A Puzzly Discovery Under the Sea!

We’ve talked quite a bit about the importance of Enigma machines in the past.

The quest to crack the unbreakable Nazi code machine spanned the Atlantic Ocean and resulted in never-before-seen collaborations between analysts, codebreakers, and puzzlers from all walks of life, dedicating hours upon hours every day to trying to unravel the secrets of German communications. Cracking the code would be the key to intercepting crucial information and outmaneuvering the Nazi war machine.

We’ve discussed those twin decryption locations — Arlington Hall in the US and Bletchley Park in the UK — as well as the efforts of codebreakers like Elizebeth Smith Friedman to dismantle the work of Nazi spymasters both during and after World War II.

The story of Alan Turing is inextricably linked with that of the Enigma device, even though there were three Polish mathematicians — Rejewski, Rózycki & Zygalski — who had already demonstrated that the Nazi code was breakable and even managed to reverse engineer an Enigma machine.

Strangely, we rarely talk about the Enigma machines themselves. They were dangerously efficient, as explained in this article from Atlas Obscura:

When the Nazis needed to send confidential messages, they entered the dispatches into the machine, which substituted every letter using a system of three or four rotors and a reflector, encrypting the message for a recipient Enigma machine to decode.

Getting Allied hands on one during the war was a top priority, so much so that the standing orders on German ships and U-boats was to throw them overboard and let the sea claim them, rather than risking the chance of the Allies getting ahold of one.

underwater enigma

But the sea doesn’t always keep secrets forever, and a recent dive by a marine biologist team discovered the remains of an Enigma machine in the Bay of Gelting:

He noticed a contraption tangled up in the fishing line the crew had headed down to collect. The device, which at first seemed like an old typewriter sitting under at least 30 feet of water, was a Nazi Enigma machine, likely one of hundreds abandoned and thrown overboard in the dying days of the German war effort.

And those devices still contain valuable information decades later.

Each Enigma machine has a serial number, and if this machine’s number is still legible after decades underwater, it could reveal which ship or Nazi unit the Enigma machine belonged to. This would allow researchers to track the use of the device and what impact its use or its absence had on the war effort overall.

Yes, it’s not just mussels and fish that call this device home, but a readily accessible history of the device itself, if we can only read it.

underwater enigma 2

And now, instead of being protected at all costs by German officers, this machine is now protected by archaeologists and researchers, sitting in a tank of demineralized water in order to flush out the salt and salt water that has so corroded the machine over time. It will spend almost a year in that tank before any restoration efforts can proceed.

Successful recoveries of these machines are understandably rare, and this is a chance to add to the historical record of codebreaking and puzzling during World War II. Here’s hoping we can stumble upon more of these lost treasures in the future.

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Did a Typo Help Defeat the Enigma Code and Win World War II?

During World War II, the Enigma code was one of the most daunting weapons in the German arsenal. Cracking the code would be the key to intercepting crucial information and outmaneuvering the Nazi war machine. In fact, unraveling the secrets of Enigma was so important that both England and the United States poured massive resources into building their own codebreaking operations, Bletchley Park and Arlington Hall, respectively.

Loads of fascinating information about the day-to-day operations of Bletchley Park and Arlington Hall have emerged over the last decade or so, and one of the most peculiar anecdotes to make the rounds recently claims that a typo is partially responsible for cracking Enigma.

As the story goes, a man named Geoffrey Tandy was recruited by the UK Ministry of Defense to work at Bletchley Park as part of their growing team of cryptography experts. Scholars and professions from all over the country were being enlisted in the war effort, and cryptographers (or cryptogramists) were at the top of the list.

But Tandy wasn’t a cryptogramist. He was a cryptogamist, aka an expert on mosses, algae, and lichen.

Despite the error, Tandy remained at Bletchley Park, and a year or two after his mistaken hiring, his expertise proved invaluable when a German U-boat was sunk and cryptographic documents relating to Enigma were recovered. You see, his experience preserving water-damaged materials and specimens helped salvage the water-logged documents so they could be used to crack the German code.

And thus, a typo helped end World War II.


[Image courtesy of Did You Know Facts.]

It’s a great story. And like many great stories, there’s a hint of truth to it. There’s also a lot of exaggeration to make it a tale for the ages.

It was no fluke that Tandy was recruited for Bletchley Park. In addition to his cryptogamist credentials, he was assistant keeper of botany at the National History Museum of London. His work included managing the voluminous library, working with fragile documents and samples, and a facility with multiple languages.

Those linguistic skills and organizational talents made him a perfect choice for Bletchley Park, since they were recruiting all sorts of experts. Remember that the field of cryptography was in its early stages. You couldn’t just go looking for cryptographers. You had to build them from scratch, as well as the folks who would be support staff for those codebreakers-in-training.

