World War 2 – computers, El-Alamein

Recently, it has been claimed that future battles will be fought as much in cyberspace as on the battlefield, each side attempting to penetrate the enemy’s military, financial, and social electronic databases and wreak terror and confusion by means of the virus, worm, and Trojan horse. A current example of this trend was the recent cyber attacks against Iran’s nuclear development, which some say was implemented by Israel. However computer warfare actually began seventy years ago at the beginning of World War II.

Ultra Versus Enigma As the German tanks were rolling through Poland and France, the British were fine tuning a computer system named Ultra, a catchall name for their development of astoundingly new computers the Germans never dreamt of, specially designed to crack the codes generated by Germany’s electronic Enigma cipher machine that produced codes guaranteed unbreakable by the sharpest human brain. Taking into consideration that Enigma was capable of producing 3,283, 883, 513, 796, 974, 198, 700, 882, 069, 882, 752, 878, 379, 955, 261, 095, 623, 685, 444, 055, 315, 226, 006, 433, 615, 627, 409, 666, 933, 182, 371, 154, 802, 769, 920, 000, 000, 000 different configurations, it is not surprising that one German cryptographer boasted: “From a mathematical standpoint we cannot speak of a theoretically absolute insolvability of a cryptogram. But due to the special procedures performed by the Enigma machine, the solvability is so far removed from practical possibility that the cipher system of the machine, when the distribution of keys is correctly handled, must be regarded as virtually incapable of solution.”

The Nazis never dreamt that an advanced electronic brain was exposing their deepest secrets to the Allies for the entire duration of the war. Although Ultra was primitive by modern standards, one of its early models comprised about a hundred rotating drums, ten miles of wire, and about one million soldered electric connections; nonetheless, according to Dr. A. Ray Miller of America’s National Security Agency, “Ultra saved the world two years of war, billions of dollars, and millions of lives.”

It also played a major part in saving Eretz Yisroel from the Nazi onslaught, in fulfillment of the prediction the Chofetz Chaim made in 1933 after Hitler vaulted to power, that, In Mount Tziyon there will be a remnant (pleita) and it will be holy (Ovadiah 1:17). This article will concentrate on how Ultra held up the Nazi onslaught against Egypt and Palestine. Talk of El-Alamein and most people think of the giant second battle of El Alamein, one of the largest tank battles in history, which erupted on October 23, 1942. Actually, for the Germans this was a battle without hope. In his personal records, Erwin Rommel wrote that the odds against his forces were ridiculous: “Something over 200 German and about 300 Italian tanks faced qualitatively superior British armor to the strength of over 1,000 tanks. True, we had a fair number of guns, but many of these were obsolete Italian types, many of them captured guns and all of them terribly short of ammunition. In addition, the British had now gained complete air supremacy over the Mediterranean and… as a result, our stocks of supplies were so low that shortages of every kind were evident even at the beginning of the battle.”

On the other hand, Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery (Monty for short) of the British side had been building up weapons and supplies for months in order to guarantee a knockout blow. Significantly, despite his abundance of hardware he never forgot to radio his men on the eve of the battle,   “Let us ask the L-rd, mighty in battle, to give us the victory.” The subsequent fight put Rommel on the run, leaving behind millions of unexploded shells and landmines that claim victims among Egypt’s population till this day.

Now or Never – Alam Halfa
More hazardous for the British, along with Egypt and Palestine, was the first battle of El Alamein that took place three months earlier, July 1-27, 1942. Rommel’s forces had reached the small railway outpost of El Alamein that lay a mere 66 miles from Egypt’s major seaport, Alexandria. The Germans’ strategy was to slice through Egypt, seize the Suez Canal, break into Palestine where they would hopefully join forces with local Arabs, and link up with German forces fighting down from Southern Russia. To achieve these goals, they were expecting ample support from the pro Nazi Vichy French forces controlling Algeria and Syria.

