Capturing the Enigma machine; why it was less important than you think

Many a journalist, writing about code-breaking in WW2, praises the bravery, enterprise and doggedness through which the Royal Navy captured an Enigma machine. The popular story is that Britain’s codebreakers were toiling unsuccessfully in the dark, unable to make progress, until this capture.

One can understand how these stories emerge, and take hold. An Enigma machine is a real, tangible, chunk of equipment, something which could be physically captured and carried off, a very obvious prize.

As ever, the truth is less romantic. The Enigma machine was developed in Germany in the mid-1920s, and was for some years marketed publicly. Its function, stated briefly, was to provide secrecy for long-distance communications, whether by wireless or cable (or even on paper).

As the market was international, its makers wanted to safeguard their intellectual property rights in countries other than Germany. Quite naturally, successive innovations embodied in this piece of office equipment were patented in the UK, particularly in 1927 and 1929.

Enigma Machine patent - schematic
A patent drawing showing a section through the commercial Enigma machine (note – no steckerboard)

With the widespread publicity given to the machine, it is not surprising that, round the world, military, diplomatic and commercial bodies took some interest in its potential, although not many went as far as to buy one. The UK Foreign Office is reported to have bought one in 1928.

The Polish Cypher Bureau also bought one in the 1920s, so were aware of the mechanics of the basic machine by 1928, at a time when they realised that the German military had started using a sophisticated device to encipher a growing number of their radio communications.

Of course, the military version of Enigma was not identical to the machines which had been sold on the open market, but the brilliant work carried out by Rejewski, Zygalski, and Rozycki enabled the Polish Cypher Bureau to identify the differences, particularly deducing the wiring pattern inside each of the three different rotors then in use.

An Enigma machine patent document from 1927; well before the start of WW2

As any rotor could potentially be wired in any one of 400 million million million million ways, identifying the exact wiring pattern of the three rotors was an amazing achievement. In 1938, two more rotors were added to the original three, so that every machine used by the German Army and Air Force then had a suite of five, from which three were selected each day as part of the new day’s set-up. The Poles managed to work out the wiring of these extra two, as well.

In the summer of 1939, sensing that invasion was imminent, the Poles decided to pass on to their allies – Britain and France – everything they had so far discovered about Enigma and how its ciphers might be broken. They even gave a working Enigma replica to each, as well. Had they not shared their knowledge, the British work at Bletchley Park would have been, at best, delayed.

Sales literature for the Enigma machine (approx 1925)

Every Enigma machine in military service was reconfigured every single day at midnight. As there are literally millions of ways a machine could be set up, merely having access to a machine does not allow the deciphering of an Enigma-encrypted message.

To achieve that requires knowledge of the set-up, as well as a machine itself. The German cipher clerks had copies of carefully guarded books of settings (loosely referred to as ‘code books’) which gave them specific daily set-up  instructions. The Bletchley Park codebreakers had no such aids.

So, by the outbreak of war, the British had two patents, an original Enigma machine (commercial version), and a replica military version, and precise knowledge of the wiring patterns in all five rotors used by the German Army and Air Force. The German Navy used the same machine, but they had another three rotors of their own, making up a suite of eight altogether. It took about a year for Britain to discover (by capture) how these extra three were wired.

The big unknown, then, is how the machines are set up for use. The picture is also complicated by the fact that different regional commands of the German forces used different set-ups, and all of these were changed every day. Unless the Bletchley Park codebreakers could work out the ever-changing set-up details, deciphering the intercepted messages would be impossible.

Thus for much of the war, the most useful targets for capture were not the machines themselves but the instructions that went with them including, but not limited to, the code books. Two examples show this admirably.

In May 1941, the German weather-ship München was deliberately hunted down in the North Atlantic by a Royal Navy task force of 3 cruisers and 4 destroyers. When the München was fired at on 9 May, her crew threw the Enigma machine and current code books overboard. (Destroying or throwing overboard their Enigma machines was standard procedure for the German armed forces, but not all were fully lost – and many Enigma machines have since been found in fields and the sea floor).

