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Discussion Sheds Light on Poles Who Helped Crack WWII Enigma

By Samantha Subin

At Britain’s Bletchley Park, cryptologist Alan Turing famously cracked the Enigma machine codes that the Nazis used during World War II, giving the Allies a major advantage in the war. In fact, it’s believed to have shortened the war by up to two years. But what happened before Bletchley Park?

“X, Y & Z: The Real Story of How Enigma Was Broken,” a 2018 book by Dermot Turing, tells the forgotten story of the original Polish codebreakers and the alliance between Poland, England and France to crack Enigma.

On April 9, Turing, nephew of Alan Turing, presented his findings to a lively audience at the Polish Embassy in Washington. Turing eagerly scrolled through a television slideshow, pointing out photos and documents, during an hour-long conversation with audience members that resembled more of an action-packed story than a speech.

Paweł Kotowski, deputy chief of mission at the embassy, introduced Turing and the book, calling the event one of many efforts by the embassy to share the stories of courageous Poles during World War II. “Incredible Poles contributed and sacrificed their lives, their well being,” he said.

Embassy of Poland
Dermot Turing discusses his new book, “X, Y & Z: The Real Story of How Enigma Was Broken,” at the Polish Embassy in Washington on April 9.  Photo: Embassy of Poland

Enigma, a cypher machine that scrambles letters into code, was first invented by Arthur Scherbius in 1918. During World War II, the machine was used to encrypt and conceal military and intelligence messages. The machines used by the Germans, in particular, were the most complex and hardest to decipher. While the Brits ultimately cracked the Germans’ codes, the early Enigma codes were, in fact, broken by the Poles, who passed the knowledge onto Britain shortly before the outbreak of the war — knowledge that would be instrumental to Alan Turing’s work.

To write the book, Dermot Turing, an esteemed historian and writer, worked closely with the Polish Embassy in London. Turing has written five books about Enigma, code-breaking, Bletchley Park and his uncle.

“The resulting book offers a complex and spellbinding narrative of one of the key operation of the Second World War,” said Urszula Horoszko, the embassy’s first secretary and head of the culture, science and information, adding that the Polish code breakers “never really stood out in collective European memory as the heroes of World War II that they were.”

“Dermot Turing’s wonderful book magnifies that mission and helps us see a more complete picture,” Horoszko said.

Turing writes that in 1932, the French discovered and photographed the operating instructions for a German military Enigma machine. With no wiring instructions, and struggling to understand the machine, the French turned to the Poles for help and Jerzy Rozycki, Henryk Zygalski and Marian Rejewski started their work at the Polish General Staff's Cipher Bureau in Warsaw, Poland. .

Embassy of Poland
The military Enigma machine known as the “Enigma I” model that was used during the late 1930s and during World War II, is seen on display at the Museo scienza e tecnologia Milano in Italy.  Photo: By Alessandro Nassiri - Museo della Scienza e della Tecnologia "Leonardo da Vinci", CC BY-SA 4.0

In 1939, representatives from France, England and Poland, including the Polish code breakers, met to discuss their tactics.

“It was agreed that they would formalize the triangular intelligence-sharing relationship,” Turing said. “I think that was quite significant because from this point onwards, they are actually sharing questions. They’re sharing answers with each other.”

From then, the code breakers referred to Paris as “X,” London as “Y” and Warsaw as “Z,” as they continued to work independently.

“The other thing that they agreed to do was that if anybody made a breakthrough on the Enigma problem, they would send a message to the other two countries saying ‘Something has come up,’” Turing said.

By July, the code breakers had no answer, and Poland was “feeling very threatened,” Turing said. By September, the Nazis would invade Poland and trigger the start of World War II.

With a lucky guess, the Poles cracked the code — a simple alphabetic pattern. They called a meeting in Pyry, a suburb of Warsaw where they met with France representatives along with Alastair Denniston and Dilly Knox, code breakers from Bletchley Park in England to share their findings.

Turing said Knox lost his temper at the success that the Poles had achieved. “It was a blindingly easy and stupid answer to a complex problem.”

Embassy of Poland Dermot Turing
Dermot Turing signs books at the Polish Embassy following a discussion about his 2018 book on the Polish code breakers. Photo: Embassy of Poland

“Knox returned to England hoping to find a mathematical solution to the code breakers’ findings — and Alan Turing stepped into the picture. Later on, the Poles also helped Turing build electro-mechanical devices that simulated the workings of the Enigma machine.

Eventually, with the invasion of Poland, the code breakers fled to France and continued their work under the Vichy government, until they were pursued by the Nazis. Their work to crack the Enigma has received little attention since.

April’s discussion was accompanied by an exhibition titled “Enigma - Decipher Victory,” which highlights Polish code breaking from World War I throughout the aftermath of the war. The exhibit has traveled throughout Poland and Europe and has been on display at the Embassy of Poland since 2016.

ATuring is currently touring Europe and the United States to promote his book.


Samantha Subin is an editorial intern for The Washington Diplomat.




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