December 9: It has been 55 long years since the second World War ended but several relics from that period still attract curiousity. The Enigma Code Machine, for instance. While the police have been chasing wild geese trying to find the Enigma, one fine day it just landed up on their doorstep, but without three vital parts that ran the machine. The police claim to have arrested the thief now.
The Enigma Code Machine became famous as the device the Nazis used to encrypt top-secret messages during the Second World War of 1939 – 1945.
Guess how its theft was solved? With the help of code words published in the London newspaper,
Sunday Times and other classic espionage (spying) techniques, said The Asian Age. And with the arrest of 57-year-old Dennis Yates of Derbyshire, the police may have cracked a seven-month long investigation into the disappearance of Enigma G312.
Enigma was one of the key exhibits at Bletchley Park, a country estate not very far from London. It was stolen in April, only two days before infrared security equipment was to be installed at the museum.
The museum received a letter demanding loads of money for the safe return of the machine that resembles a clunky typewriter in a box. The writer claimed to be acting for a third party who had bought it without knowing that it had been stolen. That however, didn’t prevent him from demanding $36,000 (roughly $1.68 million) to return it!
This is where the Sunday Times came in. Code words placed in the personal columns of the newspaper, initiated a clandestine dialogue between a Times reporter and the writer.
In October, the machine was recovered when it was posted to a presenter working in the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation). But without three vital rotor wheels that made it work. This made the police suspicious that the theft was committed by someone who knew how the code machine worked.
A few days later another ransom amount, that demanded $10,000 (about $467000 ) less than the original, was demanded for their safe return. Than there was another letter asking for a message to be left on the Bletchley Park website. Two days later, the Sunday Times received the first of a series of five letters, the first two having the same postmarks. The heading of the letters was solemnly titled: ‘Return of Abwehr Enigma G312 and subsequently its rotors’. The letters may have unraveled important clues in the hunt for the thief.
Ever since news of its theft was made public, the Enigma machine has attracted a lot of attention. People’s imaginations seem to be tremendously fired by the news. Know why?
The reason lies in the importance of the machine during a critical period in world history.
More than 70 Enigma machines are believed to have survived the Second World War. The stolen one, numbered G-312, is a rarer and especially complex encoding machine used by Abwehr, the German military intelligence. Its purpose was to communicate ultra-secret information. The Enigma machine encoded and decoded all German military messages.
Cracking the enigma codes was no child’s play. An Associated Press report mentions that Enigma was considered unbreakable by the Nazis because its code changed constantly, so that each message had 150 million possible encodings!
But the Germans were wrong, this code was broken. To crack the code, the British developed an electro-mechanical search machine, dubbed the Bombe, and the world’s first programmable computer, Colossus. Colossus could run through possible combinations at the rate of 5,000 letters per second.
However, sharp minds were needed to work them as well. So an assortment of mathematicians, chess masters, linguists and crossword-puzzle experts labored throughout World War II to crack enigma and other Nazi codes. Brilliant mathematician Alan Turing, and James Bond creator Ian Fleming, were two of the famous men who were among the code breakers.
Historians say the code breakers’ work shortened the war by as much as two years. By January of 1940, they had deciphered the working of the Enigma machine and messages started to pour in at Bletchley Park.
The messages provided crucial information during several historic battles between the Nazis and the Allies (of which Britain was one), the two sides fighting each other during the war. These included the Battle of the Atlantic, the desert campaign against German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and the preparations for D-Day. The Enigma machine played a vital part in the defeat of Nazi Germany.
“Bletchley Park didn’t win the war, that was won by people with guns and bullets and things out in the field, but I think Bletchley Park is a great exemplar, particularly to the younger generation now, of brains over bullets,” the museum’s founder, Tony Sale, said in a television documentary last year. “You can defeat an enemy intellectually, and that was shown here.”
Given its history, the way the Enigma machine theft was decoded, seems strangely appropriate.
But this is clearly not the last we’ve heard of Enigma. A series of anonymous calls has linked the theft to a former MI5 spy, known by the codename “the Master”. For those of you who are interested, MI5 is the British security intelligence agency whose purpose is to protect the national security of the United Kingdom.
So the mystery deepens.