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Richard Lewinski: The man behind the ENIGMA model

A scene from the movie The Imitation Game

If the invention of the ULTRA computer, designed to break secret German communications channeled through the Nazi encrypting device ENIGMA, was the single most extraordinary espionage and deception coup in the history of warfare, then, we must celebrate the signal contribution of a Jewish Polish scientist whose pseudonym was Richard Lewinski, who built a working model of ENIGMA and gave it to the British.

His riveting story combines the dashing drama of Ian Fleming’s clash of arms with John Le Carré’s cloak and dagger spies toiling in the subterranean labyrinths where double agents, political warfare, counter-espionage, deception, strategy and stratagem intertwine in epic struggles for survival.

It is in this world that Lewinski’s saga started at a top secret meeting in 1938 in the headquarters of MI-6 in London, under a giant portrait of the king, gazing with a somnolent expression.

Present were Col. Stewart Menzies, deputy chief of MI-6; Alfred Dilwyn Knox, England’s leading cryptanalyst and Alan Turing, the inventor of the ULTRA machine. Turing was Einstein’s student and the mad genius of Bletchley Park, whose single-minded obsession with building the code-breaking “computing machine” was depicted in the film Imitation Games starring Benedict Cumberbatch.

The purpose of the gathering was to find out if the proposal of a Jewish Polish scientist residing in Warsaw to provide the designs of ENIGMA in exchange for safe passage to Paris with his pregnant wife was serious.

Lewinski had worked as a mathematician and engineer at the factory where the German device was manufactured in Frankfurt, but was fired and deported after the inauguration of the Nuremberg Laws because he was Jewish.

Once back in Warsaw, he contacted the British through his connections in Polish Intelligence. Menzies, after considering the proposal of his Polish station, authorized Knox and Turing to go to Warsaw and meet with Lewinski. At the end of a long meeting in the modest residence of Lewinski in Warsaw, the British realized that their interlocutor could deliver the secrets of the Nazi encryption apparatus. It was the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

MI-6 agents lost no time in spiriting the Lewinskis to Paris through Gdynia and Stockholm on British diplomatic documents, where he started to work on building ENIGMA. Thanks to his work, Knox and Turing understood that ENIGMA, unlike traditional enciphering done manually – a very time-consuming process limiting the number of combinations – could deliver an infinite number of ciphers merely by changing the keying sequence. Little wonder the Germans considered their machine unbreakable. Turing understood that only a super fast computer would be able to read through ENIGMA no matter how many permutations the Germans inserted in to their device. Hence, Turing’s focus on perfecting his “calculating apparatus” that might solve the puzzle. He succeeded but the quest drove him almost insane.

When the Second World War started and Winston Churchill became prime minister, he assigned priority to ULTRA and instructed Menzies to bring Lewinski out of Paris. It was imperative to evacuate him and his wife lest they be captured by the Germans. M1-6 and the French Intelligence services launched a massive “clean-up operation” to remove all equipment, documentation and personnel who were in France on ULTRA business. Menzies ordered the Secret Service’s pilot, squadron leader Sydney Cotton, to fly to France and bring the Lewinskis safely to London. On May 18 1940, escorted by Spitfires, Cotton flew a duck-egg blue Lockheed 12 to Orly for that very purpose. As Lewinski and his wife were airborne, the French moved all ENIGMA material to a hidden cave near Source des Célestins in Vichy first and then to Marseilles from whence a French submarine delivered the small container safely to England.

But danger lurked everywhere: the Vichy regime was pro-German and Polish intelligence officers were being tortured by the Gestapo in Warsaw; they might talk about Lewinski as the Poles were first among others who had made great mathematical progress in breaking the codes of ENIGMA. Also before the fall of France, Paris was full of German spies and Nazi sympathizers who had infiltrated the intelligence services; a whisper about the Allies’ secret work on ENIGMA would have scuttled the entire operation with incalculable consequences.

Fortunately providence vouchsafed ULTRA. Once in England, Lewinski, Turing and the Bletchley Park group perfected the Universal Computing Machine, ULTRA, and began slowly deciphering German secret messages. The Allies started to read Hitler’s communications, as well as those of Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel and Gen. Alfred Jodl, Keitel’s chief operating officer. Also the messages of Field Marshal Hermann Goering and Admiral Erich Raeder of the Kriegsmarine were deciphered, thus greatly contributing to the victory in the Battle of Britain, the destruction of the German U-boat threat in the Atlantic, the defeat of Rommel in North Africa, the successful landings in Italy, the Allied triumph in the gigantic struggle in the east; the master stroke of D-Day landings; and, a myriad of operations that eventually made the difference between a new dark age and a new world order.

In short, as Anthony Cave Brown wrote in Bodyguard of Lies, ULTRA played a key role in enabling the Allies to “know not only the precise composition, strength and location of the enemy’s forces but also knowing beforehand exactly what he intended to do in the many operations and battles of the Second World War.”

We don’t know his real name any more than what happened to him after he arrived in London. He disappeared from the stage of thousand masks leaving behind a legacy that brought down the Thousand Year Reich.