Until 5734/1974, few people knew about an operation that was so secret that it was labeled not “TOP SECRET” but “ULTRA SECRET.” This was Britain’s “Ultra” cryptanalysis project that, during World War II, secretly cracked Germany’s secret codes, laying bare many of the Nazis’ military secrets for six years until their defeat in 5705/1945. In 5763/2003, it was reported that Winston Churchill apparently told King George VI, “It was thanks to Ultra that we won the war!”
One of Ultra’s first tasks was to prevent Field-Marshal Erwin Rommel from sweeping through Egypt into Palestine.
AN IMPREGNABLE ENCRYPTING MACHINE
Although most military information during World War I was gleaned by low-flying aerial photography and trench raids, during this war the age of radio espionage began: listening in to the enemy’s radio messages. To counter this, each side used codes and, to counter the codes, each side set up teams of cryptographers to cipher them.
Since shortly after World War I, the Germans had been developing a code making machine, called Enigma, dreamt up by German inventor, Arthur Scherbius. They regarded it as impregnable. Basically, a typist would feed the letters of a message into this machine, which then spat out a version of the message so permutated that it was estimated it would take top mathematicians a month to work it out. And, by then, it would be too late because the permutations were regularly altered. Another machine, known as FISH, worked along similar lines. German cryptanalysts were convinced that their machines were impregnable. They were wrong.
By 5792/1932, the Polish were beginning to crack the Enigma codes and, shortly before World War II, a Polish mechanic, hired by a German factory, helped Polish intelligence build their own working model of the Enigma machine.
To crack the codes, the British set up the “Government Code and Cipher School” at Bletchley Park, fifty miles north of London, and staffed it with chess experts, mathematicians and pioneer computer scientists, including Alan Turing, one of the fathers of modern computing.
This last group of people was essential because even the fastest human brain would take weeks to work through the Enigma’s tens-of-thousands of permutations. Thus the computer age was born just in time to stop Germany in its tracks.
The Polish had already invented electro-mechanical machines, or early computers, known as the Bomba, and the British used a different, far superior version, called the Bombe, eventually producing about 200 of them. The Bletchley Park operations were kept so secret that their results were taken directly to the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, in a locked box which he personally held the key to.
AN EARLY SUCCESS
One of the first big success stories of Bletchley Park was its role in defeating Rommel at the second Battle of El Alamein, upon which the future of the Jewish yishuv in Palestine hinged. In general, Rommel’s forces were better trained, some of their weaponry was superior, and Rommel himself was famed as a superb strategist. The key to destroying him was to destroy the mobility of his fearsome Panzer units, and the key to doing that was to dry up the convoys of petrol coming over the Mediterranean from Italy. The same applied to the availability of ammunition and spare parts.
This is where Ultra came in. Well aware that everything depended on his petrol supply, Rommel sent a constant stream of pleas by radio, which was picked up by Ultra. In reply, Rommel was radioed back, and told when and where to expect his next shipments. Thus the Allied navy and air force knew exactly where to pick off the Germans’ helpless tankers at sea. The only problem was not making it obvious that the Enigma code had been cracked.
To achieve this, the Allies had a strict rule. No tanker or cargo ship was ever sunk before it was “spotted” by a reconnaissance aircraft or submarine. “Both Admiral Cunningham and Air Vice-Marshal Sir Keith Park, the Air Force officer commanding Malta, were meticulous in sticking to the security rules for Ultra. They took great care to make absolutely sure that each convoy had duly seen the aircraft that was sent up and was supposed to have spotted it before the Navy turned up. Park would order an aircraft just close enough to where he knew the convoy would be for it to seen by the ships. Then, a little while later, the Navy would arrive and send all the ships to the bottom” (“The Ultra Secret” by F. W. Winterbotham).
The ethical dilemma of Ultra was that, to keep the Germans from realizing what was going on, it was sometimes necessary to sacrifice people’s lives. On one occasion, for example, an Allied pilot sacrificed his life to keep up the ruse.
“There was a patchy fog in the Mediterranean and, this time, the Malta aircraft couldn’t find the convoy, which had evidently changed course as an extra precaution. The pilot of the RAF (Royal Air Force) spotter plane, unable to find the ships through the fog patches, cruised around in these dangerous skies until suddenly, through a small break in the fog, he saw them on a different course to the one that had been given. It was virtual suicide for a single British aircraft to send a signal from the air… since the Germans in Sicily would be able to get a fix on his position and enemy fighter aircraft would be sure to intercept him before he could get home. But the courageous pilot reported the convoy’s position and paid for it with his life” (ibid).
Because the pilots and seamen always knew exactly where to search, the Germans assumed that the Allies had 400 submarines prowling the Mediterranean when, in reality, they only had 25. Similarly, they assumed that Britain had a huge reconnaissance air force on the Mediterranean island of Malta, when all the RAF actually had stationed there were three airplanes!
Thanks to these tactics, over 40 percent of all the Axis’ ships carrying supplies to Rommel were sunk, and 60 percent were sunk just before the Battle of El Alamein.
Thus, shortly before the battle that broke out in October 5702/1942, Rommel desperately appealed to Hitler’s Headquarters:
“The German troops of the Panzer Army in Africa, who are bearing the brunt of the war in Africa against the finest troops of the British Empire, must be provided with an uninterrupted flow of the supplies essential for life and battle, and every available ship and transport aircraft should be employed for that purpose. Failing this, the continued successful maintenance of the African theatre of war will be impossible and army will, sooner or later, run the danger, when the British launch a major offensive, of suffering the same fate as befell the Halfaya garrison (that was destroyed)” (The Rommel Papers).
Subsequently, when the battle of El Alamein broke out, it was basically lost before it began. Without adequate petrol, Rommel could not execute his famous desert maneuvers that had bedeviled the Allies for the past two years. As he recorded:
“We still could not take the risk of putting the main weight of our defense on to operations in the open desert, for the following reasons: “(a) The relative strengths in motorized divisions had become too unequal. While our opponents were receiving a steady flow of motorized reinforcements, we received only non-motorized which were as good as useless in the open desert… (b) The British air superiority… (c) We were permanently short of petrol. I did not want to get myself again into the awkward situation of having to break off a battle because we were out of petrol. In a mobile defensive action, shortage of petrol spells disaster” (ibid).
General Claude Auchinleck, a commander of the British forces at the time, conceded that, if Rommel had not been strangled of supplies, the Germans could have broken through to Egypt.
THE WORLD’S FIRST COMPUTERS
An equally important role played by Ultra was helping overcome one of the greatest threats of World War II, Hitler’s U-Boats, which threatened to cut off supplies from America. By deciphering radio messages to submarines, the Allies could locate them and send their convoys on alternate routes.
By early 5703/1943, the British had perfected the world’s first programmable computer, that they called Colossus, in order to crack the German codes. Because this top secret was only declassified late in the 5730s/1970s, people thought for decades that the first programmable computer invented was the ENIAC, developed in the University of Pennsylvania, some time afterwards.
By this time, the Allies were intercepting up to 2,000 messages a day, some of them from Hitler himself. Other German codes, such as the Triton, were also routinely intercepted and analyzed.
As mentioned earlier, the “Ultra” was kept officially secret for 29 years until 5734/1974. The British destroyed their ten Colossus computers in the early 5740s/1980s, but one of its designers, Tommy Flowers, reconstructed an exact copy in 5754/1994. By today’s standards, the Bombe and the Colossus were primitive but, in their time, they helped spell the difference between victory and defeat.