Enigma FAQ

Looking for information about the Enigma machine? Read the FAQs below for an insight into this iconic device.

Was the Enigma machine a computer?

No. The Enigma machine was an electro-mechancial enciphering (and deciphering) device. It pre-dates the first computer by about 20 years.

Was the Enigma machine ever cracked?

Yes. Although it’s more accurate to say that the Enigma machine ciphers were cracked. It’s also important to know that it was the exact settings of the machine that the codebreakers were always seeking to discover, as this would allow them to read the day’s messages – but remember that these settings changed daily.

Therefore although many of the enciphered messages created by the Enigma machine were cracked, not all were. And just because you could read the messages one day, that didn’t mean you’d be able to read the next day’s traffic.

How many Enigma machines were made?

No-one knows, as no relevant records survive, but the number is probably between 40,000 and 50,000, although unreliable estimates run up as high as 100,000.

How was the Enigma machine captured?

There was not just one Enigma machine! During the war, more than one was captured, but obtaining the machine itself did not automatically allow you to read all the messages.

In fact, once the Allies had ascertained the wiring patterns inside the rotors, obtaining another Engima machine was of little use; you needed to know the exact settings of the machine for any given day – without which, you could not understand any of the messages. What were really useful was the settings books, which instructed the operators on how to set up their machines each day.

Why was the Enigma machine so important?

During World War II, the Germans used their Enigma machines to encipher millions of military field messages, before transmitting them by radio in Morse code. This meant that in theory, they could communicate securely with each other.

So the Enigma machine provided the German army, navy and airforce a way to keep their plans and commands secret from the Allies. However, as it turned out, the Enigma machine wasn’t as secure as the Germans believed it to be.

Did Alan Turing break Enigma?

Not singlehandedly, but he was a massive part of breaking Enigma. Remember there is no single ‘Enigma machine code’! There are millions of ways an Engima machine can be set up, and to be able to understand a message enciphered on an Enigma machine, the reciever of the message had to have his machine set up in exactly the same way as the sender. So it was these settings that the Allied codebreakers were always seeking to discover for any given day during World War II.

What Alan Turing and his team did, along with thousands of others at Bletchley Park, was figure out a way to discover what the settings of the Enigma machine were, each day. This allowed them to read many of the messages that the Germans were sending to each other, and then distil it into useable information which they called ‘Ultra’. Ultra was then sent to the Allies’ high command who used it to make tactical decisions.

Why was breaking Enigma important?

Being able to eavesdrop on German military communications gave the Allies a huge advantage which ultimately gave them the upper hand, leading to Allied victory and shortening the war.

Is the film, The Imitation Game, accurate?

Although the underlying story is based on fact, many of the details, some of which are quite important, are not portrayed accurately in the film. To read more about this – see my blog post: Is The Imitation Game a true story?

How many Enigma machines still exist?

The exact number of surviving Enigma machines is not known. However, there are known to be about 300 in museums and private collections around the world, and it’s suspected that there are a few more ‘hiding’. Every now and then one turns up in an attic or flea market – this happened in Romania in summer 2017 (see: Enigma machine bought for €100 in Romania). For a breakdown of the numbers read: How many Enigma machines are there left?

Where can I see a real Enigma machine?

There are a few original Engima machines on display in museums around the world. You could also come to one of my Enigma machine talks where you would get the chance to play with a real Enigma machine.

Was there an equivalent British cipher machine?

Yes – the British did have rotor machines (particularly the Typex, of which about 12,000 were made) but never relied so heavily on a single cipher machine or method as did the Germans.

Did the Germans break British ciphers?

Yes, notably during the first years of the war, but not on the scale of the Allies’ success against Enigma ciphers. When it came to codebreaking, the Germans devoted less effort, and demonstrated less inter-service co-operation, than did the Allies.

Did the Germans ever realise that their Enigma ciphers were being broken?

On several occasions they wondered how the Allies were getting vital intelligence but, despite internal enquiries, it seems that they never concluded that their ciphers were being broken. In 1940, German Intelligence suspected that MI6 had moved its Communication Section to Bletchley, but never followed up on this clue. You can read more about this in my article: Did the Nazis know the British were breaking the Enigma codes?