What they, and the captain, failed to think about was that other documents including code books for future months were in the captain’s quarters. These were discovered by the Royal Naval boarding party, removed, and ended up in Bletchley Park on 10 May 1941, by which time the weather-ship had been sunk.

Weather ship Lauenburg before it was sunk 28 June 1941 (seen from HMS Tartar)
Enigma documents were captured from weather ship Lauenburg before it was sunk 28 June 1941 (seen from HMS Tartar)

In June 1941, another German weather-ship, the Lauenburg was hunted down by a task force of a cruiser and three destroyers. Again, when the Royal Navy ships were sighted, on 28 June, overboard went the Enigma and the papers from the signalman’s desk. Again, none of the Lauenburg’s crew thought about the papers stored elsewhere. The search party’s haul included the code books for July, and these reached Bletchley on 2 July.

In both these cases, the Navy had no expectation of capturing a machine – documentation was the prize. Of course, if an intact machine could be captured, it might reveal the settings for the day of capture, but a ‘code book’ might provide settings information for every day for a whole month.

Dr Mark Baldwin – aka Dr Enigma – is an international expert and speaker on the Enigma Machine. Book an talk, event or Enigma machine presentation (either in person or remote) here.

Women Codebreakers; the hidden female heroes of code cracking

Without doubt, if you ask someone to name some WW2 codebreakers, all the names they are likely to come up with will be those of men. Alan Turing, Gordon Welchman, Alistair Denniston, Dillwyn Knox, John Tiltman, Hugh Alexander, Stuart Milner-Barry, and Bill Tutte are names which might figure in a brief list of leading British codebreakers. In the USA, the list might include William Friedman, Joe Desch, Elvin Urquhart, and Frank Rowlett.

This could suggest that codebreaking is an exclusively male field, one to which women were unfitted to contribute. But nothing could be further from the truth; the reason women rarely participated at the higher levels of codebreaking was largely the result of male prejudice, not of female inability.

Even well before WW2, a several talented and determined women showed great codebreaking skills. Elizebeth Friedman (1892-1980, wife of William), started work as a codebreaker for the US War Department in 1919 and later worked for the US Navy, scoring notable successes against smugglers attempting to bring alcohol and other contraband into the USA in the prohibition years.

Elizebeth Friedman – US codebreaker

In the UK, Emily Anderson (1891-1962) was a ‘Hushwaac’ in WW1 – one of twelve women from the WAAC who were recruited as codebreakers in 1917 – and she stayed on after the war in GCCS as its sole female codebreaker. She has been described by John Ferris as ‘among the best cryptanalysts in the world’.

At Bletchley Park, there were eventually some 9,000 people employed, contributing to the work of this mighty production line of intelligence; intelligence derived from breaking enciphered enemy radio messages.

Women outnumbered men at Bletchley Park by about 3 to 1

In one sense all were ‘codebreakers’; they were, after all, employed in an institution dedicated to breaking enemy codes (and ciphers). However, the vast majority weren’t actually wrestling mentally with the problems of working out what GPCFF WNBFT IYRAM BBXFE TEQCB OHJJR could possibly mean.

The pyramid was a very flat one, with few at the top, challenged daily to interpret apparently meaningless strings of letters. Below them, in the broad lower reaches, were hundreds involved in the essential work of sorting, transcribing, indexing, translating and typing. The majority of these ancillary staff were women – by 1945, women at Bletchley outnumbered their male colleagues by three to one. One of them, Betty Webb, was doing such valuable work that she was transferred to the Pentagon between VE Day and the surrender of Japan in August 1945.

Although the women were, by and large, officially recruited for these more lowly roles, perceptive senior men deliberately sought out or recruited talented women who had codebreaking potential.

Renowned among these was Dilwyn (‘Dilly’) Knox, who studied the interview notes made by the Foreign Office interviewer, and then drafted some of the brightest women into his team. All of his immediate team were women, giving rise to the nickname ‘Dilly’s Fillies’, supposedly picked for their good looks, but it was actually their brains which caught Dilly’s attention.

