yak butter-laced tea have not put it on my list of top ten places to visit. I have just finished yet another book on the Enigma code, the “unbreakable” system devised by the Germans in World War II. The machine used, together with its rotors, indicator keys, ciphers and bigrams has been to subject of many books, and even a movie which attempted to make the whole subject commercial by starring Kate Winslett. This last book, by David Kahn, is the most technical (i.e. incomprehensible) I have read, but the hard-to-follow bits were interspersed by interesting stories, one of which I am passing on.

The British assembled a team at Bletchley Park to decipher the code. This was a daunting task: the Germans estimated that if 1,000 cryptanalysts, each with a captured or copied Enigma (device), each tested four keys a minute, all day, every day, the team would take 1.8 billion years to try them all. The team of linguists and mathematicians made some headway, often helped by human error on the part of the Germans. Sometimes a cryptographer would encode a message in the naval version of Enigma and then send out the identical message to ships which did not have the Enigma machine using a code which the Allies had already broken, forming a kind of cryptographic Rosetta Stone. The best help came from captured ciphers and rotors which were recovered from torpedoed u-boats and other vessels, though German standing orders called for all such material to be thrown overboard in case of attack. The British began to consider ways of capturing keys, and the first concrete proposal came from a civilian who was the assistant to the director of naval intelligence. “I suggest”, he wrote, “we obtain the loot by the following means.

  1. Obtain from the Air Ministry an air-worthy German bomber.
  2. Pick a tough crew of five, including a pilot, a radio transmitter operator and word-perfect German speaker. Dress them in German Air Force uniform, add blood and bandages to suit.
  3. Crash plane in the Channel after making SOS to rescue service in plain language.
  4. Once aboard rescue boat, shoot German crew, dump overboard, bring rescue boat back to English port."
Initially there was a problem finding a volunteer crew, since most people agreed it was the quickest way to a posthumous Victoria Cross. But eventually a “love-sick pilot” volunteered for the kamikaze project, codenamed RUTHLESS. In the end a boat suitable for boarding never materialized and the plan was scrapped.

But the civilian who conceived this act of derringdo found other outlets for his imagination.

His name? Ian Fleming.


candyschultz said...

What are the names of the other books on Enigma?

Beryl Ament said...

Candy—I have a feeling that most of my previous information came from a paperback which I found in the basement. It may have been Codebreakers: The Inside Story of Bletchley Park by F. H. Hinsley and Alan Stripp. It dealt with the people who worked on the project and the only decoding information I can remember described punched cards with holes that lined up. Or not. Alas, it doesn’t seem to be in the basement now.

But you have got me going now and I see that the GPPL has these books:
Delusions of intelligence : Enigma, Ultra and the end of secure ciphers by R.A. Ratcliff: The secret in Building 26 : the untold story of America's ultra war against the U-boat Enigma codes, by Jim DeBrosse: and Enigma : the battle for the code, by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore.

Race you for them.

candyschultz said...

Well no I have already gotten a couple of books. Codebreakers is one of them. Enigma is the other. I never find the library useful. I have waited six months for books from there.

candyschultz said...

By the way Jeff is engaged.