display | more...

Previous Chapter
Contents
Next Section

§ 5. The Wizards' War

At its peak operation in the late stages of the war, Bletchley Park had close to ten thousand operators, mechanics, analysts, scientists, spies and secretaries, yet the operations existence was never disclosed or mentioned. 22 Churchill referred to the researchers and operators at the installation as the war's 'wizards', and even went so far as to liken the enlisted women (mostly WREN nurses diverted from medical duty on account of their excellent typing skills) as 'the geese that laid the golden eggs and never cackled.' After Turing was brought from Cambridge into the classified levels of the decoding operation, many of the details are still relatively sketchy. Certainly as German military aggression continued across Europe, the Anglo-American intelligence efforts gained steam, concentrating their collective efforts on exploiting the German communications coded with the ULTRA system. 23 The problem then, for Turing and the engineers, was to develop enough reliable and fast machines to do all the straight-forward rote decryption of signals as they continued to flood into the facility.

This task was in itself colossal in 1940, requiring vast halls jammed with typists, operating electric typewriters modified so as to write to long paper tapes. These clerks would diligently transcribe the intercepted messages and recordings of signals gathered by radio operators, converting them onto long paper tapes which would then be reeled and fed into the Bombe decryption machines. 24 The decoding results would then be output though primitive 'plaintext' line printers and the material's significance assessed by intelligence analysts and military representatives. If pressing, the information would be relayed to those in Allied command whose operations were effected. Alternatively, if the information was not of immediate tactical concern, it needed then to be sorted, categorised and filed in such a way as to be recalled at a moment's notice if required.

In such an 'information rich' environment, clearly the danger was to lose track of the bigger picture as everything from Luftwaffe weather reports to Panzer division movements to U-boat fleet headings poured day after day, week after week, into the facility. Very often, the lag between the time of transmission, interception, transcription, decryption and finally analysis meant the operations described in the Axis communiqués had already been carried out. In this way, by the winter of 1940, the German U-boat fleet had commenced unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic, and the information processing was still strained to help plan around the new dangers. Meanwhile, Axis armies swept through Denmark and Norway and by spring, German tank divisions moved into the Low Countries and France, leading the government in Paris to surrender after only six weeks of fighting. The front of the war was being accelerated so quickly, and in so many different geographical areas, along so many vectors at once, the British were hard-pressed to capitalize on their advantage, and by summer of 1940, the dramatic Battle of Britain had begun in the skies over London. If Hitler felt still tactically ill-equipped to invade England, he would at the very least attempt to bomb it into surrender.

The main stumbling block for Turing and the Bletchley analysts arose from the details of the Enigma machines (the nuts and bolts hardware) as opposed to the vaguaries of the Ultra code itself (i.e. the software). No one on the Allied side had actually seen one of these devices in operation, and Turing had essentially to infer from the Ultra code how one might be constructed. As the German army secured more support throughout Europe in late 1940 (Romania and Hungary joined the Axis side, followed soon after in 1941 by Bulgaria and Yugoslavia), Turing and his engineers were still perfecting the Ultra decryption system. They were making headway, however, for their efforts enabled the British to both crush Italian naval forces in the Mediterranean and intercept plans by Hitler to betray his non-aggression treaty with Russia (in April '41, the British ambassador to Russia informed Stalin, who ignored the warning). However the singular intelligence coup of the war was to come by chance, in May of '41, just as German paratroopers were seizing Crete and three million Axis soldiers were massing in the Ukraine in preparation of invading Russia.

If there was one front on which the Allies were stymied, it was in combating the German U-boat fleet, which was wreaking havoc on Atlantic supply convoys and the British Navy. If England was to stay the course in the war, it could not do so if cut off from the unofficial support of the US (America had been secretly supplying the British war effort with arms since Oct. 1940, veiled by FDR's public assertions the US would never enter the war). In May 1941, however the British Navy chanced upon an disabled and evacuated U-boat in the North Sea. It had been rigged with dynamite by the fleeing crew to prevent its capture but British marines had managed to board the submarine, locate and disarm the explosives before U-571 was scuttled. On board, miraculously, they discovered an intact and working Enigma machine. 25 From this point onward, the cryptographic work at Bletchley proceeded in leaps and bounds.