Amongst these hand-picked girls were Mavis Lever, Margaret Rock, Claire Harding, and Phyllida Cross, and their success against Italian Naval Enigma gave Admiral Cunningham the opportunity to surprise the Italian Mediterranean Fleet at Matapan, and inflict such damage that it was never a serious threat again. Admiral Godfrey, Director of Naval Intelligence, credited Knox’s team with this victory, and Cunningham himself made a point of visiting Bletchley to thank the team in person.

So, there were women codebreakers at Bletchley – but they faced an administrative hurdle: Civil Service rules defined certain jobs as male-only, making it impossible for a talented woman to be officially classified (and paid) as a codebreaker.

Obtaining appropriate promotion and pay for codebreaking women meant that, initially at least, they had to be given some other job description. Joan Clarke, for example, was recruited into codebreaking by Gordon Welchman because of her proven mathematical ability, but had to apply to be a ‘linguist’, despite admitting on her application form that she had no linguistic skills.

Joan Clarke, talented mathematician and codebreaker, could
only be officially classified as a ‘linguist’

In the USA, no such subterfuge was required. Even before Pearl Harbour, the US Navy started to recruit women from prestigious colleges to be trained as cryptanalysts. The US Army followed suit, and by the end of the war, about 11,000 women were codebreakers, outnumbering their male colleagues.

In the UK, therefore, male prejudice worked in two ways: firstly, senior (male) staff were frequently of the opinion that women weren’t good enough for codebreaking work, and secondly, even if a woman was deliberately recruited (by a more perceptive man) as a codebreaker, she could not be officially classified as one.

The inevitable result is that anyone now scanning contemporary staff registers, pay lists, etc, will underestimate the number of women codebreakers, because their skills and roles have been buried under inappropriate job descriptions.

We will never know how many of the six or seven thousand women at Bletchley were actually codebreakers, despite being listed as typists, filing clerks, indexers or secretaries. We can, however, be sure that many of them were codebreakers, and their skills and dedication contributed to Allied victory.

‘National Geographic’ pays tribute to Betty Webb,
who worked on Japanese messages at Bletchley Park, and later in the Pentagon

Finding Enigma: from fields to flea markets – strange places Enigma machines have been found

Because, occasionally, previously unknown Enigma machines come to light (especially in Eastern Europe) our knowledge about how many Enigma machines survive, and how many were made, improves with time.

The number of known survivors increases, and will doubtless continue to increase, but one fact stands unchanged: the vast majority of all Enigma machines made (perhaps 45,000) have perished – destroyed in battle, sunk at sea, or deliberately smashed beyond repair to keep their secrets from the enemy. A mere one machine in a hundred has survived, and a good proportion of these are safely held in museums all over the world.

However, the wartime distribution of Enigma machines was virtually world-wide, and the final stages of the war so disorderly, that there could be no systematic gathering in of all the machines at that point.

They were abandoned, stolen or lost in a hundred and one places scattered over a hundred thousand and one square miles. The result is that no-one knows where the next Enigma machine may be found.

Enigma Machine Found in Flea Market

Thirty years ago, when I first became interested in Enigma machines, and they began to appear in auctions for a few thousand pounds, I encountered an urban myth – one of those things that happen to ‘a friend of a friend’.

This particular myth told of a man who had seen in a market somewhere a ‘funny sort of typewriter’ for sale for a few pounds. He didn’t buy it, of course, but when he belatedly discovered what it actually was, he rushed back – to find it had gone.

I have before me now a 30-year old newspaper article about a man who collected (and used) spy radios, which ends with:

‘His greatest regret is failing to spot a German Enigma machine for £5 in (London’s) Brick Lane market. He mistook it for a calculator.’

Mind you, such markets can yield prizes. A few years ago, a maths professor in Romania spotted a ‘funny looking typewriter’ in a flea market, priced at 100 Euros. Recognizing exactly what it was, a 3-rotor Enigma machine, he snapped it up, and then sent it to auction, where it fetched 45,000 Euros. That was by no means the end – it was next recorded on sale in New Orleans for $245,000.

