An Enigma coding machine like the one captured by the British.
Nazi Code Machine Poses a New Enigma for the British
By Warren Hoge,, October 9, 2000
LONDON, Oct. 8 -- A captured German machine that helped the British to crack the Nazi Enigma code in one of the turning points of World War II has been missing from its case in a Buckinghamshire museum for six months, and getting it back has turned into something of a riddle itself.
It was stolen in the spring from a glass display cabinet in the museum, in the Bletchley Park estate that was the clandestine wartime office of the remarkable team of crossword puzzle experts, linguists, chess masters, mathematicians and refugee intellectuals the British assembled to read encrypted enemy communications.
The Enigma machine, which looks like an oversized typewriter, was used by German military intelligence for top secret communications between members of the the Nazi high command. Enigma used a series of electrical rotors to scramble messages in an astronomical number of ways. To further confound the Allies, each day the German operators would alter the wiring on their transmitters and receivers.
The capture of Enigma technology by the Royal Navy from a disabled Nazi submarine in May 1941 enabled the Bletchley Park counterintelligence people finally to decipher the code that Berlin had thought uncrackable.
Their accomplishment has been credited for Allied successes in destroying much of the Italian Navy, mounting a defense against U-boat attacks on Allied convoys and decimating the supply shipments for Rommel's North African campaign. The code breakers believed that the work at Bletchley Park shortened the war by two years, and General Eisenhower gave them credit for saving thousands of lives.
The existence of the Bletchley Park 10,000-member spy unit, known as Station X, was never disclosed during the war, prompting Churchill to call the members "the geese that laid the golden eggs and never cackled."
The only details of the April 1 theft that the police will disclose are that at least four people were involved and that they seemed to have inside knowledge of both Bletchley Park and the Enigma machine. Hoping that it might be a prank rather than a professional burglary, Christine Large, director of the Bletchley Park Trust, said, "If it's some young twits who've just run off with it who realize it was a silly thing to do, we're not going to be heavy-handed with them."
Officers took the traditional steps, fingerprinting hundreds of museum visitors, questioning staff in detail and conducting extensive searches of the grounds. No clues emerged.
Then last month, baffled detectives found themselves pressed into code-breaking service when an awkwardly composed ransom letter arrived, written on a wartime typewriter and using a sign-off word they could find in no English dictionary.
The police took the letter and subsequent ones, apparently from the same mysterious author, seriously because the writer included a photo of the identification plate of the machine, reading G312. The mysterious word has turned out to be a coded authentication. The letters were mailed from the West Midlands, West London and Milton Keynes, a town close to Bletchley Park.
The first letter read in part: "I have been asked by the current owner of the Enigma machine, who purchased it in good faith (in good faith being the operative word) to say and tell you now today, the unwitting person having no ultimate desire of depraving [sic] your august self or anyone the pleasure to see it again."
The letter writer asked for £25,000 ($36,000) and threatened to destroy the machine unless the money was paid by midnight last Friday. The museum has raised the entire sum from an anonymous benefactor and publicly says it is prepared to meet the terms to get the device back.
"Clearly the machine was stolen, but we don't believe it was stolen by the people who are in possession of it now," Ms. Large said. "There are a lot of things suggesting that we have got someone here who bought it in good faith and would like to get out of the heat and return the machine to us, but obviously doesn't want to be out of pocket at the same time."
She appealed to the letter writer to get in touch, but the midnight deadline passed with no word. At 4:30 a.m. Saturday, however, she received a telephone contact, and later that day she said she was still confident that the machine would be returned once the ransom was paid.
"We had a deal, but there was a fear that the machine might be destroyed if the police did not give certain assurances," she told the BBC. "Those assurances have been made now, and they have gone some way to being accepted." One of the demands that may be causing difficulty is an advance promise of immunity from prosecution.
Bletchley Park is familiar to many Britons since many newspaper and magazine articles and books have recounted the role played by the motley gang of decoders, celebrating a dramatic episode in what for the British is an unforgettable time of national heroism and triumph.
It is, in effect, the second time this year that the British have been robbed of cherished evidence of their wartime Enigma exploit. The thriller movie "U-571" was based on the capture of the Nazi cipher device, but the filmmakers stripped the captors of their British identities. The naval heroes in the Hollywood version are Americans.
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© 2000 by Neil Mishalov