That would be Tandy’s role. He was part of a division known as NS VI, responsible for archiving foreign documents and helping the cryptographers deal with any technical jargon they might encounter, particularly in foreign languages.


[Image courtesy of the National Museum of Australia.]

So where did the typo idea come from?

Well, it’s entirely possible it came from Tandy. The cryptogram/cryptogam mistake is just the sort of joke that would appeal to linguists and other professorial types, so either another member of the Bletchley Park team or Tandy himself could have downplayed his credentials in tongue-in-cheek fashion with the story of an erroneous typo.

As for the other part of the story — where he saved the documents — there is some debate as to whether that happened. As the story goes, he used his knowledge of preserving documents to save a waterlogged set of cryptographic codes from a sunken U-boat.

[Image courtesy of Military Factory.]

The anecdote as reported usually cites the year 1941, whereas many books about Bletchley Park’s codebreaking efforts reference a U-boat from 1942, U-559, where documents AND a working Enigma machine were recovered.

I believe he DID participate in rescuing/preserving documents from a U-boat because it’s not some great heroic deed, it’s literally part of why he was hired in the first place. The crux of the anecdote is on the wordplay and the faux-fortuitousness of his employment, not on the actual events.

So, in the end, no, a typo didn’t help end World War II. But Geoffrey Tandy certainly did.

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Alan Turing Will Be on the New £50 Note Soon!


When it comes to influential puzzlers, it’s hard to top the impact mathematician and codebreaker Alan Turing had on the world.

Admittedly, there are numerous names — too numerous to mention, really — associated with the ENIGMA project and Bletchley Park’s codebreaking efforts in general that deserve recognition. World War II was shortened by YEARS by the work of the folks at Bletchley Park, and Alan Turing was a pivotal figure in the war effort.

And he has been selected as the face of the new £50 note for British currency.


[Image courtesy of the BBC.]

The Bank of England received over 227,000 suggestions of British scientists to appear on the new version of the note, and Turing was selected from the shortlist of 12 official nominees, a list that included Rosalind Franklin, James Clerk Maxwell, Dorothy Hodgkin, Mary Anning, Paul Dirac, Srinivasa Ramanujan, and Stephen Hawking, as well as pairs like Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage and William and Caroline Herschel.

Naturally the Queen will still appear on the front of the note, and Turing on the reverse side, replacing former note design figures as James Watt, Matthew Boulton, and Christopher Wren.

But the elevation of Alan Turing isn’t just a victory for a historical figure or a puzzling icon, it’s one for the LGBTQ+ community as well. Because of his sexuality, Turing was forced out of his work at the GCHQ — Britain’s governmental codebreaking operation — and driven to suicide by government persecution and abuse.

After a campaign led by numerous British luminaries like Richard Dawkins, Stephen Fry, and Peter Tachell, an apology was issued by then prime minister Gordon Brown in 2009. A posthumous pardon by the Queen in 2013 followed.

These acts don’t undo the crimes of the past. But they are a symbolic promise for the future that anyone like Turing — no matter their historical importance, social status, or personal choices — will not endure the same horrors that he did.

Nearly 70 years after he and his colleagues helped bring an end to World War II, Turing will continue to inspire and impact the world as a face on the £50 note. That’s something to celebrate.

For more details on this announcement, please check out this article from Pink News. For more information on Turing’s work and Bletchley Park in general, you can check out a previous PN Blog post here. And for the American equivalent of Bletchley Park — Arlington Hall — you can click here.

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Elizebeth Smith Friedman, Codebreaker and Scourge of Nazi Spymasters

[William and Elizebeth Smith Friedman, hard at work.
Image courtesy of National Geographic.]

Last year, I rather ambitiously attempted to summarize the early history of American codebreaking and the NSA in a series of blog posts spanning World War II through the modern day. One of the names I cited in that series, William Friedman, is synonymous with American cryptography, thanks to his contributions to the cracking of the German ENIGMA code and his efforts to establish the National Security Agency.

Unfortunately, there is a gaping hole in the narrative I constructed. Because none of my sources made any reference to another crucial Friedman: Elizebeth Smith Friedman, William’s wife and partner in code-cracking.

Yes, she was name-dropped in my post about the book Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II, but she had to share those pages with a host of underappreciated women who were codebreaking geniuses.

[Image courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers.]

As The Woman Who Smashed Codes explains, she wasn’t just a talented codebreaker. She literally wrote the book on it. Eight of them, in fact. The Riverbank Publications — although often credited to her husband — covered new codebreaking techniques in rich detail, and they are still referred to today as part of the foundation of modern cryptography.

She also started the first and only American codebreaking unit ever run by a woman, serving as Cryptanalyst-in-Charge while jointly working for both the Treasury and the Coast Guard during and after World War II.

A history of American codebreaking without Elizebeth Smith Friedman is woefully incomplete, and in today’s post, I hope to rectify that oversight.