I thought my luck was in when I spotted, in 1998, amongst a long list of electronic equipment advertised for sale in a wireless magazine, a ‘German Enigma Coder’. The entry itself was minute – about 15mm x 4mm – so I felt that I’d stumbled across an unrecognized treasure.

A quick phone call soon dispelled any such hopes – it wasn’t a German Enigma machine at all; it was a (perfectly respectable) post-war Swiss NEMA cipher machine.

Perhaps the last place you might expect to find an Enigma machine is in the exact spot where it last saw service, but that’s what happened in the Channel Islands, the last territory occupied by the Nazis to surrender.

The surrender documents were signed on 9 May 1945, one day after the official surrender on Europe’s mainland. The German soldiers were then allowed to leave the islands (on Royal Navy vessels) without let or hindrance, but were not allowed to take with them any military equipment.

Thus the Enigma machines which had been in use in the most heavily garrisoned part of Europe stayed behind, so when nowadays you see an Enigma machine in Jersey or Guernsey, it’s in exactly the place where it served during the war.

26 Enigma Machines found in Spanish Military Store

Surprisingly, it was not until 2008 that a group of really early Enigmas was found in a locked military store in Spain, overlooked and neglected for years. 26 Type D Enigmas, supplied to Franco in 1936 to bolster the Nationalist cause during the Spanish Civil War, were taken out of service in the 1950s, and had lain undisturbed for the next fifty years.

A number have since been presented to museums in Spain and elsewhere, including Bletchley Park and GCHQ.

Spanish stamp marking the stash of Enigma machines discovered

Battlefields Yield Enigma Remains

Metal detectorists are these days searching not only battlefields, but also locations where temporary camps, offices and staging posts were set up. The result is a rich haul – not so much of Enigma machines, but of the recognizable remains of Enigma machines.

Occasionally, a whole body of a machine will be found, but it’s often only a few handfuls of metal fragments, possibly including a rotor or two which may still carry the unique serial number of the machine of which it was part. Such fragments are undoubtedly of interest, but well beyond the possibility of restoration into a working machine.

Even in a decayed state like this, Enigma machines are still sought after.
This one is currently for sale by The Enigma Museum.

Underwater Enigma: MachineS found on Sea Bed

When the sunken U-Boat U534 was raised off the Danish coast in 1993, two Enigmas were found on board, somewhat corroded by 48 years lying in salt water, and these can now be seen in the Visitor Centre in Birkenhead, England.

U534 which was raised from the Danish seabed contained two Enigma Machines.
The picture above shows the rebuilt conning tower (and the new paint!)
The Enigma machines salvaged from U534

Rather different circumstances surrounded the discovery of an Enigma in the Bay of Gelting in the Baltic Sea in December 2020. An environmental group, scouring the sea bed to locate and remove old cables and nets, spotted a complete Enigma machine, and managed to raise it to the surface. A local museum has promised restoration, a considerable task, given 75 years of saltwater corrosion.

The Enigma machine found on the Baltic Seabed by an environmental clean-up group.
Image by Cristian Howe

6 more Enigmas found on Baltic seafloor

The Baltic sea seems to be somewhat of an Enigma machine graveyard. While searching for a lost propeller, a salvage diver located 6 more Enigma machines near Schleimunde. The find was originally made at the beginning of 2021, but due to the heavily encrusted state of the machines, they were not identified immediately for what they were.

Some had obviously been mutilated before disposal. Presumably the dumping of these machines is associated with the scuttling of nearly 50 U-Boats in this area on the night of 4/5 May 1945. My guess is that more divers will be out deliberately hunting for more Enigmas later this year, and they will find more of them!

Salvage diver – Christian Hüttner – poses with Enigma machines he discovered in the Baltic.
Image: Christian Hüttner Salvage Divers

So, no-one knows where the next ‘new’ Enigma machine will appear, or who will find it. We can be certain that there are more to be found, so keep your eyes open, and it may be you!

If you’d like to get ‘virtually hands-on’ with an Enigma machine – book a Dr Enigma online presentation and demo and see for your own eyes this fascinating machine and story.

