The Enigma of World War 2

WW2 capture of Enigma machine for U-110 May 1941

Last Updated on October 22, 2023 by ADMIN-TOM

World War 2

Mention World War 2 to most young people and they will have a picture in their head of Nazi bombers being shot down by RAF fighter pilots, or the miracle of Dunkirk. Or they will have a blank expression, smile at you indulgently and swiftly move on, to another subject.

It’s easy for my generation to forget that World War 2 ended in 1945, seventy-eight years ago. A long time ago and ancient history to many. Even so, that vision of the dog fights during the Battle of Britain is still foremost in a lot of people’s minds. But the war wasn’t simply fought with guns, fighter planes, Navies and tanks. The was a secret war, a clandestine fight to discover what the enemy was planning and to find that information fast.

By the very nature of a world war, all sides needed to keep in contact with their armies in Africa, Navies on and under all the seas and oceans of the world, and aircraft in their thousands fighting the enemy in the air, on the ground and at sea. The obvious method of contact was radio. But you couldn’t just send out a message like, “Hello, Captain Smith. Can you pop over to Berlin and drop a few bombs, there’s a good chap.” No, that would not do at all. Messages needed to be transmitted vocally, of course, plane to plane, ship to ship, tank to tank and many mixtures in between. But what had to remain secret was the movement of fleets of ships , armadas of planes and marching armies all over the world. Mass movement of enemy forces, if detected in time, could be destroyed. That information had to be encrypted and transmitted.

Take, for example, a convoy of ships travelling from America to the UK, with tanks, planes and weaponry on board ready to be deployed when it arrived in Britain. No, make that if it arrived. Because there was a deadly chance a Nazi submarine U-Boat could be in the Atlantic, waiting for a chance to sink your ship. In fact, there were packs of Nazi submarines, all with full knowledge that shipping in convoy was plying the Atlantic Ocean on a regular basis. If you, as a commander of a convoy knew where these submarines where, you could make plans to avoid them.

Welcome to the world of codebreakers. Welcome to Bletchley Park in England, and a Nazi code machine called Enigma.


The Enigma machine was a series of electro-mechanical rotor cipher machines used for encrypting and decrypting secret messages. It was invented by German engineer Arthur Scherbius at the end of World War I. However, it gained widespread use and recognition during World War II when the Germans used it to secure their military communications. The Enigma machine allowed the Germans to encode their messages in such a way that even if intercepted, it was nearly impossible for the Allies to decipher them without knowing the encryption settings.

The Enigma machine worked by passing an electrical current through a series of rotors, which scrambled the input text and produced an encrypted output. The machine’s security lay in the complexity of its settings: there were trillions of possible combinations, making it incredibly difficult to break the code.

The Codebreakers of Bletchley Park

During World War II, the Enigma machine was a sophisticated encryption device used by the Germans to encode their military communications. The Allies’ ability to capture Enigma machines and obtain crucial information encrypted by them played a significant role in their victory over Nazi Germany.

British cryptanalysts at Bletchley Park, notably Alan Turing, along with other talented codebreakers, developed a machine called the Bombe, which was instrumental in deciphering Enigma-encoded messages. The Bombe was an electromechanical device designed to find the daily settings of the Enigma machines. By exploiting patterns in the messages and the human errors made by the German operators, the Allies were able to decrypt a substantial portion of the German military communications.


Capturing Enigma

One of the most important episodes in this effort occurred in the early years of the war when the Polish intelligence agency had already made significant progress in cracking Enigma codes. In 1939, just before the outbreak of the war, Polish cryptanalysts shared their Enigma-related findings with the British and French allies. This exchange of information laid the foundation for British codebreakers at Bletchley Park to continue the work of decrypting Enigma messages.

Another notable, and more adventurous, incident occurred in March 1941 when the German trawler Krebs was captured off Norway, complete with two Enigma machines and the Naval Enigma settings list for the previous month. This allowed German Naval Enigma to be read, albeit with some delay, in April, by codebreakers at Bletchley.

The capture of Enigma-related materials from various sources, combined with the codebreaking efforts at Bletchley Park, played a vital role in Allied intelligence gathering during World War II and significantly contributed to the eventual victory over Nazi Germany. The ability to decode Enigma-encrypted messages gave the Allies a significant advantage in several key battles and contributed to their overall success in World War II.

Copyright © Tom Kane 2023
Image Artist: K. W. Radcliffe
Image Copyright © National Museums Liverpool.
Photo credit: Merseyside Maritime Museum


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If you found this piece interesting, you may be interested in my next published novel, Walking Away from Midnight.

Jessie Fordham, a recent Cambridge graduate and principled  daughter of Colonel Albert Fordham, Britain’s Military Attaché to France, is thrust into a desperate journey in May 1940, as Nazi Germany invades France.
The family are gathered at their summer home, The Midnight Lake, near the Ardennes forest when Albert is alerted to news of Germany’s invasion of France.
Jessie’s father and step-mother narrowly avoid a murder attempt by German spies and telephone lines are cut. It’s not long before the couple are recalled to the British Embassy in Paris.
Jessie finds herself in charge of her three younger brothers, her sister, her teenage step-sister and members of household staff. With no time to spare and no vehicles available, Jessie decides they must make for Normandy by bicycle. But Jessie also holds a secret, a device given to her by her father that she must get to British Intelligence in England.

As Jessie and her charges prepare to make their escape, they discover their bicycles have been stolen. With no time to waste, Jessie decides they must walk to Normandy, hoping to get transport on the way. But as the days turn to weeks, danger from the advancing German army and airforce becomes a deadly threat and Jessie discovers they have a traitor in their midst.

Jessie realises she cannot walk away from this responsibility and must use her wit and courage to keep her charges and her father’s secret safe.

book cover, Walking Away From Midnight.

Walking Away from Midnight will be release in the spring of 2024.


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