Today in History: The Germans Set Up The Enigma Code (1940)


On this day in 1940, the Nazi set up a series of communication systems that they believed would allow them to communicate top-secret messages to its units and commanders around the world. It was essential that the Germans could communicate in secret without the British hearing them. The British had a sophisticated system for listening into German communications. In order to counter this, the Germans’ set up the Enigma system. This was a series of secret codes that could only be deciphered by a special code machine. The Germans set up two-way radio communication in the newly conquered countries such as France. It was considered essential if the Nazi exchange of information was secure.

The Germans set up radio stations, equipped with the enigma code machine in Brest and the Brittany town of Cherbourg. The Enigma system was first used to exchange information with bombers that were targeting British shipping in the English Channel. It was later used extensively to direct and guide Luftwaffe planes during the Battle of Britain.

Russland, Verschlüsselungsgerät Enigma
The Enigma machine in 1940

The Enigma coding machine  was invented  by H. Koch, a Dutchman, who worked for a private company and it was at first designed and used only for business purposes, in the aftermath of WWI. The coding machine looked like a typewriter, with keys with numbers and characters. The Germans used the machine for wartime and intelligence use. They  believed that the machine and its encoding system was unbreakable and that their communications could not be deciphered by hostile powers. Their confidence was to prove to be misplaced and they would pay dearly for their over-confidence.

They were to prove to be very wrong. The British had been able to decipher the codes even during the early stages of the invasion of Poland. The British had been able to identify and understand the communications of the German High Command. However, because the Germans did not use the machine extensively that the British could only decipher relatively unimportant information at an early stage. However, as the war went on they were able to understand more and more important information.  The British codenamed their efforts to decipher Enigma as Ultra. The British were able to break the Enigma code because of the brilliance of the Bletchley Park Circle. This was a group of brilliant mathematicians and code breakers who broke the supposedly unbreakable enigma code at an astonishing, early date. Their efforts helped to give the British a decided advantage in the intelligence war and to help them to save their island from an invasion during the Battle of Britain.

The Brits had broken the code as early as the German invasion of Poland and had intercepted virtually every message sent through the system. Britain nicknamed the intercepted messages Ultra.