back to article WWII Bombe operator Ruth Bourne: I'd never heard of Enigma until long after the war

El Reg had the honour of speaking with a war hero last Friday when the UK's National Museum of Computing fired up its replica Enigma code-breaker to decrypt messages sent from Poland. Ruth Bourne was among hundreds of Wrens who worked on the front line of code-breaking on 200 or so Bombe machines1 at sites in and around …

  1. Anonymous South African Coward Silver badge

    Fascinating.

    Thanks for this!

    Did the Germans ever got clued up that their supposedly encrypted message system have been compromised?

    1. Joe W

      Good report!

      We have to preserve what those people did, suffered through, know. Eyewitnesses are getting rare.

      It makes me thankful that we in Western Europe have not been at each others' throats for so long. Let's hope we can keep that up.

    2. Silly Brit

      As I understand it, the Germans received a couple of hints that codes might have been cracked. At one point they went back and interviewed the polish codebreakers they captured who had cracked Enigma before the war but the poles were able to convince the Germans that changes in procedures meant the same cracking shortcuts they used were no longer possible.

      On more than one occasion I think they reviewed the information they had and convinced themselves that it was still uncrackable , rather than erring on the side of caution as the allies often did.

    3. smudge Silver badge

      Did the Germans ever got clued up that their supposedly encrypted message system have been compromised?

      Apparently their techies always believed that it was impossible.

      Other people had their suspicions. That's why Doenitz - head of the Navy, including U-boats - changed the Naval Enigma in February 1942, from a 3-rotor to a 4-rotor machine, with the result that BP was unable to decrypt the crucial U-boat traffic for nearly a year afterwards.

      1. Alan Brown Silver badge

        "BP was unable to decrypt the crucial U-boat traffic for nearly a year afterwards."

        Even when unable to decrypt the traffic, the transmission themselves provided a shitload of useful metadata - RDF fixes on the origin coupled with each operator having a unique "fist" meant that they roughly knew where the subs were, etc.

    4. WhatMeWorry?

      Curiously, the Italians believed the Allies were reading Enigma traffic during the North African campaign. They found that a single scout plane spotting supply ships consistently in the Mediterranean Sea was too big a coincidence.

      The German Navy was worried about decrypts after suffering from the UK successes in WWI. German naval cryptologists added a 4th wheel to Enigma and tightened up operating standards.

      1. Aladdin Sane Silver badge

        It might help that Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr (German Military Intelligence) is rumoured to have been a double agent.

        1. itzman

          Re: Canaris

          Less a double agent than someone trying to do his best for his country, not for the Nazi party.

          AIUI

      2. Stoneshop Silver badge

        German naval cryptologists added a 4th wheel to Enigma

        That only effectively added a second 'reflector' [0] to the unit, and while that added cryptological complexity it was way less than the Germans thought it would. Every keystroke moved the rightmost wheel, then on one full rotation it moved the next one on the left, etc. So the fourth wheel hardly ever moved unless they had a very long message, and only its internal wiring and the starting position added to the coding.

        [0] a disc to the left of the rotors, wired so that a current through the rotor wiring got routed back through the rotors again and to the 'display', a field of small lightbulbs displaying the (de)coded character for the pressed key. This made that the coding and decoding could be done on the same device with matching rotors and starting setting.

    5. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      One of the hardest decisions was what to do with the decrypted information.

      If they acted on all the information, the germans would have known the codes were cracked.

      So they had to let some information go, allow some ships to be sunk etc to maintain the advantage in the long run.

      1. OrientalHero

        Great book about this

        Neal Stephenson wrote a great book about the period (amongst another story set in modern times), in the Cryptonomicon.

        Made that point precisely about having to not get 100% but also to give the Axis forces enough clues to think other means were the reason the Axis losses occurred.

    6. Stoneshop Silver badge
      Boffin

      Did the Germans ever got clued up that their supposedly encrypted message system have been compromised?

      R.V.Jones' Most Secret War refers to this dilemma: acting on information versus keeping the fact that the code was broken under wraps. In some cases where acting was the strongly preferred option because of the anticipated consequences of not acting, a 'thank you for the info' was sent to a (non-existent) agent who could have plausibly provided the pertinent info.

    7. John Doe 6

      You obviously didn't see the film about Alan Turing...

      They (at least the code breakers) were aware that keeping the operation secret was priority #1, many soldiers died not because they couldn't be saved but because it would compromise the operation.

    8. veti Silver badge

      British wartime intelligence went to great lengths to keep the secret. The high command even (as mentioned above, and downvoted for some reason) sometimes refused to act on Ultra intel, because they felt it could blow the gaffe.

      There were some close calls, and the Germans must have had suspicions from time to time, but never to the point of acting on them, at least not concertedly and effectively.

      Heck, if they'd just stopped saying "Heil Hitler" in every other message, that alone would have made the job significantly harder.

