World War II is often called a “total war,” because many of the countries involved were fighting for their very existence. In an effort to confuse the enemy — or to steal their messages — countries formed special units dedicated to creating or deciphering transmissions that were meant to be secret. Both sides had major successes and failures in cryptography. In this quiz, what do you really know about the use of secret codes during the Second World War?
In the decade before the war began, the Germans began honing multiple cipher systems and machines that would prove their worth. But other European nations, witnessing the rise of Nazism, immediately set about trying to crack those codes long before the first bombs fell. What do you know about the codes that the Third Reich used to protect its nefarious schemes? And how much do you know about the heroes who committed their minds to unraveling the complexities of German ciphers?
After WWI, a German engineer devised the Enigma machine, a rotary cipher machine that became invaluable to the Nazis in WWII. The Allies expended major time and effort trying to crack Enigma.
As codes became more complicated, so too did the efforts to break those codes. Cryptanalysis is codebreaking, and it became very sophisticated during the war.
C. Lorenz AG, an electronics company in Berlin, created Lorenz cipher machines that became commonplace in Nazi Germany. The Lorenz machines — and their downfall — are a major part of WWII lore.
Early in the war, Germany used physical landlines, which in some ways were more secure than radio. As the Nazi Reich spread, it switched to wireless transmissions that easily reached longer distances ... but were also vulnerable to the Allied codebreakers.
The Poles were cracking the Engima even before the war began. But in the late ‘30s, the Germans made upgrades to Enigma, and the Poles couldn’t monetarily afford to address the complexities of the upgraded machines.
After WWI, Britain started the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS), which explored techniques of codebreaking. It was a small unit at first — but when WWII broke out, the group exploded in size and importance.
In WWII, "Ultra" was a keyword that denoted high-level information snagged from encrypted German transmissions. This information was "ultra" secret, and thus, the nickname came to life.
By 1940, war was ravaging Europe and the GC&CS was working to break about 150 different diplomatic codes, all to help give the Allies a advantage in the war.
During the war, the British organized codebreaker teams at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire. There, brilliant Allied codebreakers banged their heads against the walls, trying (often in vain) to break Nazi codes.
In an effort to decipher Engima messages, British codebreakers made the "bombe" machine. Famous cryptoanalyst Alan Turing helped to devise the first bombe machine.
Enigma was a fantastically complicated machine and virtually unbreakable. But German human error introduced flaws into the code procedure ... and the Allies pounced.
Germany’s ally, Japan, also used Enigma machines in the course of the war. For years, these machines made it much harder for the Allies to fully understand Axis messages.
The Allies intercepted countless Axis radio transmissions — and their cipher machines decoded many of those messages. Some historians say these decoded messages turned the tide of the war in favor of the Allies.
Marian Rejewski was a codebreaker and mathematician from Poland who understood the Enigma machine even before the war began. His insights later helped the Allies decode Engima’s finer points to gather incredibly important information.
As the war raged, the British created Colossus, a set of computers meant to tackle German Lorenz machine codes. The Colossus Mark 2 became functional just in time for D-Day.
During the war, British intercepts determined that the Germans were low on men and supplies. That kind of information allowed General Montgomery to exploit Nazi weaknesses.
Lorenz machines carried some of the most sensitive high-level messages between German commanders. Allied codebreakers snagged very important details in their work to crack the Lorenz.
Hundreds of Navajo people used their native language to communicate top-secret messages for America. The "code talkers" are renowned for their wartime contributions.
The bombe machine helped codebreakers understand the strength of German forces in Western Europe and Normandy. This information was invaluable in planning the D-Day invasion.
The German navy used a variant of the Enigma machine that had an extra rotor (read: additional complexity) that made its messages incredibly difficult to break. For a while, the Allies were totally stumped.
They all diligently worked to decipher "Fish." British codebreakers were obsessed with pinpointing the details of Fish so that they could figure out what the Germans were saying to each other.
Technology historians often call Colossus the first programmable computer in world history. By the time the war ended, the Allies had built 10 of these machines, all in an effort to crack Axis codes.
The Allies made a lot of logical guesses as to the way the Lorenz machine worked. But thanks to German precautions, the Allies never even saw one of these machines in person until the very end of the conflict.
The Nazis knew America would use Native American code talkers even before war began — so they sent dozens of anthropologists to America to study Native Americans.
Native American languages are full of nuances and dialects too subtle for non-speakers to grasp on the fly. Thus, code talkers were highly successful in disguising messages during the war.
The Allies employed people from numerous Native American tribes as code talkers. The relative obscurity of the languages of tribes like the Lakota, Comanche and others to Europeans made it much harder for enemy code breakers to do their jobs.
Turing was a brilliant codebreaker, one who also had a dramatic impact on computer science. His innovations are often credited with sparking the artificial intelligence revolution.
Everyone, even many Germans, knew Hitler was nuts. The code talkers incorporated it into regular use — Hitler was "crazy white man."
The Germans knew it was technically possible to break Enigma — but they didn’t believe that Allies would find such matters worth their time and money. They were wrong.
The sciences and computational requirements of cryptography changed the course of electronics — and of computers in general. In the wake of the war, computer technology quickly evolved into the digital revolution of today.