NATICK, Mass. At Sunday’s 87th Academy Awards, one of the nominees for Best Picture is “The Imitation Game,” which tells the story of Alan Turing, the British mathematician who, during World War II, managed to break the code of the German military encryption device, the Enigma machine.
And it just so happens that one of the largest collections of these Enigma machines is currently on display here in Greater Boston.
To get a closer look at these machines, WBUR’s Morning Edition crew took a trip to the Museum of World War II in Natick and spoke with the museum’s founder and president, Kenneth Rendell.
Listen to the full interview in the audio player atop this post.
Before 1970, The Enigma Machine Was An Enigma:
Rendell: “Until the late 1970s, people in Germany who had these machines just thought they were some kind of complicated typewriter. There had been no publicity; nobody knew anything about Enigma machines. They were useless.
“But after a book came out in 1974 called, “The Ultra Secret,” people saw pictures of Enigma machines and a couple came up for auction in Germany, and I bought one. And they started to come out of the woodwork, literally.”
Where Rendell’s Enigma Machines Hail From:
Rendell: “One of mine does come off of a U-boat, and it was a U-boat that went into port at the end of the war, it went into Norway. One of the machines is an Enigma machine that was blown up by the retreating German army. Because they didn’t want the machines to be captured, they put hand grenades in the machine if they had to leave it behind.”
‘People Thought That They Were Unbreakable,’ But They Weren’t:
Rendell: “The Enigma machines are incredibly complex in the way they work — mathematics and unbelievable possibilities — but the way into an Enigma machine was human nature, because people thought that they were unbreakable. The Germans always thought that Enigma could not be broken.”
WBUR’s Bob Oakes: “It sounds like the weakness was a certain arrogance on the part of the German operators.”
Rendell: “Absolutely. The Germans, very justifiably, had enormous confidence in what they were doing. They overran Europe so quickly, their blitzkrieg tactics worked perfectly. The Enigma machine was part of those tactics, because in a fast-moving war there are no landlines, so to communicate you have to use shortwave radio.
“The importance of Enigma was that for units to send messages back and forth, they would encode a message on one Enigma machine. That code was then sent by shortwave radio, which everybody was listening to. So the British were constantly recording everything that’s coming in on the shortwave radio. And the German units, then take those messages and put them in the other Enigma machine, and it spits out the actual message.”
How Important Was Cracking Enigma To The Allies In WWII?
Rendell: “The single greatest factor, other than Winston Churchill, is Enigma, without question. All of the [significant] battles [in World War II] … the Enigma knowledge made the difference. We knew what German units were being moved before D-Day. American planes could bomb German divisions as they moved out, because we knew exactly what they were doing.
“Throughout the war, the knowledge of what the enemy was going to do is paramount. Most estimates say the war was shortened by two years.”