Cryptography from 1800 to World War II Modern cryptography
Jun 17

By World War II, mechanical and electromechanical cipher machines were in wide use, although — where such machines were impractical — manual systems continued in use. Great advances were made in cipher-breaking, all in secrecy. Information about this period has begun to be declassified as the official British 50-year secrecy period has come to an end, as U.S. archives have slowly opened, and as assorted memoirs and articles have appeared.

The Germans made heavy use, in several variants, of an electromechanical rotor machine known as Enigma. Mathematician Marian Rejewski, at Poland’s Cipher Bureau, in December 1932 reconstructed the German Army Enigma, using mathematics and limited documentation supplied by Captain Gustave Bertrand of French military intelligence. This was the greatest breakthrough in cryptanalysis in a thousand years and more. Rejewski and his mathematical Cipher Bureau colleagues, Jerzy Różycki and Henryk Zygalski, continued reading Enigma and keeping pace with the evolution of the machine’s components and encipherment procedures. As the Poles’ resources became strained by the changes being introduced by the Germans, and as war loomed, the Cipher Bureau, on the Polish General Staff’s instructions, on July 25, 1939, at Warsaw, initiated French and British intelligence representatives into the secrets of Enigma decryption.

Soon after World War II broke out on September 1, 1939, key Cipher Bureau personnel were evacuated southeastward; on September 17, as the Soviet Union entered eastern Poland, they crossed into Romania. From there they reached Paris, France; at PC Bruno, near Paris, they continued breaking Enigma, collaborating with British cryptologists at Bletchley Park as the British got up to speed. In due course, the British cryptologists — whose ranks included many chess masters and mathematics dons such as Gordon Welchman, Max Newman, and Alan Turing the conceptual founder of modern computing — substantially advanced the scale and technology of Enigma decryption.

At the end of the War, on 19 April 1945 Britain’s top military officers were told that they could never reveal that the German Enigma code had been broken because it would give the defeated enemy the chance to say they “were not well and fairly beaten”. [1]

US Navy cryptographers (with cooperation from British and Dutch cryptographers after 1940) broke into several Japanese Navy crypto systems. The break into one of them, JN-25, famously led to the US victory in the Battle of Midway. A US Army group, the SIS, managed to break the highest security Japanese diplomatic cipher system (an electromechanical ’stepping switch’ machine called Purple by the Americans) even before WWII began. The Americans referred to the intelligence resulting from cryptanalysis, perhaps especially that from the Purple machine, as ‘Magic’. The British eventually settled on ‘Ultra’ for intelligence resulting from cryptanalysis, particularly that from message traffic enciphered by the various Enigmas. An earlier British term for Ultra had been ‘Boniface’.

The German military also deployed several mechanical attempts at a one-time pad. Bletchley Park called them the Fish ciphers, and Max Newman and colleagues designed and deployed the world’s first programmable digital electronic computer, the Colossus, to help with their cryptanalysis. The German Foreign Office began to use the one-time pad in 1919; some of this traffic was read in WWII partly as the result of recovery of some key material in South America that was insufficiently carefully discarded by a German courier.

The Japanese Foreign Office used a locally developed electrical stepping switch based system (called Purple by the US), and also used several similar machines for attaches in some Japanese embassies. One of these was called the ‘M-machine’ by the US, another was referred to as ‘Red’. All were broken, to one degree or another by the Allies.

Allied cipher machines used in WWII included the British TypeX and the American SIGABA; both were electromechanical rotor designs similar in spirit to the Enigma, though with major improvements. Neither is known to have been broken by anyone during the war. The Poles used the Lacida machine, but its security was found to be less than intended, and its use was discontinued. US troops in the field used the M-209 and less secure M-94 family. British SOE agents initially used ‘poem ciphers’ (memorized poems were the encryption/decryption keys), but later in the war, they began to switch to one-time pads.

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