Terrified, the British prepared the giant port of Alexandria for demolition in the event they could not halt the Axis forces at El Alamein. On a day remembered as ‘Ash Wednesday’, the British headquarters in Cairo began to destroy classified papers and prepared for evacuation to Palestine, while in Palestine itself Jews davened for salvation, as Arabs waited for their big chance recorded by their leader, Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini in his memoirs after the war: “Our fundamental condition for cooperating with Germany was a free hand to eradicate every last Jew from Palestine and the Arab world. I asked Hitler for an explicit undertaking to allow us to solve the Jewish problem in a manner befitting our national and racial aspirations and according to the scientific methods innovated by Germany in the handling of its Jews. The answer I got from the Fuehrer was: ‘The Jews are yours.’”

The first battle of el-Alamein was a vicious face-off lost by the Germans largely due to exhaustion and lack of supplies. Following this came Rommel’s last serious attempt to break through to Egypt and Palestine – the battle of Alam Halfa. Lasting only six days (August 30 to September 5), German troops named it the six day race after the Sechtagerennen, a famous German bicycle race. Ultra provided British General Harold Alexander with Rommel’s battle plans from the start and took a big part in thwarting the last attempt to conquer Eretz Yisroel.

As Ultra coordinator, F.W. Winterbotham recalls, “Alexander produced a long detailed signal from Rommel to Hitler… telling Hitler exactly what he was proposing to do in his final assault on the eighth army. In accordance with the best German textbook strategy, Rommel proposed to make a strong surprise attack across the Quatara depression on the southern end of Montgomery’s flank and then, with a great northward sweep of the tanks of his Panzer army, roll up the eighth army and drive them into the sea.”

But thanks to the Ultra warning, the British had ample time to prepare for Rommel’s final onslaught by organizing his defense in depth. In his war records, Rommel describes the unexpectedly hot reception awaiting his attack.

“Shortly after passing the eastern boundary of our own minefields, our troops came up against an extremely strong and hitherto unsuspected British mine belt, which was stubbornly defended. Under intensely heavy artillery fire, the sappers and infantry eventually succeeded in clearing lanes through the British barrier, although at the cost of very heavy casualties and a great deal of time… My plans – for the motorized forces to advance 30 miles by east to moonlight and then strike at dawn – had not worked.”

Another important reason the Germans failed to breakout to Egypt was a drastic dearth of gasoline. By the third day of the battle their supply was running dry. “Still, no drop of the promised petrol [gasoline] had arrived in Africa,” Rommel recalls. “That evening, the Panzer army had only one petrol issue left, and one issue, even with the greatest economy could only suffice to keep our supply traffic going for a very short time… The petrol, which was an essential condition for the fulfillment of our plan, had not arrived. Some of the ships which Cavallero [an Italian general] had promised had been sunk, some delayed, and others not even dispatched.”

Out of 5,000 tons of gasoline due to arrive by the 3rd, 2,600 tons were already sunk, and 1,500 tons were still in Italy. Unknown to Rommel, who blamed his dearth of oil on Italian inefficiency and betrayal (many leading Italians were anti-Nazi) his tankers had been sunk by computer. The Royal Air Force and Navy had sunk three tankers hauling fuel over the Mediterranean after Ultra intercepted the Italian sailing schedules.

From Light to Dark
Official Jewish Agency history reports that in Palestine, the threat of eradication transformed into financial prosperity:

“At first there was a serious economic crisis with 10% of the Jewish Yishuv unemployed. But from 1942 the picture changed dramatically. The British turned Palestine into the first economic and logistic center of its kind. Industry developed at an astonishing rate in order to supply the myriad needs of the great British army; the immense building effort and the many services that the Jewish Yishuv provided the army and soldiers brought a prolonged period of prosperity.

The standard of living rose and relations with the Arabs stabilized.

“In spite of the fact that there were differences of opinion on a number of subjects, like the continued White Paper policy, it was considered a positive time, from the point of view of achievements and future prospects. However, the terrible shadow of the destruction of European Jewry on the one hand, and the successes in Eretz Israel – where it was ‘business as usual’ – on the other, only made the awkwardness of this special situation more apparent.”

As pointed out at the beginning of the article, computers have been a vital aspect of warfare for decades. After all, a major turning point of World War II was facilitated by a computerized tangle of electrical wires and connections.

(Sources: Winterbotham, F.W. The Ultra Secret. New York: Dell Publishing, 1975; Liddel Hart, B.H., The Rommel Papers. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1953.)

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.