    9. David Paul Morgan

      well,

      I've heard a rumour that, as the newly formed DDR continued to use the Enigma rotor system, it was in the best interests of British Intelligence NOT to 'let on' that they knew how to read it!

      can anyone verify this?

    10. itzman

      Did the Germans ever got clued up that their supposedly encrypted message system have been compromised?

      Apparently not...

  2. Aladdin Sane Silver badge
    Pint

    This. Always this. Forever this. --------->

  3. PickledAardvark

    Standard German and Dialects?

    I'm presuming that formal official messages would have been composed in Standard German (or the equivalent of the time) with the stilted jargon which permeates organisations. Would there have been other messages -- banter between operators -- in dialect or vernacular German?

    1. Hans Neeson-Bumpsadese Silver badge

      Re: Standard German and Dialects?

      I think I read somewhere that elements of "personalisation" in the source messages did come into it. Each operator had their own keying style, so the interceptors knew who it came from, and certain operators would have little quirks in their message content.

      Real needle-in-a-haystack stuff though, nevermind the complexity of the encyphering of the message.

      I've read a few books and watched a few documentaries about this subject over the years, so in theory I kind of understand the principles....but of you gave me an Enigma-encoded message I honestly wouldn't know where to start. Very much hats off to everyone involved at Bletchley Park.

      1. Stoneshop Silver badge

        Re: Standard German and Dialects?

        but of you gave me an Enigma-encoded message I honestly wouldn't know where to start.

        Building a Bombe would be a good one.

      2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: Standard German and Dialects?

        "I think I read somewhere that elements of "personalisation" in the source messages did come into it. Each operator had their own keying style, so the interceptors knew who it came from, and certain operators would have little quirks in their message content."

        Yes, this was a known "feature" of telegraph operators almost from the invention of the telegraph. There many stories around of telegraph operators knowing who was "calling" from way the Morse was tapped out. No doubt any Ham operators still using Morse have the same experience today with their regular contacts.

    2. smudge Silver badge

      Re: Standard German and Dialects?

      Would there have been other messages -- banter between operators -- in dialect or vernacular German?

      I know that as well as looking for "Heil Hitler", details of the weather, and similar stuff - one look-out post sent "Nothing to report" day after day, using different keys, a godsend for the codebreakers - some of the operators used to talk about their girlfriends. So the codebreakers would look for the girlfriend's name - and I'm sure that some of these messages would certainly have used the vernacular!

      1. Peter2 Silver badge

        Re: Standard German and Dialects?

        I know that as well as looking for "Heil Hitler", details of the weather, and similar stuff - one look-out post sent "Nothing to report" day after day, using different keys, a godsend for the codebreakers

        And having established which look-out post sent this same very useful "nothing to report" message every day it was decided that the disturbance of the people in it might lead to a different report being sent, so the people in this look-out post had a very, very quiet war.

        1. ShadowDragon8685

          Re: Standard German and Dialects?

          Do you have any links or details to information about that lookout post? That sounds kind of morbidly funny.

          1. ShadowDragon8685

            Re: Standard German and Dialects?

            I found it!

            The German radioman who always transmitted 'nothing to report' was stationed in the Qattara Depression in North Africa, in case the Allies tried bringing a whole army through impassable terrain.

            Cite: wikipedia.org: Qattara_Depression#World_War_II

            I found this thanks to Lindybeige, who mentioned it in an otherwise-only-tangential video relating to Great British Wartime Deceptions: youtube: watch?v=6ZYadpxoUbc

      2. Stoneshop Silver badge

        Re: Standard German and Dialects?

        one look-out post sent "Nothing to report" day after day, using different keys,

        The Wehrmacht (army) had some 40.000 Enigmas in use, and more than once a sloppy operator accidentally sent today's first message with yesterday's setting, then resent it with today's. If yesterday's code was already broken, then so was that day's. And if not, it certainly helped. Repeating a particular message, with some words abbreviated the second time, that the intended receiver hadn't been able to copy down correctly also offered cracking advantages.

        The Kriegsmarine had way less devices and operators, and much tighter code discipline as well.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Standard German and Dialects?

      I remember seeing one documentary, and it mentioned that they noticed that one encrypted message had no "L"s in it. As the machine always changed the letters type in, they came to the conclusion that the message sent was something like -

      LLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL

      - or similar

      1. Prof. William Waterman Sherman

        Re: Standard German and Dialects?

        That makes sense. A letter never encrypting as itself was one of the enigma device quirks exploited by the geniuses who cracked it.

        Of course the heros of Bletchley Park are rightly lauded, but I don't think the Poles who got things rolling are given their due. Without mechanical aids, they replicated enigma's internal workings with string and paper tags. By the time they had a solution, a cat's cradle would fill the room. And they did this all while staying one step ahead of the Wehrmacht until they reached Britain.

        1. werdsmith Silver badge

          Re: Standard German and Dialects?

          but I don't think the Poles who got things rolling are given their due.