Dr Enigma visits HAM Radio Fair in Germany

There were so many thousands of valves, condensers, tuners, aerials, coils, antennae, and numerous boxes of electronic gear embellished with dials, knobs and switches, that it was easy to accept that the recent Amateur Radio Fair in Friedrichshafen was Europe’s largest.


For some years now, that has been the proud boast of this southern German city, which will be better known to many as the home of the Zeppelin works, 90 years ago the world leader in airship design and operation.


The support from radio hams was world-wide – there were (amongst others) stands from Spain, Qatar, Brazil, Italy, Portugal, Israel, and Turkey – and many of these radio hams were able to experience hands-on Enigma operation at the Fair.

Without radio, there would have been no need for the Enigma machine, so it is not surprising to discover that one section of the huge fair comprised eight stands devoted to Enigma and other crypto devices.


Pioneered by Tom Perera from the USA, there has been a strong Enigma presence at the Friedrichshafen Fair for some years, and this has become an important international focus for those interested in crypto.

Exhibiting and selling on the eight stands were enthusiasts from USA, Germany, UK, The Netherlands, and Switzerland, and Dr Enigma was right in there with them. The Pereras (father Tom and son Dan) and Klaus Kopacz both had Enigma machines on display.


Perhaps the greatest excitement came during the setting-up day when two Enigma machines were brought in for sale, and were quickly snapped up by eager buyers – and buyers who needed to be well organized enough to be able to produce tens of thousands of Euros in cash to close the deals.

On the first full day of the Fair, one of the conference rooms was the venue of an Enigma Forum, in which several papers were delivered reporting on new developments and discoveries in the Enigma world.


Amongst these was a detailed account of the restoration of an Enigma which had been found in a wood shed in Belgium, an explanation of the latest analysis of the evolution of the steckerboard, and a report on progress being made in the decryption of several hundred original Enigma messages recently discovered in an archive in Berlin.

Tom Perera, organizer of the Forum, has now invited Dr Enigma to present a paper at Friedrichshafen fair in 2020, surveying the work done at Bletchley Park during WW2.

Putting this work in context will provide a useful contrast to the intense scrutiny of the machine itself.

To book Dr Enigma for a fascinating talk and hands-on demo with an original Enigma machine – contact us, or visit the Enigma events page.


Alan Turing – Great British Icon

In early February, BBC 2 screened the final instalment in their series ‘Icons: The Greatest Person of the 20th Century’. In previous instalments, viewers had been asked to vote for the greatest within seven different categories: arts, sport, politics, science, etc. In the final show, the winners in each category were pitted against each other, giving viewers the challenge of judging, say, Ernest Shackleton against David Bowie and Alan Turing.

Inside Facebook HQ: a giant rendition of Alan Turing made from dominoes

In the event, Alan Turing won (or perhaps I should say that Chris Packham, who made the case for Turing, won). However, a real confusion arises from the inclusion in the series’ title of two distinct ideas: ‘greatness’ and ‘icon’. To assess greatness, we need an expert to recount the achievements of a particular man or woman, and explain why these are outstanding or groundbreaking, and thus worthy of the title ‘great’.

Being an icon does not require demonstrable greatness; it must rest upon a person’s having been widely enough known, and inspirational enough, to excite widespread admiration. It is hard to see how Shackleton, admirable though his achievements undoubtedly were, could possibly now be regarded as an icon – he just isn’t well enough known.

Turing scores well as both great and iconic. His achievements can be said to rest upon a few overly simple labels: ‘Codebreaker’, ‘Helped to win World War 2’, and ‘Father of the Computer’. Imperfectly understood by most, these labels are enough to convince us of his greatness. In addition, his determination to overcome personal difficulties and challenges, culminating in disgrace and criminal conviction, are truly inspirational and the last fifteen years or so have undoubtedly seen Turing develop the aura of an icon. An apology by the Prime Minister in 2009, worldwide celebrations in 2012 to mark the centenary of his birth, and a Royal Pardon in 2013, are all indicative of the evolution of his iconic status.

He won the contest – a fitting tribute to a clearly great man who continues to provide inspiration to many who do not fit easily into the slots society would force them into, but who battle on. A Great British Icon.

