Did Polish cryptographers crack the Nazi Enigma code before Alan Turing?

Among the many things that computer science pioneer Alan Turing is remembered for was his tremendous contribution to the British war effort in which he is credited with cracking Nazi Germany's Enigma code — a breakthrough that historians widely agree helped to shorten the war in Europe. But now, the Polish government is claiming that Bletchley Park's achievement would have been impossible without the contributions of Polish cryptographers who had been working on the problem since the early 1930s. The time has come, they say, to give credit where credit is due.

And indeed, the Polish government has a strong case.

Did Polish cryptographers crack the Nazi Enigma code before Alan Turing?

Back in 1932, Poland assembled the Polish Cipher Bureau in response to what they perceived to be the rising German threat. Among the cryptographers hired, they recruited three young mathematicians, Marian Rejewski, Henryk Zygalski, and Jerzy Różycki. The team was charged with the task of solving the logical structure of the military Enigma, a 3-rotor machine whose security was increased in 1930 by the addition of a plugboard.

To help them in their work, the French Military Intelligence provided the Polish bureau with two German documents and two pages of Enigma daily keys. The items had been stolen by a French spy who worked at Germany's Cipher Office in Berlin.

With these clues, Rejewski was able to crack the code using the mathematical theory of permutations and groups — along with a lucky guess that the non-commercial version of the Enigma typewriter featured keys in alphabetical order. Subsequently, the Polish cryptographers were able to construct 'Enigma doubles' to help them transcribe coded messages. In all, they devised three different methods for breaking the encrypted codes produced on the Enigma machine.

Did Polish cryptographers crack the Nazi Enigma code before Alan Turing?

However, just prior to the onset of the war, the Germans added another two rotors to the system, increasing the possible wheel orders from 6 to 60. The Poles were still able to read a small minority of messages, but they clearly needed to solve the new rotors.

Time, however, was not on their side. Once the German invasion of Poland became imminent in 1939, the Polish government handed over all their research (including an Enigma machine) to the British in hopes that they would continue their work. Which they most certainly did, resulting in the full cracking of the Enigma code during the early stages of World War II.

And for which Britain has claimed virtually all of the credit.

But now, frustrated with what they see as a terrible injustice and oversight, the Polish government has put forth a motion in parliament to pass a resolution praising Rejewski, Zygalski, and Różycki for their contributions, while also designating them as official heroes of the state. The resolution reads, "In both popular literature and official information the public was told that the breaking of the Enigma codes was due to the work of the British intelligence services to the complete omission of the work of Polish scientists."

And indeed, the head start that Poland gave to Turing and Bletchley Park cannot be overstated. While there's no doubt that British cryptographers still had lots of work to do after coming into the possession of this information, it's fair to say that they might not have solved Enigma without it. As Polish senator Piotr Zientarski has said, "We have a duty to remind people just what the Polish cryptologists did."

Source: Telegraph. Top image via; inset images via.