          They most certainly are appreciated and given their due respects within those folk that follow the Bletchley Park story, and by Bletchley Park itself.

          It's Hollywood history that neglects them, and quite a lot of other stuff too.

        2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Re: Standard German and Dialects?

          "Of course the heros of Bletchley Park are rightly lauded, but I don't think the Poles who got things rolling are given their due."

          FWIW, ever since I first heard of all this, pretty much every story has included mention of the Poles and how the British built on their knowledge.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Standard German and Dialects?

        I remember seeing one documentary, and it mentioned that they noticed that one encrypted message had no "L"s in it. As the machine always changed the letters type in, they came to the conclusion that the message sent was something like -

        LLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL

        I didn't know we'd been spying on the Welsh during WWII

  4. Antron Argaiv Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    First, thanks to El Reg, and to Ms Bourne, for this very interesting piece. These stories from people who were there are now, sadly, almost impossible to get.

    Second, my late mum did this in Washington as a WAVE. She never really got into detail about what she did and whose codes she worked on, and we didn't think to grill her, but she could recite the alphabet backwards and always did the crossword in the morning with her coffee.

    But my (virtual) hat is off to those like Ms Bourne, who did this work while in England, where everything was scarce, there was a constant danger of bombs, and the threat of invasion. Well done, ma'am, and thank you for your service!

    Greatest Generation, indeed...they did more with less, and didn't complain about it.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      To pretty much all of the people that did those things, they were just doing their job.

      At the end of the day, they didn't have much choice in the matter, if they didn't do it then there was a good chance the country would have been invaded, and besides, if you're called up then your only choice is doing the work or going to jail (and having to do worse work).

    2. david 12 Bronze badge

      >She never really got into detail about what she did and whose codes she worked on, <

      The IEEE published memories from a Washington WAVE ('we joined the navy to see the world, but all we saw was DC'). She reported that after a strict security introduction, another man got up. They expected the good cop after the bad cop. Instead they got the worse cop: "DON'T EXPECT THAT YOU WILL BE TREATED ANY DIFFERENTLY BECAUSE YOU ARE WOMEN. IF YOU TALK ABOUT YOUR WORK, YOU WILL BE SHOT."

    3. Dagg

      These stories from people who were there are now, sadly, almost impossible to get.

      So true, I found out just last year after he had died that my father-in-law was one of the intercept operators stationed just outside of Loughborough in the midlands.

      Real shame as I would have liked to know more.

    4. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      "Second, my late mum did this in Washington as a WAVE. She never really got into detail about what she did and whose codes she worked on, and we didn't think to grill her, but she could recite the alphabet backwards and always did the crossword in the morning with her coffee."

      If you've not yet seen it, you might enjoy both series (seasons) of The Bletchly Circle, a sort of detective story where the heroines are Bletchly almumin using their skills to solve the case, the second series being set when two of them follow a lead to the US and meet one of their opposite numbers who they only knew through a code name and telegraph messages.

      It's not really directly related to this story of course, but shows a little of how women who were important and doing vital war work were often "pushed back into the kitchen" after it was over.

    5. vmy2197

      Women code breakers in the U.S. during the Cold War

      Women in code breaking efforts during the Cold War

      https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/women-code-breakers-unmasked-soviet-spies-180970034/?no-ist

  5. a_builder

    Cribs from touch

    "I think I read somewhere that elements of "personalisation" in the source messages did come into it. Each operator had their own keying style, so the interceptors knew who it came from, and certain operators would have little quirks in their message content."

    Yes this was used to generate individual cribs:-

    - Operators sending messages to be passed on to girlfriends etc

    - Standard form test messages that they were too lazy to alter as they were meant to.

    - Returned test messages to check for clarity of transmission and retransmission

    - Requisitions of stores and stocks were another good one. If you got a message from a fuel dump they would report stock levels periodically at a known time each week etc.

    - And the well known weather and HH (I don't even want to type those two words) cribs

    And the list get pretty big but one you know the 'touch' of the operator you could look for a likely crib in the decrypts.

    Obviously you focus on the operators who spew out cribs with standard form messages at known times.

    1. bobeaston

      Re: Cribs from touch

      There are actually two types of "personalization." The first has been mentioned a couple of times, the habits of certain individuals to compose messages the same way. I especially enjoyed the "Nothing to report" standard message as being a good crib.

      The other type of personalization was the Morse code sending itself. (Being an old ham radio operator, I speak from experience.) Every Morse code operator has his, or her, own rhythm. The weight (length) of the dots and dashes vary from person to person. With practice the interceptor learns to recognize the rhythm, sometimes called "the fist," of certain operators. Joe's code sending definitely sounds different than Mike's, etc. Then, couple Joe as the guy who always sent Jim's messages, and you have valuable meta data on beginning to decode messages.