Enigma machine creates media frenzy in Ljubljana: Dr Enigma in Slovenia

Last week, upon the invitation of blockchain company Verity – Dr Enigma travelled to Slovenia’s beautiful capital to present at the ‘Original Crypto’ evening as well as visit Verity’s office and speak to both the Slovene media and Verity staff about the Enigma machine.

Media interest was strong, with two different TV crews doing segments for national stations, and several magazine and newspaper journalists interviewing both Dr Enigma, and Martin Mikeln, Verity co-founder.

Dr Enigma with Verity co-founders: Martin Mikeln (l) and Luka Perović (r)

The event was an excellent example of how the breaking of the Enigma machine codes still fascinates people and is still relevant to cybersecurity today; especially those in the computer programming community.

Slovenia is a hotspot for blockchain, having been an early adopter of the technology which has led to a strong ecosystem of blockchain companies, and several world-class companies to have come out of the country. This was reflected by the Original Crypto event selling out with over 100 people attending.

Dr Enigma demonstrates the Enigma machine to (amongst others) Peter Trček, Bitnik CEO and President of Blockchain Thinktank Slovenia



With its roots in ‘cryptography’, today’s ‘cryptocurrency’ and underlying blockchain pioneers are fascinated by the story of hacking Enigma as well as the original machine itself. Ljubljana has a bit of Enigma history of its own; it was Ljubljana (then called ‘Laibach’) that was where the first pre-Enigma rotor-cipher machine was patented. And as Ljubljana’s National Museum of Contemporary History highlighted via a tweet, they have a three rotor machine on display.


Dr Enigma was covered by most of the major Slovene press, including:

Dr Enigma in Delo – Slovenia’s daily broadsheet

Dr Enigma at Turing Fest 2018

Dr Enigma was back at Turing Fest in Edinburgh this year to deliver a talk, as well as host a stand displaying two original, war-time Enigma machines.

It was great to be back at the festival, speaking with so many interesting people, and once again to be bringing a piece of history which is still relevant to the IT world today (see: War Hackers: Why Breaking Enigma is still relevant to cybersecurity today).

As Scotland’s premier IT event, the Enigma machine story, the hands-on demos of the original Enigma machines, and their links to Alan Turing, provide an interesting contrast to the high-tech world of blockchain, growth hacking and bootstrapping, as well as something you can actually touch and feel – something of a rarity in this digital age.

A big thanks to Brian Corcoran and the rest of the Turing Fest organisers for the invite and to everybody who came to the talk and to play with an Enigma machine.

If you’d like to book an Enigma machine talk or demo for your own event, see our Enigma machine events page or email:

Here are a few pictures of Turing Fest 2018:

Did the Nazis know the British were breaking the Enigma codes?

I am often asked whether the Germans had any idea that the British were successfully breaking Enigma during the war.

Surely, they say, there were German spies in Britain who would have been able to pick up some clues, and to report their findings back to Germany? It often comes as a surprise to them when I tell them that, firstly, all the German spies in Britain were directly controlled by the British, and that, secondly, British achievements were not known of in Germany until the 1970s.

Masterman was the Chair of the ‘Twenty Committee’, and his 1972 book revealed how the whole German spy network in UK was controlled by the British.

It seems that the Enigma machine – or, rather, its ciphers – were seen in Germany as unbreakable. After all, there were theoretically 3 x 10114 possible cipher patterns which the basic three-rotor machine could create, and testing all these possibilities one after the other is beyond modern computing power even now, and so was well beyond anyone’s wildest dreams during WW2.

The three-rotor Enigma had 3 x 10114 possible cipher patterns. Pic: James Martin/CNET and

With this exaggerated belief in the inviolability of the Enigma system, its users never stopped to think – or even to test – whether it could really withstand an organised attack using mathematics rather than the ‘brute force’ approach of attempting to test all those possibilities in succession. (See: War Hackers: Why Breaking Enigma is Still Relevant to Cybersecurity Today).

