For my blog, with 2018 the centenary of Poland’s Independence and the year of publication of my novel The Cypher Bureau, inspired by the life of Marian Rejewski, it seemed appropriate to devote some blogging time to famous Polish people or significant Polish achievements.
As a starting point I googled the top ten most famous Poles to see where my hero figured. Marian Rejewski, as the first person to solve the secret of Enigma, the coding device used by Germany during the Second World War would surely be featured. He wasn’t!
Famous Poles listed include Pope Jean Paul II, Marie Curie nee Sklodowska, (first woman to win a Nobel Prize in Physics and first person to win the award twice), Frederic Chopin (composer), Lech Walesa, (founder of Solidarity and Polish Prime Minister), David Ben-Gurion (first Prime Minister of Israel), Roman Polanski, although he was born in Paris (film maker), Helena Rubenstein (entrepreneur).
Surely Marian Rejewski, accredited as the greatest cryptologist of all time, deserves his place. He and his colleagues Jerzy Rozycki and Henryk Zygalski were awarded posthumously in 2014 the prestigious milestone award by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers for an achievement which has changed the world.
How did solving the Enigma code save thousands of lives? Solving Enigma meant that the Allies could read secret Nazi messages during World War II. This ability was particularly important during the Battle of the Atlantic. Britain in pre-war years had imported seventy-five percent of its food. During the war Nazi U-Boats hunted in wolf packs for shipping convoys which they then proceeded to sink ruthlessly. In Britain, a demoralised population under threat of starvation were “digging for victory.” In the summer/autumn of 1940 after the loss of significant material at Dunkirk, many considered the war lost and urged for a peace settlement with Germany. Ability to read Nazi instructions to U-Boats meant that the British bound convoys could avoid the wolf packs and get food to Britain. Without the secret of Enigma the war could have been considerably extended or lost altogether.
Rejewski first solved the code in 1932, an outstanding achievement. Between 1932 and 1939 the Polish codebreakers were reading encrypted messages from Germany. In July 1939 they passed their code breaking secret to their British and French counterparts who at that time had given up completely on breaking the code and had concluded, like the Germans that it was invincible.
When the British discovered the code could be broken they decided, following the example of the Polish Cypher Bureau, to recruit mathematicians for code-breaking instead of drawing from linguists and classicists as had been the practise. Alan Turing, as a brilliant mathematician was recruited to Bletchley Park as a result of the Polish successes and his work and that of the Bletchley team was built on the information which the Polish team had provided. The Polish contribution has been credited with saving the Bletchley Park team two years’ work-a vital contribution at the time.
‘Before Poland fell, you gave the Allies Enigma, the Nazis’ secret coding machine. Breaking the unbreakable Axis code saved tens of thousands of Allied lives, of American lives and for this you have the enduring gratitude of the American people. And ultimately Enigma and freedom fighters played a major role in winning the Second World War.
President George H. Bush 1989 speech at Solidarity Workers Monument Gdansk
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