'The Imitation Game' - Success Has Many Fathers...

19/01/2015 11:27 | Updated 21 March 2015

Eight Oscar nominations, including for the Best Motion Picture of the Year, Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role for Benedict Cumberbatch, and Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role for Keira Knightley. I congratulate the British film industry on The Imitation Game - another outstanding, world-class production.

There is no doubt that the film has done wonders for bringing to the popular attention worldwide the significance of the work carried out at Bletchley Park by thousands of people throughout the war, day in, day out, in complete secrecy. However, while bearing in mind that the film is, ultimately, a work of fiction, and many simplifications had to be made in order to fit the storyline, within the screen time available, I cannot help but feel disappointed that the Polish contribution to breaking the Enigma code was not more prominently highlighted. Marian Rejewski, Jerzy Różycki and Henryk Zygalski, three brilliant Polish mathematicians, must be credited with the first breaking of the Enigma codes.

Following the capitulation of Poland in 1939 after the Nazi German invasion, Polish cryptologists made their way to France. It was in France, 75 years ago almost to the day, on 17 January 1940, that they broke the Enigma cipher for the first time during the war, in the presence of Alan Turing, the hero of The Imitation Game, using a set of Zygalski sheets manufactured by the British, offered to the Polish-French code-breaking effort. Incidentally, this date coincides almost exactly with the film officially opening in Poland, where I am sure it will do splendidly.

In fact, from the very beginning of the Second Republic of Poland, much attention was paid to the development of cryptology. This was a consequence of the important role which cryptology had played in the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-1921 - the breaking of Soviet codes helped the Polish Army win the Battle for Warsaw, a victory which stopped the Red Army in its march towards Western Europe. This success of Polish cryptanalysts had created favourable conditions for the development of modern Polish cryptology. A dedicated Cipher Bureau was set up within the Polish Army, and the head of its German section, Lt Maksymilian Ciężki, came to play a notable role in its work.

It was Lt Ciężki who suggested that mathematics be used in cryptological work, and that a special centre be established in Poznan, where training was organised for 26 mathematics students from Poznan University. After completing their studies and several years of traineeship, three members of that group, Marian Rejewski, Jerzy Różycki and Henryk Zygalski, were employed by the Cipher Bureau. In 1932, Polish mathematicians, using a mathematical method (instead of a linguistic one) succeeded in breaking the first Enigma-encoded dispatch. They were able to do it because they had discovered the cyclical nature of the cipher and had created a mathematical model of the machine (without having actually seen the machine, a remarkable feat!), which allowed them to build a replica and to recreate keys to break the Enigma code. The Polish mathematicians were pioneers in the field. While both the French and the British intelligence services were in possession of cipher keys to Enigma, which they obtained from their German spy Hans-Thilo Schmidt, they were not able to use these keys because they were not advanced enough in their work to build the machine and considered the intelligence information worthless. Meanwhile, cryptological work continued in Poland, where an auxiliary decrypting machine called cyclometer was built in 1935. Three years on, in 1938, it was followed by the so-called Rejewski bomb, and later still, by the Zygalski sheets, i.e. pieces of paper with holes in them, which, when superimposed, yielded the cipher key used on a particular day.

With the war looming ever larger, cryptologists from France, Great Britain and Poland met in Paris in January 1939. The Polish delegates were given instructions to the effect that they could inform the Allies about their success only if the work of the British and French was as much advanced as that of the Polish scientists. Since the Allies knew practically nothing about the Enigma machine, Polish delegates did not give them any information, something that - as the Polish side saw it - led their partners to treat them in a dismissive manner.

It was not until 25 July 1939, at a time when the war was imminent, that in Pyry, a Warsaw suburb, Polish intelligence handed over to the Allies both a copy of the machine and a complete set of documentation of the decryption methods. The Polish mathematicians set out the mathematical foundations, the principles that allowed reconstructing the machine and breaking the keys, and detailed information about how the decryption apparatus was constructed. At the meeting, Polish specialists also decoded a freshly intercepted dispatch while the French and British were watching.

In the autumn of 1939, Bletchley Park began to draw on information which Poles had provided shortly before the war. Ten years after the Polish Cipher Bureau, the British saw the need to use mathematicians. As a result, Alan Turing, a mathematician, joined Bletchley Park in September 1939, and was promptly followed by other specialists in this field. They immediately recognised the value of the devices and documentation that Poland had provided, and set about copying and expanding on the Polish concepts. A team headed by John Jeffreys copied the so-called Zygalski sheets, whilst Alan Turing focused on the Rejewski bomb. This led to the completion - as early as in 1939 - of the so-called Turing bombe, an apparatus which weighed over a tonne, contained a dozen or so miles of cable, and corresponded to 36 Enigma machines. It became the chief Enigma-breaking device of the war.

For many years information about Enigma remained classified; likewise no information was available about Polish scientists who broke the Enigma code. It was not until recently that the work of Polish scientists won international recognition. In 2014, the US-based Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the world's largest professional association of technicians, engineers, and scientists specialising in electrical engineering and electronics, decorated Marian Rejewski, Jerzy Różycki and Henryk Zygalski, the three Polish mathematicians, with the Milestone, IEEE's highest distinction, for breaking the Enigma codes in 1932-1939.

On 19 November 2014, the Polish Embassy and our British partners had the honour of organising the visit of family members of the three mathematicians to Bletchley Park. This was an excellent to prepare a concise video about the Polish contribution. You may find it on the Polish Embassy UK YouTube channel.

The late British Professor John Irving Good (himself a Bletchley Park staff member during wartime) was a great admirer of the work done by Polish mathematicians. Years later, he described one of the theorems Rejewski formulated during his pioneering attack on the Enigma code as "the formula that won the Second World War." As we are all well aware, success always has many fathers, which, at least in this case, is not a bad thing at all. While reflecting on the genius, as well as personal tragedy of the British genius Alan Turing, one mustn't forget about the three Polish heroes - Marian Rejewski, Jerzy Różycki and Henryk Zygalski, whose crucial contribution to the Allied war-breaking effort is yet to be vastly recognised by international audiences.

Acknowledgements: Piotr Długołęcki, Chief Historian, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Warsaw (basing on findings of Dr Marek Grajek, the author of "Enigma. Bliżej prawdy" [Enigma. Closer to the Truth] and "Narodziny kryptologii matematycznej" [The Birth of Mathematical Cryptology]).