[Image courtesy of the Marshall Foundation.]

Elizebeth’s work with codes started in a most peculiar way. While seeking a job as a librarian after college, she was recruited by eccentric millionaire George Fabyan to live and work at Riverbank, his palatial estate that doubled as a self-funded research center for all sorts of scientific endeavors.

Elizebeth’s deep knowledge of Shakespeare was put to work attempting to prove Fabyan’s theory that there were secret messages encoded in the writings of Shakespeare. Although her work failed to uncover any hidden pattern in Shakespeare’s words or font choices, it did lead to two unexpected developments: a career in codebreaking and a budding romance with fellow Riverbank recruit William Friedman, whose own interest in codebreaking was sparked by the works of Edgar Allan Poe.

Thanks to the proliferation of radio, there was a seismic shift in how information was being passed between military units, governments, and other organizations, so the ability to listen in on one’s enemies (and allies) was not only a new strategic opportunity, but it was a relatively new science.

In short, America needed codebreakers who could crack the secret messages being transmitted (and intercepted). The military didn’t have them. The government didn’t have them.

But Riverbank did. And for the first eight months of World War I, the small group of William, Elizebeth, and those they trained handled ALL of the codebreaking for every part of the US government, from the State Department to the Army to the DOJ. William and Elizebeth began running a codebreaking school out of Riverbank, even embedding a secret message in a photo of the class taken on the last day of the course.

[Images courtesy of Elonka.com.]

In the aftermath of the First World War, codebreaking had become so important that countries were turning to machines to help develop uncrackable codes. And yet, at this point, American cryptography as a whole consisted of about 50 people. William went to work for the government, establishing the American version of Bletchley Park — Arlington Hall — and setting the stage for the creation of the NSA.

Elizebeth, on the other hand, cracked codes from home. And she did so for both the Treasury Department and the Coast Guard, who would send her sealed packages of intercepted encrypted intel and communications. In her first three months hunting down rum-runners during Prohibition, she solved two years’ worth of backlogged messages.

During World War II, Elizebeth’s Coast Guard Cryptography Unit turned their attention from smuggling (which waned during wartime) to cracking German codes. Under her tutelage, they would crack three different variations on the Enigma codes, each more complex than the last. (The British also cracked ENIGMA, independently of American efforts.)

Sadly, in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack, the US military didn’t want civilians in charge of sensitive operations, so Elizebeth was demoted. Yes, she was no longer in charge of the group she started, trained, and cultivated, instead answering to a new boss of dubious cryptographic talents.

(Of course, the sexist dimwits making decisions like this had to grin and bear it when numerous other organizations and agencies continued to asked for Elizebeth’s assistance by name.)

And stealing Elizebeth’s credit was practically a cottage industry over at the FBI. We have them to thank for erasing Elizebeth’s role in particular — and the Coast Guard’s role in general — in hunting down, exposing, and compromising Nazi spy networks in South America, even though the FBI’s hamfisted blundering actually served to expose codebreaking operations in the past, forcing Elizebeth to crack new codes in order to regain the advantage the FBI had squandered.

Oh, yeah, did I mention that both during AND after World War II, Elizebeth continued to hound the Nazi forces in South America who sought to destabilize the region?

As one historian put it, referring to the thousands of pages of decryptions Elizebeth produced:

These pieces of paper saved lives. They almost certainly stopped coups. They put fascist spies in prison. They drove wedges between Germany and other nations that were trying to sustain and prolong Nazi terror. By any measure, Elizebeth was a great heroine of the Second World War.

The British knew it. The navy knew it. The FBI knew it. But the American public never did, because Elizebeth wasn’t allowed to speak.

[Image courtesy of Find a Grave.]

Even in their retirement, the Friedmans continued to contribute to the world of cryptography. They returned to the subject of Shakespeare with The Shakespeare Ciphers Examined, thoroughly debunking the whole idea of hidden codes in the Bard’s works.

When William died, Elizebeth even hid a secret message on his tombstone, for those who knew how to look. (It was Bacon’s cipher, something they both studied extensively during their time at Riverbank.) What a touching tribute to how she met her partner and husband.

And although the accolades and appreciation for Elizebeth’s incredible contributions have been slow in coming, they are trickling in. In the 1990s, the NSA renamed its auditorium from the William F. Friedman Memorial Auditorium to the William F. Friedman and Elizebeth S. Friedman Memorial Auditorium. A Justice Department building also has an auditorium bearing her name.

More information about the massive expansion of codebreaking worldwide is coming to light with every passing year. Hopefully that will mean greater attention for minds like Elizebeth, who used her puzzly mind to protect the world. That’s someone worth celebrating.

[Much of the information in this post comes from a wonderful book on Elizebeth, The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone, and it’s well-worth your time to check out her story in full.]

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