Posts Tagged ‘Enigma’

Well, we’re putting the closing touches on yet another weekend.  I took a half day off on Friday, which lengthened things out a bit, but weekends always seem too short.  There is a ton of stuff to do, and such a short time to get it done.  Therefore, should I be elected President, I will mandate a two-day work week and a five-day weekend.

In the meantime, let’s head out for a little action on the high seas, shall we?

We talked last fall about the movie U-571 and how it more closely resembled the exploits of another submarine…U-559.  That sub was damaged by the British and, just before it was sunk, they were able to grab some really important encryption information.  You can read the piece if you want the detail.

But it wasn’t the only time this type of incident happened.  After all, the Germans (like the Japanese and the U.S. and most countries fighting in the Second World War) used numerous coding systems.  The army had one, the navy might have another, the maybe the air force a third.  The Germans used various Enigma machines for their different coding systems, so the object was to capture as many of these machines as possible in an attempt to break as many of the various codes.

So along with the actual “guns and ammo” fighting, there was this 2nd-tier war to capture the other guy’s codes.  On May 9, 1940 (as the German army was preparing to invade France and the Low Countries), the German submarine U-110 was (briefly) captured by the British.  She was attacking a convoy and was damaged by depth charges and forced to surface.  The destroyer HMS Bulldog, realizing she had a chance to capture the sub, pulled along side.  The sub’s captain, believing his boat was sinking, ordered everyone out and didn’t bother destroying the Enigma machine nor its codebooks.

Of course, the sub didn’t sink right away, and the British were able to grab the prizes and even succeeded in towing U-110 for a while before she finally sank.  And while this particular capture didn’t result in the major score such as SHARK or TRITON, it did provide valuable information to the codebreakers at Bletchley Park.

As I mentioned, this took place the day before the German assault on France.  Tomorrow, we’ll look at one particular event from that massive invasion.

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We rarely visit the movie theater.  Occasionally, we’ll go and watch a movie, but even “occasionally” is too strong a word.  The last time I occupied a theater seat was in December of 2006, when I took my wife to a show as part of a Christmas present.  I don’t remember when I went before that, but I remember the movie I saw…U-571.

U-571 is another of those movies that’s “based on a true story“…which can mean just about anything in Hollywood parlance.  It stars Matthew McConaughey and is about a U.S. submarine crew that, in 1942, chases down a crippled German submarine (U-571) to capture it and remove the code machine and cipher keys.  It’s a decent movie that’s pretty exciting, which you would expect.  It’s also not that all that historically accurate, which you would also expect.

So let’s use the platform of Today’s History Lesson the clarify things.  The real U-571 was sunk in 1944, but the movie’s story more closely matches that of U-559.

U-559 was a modestly successful German submarine.  Her first few patrols were in the Atlantic, but she spent the remainder of her time patrolling the Mediterranean Sea in obscurity, putting holes in a handful of freighters and a frigate.  It wasn’t until the day of her sinking that she attained notoriety.

In the early morning hours of October 30, 1942, the sub was spotted in the eastern Mediterranean by a patrol plane, who radioed the destroyer HMS Hero.  She, along with four other destroyers, spent the rest of the day chasing and depth-charging U-559.

As night fell, the now-damaged sub was forced to surface.  Surrounded by destroyers and thinking his vessel was sinking, the captain decided to abandon it and sink it with explosives.  The crew, in its panic to get off the sub, opened the sea valves, but failed to destroy the Enigma machine and its code books.

The German crew was quickly taken into custody and below decks, at which point 3 British sailors volunteered to board the sinking sub and see what they could find.  Lt. Tony Fasson knew the sub carried the Enigma, and probably figured it was destroyed.  But still, it never hurt to take a peek.  He, along with Able Seaman Colin Grazier and Canteen Assistant Tommy Brown boarded the dying sub…

…and found a bonanza.  The Enigma machine was quickly removed, along with the code books, cipher keys, and various maps.  With Brown waiting outside, Grazier and Fasson re-entered the sub again, looking for more documents.  And then the sub gave up its fight with gravity’s pull, and sank in about 200′ of water.  Brown could do nothing but swim free, knowing his two mates were now dead.

But those two deaths prevented hundreds, and maybe thousands, of other deaths.  For not only had they captured an intact Enigma machine, they also had in their hands the keys for German Navy’s SHARK and TRITON code systems.  For the codebreakers at Bletchley Park, this was like winning the lottery…twice.

The British worked very hard keeping their discovery a secret, to the point of not awarding the Victoria Cross (Britain’s highest award) to the three men, fearing it might tip off the Germans.

Like I said, U-571 was a pretty exciting movie.  But the story on which it is based would have been just as good a movie.  One wonders why Hollywood can’t simply tell the real story.  I suppose if that were the case, guys like me would have take up decoupage or something…

Recommended Reading:  uboat.net – Need to find information on a German submarine?  Look no further.  I’ve linked you to U-559’s page.  Need to cross-reference?  Maybe uboatwaffe.net can help.

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I’ve been..well…just about everywhere other than here the last couple days.  I started writing a piece about encryption and Enigma yesterday, but couldn’t really conclude it.  I suppose its the fickle side of inspiration and its corresponding creative juices.

But it’s a new evening, things are flowing a little better and, coincidentally, today’s topic is also about encryption…and Enigma.

By May 23, 1940, the German invasion of the Low Countries (begun just two weeks prior) was beginning to look like a rout.  Fighting in the Netherlands had already ended (for the most part) and Belgium was teetering.  And in France, poor organization and a real lack of support from the populace was putting paid to any chance they had of stopping the onslaught.

And for the British Expeditionary Force (the BEF) fighting along side the French and Belgians, May 23rd was a day that things were going to get worse.  Which is where Enigma comes in.  Enigma was the encryption machine (and corresponding system) the Germans used to code all their message traffic.  The system was really advanced for the day.  So advanced, in fact, that its users believed it to be unbreakable.

But not only were Enigma ciphers breakable, they had been broken.  In fact, my not-finished “lesson” from yesterday concerned the British breaking the Luftwaffe’s Red Key Cipher, which they did on May 22, 1940.

But that good news would be tempered by the message the British deciphered the next day.  General Walther von Brauchitsch sent orders to Army Groups A & B and told them to turn north.  The British intercepted the message, decoded it, and realized their time on the European continent was over.  That turn north was designed to trap the BEF and force them to capitulate, and the loss of several hundred thousand British soldiers would be catastrophic.

The British went to the drawing board and (very quickly) came with Operation Dynamo, an attempt to rescue their forces (and as many French forces as possible).  But the logistics were daunting, and the British had yet to reach the coast where a rescue could even be attempted.  That intercepted message revealed the precipice over which the British dangled, and there was strong doubt that they could be rescued.  It would be a near-run thing, and we’ll visit this developing situation again in a couple days.

Recommended Reading: The Enigma War

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