By December 1943, the character of the war had altered radically, as the Americans had entered the conflict decisively after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbour in late 1941, the mired Russian front had dragged on disastrously for both sides through much of 1942 and in 1943 the battle for North Africa and the Pacific were at the forefront of the Allied strategy. In late 1943, the production of new code-breaking machines had begun at Bletchley Park, as the demand for intelligence was again pressed by the Allied Command about to undertake the invasion of Europe. The new device, Colossus, was a vast improvement on the Bombes, both in speed and reliability, in that it was partially electronic. One of the major difficulties with the previous devices had been keeping the parallel paper tapes (one with encrypted message, the other with the Ultra decryption key) running in synch. With the new machine, the designers had managed (through their examination of the captured Enigma unit) to 'hardwire' the Ultra code processes into the Colossus machine. The computer used binary mathematics in conjunction with Boolean logic operators to carry out its decryption programs and was capable of reading 5, 000 characters per second. In all, by the end of the war, ten Colossus units were deployed at Bletchley and after the dust of the conflict had settled the designs were passed on American researchers, appearing in the form of Howard Aiken's Mark I at Harvard and Von Neumann's ENIAC in 1944-45. 26 In the midst of world-wide war, the modern era of computing had begun.
Notes:
22 There were also a great number of crossword puzzle experts, linguists, chess masters and refugee intellectuals from occupied Europe present at Bletchley, all contributing as best their talents allowed. One WREN nurse now even asserts her contribution in deducing the plug-board settings of the ENIGMA machine, though her assistance was apparently supressed by her male military superiors. Polish historian also claim a major contribution to the effort, stating 'in July 1939 their agents passed over to British Intelligence a copy of the Enigma machine and the fruits of their work done in breaking the code in the years 1932-1939'. See "Enigma deepens as Poles claim code-cracking breakthrough", The Guardian, Friday September 28, 2001: http://www.guardian.co.uk.

23 The British had been fortunate enough to acquire details of the German code system (which they termed ULTRA) by way of Turkish spies and Polish mathematicians even before hostilities with the Germans were officially declared, hence at the early stages, for the most part, the Allied 'information' problem was limited to the methodical decryption and sorting of masses of German intelligence, to which they had nearly unrestricted access. See David Kahn's Seizing the Enigma: The Race to Break the German U-Boat Codes (Houghton Mifflin, 1991) or Kahn on Codes: Secrets of the New Cryptology (MacMillan, 1983).

24 The Bombes, developing Turing's theory, were "contained in keyhole shaped copper cabinets about eight feet high...people acquainted with them say that they sounded like the clickings of a hundred knitting needles. This description strongly suggests that they were electromechanical machines built from telephone relays." See F. Gareth Ashurst, Pioneers of Computing (London: Frederick Muller Ltd., 1983), 140.

25 That same Enigma code machine was, in April 2000, stolen from the war museum at Bletchley where it had rested in a glass case since the end of the conflict. In Sept. 2000, a ransom letter for the device was received by British police, asking for £25,000 in exchange for its return, and the money was promptly raised. The dramatic recovery of the machine from the crippled German U-boat during the war had earlier that summer been portrayed in a Hollywood action film, U-571, and the wide-spread publicity and media attention to Bletchley was believed to have sparked the robbery. As a side note, in the film, the code-machine was captured by the American Navy, not the British. See Warren Hoge, "Nazi Code Machine Poses a New Enigma for the British," New York Times, October 9, 2000, New England edition, sec. International, 3.

26 John Von Neumann and Vannevar Bush had been primarily occupied with the American Manhattan Project through most of the war, though earlier in 1943, Von Neumann had briefly overseen the research being done at the US Army's Ballistic Research Lab for automating the computation of artillery firing tables. At the time it took a human computer working with a desk calculator roughly 12 hours to calculate a single trajectory, while the electromechanical Analyzer Bush had launched took 10-20 minutes. This still amounted to a month of uninterrupted operation to complete one table, so the military had pressed for a electronic digital machine using 18,000 vacuum tubes operating at 100,000 pulses/sec., which would form the basis of the American-built ENIAC computer. See Visions of Technology: A Century of Vital Debate about Machines, Systems and the Human World (NY: Simon and Schuster, 1999), 178-179.

Previous Chapter
Contents
Next Section

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.