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uring the Second World War, Germany developed its own secret communication system. The system sent coded messages to the navy, air, and ground forces and was invented in the hope that these messages from Germany could never be deciphered by any nation. The German defense was keen to improve its communication system by purchasing machinery originally intended for the market. It didn’t take long until the German army invented its own encoding machine with which it would send coded messages.

The inventor of Enigma

Arthur Scherbius (source: Wikimedia Common)

Invented by the German Arthur Scherbius for the commercial companies that wanted to establish a coded communication system, the electric machine on the “Enigma” rotor was quickly built by the Germans for transmitting coded messages. Although the Germans believed that encrypted messages could not be deciphered by enemies, the machine was also rebuilt by the Poles who offered it to British code-breakers to decipher Germany’s signals during World War II.

The “Enigma” machine allowed an operator to type a message that was then beaten by 3 or 5 jog wheels, which displayed different letters of the alphabet. The recipient of the message had to know very well the mechanism of these wheels in order to decipher the message. After a while, the Germans improved the machine by adding a rotor with an electric circuit.

The Enigma crackers

In 1931 the British were having trouble deciphering the “Enigma” code, and the French had not yet succeeded. Only after the Polish decryption office gave more details did the British manage to decipher some of the codes. The Poles, due to their links with the German industry, managed to make a machine identical to that of the Germans with which they managed to read the messages of the German army between 1933 and 1938.

The Enigma Machine (Source: Smithsonian Magazine)

“Enigma” was not very effective from the beginning. Only in 1941 did the work done to decipher the codes show their effects. In the spring of 1941, the British deciphered the plans of the German army to invade Greece, but did not have the opportunity to exploit this information because they did not have the sufficient military force to stop the invasion. In May of 1941, the British, deciphering the coded messages of the Italians, helped Admiral Cunningham’s fleet defeat the Italians in the Battle of Matapan.

Following the successes of decrypting encrypted messages, the British realized that the only way to access German encrypted messages permanently was to capture the “Enigma” machines on German vessels as well as books containing codes. These machines were transported on normal trade routes. However, on paper, they were invoiced as typewriters so that they would not raise any suspicions.

Enigma’s effect on WWII

In 1942 the Germans introduced a fourth wheel to the “Enigma” machines on German ships to increase the security of secret messages. The result was the “Triton” or “Shark” machines, as the British called them. For almost a year after the Germans improved their machines, the British could not even decipher a code, leading to increased chances of defeat for the Allies in the Atlantic.

British Army in Egypt in 1941 (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Due to the decrypted messages, the Second World War was shortened. The fact that the British knew of any movement the German army was making helped keep German General Erwin Rommel out of Egypt, even if not in 1941, but a year later, when they stopped in Gazela.

The loss of Egypt in 1942 would have resulted in the recovery of North Africa and delayed the invasion of France. Probably “Operation Overlord” would have been postponed until 1946, but by then, Germany would have responded with the V rockets, which would not have been good at all. The success of the “Enigma” always needed complementary help, but the fact that the Allies kept the machine secret until 1947 shows how much it meant to them.

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