      1. Kristian Walsh Silver badge

        Re: Cribs from touch

        This was part of Gordon Welchman's work that revolutionised military signals intelligence: Previously, everyone concentrated on the message content, but Welchman is credited with being the first to realise that what is said in a message is only part of the information that can be extracted from it. The identity of the sender and recipient impart information, as does the schedule of transmissions, the transmission power, and the attitude of the sender: a good Morse listener can't just recognise a "fist", they can also hear how relaxed or stressed that sender is, just a you can tell how relaxed someone is by their voice.

        So, if you recognise an operator in Hamburg's keying style and know he sends lazily-keyed confirmations to messages about fuel supplies every morning, usually to other operators in the Baltic, but suddenly he's responding to stations in Dover and Rotterdam as well and with more urgency than his usual lazy fist, then it suggests that there's something happening along the Channel that might be worth sending a spy-plane to look at. And you discovered this without having to decrypt a single message.

        1. Kristian Walsh Silver badge

          That little-publicised German invasion of Kent... [Re: Cribs from touch]

          ... Of course I meant to type "Calais" there, rather than Dover, but you get the idea :)

          1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge
            Devil

            Re: That little-publicised German invasion of Kent... [Cribs from touch]

            Kristian Walsh,

            Dover? Calais? What's the difference? They're both equally horrible.

        2. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          Re: Cribs from touch

          >And you discovered this without having to decrypt a single message.

          But it's only meta-data there are no privacy implications from collecting all your meta-data...

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Cribs from touch

        >The other type of personalization was the Morse code sending itself. (Being an old ham radio operator, I speak from experience.) Every Morse code operator has his, or her, own rhythm.

        I can confirm this. Being an old military telegraphist I too have experience in this. Where a dot lasts 50 - 80 ms the variation is of the order of a few milliseconds, it is surprising how quickly you learn to recognise everyone on the net. I learned to recognise all my colleagues and no two operators ever sounded the same.

        Adding to the above poster it should be noted that you had some counter measures when enemy intelligence was clued onto you: use the other hand. The "fist" for left and right hands are very different and would be confused for a different person.

        There are tons of stories in the world of Morse code.

      3. Stoneshop Silver badge

        Re: Cribs from touch

        The other type of personalization was the Morse code sending itself.

        Yes, but that was for the people listening to pick up. Most of those were ordinary citizens that had (or got) a suitable receiver, with motorcycle messengers collecting the messages that were copied down. They did get told, if not trained, to spot particular operators by their keying. And of course particular Wehrmacht and Kriegsmarine stations were listened to by army staff radio operators, with a quicker way to get interesting messages to the code breakers.

      4. Pangasinan Philippines

        Re: other type of personalization was the Morse code sending itself

        The transmitters used have their own personalisation.

        The equipment would have their own attack and decay characteristics (rise time and fall time) which could be seen on an oscilloscope. Also overshoot and 'ringing' and ripple on the pulses.

        I don't know if oscilloscopes were around during the war years but were used in the '60s.

        1. Stoneshop Silver badge

          Re: other type of personalization was the Morse code sending itself

          I don't know if oscilloscopes were around during the war years but were used in the '60s.

          They were essentially the basis for radar, to the point that initially radar was just displaying the scope trace for the echo from a (semi)fixed[0] antenna. Only later the rotating sweep came along.

          They certainly weren't used widely for identifying enemy transmitters, if at all.

          [0] The antennas could usually be rotated, but only slowly because of their size. More like getting them pointed in a particular direction and sort of tracking a target.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: other type of personalization was the Morse code sending itself

            >They certainly weren't used widely for identifying enemy transmitters, if at all.

            Was rather more low tech - from the operators PoV, they synchronised 2 different signals in a 'stereo' headset to get the range/bearing at the start of transcription. What sat behind that is presumably rather more complex than simple triangulation, but that's definitely what they did as my father was deaf in one ear and someone had to do this for him each time the source changed.

    2. smudge Silver badge

      Re: Cribs from touch

      There was also the method of generating cribs which was known as "gardening".

      BP would get the RAF to drop ("sow") mines into the sea at a specific location. Later, they would "reap" the benefits by looking for reports which contained the word for "mines" and specified the location.

    3. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Re: Cribs from touch

      I hadn't realised until recently that the Soviets tried to get cribs on an industrial scale in the 1940s. Guy Burgess was one of the Cambridge spies and at the time was working at the BBC. He lobbied to be given access to non-secret Foreign Office cables, in order for the BBC to be able to better report foreign news. The real reason the KGB wanted this info was to have the actual clear content of enciphered FCO cables, that they could then use as a crib so they could read everything in that cypher. Of course more important messages might be using a different code, but the more you can read of the other guy's messages the better.

      At the Beeb he wasn't getting much info. Apart from making good contacts (he was the original producer of the Week in Westminster on Radio 4 - that's been going ever since) - so he was desperate for more. Sadly the Foreign Office gave him a job, before the Beeb got round to sacking him for being drunk too often.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Cribs from touch

        >I hadn't realised until recently that the Soviets tried to get cribs on an industrial scale in the 1940s.