There were occasions when Allied successes in combat were such that questions were raised on the German side – investigations were set up to identify what had gone wrong, had valuable information been leaked?

Inevitably, when all the possible explanations were examined, unfounded faith in Enigma steered the investigators away from realising that Enigma might actually have succumbed to a sustained mathematical attack.

With hindsight, we can now identify occasions when more rigorous analysis might have revealed to the Germans that Enigma was, at least, breakable, even if not broken. Such a conclusion might have prompted tightening up or changing the way in which Enigma was used, or perhaps changing the wiring patterns of the rotors. The latter never happened, and such changes as were made to the operating procedures were never sweeping enough to shut out Bletchley for long.

Of course, great care had to be taken over Allied use of Intelligence derived from breaking Enigma. Over-hasty or injudicious use of such Intelligence could well have suggested to the Germans that Enigma-encrypted messages were being read. No-one on the Allied side, therefore, was permitted to base any action on a decrypt, unless there was also another way in which the relevant Intelligence might have been acquired.

The care with which Enigma-derived Intelligence was handled prevented its source from being discovered, and this, together with Germany’s unjustified faith in the machine’s power, meant that knowledge of Allied breaking of Enigma remained a secret not just throughout the war, but until 1974, when The Ultra Secret, a book written by RAF Intelligence officer Frederick Winterbotham, revealed the truth.

Ultra Secret 1e Dw
Winterbotham’s book, published in 1974, was the first to reveal the scale and importance of Enigma-breaking at Bletchley Park.

Even so, there was a perilous moment when Schellenberg’s handbook for the planned invasion of Britain (produced in 1940) reported that MI6 had moved its Communication Section from Broadway to Bletchley Park, and that its duties included Wireless/Radio communications.

The implications of this accurate observation, correctly linking MI6, Bletchley, and wireless communications, were never followed up. The evidence lay upon the printed page – but was never spotted.

How many Enigma machines are there left?

How many Enigma machines are there left in the world? This is a question frequently asked at my Enigma presentations. It is impossible to answer this precisely, as nobody knows.

A 3-rotor Enigma machine

There is no obligation on the owner of an Enigma machine to register it in any way – it’s not, after all, a transmitter – but fortunately, the late David Hamer decided years ago to keep records of all the machines he heard about, both those owned privately, and those in museums and other public collections.

Obviously, such a list can’t be complete (I know of several Enigma machines which are not listed, and there are almost certainly many more) but it’s the nearest thing we have to a worldwide catalogue at present. As more Enigma machines are being discovered, and as it’s unlikely that a significant number of the machines listed have subsequently been destroyed, the list understates the number of survivors, rather than the reverse. Nevertheless, analysing the list produces some interesting results.

Numbers of known Enigma machines that still exist

  • 318 Enigma machines left TOTAL
  • 284 Enigma machines issued for use in or before WW2
  • 34 Enigma machines that played no part in WW2
  • 186 3-rotor Army/Air Force machines left
  • 63 4-rotor naval Enigma machines left

The most recently available version of the list shows 318 Enigma machines, of which 34 played no part in WW2, leaving 284 machines issued for use by Germany in or before the war.

These can be further subdivided into different types: for example 186 are standard 3-rotor Enigma machines of the sort used by the Germany Army and Air Force, and 63 are 4-rotor naval Enigma machines (adopted on 1 February 1942).

So the list enables us to answer the original question, by saying that, roundly, perhaps around 300 WW2 machines survive, of which about 1 in 5 is a 4-rotor naval machine.

Close-up of the scrambler unit of a 4-rotor machine, one of the rarer Enigma types

However, as well as identifying the type of each machine, the list also includes the serial numbers of each. Every Enigma machine carries an individual serial number, which is not only stamped into the metal base (inside, and only visible when the rotors are removed), but also engraved into the rotors (including the reflector rotor) and included in the data shown on a metal label mounted centrally in front of the keyboard.

The case itself may also carry a small metal or plastic number plate. The label in front of the keyboard may give additional information about which manufacturer made the machine and when. This data can be used to provide an estimate of how many machines were made, even though the serial numbers are not members of one continuous series of numbers.

