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Marian Rejewski, Henryk Zygalski, Jerzy Różycki – Polish Enigma Codebreakers

During the Second World War, the Allies won the “information warfare” thanks to Polish cryptologists, who cracked the Enigma code. Over the last forty years, several monographs offered insight into the behind-the-scenes of cracking the Enigma codes. Some of the English-language works upfront ignore the key role of Polish cryptologists in this process.

The knowledge of the plans, intentions and orders of the enemy was a “weapon” not less potent than tank divisions, air squadrons or infantry. The strategists of all armies of the world were aware of this. On the one hand countries made efforts to fully conceal their own communications and on the other they went to great lengths to intercept and read the enemy’s messages. The fight for information was the fight for victory.

Marian Rejewski Henryk Zygalski Jerzy Różycki

 

In the 1920s, Germany put to military use an electromechanical cipher machine based on the principle of permutation. A set of spinning rotors was encoding and decoding messages. This device was called Enigma. Losing control of German military tactics posed a grave threat to the whole Europe. The governments of France, Great Britain, and Poland were very well aware that after its defeat in the First World War, Germany was seeking to quickly rebuild its military power. Poland’s western neighbour was bracing for another war. 

The German cipher machine proved to be so excellent that experienced French and British specialists were not able to break it. No-one believed that anybody else could do it, let alone the Poles.

In Autumn 1932, three young Polish mathematicians and cryptologists – Marian Rejewski, Henryk Zygalski and Jerzy Różycki, started untangling the Enigma machine. The oldest of them was 27, the youngest 23. After three months, they worked out Enigma’s enciphering method.         

The three code-breakers graduated with a degree in Mathematics from Poznan University. They also completed a military course in cryptology and were widely considered to be the most talented students at the university. In 1932, they joined the Polish military counter-intelligence. Until 1939, they were improving the ways to decipher Enigma, by among others cracking daily encryption keys and codes that were regularly changed by Germans.

In August 1939, with the war looming close, they turned the results of their long-time work over to the British intelligence. At the outbreak of the Second World War, Marian Rejewski, Henryk Zygalski and Jerzy Różycki were evacuated to France, where they continued their work on how to decipher the changing Enigma codes faster. When France capitulated, the team carried on their efforts at several clandestine posts in France and Algeria. In 1942, the youngest of the Polish heroes of the Enigma machine, Jerzy Różycki, died in a ship disaster in the Mediterranean.

In 1943, fighting against the odds, Marian Rejewski and Henryk Zygalski were transported to Great Britain. They remained there until the end of war, cracking subsequent versions of the Enigma codes.           

Enigmas in the National Crypthology Museum in USA When the war ended, Marian Rejewski returned to Poland. Before he retired in 1967, we worked as a low-ranking official at various establishments. Throughout his entire postwar career he was hiding his role in breaking Enigma. He wrote down his memoirs only after 1973. Marian Rejewski died on 13 February 1980 in Warsaw.      

After the war Henryk Zygalski remained in Great Britain. Released from service in the Polish Armed Forces, he taught mathematics at provincial schools in the 1950s and 1960s. He died on 30 August 1978 in Liss, in the south of England.    

 

Interesting facts

Today, wartime copies of the Enigma cipher machine are in high demand among collectors across the world. A few of them are on display in Polish museums.    

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A feature film The Enigma Secret, shot in 1979, was the first tribute to Polish heroes of Enigma. Marian Rejewski was one of the film’s scientific consultants.   

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The memorial to honour Polish heroes of Enigma – Marian Rejewski, Henryk Zygalski and Jerzy Różycki – stands in Poznan, before the main entrance to the Imperial Castle.

 

/ National Technology Museum in Warsaw

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09.04.2019