        John Cairncross was the KGB's man at Bletchley - he passed a large number of decrypts to the Soviets and they some understanding of the technology and methodology at the very least thanks to him - he wasn't discovered and turned until the 50s by which time he was at MI6. Cairncross is reluctantly part of the official narrative now - although he's usually treated sympathetically and the scale of his treachery underplayed in the, mostly horribly inaccurate, dramatic accounts of the period.

        Also important to remember that Soviets captured a lot of kit and expertise from the Germans - and most of the Bletchley Park Poles - 'Rejewski' notably - went back to Soviet Poland immediately after the war. With hindsight it's probably difficult to imagine, but there was actually hope things would be rosy under Stalin. Officially the story remains that their wartime roles were unknown to Soviets - though that's at odds with level of intelligence they had and the fact that Rejewski wrote one of the first detailed accounts of the work in the 1960s.

    4. I3N
      Pint

      Re: Cribs from touch

      Mark Twain wrote about 'touch' in 1889 as such

      "-and then came a click that was as familiar to me as a human voice; for Clarence had been my own pupil ... They would have known my touch, maybe, ..."

      Down voted gladly accepted if you know the reference ...

  6. Anonymous South African Coward Silver badge

    The Bourne Codecracker? :) (after the Jason Bourne series of films)

    1. Robert Helpmann?? Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Not Jason Bourne

      The Bourne Codecracker?

      My feeling is that Ruth Bourne is more bad-ass than her fictitious namesake. She has my admiration for the work she and her cohort accomplished.

  7. Valerion

    The Bourne Enigma

    Why wasn't that the title?!

    Fascinating read and I must congratulate Ms Bourne on a very astute memory. I can't remember what I had for breakfast, let alone the finer points of operating an extremely complex machine over 70 years ago.

    1. Excellentsword (Written by Reg staff)

      Re: The Bourne Enigma

      Oh, very good. 20 lashes for me.

    2. Antron Argaiv Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: The Bourne Enigma

      ... the finer points of operating an extremely complex machine over 70 years ago

      It's funny, you know, but I can. In fact, my earliest memories seem to be the clearest. She was 18 when she did this, and my 18 year old memories are still pretty clear (sometimes uncomfortably so). I used to repair Teletypes at university for some extra money, and I could still probably take one apart & put it back together, since I did 25 of them every summer (replacing bearings and re-lubricating them).

  8. naive

    Partial truth, partial cover up ?

    Since decades there are serious speculations about high-ranking spies in the OKW general staff. Several generals in the Eastern Front planned their own offensives, without interference from the General staff, often referred to as the "Spy Nest" by people like von Manstein. Some say Martin Bormann was a Russian spy. Maybe this enigma stuff is made up to create a smoke screen.

    This kind of leakage is sort of detectable by smart people, they will notice when "by coincidence" the enemy seems to be on the right place at the right time each time something happens.

    It is however unclear why German counter intelligence was so bad, the incredible losses in the U-boat war, was a clear sign something was off, since Oceans are big, and they seem to be spot on all the time.

    1. tfb Silver badge

      Re: Partial truth, partial cover up ?

      I just knew there would be conspiracy theories about this.

      1. Aladdin Sane Silver badge

        Re: Partial truth, partial cover up ?

        Radio signal triangulation has been around almost as long as radio comms, and once the mid-Atlantic gap had been filled, there was nowhere out of reach.

    2. fandom Silver badge

      Re: Partial truth, partial cover up ?

      You can read about Admiral Dönitz desperation in his memoirs, but they never thought their special Enigma machines could be cracked.

      Also, getting the germans to believe the bristish navy could detect the radar installed in the submarines helped, as they were made to emerge blind.

      But really, the Enigma cracking was top secret for decades, pretending to believe that such a highly detailed cracking was faked decades after those alleged spies needed protecting makes no sense.

      1. smudge Silver badge
        Black Helicopters

        Re: Partial truth, partial cover up ?

        But really, the Enigma cracking was top secret for decades

        Because other nations were still using them, including the allies to whom the UK sold 'em after the war...

      2. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: Partial truth, partial cover up ?

        pretending to believe that such a highly detailed cracking was faked decades after those alleged spies needed protecting makes no sense.

        Three reasons.

        Enigma machines were handed out to allies who weren't told that they were broken - so the UK/USA could read the secrets of 'friendly' countries for decades.

        To keep the USSR underestimating the achievements of western cryptanalysis in the hope that they would be less careful/put less effort into advanced codes. Pointless wiht the number of KGB agents working for MI5

        Possibly most important. To prevent the story that the Nazis only lost because of crypto becoming a political norm in Germany. If you lost because the other side 'cheated' then there is a justification to try again ( but this time with better OPSEC). Similar to the German belief that their army was superior in WWI but had been betrayed by traitors at home - so if they could only remove 'non-Germans' they would be victorious and so it was worth trying again....

