Courtesy Reuters

Cryptology Goes Public

In November of 1978 a remarkable conference took place in Germany. It brought together for the first time the Allies' backroom boys of World War II and those whom they had outwitted for nearly six years-the cryptographers of the Third Reich. Together with historians, they discussed what had been the most secret part of the intelligence war. This was the Allied solution of the principal German ciphers and consequent ability to read large segments of high-level military traffic, including the very messages of Adolf Hitler to his generals.

An admiral of the Royal Navy described how his knowledge of U-boat orders enabled him to steer convoys around the wolf packs to help win the Battle of the Atlantic. An American intelligence officer told how foreknowledge of a German attack enabled the Seventh Army to repel it with minimal losses. The Royal Air Force's former scientific intelligence chief recounted how Ultra-as the Allied solutions of German messages were called-gave him the first clues to German V-weapons and enabled the Allies to bomb the research center at Peenemünde and later the launching sites in France. A historian discussed how the American solution of the Japanese diplomatic cipher machine revealed what the Japanese ambassador in Berlin was reporting to Tokyo about his conversations with Hitler-intercepts that became, Chief of Staff George C. Marshall said, "our chief basis of information regarding Hitler's intentions in Europe."

All of this proved too much for one of the Germans. During the war he had repeatedly assured the head of the Kriegsmarine, Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, that the naval Enigma cipher machine was not being solved by the Allies-when, in fact, they were doing so almost solidly and often instantaneously. "If the Allies could read it all," he asked with some asperity, "why didn't they win the war sooner?" An American historian answered, "They did." And no one in the high-ceilinged university senate room dissented. All agreed that Ultra had shortened the war and saved thousands of lives.

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