Seizing The Enigma by David Kahn

Narrator: Bernard Mayes – Good
Genre: Non Fiction – Military
Writing: Good
Story: Poor
Time: 13 hours 35 minutes 

I know very little about
cryptography or cryptology, but I’ve always been fascinated by stories of the
German Enigma cipher machine used before and during WWII and the efforts of the
Allies during the war to decode German messages.  When I found this book, I thought it would
help me get beyond the rudimentary knowledge that I have on the subject from
movies and anecdotes.  The good news is
that it did that, but at a price.

In your interested in
cryptography and you feel there might be a slight gap in your knowledge of the
history and science for the period from 1914 through 1945, this is the book for
you.  It covers everything  including what the British sailors who
captured the first Enigma from a German U-Boat had for breakfast the day they
boarded the donor ship.  If I haven’t
already made it clear, it might be worth repeating.  This book includes an immense amount of
unnecessary detail – not only of cryptologic advances during the period, but
also of everything in the periphery of those developments. 

The narrator is British and
takes a while to get used to (if you’re American, that is).  The narration is fairly slow as well.  The writing is also from a British point of
view, giving the Poles, French and Americans only passing credit for their

If you can find an abridged
version – say 50-100 pages long, it’d be worth a read.  If not, I can’t recommend it.  If after this poor endorsement, you insist on
giving it a try, stop reading here.  For
anyone interested in a few cool facts gleaned from the book, keep reading . . . 

  • The Poles were the first to apply mathematics to
    breaking complex coades and ciphers. 
    Prior to their work, all code-breaking was done through a
    brute-force method.  Early in the 20th
    century, while the Germans were developing advanced cryptographic
    techniques, only the Poles were able to keep up because they had their
    best mathematicians working on the problem while other countries continued
    to try to do things the old way. 
    The reason they were so far ahead was because they were the most
    threatened.  Shoehorned between the Soviet Union and German made fear the mother of
  • The pole built huge, complex mechanical machines
    – computers, actually – that worked on breaking coded messages and finding
    clues in the messages themselves. 
    The British continued developing these machines during WWII.
  • The need to break the messages encoded by the
    Enigma cipher machine was huge. 
    During 1942, there were months
    when up to 150 British and American ships were being sunk in the Atlantic.
  • Each branch of the German military and the SS
    used different versions of the Enigma. 
    The Army, Luftwaffe and SS codes were broken fairly early in the
    war.  The naval code and process
    took until much later in the war to break and required the acquisition of
    a naval Enigma machine to be successful.
  • Breaking the Enigma is commonly credited with
    winning the battle of the Atlantic and, thus, winning the war in Europe.  After
    all, food to sustain the British had to come from North America and most
    of the armament, ammunition and men for the invasion of Europe came across
    the Atlantic.  This book points out, though, that by
    1943, the US was
    building ships so fast that the Germans could not put enough submarines in
    the Atlantic to sink enough tonnage to
    reverse the Allied advance.  Also,
    if the Germans were not defeated in early 1945, the first atomic bomb
    would have surely been used on the Germans and would have ultimately ended
    the war.  So, while breaking the
    Enigma certainly saved thousands of lives and caused the war to end a few
    months earlier, it was not reason for the Allied victory.
  • The British did an excellent job disguising the
    fact that they had captured an Enigma and were reading coded German
    messages.  They were very conscious of
    not anticipating too many German moves and even let some German targets
    move freely in the Atlantic so as not to
    give any indication of what they knew. 
    Churchill was actively involved in the use of the deciphered
    information and was gave many warnings about the abuse of their new

In the end, the biggest
factor to breaking the Enigma – and this is likely true for breaking any secret
code at any time – is the hubris of the people who created and used it.  Throughout the war, the Germans ignored
signals that the Enigma and the coding processed used to create messages with
the Enigma, had been compromised.  These
signals were ignored, for the most part, because the Germans strongly felt
their system was unbreakable.  This
feeling of invincibility ultimately was the biggest failure in their system.

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