    3. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Re: Partial truth, partial cover up ?

      naive,

      German intelligence were seemingly often rubbish (though not always). They made some terrible errors. For example Von Paulus' plan to invade Russia called for the destruction of the 400 divisions of the Russian army West of Smolensk. Which they pretty much achieved. Unfortunately Russia had 600 divisions. And the remainder stopped them from taking Moscow.

      By 42/43 Most of the planning staff of Army Group Centre (in front of Moscow) were in on various plots to assassinate Hitler. I think Von Stauffenberg was there for a bit, and he and various others shopped their plans around the army high command looking for supporters and a star general to be their figurehead. Nobody would take the job, but nobody ratted them out to the Gestapo. Who were totally unprepared. There must have been around 100 officers who know Von Stauffenberg was going to do it, which is huge for a conspiracy that doesn't leak. One bomb that was placed on Hitler's plane in Ukraine (in 43?) failed (due to cold I think) and the conspirators simply removed it after the flight with nobody being any the wiser.

      Several german spies dropped by parachute or sub into England didn't speak fluent english. Which is just rubbish.

      Canaris was aware of some of the plots to kill Hitler and several Abwehr officers were actively planning them. Being at work I don't have my copy of Joachim Fest's 'Plotting Hitler's Death' but Google is your friend - see wiki link - and note the 3 chiefs / ex chiefs of the German general staff in on it (Beck, Brauchitsch and Halder).

      I think the German intelligence community suffered from groupthink. If Hitler didn't like an idea, then it was very hard to maintain it or prove it. And also of course, if Hitler did believe something then even if you could prove it to be wrong, it was still very hard to do so, or to act on that knowledge.

      1. Stoneshop Silver badge

        Re: Partial truth, partial cover up ?

        German intelligence were seemingly often rubbish (though not always). They made some terrible errors.

        A particularly stunning bit of leading German intelligence, and with it the General Staff, by the nose has been Operation Mincemeat, IMO. At its centre was a corpse with fabricated documents including a letter by the vice chief of the Imperial General Staff to the British Commander in North Africa, detailing an invasion of continental Europe via Greece and the Southern Balkan, with a decoy attack on Sicily. As the German Abwehr after much scrutiny decided that yes, this person and the papers he carried were authentic, a fair bunch of personnel and material were moved from Italy to the Balkan. It took weeks before the Germans actually figured that the Sicily invasion was the real one.

        German Intelligence did not just suffer from hubris, they also had the disadvantage that after the Battle of Britain they had way less possibilities to use aerial reconnaissance to corroborate info, as well as less human bodies doing the spying thing.

        1. werdsmith Silver badge

          Re: Partial truth, partial cover up ?

          Operation mincemeat corpse was discovered by the Spanish and the information reported to the Nazi command.

          1. Stoneshop Silver badge

            Re: Partial truth, partial cover up ?

            Operation mincemeat corpse was discovered by the Spanish and the information reported to the Nazi command.

            Which was part of the ruse. Spain was technically neutral, although quite chummy with the Germans. The Mincemeat group figured that either the letters and other items themselves would pass German hands for copying and inspection before Spain handed them back to Britain, or the Spaniards would do that for them. Afterwards the letters were checked, and they had indeed be opened so that part of the operation could be verified to have worked. With Axis troops actually moving to the Balkan Churchill was then notified of "Mincemeat swallowed whole".

            1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

              Re: Partial truth, partial cover up ?

              "Afterwards the letters were checked, and they had indeed be opened"

              This bit was shown in "The man who never was".

              Miles Malleson playing the boffin was given the envelope. "This has been in water...." snips a piece off, puts it in a test tube, adds water, gives it a shake, adds silver nitrate and gets a white precipitate "...seawater.". "But had it been opened?" (Dismissively) "Of course."

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Partial truth, partial cover up ?

          >Operation Mincemeat

          Ironically the allies got the genuine plans for the invasion of Belgium from a crashed plane carrying a high ranking German officer - but assumed it was a trick and ignored them

    4. Prof. William Waterman Sherman

      Re: Partial truth, partial cover up ?

      German counter intelligence was awful because of common Nazi pathologies: overconfidence in their superiority, paranoia and distrust of rival sister organizations, and reluctance to deliver bad news to higher ups. Lots of Nazis and German generals kept informal channels open to the allies through neutral countries. They weren't spies, just serving their own interests, especially when it was clear how things were going to end.

      Plus, the allies were very careful to protect Ultra sources. Quite often they arranged for a plausible alternate event explain their apparent luck. Not many operational commanders were privy to the details. Notably, Patton was a big fan of Ultra and couldn't get enough.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Partial truth, partial cover up ?

        German counter intelligence was awful because of common Nazi pathologies: overconfidence in their superiority, paranoia and distrust of rival sister organizations, and reluctance to deliver bad news to higher ups.

