As a single man I always found the Oscars a bit of a drag: however as a married man I usually experience the Oscars vicariously – my wife enjoys watching the Oscars and I enjoy watching her. This year however I was delighted to see The Imitation Game win an Oscar. You see Alan Turing, the real-life hero of the movie, was a boyhood hero of mine.
Enigma Machine: Photo courtesy of JB Spector, Museum of Science and Industry
I was an avid reader of military history, and I could not get enough of the documentaries being shown on the then new BBC 2 television channel. I learned that back in the summer of 1939, Polish military intelligence shared their knowledge of a state-of-the-art message encryption machine named Enigma with their allies, the French and the British. In a level of secrecy matched only by the US’s Manhattan Project, the British gathered their best mathematical minds at a place called Bletchley Park to work on codes and cyphers, and the Enigma machine in particular. The project was so secret that President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill agreed only to speak of it when they met face-to-face, and never to refer to it even in the diplomatic bags passing directly between the UK and the US. Official historians believe that the efforts of the team at Bletchley Park shortened the Second World War by two to four years.
As a school boy, I read books about Enigma and counter espionage. For example there is a book and another true-life movie about The Man Who Never Was, a counterespionage trick to protect the Allied invasion of Sicily. Decoded Enigma messages confirmed that the ruse was working – and countless Allied lives were saved.
Not long after I arrived in the US, I visited Chicago. My hotel was within walking distance of the Museum of Science and Industry and I thought I would spend a couple of hours there. Instead I spent the entire day: You see, I discovered U-505, an ocean going submarine from the early 1940s. I found the story of the capture of the submarine captivating. In June of 1944, decrypted Enigma messages revealed that U-boats were operating near Cape Verde, a group of islands in the Atlantic. The US Navy tasked a six-ship anti-submarine task force to search for these U-boats, and on June 4th sonar contact was made with U-505 and it was depth charged.
U-505 submarine on display at the Museum of Science and Industry
The captain of the U-boat brought it to the surface and, while abandoning ship, ordered it scuttled. In an act of great bravery, an eight-man party led by Lieutenant Albert David boarded the sinking U-boat to close the scuttling valves and disarm demolition explosives. As well as recovering charts and codes, the US Navy was elated to discover two working Enigma machines on board; and these priceless machines and codes were delivered to Bletchley Park before the end of the month.
Unlike these heroes, Alan Turing and the US Navy boarding party, most of us are fortunate not to be involved in a “hot” war. However we continue to be involved in a war to protect information, a war where encryption continues to play a part. Foreign governments collect corporate information that they pass on to their own domestic companies to give them unfair advantages. Organized crime tries to intercept internet message traffic to steal corporate secrets, banking data and employee personal information. This is when email traffic is most in jeopardy – when it is in transit across the public Internet. Nevertheless, we can protect this kind of information by utilizing email encryption. Email encryption is now so well developed that it can work in the background, twenty-four hours a day, keeping our emails secure without extra effort from us.
The Imitation Game is in theatres now. U-505 is displayed in a climate-controlled space at the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago, Illinois. And I’m fortunate to be here in the warm office environment of Zix H.Q.