The Barnes & Noble Review
In Enigma: The Battle for the Code, Hugh Sebag-Montefiore tells the secret history of World War II -- the remarkable struggle of Allied cryptanalysts to break the secret "Enigma" code employed by the mighty German military machine. The story begins in 1931 with Hans Thilo Schmidt's money problems. Many Germans were having similar difficulties at that time, but Schmidt came up with a unique solution. Using his officer brother's connections, he got a job in the government bureau that guarded the secret German military code. Smart and well educated, Schmidt had a penchant for the company of women other than his wife, felt like the world owed him a living, and had no qualms about trading government secrets for money. One he gained access to the codebooks that contained the setting for the Enigma machine, which was designed to transmit undecipherable secret messages, Schmidt was quickly able to pique the interest of the French intelligence service.
Once the French had purchased Schmidt's information, they realized that they still didn't have enough to read the Germans' secret messages. While maintaining contact with Schmidt, they made some inquiries among the British and the Poles to find out what these allies might know about Enigma. The British were keen to learn more, while the Poles secretly had a head start in breaking the code. With the outbreak of World War II and the German invasion of Poland in 1939, the Polish cryptanalysts sought refuge in France. As it became apparent that France would suffer a fate similar to Poland's, the code-breaking torch was passed to Britain.
Alan Turing, a brilliant young mathematician and one of the fathers of modern computers, built on the work of the Poles to develop a "bombe" machine that could help decipher the remarkably complex Enigma settings that were used to encrypt and transmit messages. But due to the Germans' convoluted and regularly changing encoding system, Turing and his colleagues could not read the secret messages as quickly as the war effort demanded. Faced with ever-mounting U-boat attacks on their supply convoys, the Royal Navy launched a successful series of operations that enabled them to capture the essential codebooks from German warships. Though German commanders were concerned about how much the Allies might learn, their intelligence experts convinced them that it was practically impossible to break the Enigma code. As a result, Allied cryptanalysts were able to decipher German military communications for the remainder of the war, enabling the Allies to defeat Germany at least two years earlier than they otherwise would have; without this advantage, they might not have won the war at all.
There's plenty of battle action in this book, as well as a wealth of technical detail about how the encoding and decoding machines worked. Anyone interested in World War II, spies, codes, or computers -- or who enjoys reading about the eccentricities of British intellectuals -- will find Enigma fascinating and exciting. With access to many newly declassified sources, Sebag-Montefiore has produced the first comprehensive -- and, most likely, the definitive -- study of the Enigma phenomenon.
William T. Wells lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Read an Excerpt
Chapter 1: The Betrayal
Belgium and Germany
On Sunday r November 19 3 r Hans Thilo Schmidt, a forty-three-yearold executive at the German Defence Ministry Cipher Office in Berlin, took a step from which there was no turning back. He booked into the Grand Hotel in Verviers, a small Belgium town on the border with Germany, for his first meeting with a French Secret Service agent. Schmidt had been contemplating making this move for months. During June 19 3 z he had paid a visit to the French Embassy in Berlin to find out who he should contact in Paris if he wanted to sell some secret documents to the French government.'
Three weeks later he had followed up the advice given by the Embassy staff and had written a letter to the French Deuxieme Bureau, the umbrella organisation which on France's behalf carried out many of the task performed in Britain by MI 5 and MI 6.2 In his letter he explained that he had access to documents which might be of interest to France, and he specifically mentioned that he was in a position to hand over the manuals for a coding machine which had been used in Germany since June 1930. If the Deuxieme Bureau was interested he was happy to meet up with its representative in Belgium or Holland, he wrote. It was in response to this letter that the meeting in Verviers had been arranged, and the scene was set for Schmidt's first act of treachery.
In normal circumstances Schmidt would probably never have considered becoming a traitor. He was just an average man from an upper-middle-class background with no political agenda or burning ambition to be successful. Although his mother had been born a baroness, she was not rich. She had lost her title when she had married Hans Thilo's father, Rudolf Schmidt, a university history professor. Hans Thilo's circumstances had improved a little in when at the age of twenty-eight he had married Charlotte Speer, the daughter of a well-to-do hat-maker. Charlotte's mother's family business, C.A. Speer, ran a shop in Potsdamerstrasse in Berlin which was the place for smart Germans to go for their umbrellas, walking sticks and of course their hats. The profits from this shop helped to pay for Hans Thilo and Charlotte's wedding present, some land and a house in Ketschendorf, a rural area, now part of Furstenwalde, just outside Berlin.
But then came the galloping inflation and the economic downturn which forced the Speers to close their shop. All of a sudden Hans Thilo's prospects looked far from rosy. He was fortunate that his father and his brother, another Rudolf, were prepared to help him out with his domestic expenses. Hans Thilo and Charlotte had two children by the time the economic depression began to bite and, although he had his job in the Cipher Office thanks to an introduction arranged by his brother, his salary was barely enough to keep himself, let alone his young family.
His first act of betrayal had nothing to do with matters of state. He betrayed his wife by having an affair with his maid. Presumably Hans Thilo must have hoped that his wife would never find out what went on when she was out of the house. But if he wanted to be discreet, he certainly went about it in a half-hearted way. His children, Hans-Thilo the younger and Gisela, knew exactly what was going on. They quickly realised that they had to tip-toe around their small Ketschendorf house in case they barged in on something which they and their father might have found extremely embarrassing. Sometimes they could hear the sound of their father and the maid making love in the spare room when their mother was out shopping. It was to be the first of many such affairs. His children at first had no idea whether their mother knew about her husband's philandering. They suspected that she did not. But they did notice that from time to time one maid would disappear only to be replaced by a more ugly substitute. Then their father would start off another seduction ritual until the next maid disappeared.
Hans Thilo's extramarital affairs were not confined to his maids. He also had sexual encounters when he stayed the night in Berlin; he claimed that he had to work late in the office. His sister Martha would try to cover his tracks when Charlotte, his wife, attempted to ring him at Martha's flat where he was supposed to be staying. 'He has just gone shopping,' Martha would tell Charlotte...