        Yup.

        Sounds just like the EU.

    5. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Partial truth, partial cover up ?

      Bletchley Park intercepts were used to route convoys away from UBoats . The only UBoats hunted down by BP info were the 10 'Milch Cows' that refuelled other UBoats.

    6. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: Partial truth, partial cover up ?

      "Maybe this enigma stuff is made up to create a smoke screen."

      Actually it was all the highly placed spies stuff that was made up to distract from the code-breaking. It seems to be working.

    7. david 12 Bronze badge

      Re: Partial truth, partial cover up ?

      >It is however unclear why German counter intelligence was so bad, the incredible losses in the U-boat war, was a clear sign something was off, since Oceans are big, and they seem to be spot on all the time.<

      I'm old enough to remember that all the post-war documentories, for many years, didn't make that connection. In particular naval losses on both sides were always attributed to tactical changes. like "using convoys" It's now clear that the post-war picture we had of how the war was won, was completely wrong. It's sad that most of that early documentation will never be correctly re-written.

      Some extremely clever chess players were taken to Washington DC, and tasked with analysing navel reports and predicting what the next enemy move would be. By some accounts they were quite accurate, but never really believed, because, well, they were just guessing. At this distance, I've never found out if they were just the cover story for the code-breaking reports, or if the chess was just the cover-story for people doing actual code-breaking work, or if the chess players were just a completely irrelevant parallel effort.

  9. Phlebas

    "Bletchley Park's code-breakers are credited by historians with shortening the war by two years."

    This appears so often in BP stories that I'm beginning to think it's some kind of legal requirement.

    It also ignores the fact that the Allies would have had nuclear weapons in 1945 regardless of the work done at BP. So BP may have saved Berlin from becoming an smoking hole in August of '45 but it's unlikely that it shortened the war by two years.

    1. Tom 7 Silver badge

      @phlebas

      I think this is another US myth, as is the 2 year one. The 3 weapons detonated during the war exhausted the stocks of fissile material available, The next test wasn't until July 46 by which time Russia would have probably taken over most of Europe by then as, in all honesty, Russia's weapons production had reached such phenomenal levels that there was no stopping them.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: @phlebas

        And on the other-other hand.

        With the Battle of the Atlantic lost and Britain with no food, fuel or weapons.

        The Afrika Korp sweeping through Egypt, into the middle eastern oilfields and Rommel about to meet up with the Japanese in India - then all nuking Berlin would do is remove a layer of political interference

  10. Snarky Puppy
    Pint

    All hail Ms. Bourne

    She may not have had a fighting role but her contribution and those of other unsung heroes and heroines like her gave us the freedoms we enjoy today. All the beer you can drink Ms. Bourne!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: All hail Ms. Bourne

      "All hail Ms. Bourne

      She may not have had a fighting role but her contribution and those of other unsung heroes and heroines like her gave us the freedoms we enjoy today."

      I fully agree with the sentiment, but - well, I read this article:

      <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/sep/05/survived-warsaw-ghetto-wartime-lessons-extremism-europe>

      "I survived the Warsaw ghetto. Here are the lessons I’d like to pass on"

      by Stanisław Aronson. One point he made was this:

      "Of course, many people did extraordinary things, but in most cases only because they were forced to by extreme circumstances, and even then, true heroes were very few and far between: I do not count myself among them."

      I've lived a comfortable and extremely secure life in large part because of Ms Bourne and those of her generation who did their bit and I'm extremely grateful to all of them (including all four of my grandparents). But I do feel that the label "hero[ine]" is perhaps used a little too freely at times.

      I've read "The last fighting Tommy" - the life of Harry Patch (now RIP), the last surviving veteran to have fought in the Great War trenches. He rejected the label of "hero" applied to himself on the grounds that he just went where he was told to go and did what he was told to do. Me? I think they're all heroes, all that lot.

      The book "Enigma, the battle for the code" by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore ("Without for a moment belittling the world of Alan Turing and his team [...]") relates some often neglected aspects of the Second World War German naval code-breaking story, including the capture of code-books from German naval vessels. I expect the people involved in that would also deny that they acted "heroically" but it's not how I view their actions.

      I suppose it all depends on your perspective. I once knew a bloke who'd worked on RDF back in the Second World War, and as far as he was concerned doing repairs to an aerial using a thermite powered soldering iron (so he said) while dangling about 200ft up in the air in high winds with minimal safety gear was just an ordinary day's work. The job had to be done, so you just got on and did it and at least no-one's shooting at you - that was his attitude.

      1. Wellyboot Silver badge

        Re: All hail Ms. Bourne

        The common thread from when heros actually talk is 'It needed doing, so I did it'.

        An attitude that luckily still appears regularly in modern society, its just buried under the cat videos & 'me, me, look at me' trivia far too often.