Enigma x 2! Ralph Simpson of The Cypher History Museum (San Jose), with Dr Enigma – each with their personal Enigma machines

The numbers are prefaced by a single upper case letter (there are 6 of these), which can be correlated with the machine type or user. For example, all naval machine numbers, whatever the model, are prefaced by ‘M’, for ‘Kriegsmarine’. Examining the numbers, and making some realistic assumptions, suggests that about 37,000 machines might have been made, of which at least 284 (less than 1%) survive. As noted above, about one fifth of the survivors are 4-rotor naval machines.

These conclusions must necessarily be tentative, but in the absence of original German records, they are the best we can do. They also suggest that published (unsubstantiated) estimates that there were as few as 20,000, or as high as 120,000 machines, are wide of the mark.

Following David Hamer’s death last year, other experts have volunteered to maintain and update the list. I’ll revisit this subject if any amendments are necessary.

If you’d like to learn more about the fascinating Enigma machine story, and play with one of these iconic machines yourself, you can attend one of my Enigma machine events or book me for your own.

War Hackers: Why Breaking Enigma is still relevant to cybersecurity today

This year marks 100 years since the precursor of the Enigma machine was first patented by Arthur Scherbius.

Although known best as the enciphering machine used by the Nazis during World War Two, the Enigma machine in fact pre-dates the war and was available commercially until the late 1920s, after which the German government swallowed up the company, removed the machines from the open market and upgraded the hardware.

Cover of the original manual for an Enigma machine

So how could the cracking of coding technology that is a century old still have any relevance to today’s cybersecurity world, where ciphers, and the hacking of them, are infinitely more complex?

Well, the story of breaking the Enigma code is a fascinating tale of cat and mouse, which anyone in the cybersecurity space today will appreciate. Essentially, the Poles, Brits and Americans, who each broke Enigma ciphers at different points during the war, were hackers, constantly probing for weaknesses in the Enigma system.

It was a combination of mathematical genius along with exploiting said weaknesses in the hardware, prescribed protocol and just plain user error, that helped Allied forces break Enigma ciphers and allowed them to read many of the messages (though not all by a very long way) and gain advantages which eventually led to Allied victory and the shortening of the war.

Dropbox, San Francisco, Feb 2018

As part of our recent Silicon Valley Tech Tour, Dr Enigma presented at the Dropbox HQ in San Francisco, and during this visit I spoke to Scott Joaquim of Dropbox’s Security Team. He perfectly sums up why the Enigma story is still so relevant to IT security and what they are trying to achieve at Dropbox today:

“At Dropbox, one of our core company values is being worthy of trust. With over half a billion users and 300,000 companies using our platform, security and privacy are our top priority.

So for us, one of the most riveting elements of the history of the Enigma machine is that, in spite of the machine’s technical sophistication, it was human error, procedural flaws, and leaks of key information that helped enable the Bletchley Park team and others to crack the codes.

It’s a dramatic testament to the fact that a system or organization can only be as secure as the people who are operating or taking care of it. At Dropbox this is why we cultivate a culture of security where every employee, regardless of their role, takes personal responsibility for keeping Dropbox and our users secure.”

Speaking at Dropbox HQ, San Francisco, Feb 2018

Indeed, with more ways to set up an Enigma machine than there are atoms in the observable universe, the Nazis were convinced that Enigma ciphers were unbreakable. And indeed they were correct in believing that they were safe from a brute force attack; it would have taken a lifetime to run through each setting at that point in history.

However, clever people approached the problem differently, discovering and exploiting weaknesses with both the machine’s hardware, the user protocols set from above, as well as just every day user laziness, to attack and break the ciphers.

As Scott from Dropbox noted, it’s a stark reminder that systems are only as secure as their weakest link. It’s not just holes in the code which need to be patched; social engineering attacks are nothing new, and the lessons that Alan Turing and the Enigma hackers learned back then, still have much to teach us today.

To learn more about the fascinating Enigma story and its relevance today, book Dr Enigma for an Enigma Machine presentation and hands-on demo with his original Enigma machine.