      2. veti Silver badge

        Re: All hail Ms. Bourne

        "Heroes" are, simply, people you look up to. It's an inherently subjective thing, there is no agreed canon.

        No doubt Ms Bourne is a hero to some. But if anyone, anyone at all, actually claims to be "a hero", I think they're full of... effluent.

  11. JJKing Silver badge
    Megaphone

    And didn't they treat Turing well after the war ended.

    There was an interesting story about the code breakers in, I think Albert Park, Victoria, Australia and they had broken some Japanese codes. For some unknown reason an American politician was given a tour of the facility and when he returned home he told his local newspaper about the great job "our American boys" were doing breaking the Jap codes. These codes were soon changed mush to the disgust and dismay of the code breakers who took three weeks to break the new codes. They wondered how many lives the big mouth pollie had cost with his stupid boasting.

    This story was related by one of the Australian women who worked in the centre and were only allowed to finally talk about what they did during the war some time in the 1990s.

    It was mentioned by someone further up about being careful what was responded to so the Germans didn't know their codes had been compromised. Let's not forget the people of Coventry as some of the victims who suffered to keep the broken codes unknown by the Germans.

  12. Winkypop Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Detail under pressure

    Poor food

    Poor hours

    Poor accommodation

    Excessive work pressure

    Brilliant output

    > Puts today's over paid jobsworths to shame.

    1. Tom 7 Silver badge

      Re: Detail under pressure

      You missed the most important detail:

      Motivation.

      Something sadly missing in a lot of today's work environments,

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Random

    Apparently the OSA still applies to some of the documents these people originally worked on (including the specifics of Bombe, etc) are still covered and rumor has it that GCHQ still holds copies of the original decrypts, containing information that may be relevant even now because it relates to people still living.

    Last I checked, some of them *may* be released around 2024 but this is subject to official approval.

    If the classified patents issue is anything to go by the "Fifty Year Rule" may be more like the "Whenever it becomes irrelevant due to technological advancement Rule" and some mathematical and fundamental physics discoveries may be affected by this. Never fear, most of them are related to obscure topics which probably have no relevance to everyday life.

    I've run into the patents issue before, if you accidentally rediscover something that is classified you may or may not be asked (politely) to sign the OSA, hand over original documentation and sign an additional document stating under penalty of perjury that they are the only copies.

    Just doing a search for certain terms of interest (tm) may get you visited by some folks or strange phone calls etc if reconstructed search history implies getting close to something you shouldn't.

  14. Robert Feldman 1

    WWII code breaker buried in Nebraska with UK military honors

    https://apnews.com/23227e69754648c8b0e659f39151c0b1

    WWII code breaker buried in Nebraska with UK military honors

    OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — A 92-year-old woman has been buried in Nebraska with British military honors for a secret that she held for decades: her World War II service as a code breaker of German intelligence communications.

    The Union Jack was draped over Jean Briggs Watters’ casket during her burial Monday, the Omaha World-Herald reported. Watters died Sept. 15.

    The tribute honored Watters for her role decoding for a top-secret military program led by British mathematician Alan Turing, who was the subject of the 2014 Oscar-winning film “The Imitation Game .” Watters was among about 10,000 people, mostly women, who participated in the Allied effort to crack German communication codes throughout the war. ...

  15. Joe Gurman

    As a foot (not boot) note....

    .... the 4-rotor bombe was built for the US Navy to handle messages encrypted the the four-rotor Enigma put into service by the German navy in 1942, in parallel with the British Mammoth. By the end of the war, 160 had been produced by the National Cash Register company in Dayton, Ohio. Most were located at the IS Navy Yard in Washington, DC.

  16. EveryTime Silver badge

    It's worth echoing that operational security is *very* hard, and breaking the encryption is one of the last things to suspect. It's pretty much like burglars rarely bother with trying to pick a lock. It's easier to just look for an unlatched window or an unlocked door. Even if they get in using the door lock, it was probably using a key found in the unlocked car, under the mat, or copied by the valet.

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Technically

    The use of common words is actually an obvious back door.

    The Short Weather Cipher (SWC) also did present similar vulnerabilities but the main loophole

    was the lack of ability to encipher a letter as itself.

    As any good codebreaker knows you have to be consistent: for example if I redesigned something of this era the first thing would be to replace the X as space with something more sensible like a relative reference *within* the enciphered text.

    This would make it harder to read but ultimately a lot more secure.

    Also useful: change the code sequencing so words are sometimes backwards, that should help a bit.

    I developed a code not so long ago which uses references to sci-fi and (as yet) remains unbroken.

    To decode it you'd need so much information that only an AI could break it.

    No human could decode it unless they had memory in the petabytes *and* is essentially a cybernetic organism already.

    Can actually be encoded using nothing more than (x) and (y) and a pen&paper.

POST COMMENT House rules

Not a member of The Register? Create a new account here.

  • Enter your comment

  • Add an icon

Anonymous cowards cannot choose their icon

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2019