Enigma variation to baffle experts

Museum in Britain stunned by loss of Nazi coding device

April 08, 2000|By BILL GLAUBER | BILL GLAUBER,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MILTON KEYNES, England -- John Gallehawk thought it was an April Fool's joke. Instead, it was the start of a whodunit that might have baffled the intellectuals once assembled at Bletchley Park to crack Germany's World War II codes.

After the tourists filed out last Saturday, Gallehawk, an archivist, made his final sweep through the treasures that adorn the estate's Victorian mansion. He walked to the left of a British flag stained with D-Day's grime, peered through the glass of a waist-high display case and noticed that something was missing.

`There was thin air where there should have been an Enigma machine," Gallehawk said. "I couldn't believe it."

Gallehawk raised an alarm that in many ways still reverberates through the code-breaking community. It also brought renewed attention to Bletchley Park, code-named Station X, where cryptographers helped speed the close of World War II and now a museum.

The missing Enigma, brought to Britain after the war, wasn't just any German code encryption machine used to transmit secret messages. It was a valued model that belonged to the Nazi SS intelligence unit, the Abwehr. The only other known machine like it on display is at the National Cryptologic Museum in Maryland.

There's an international Enigma hunt -- over the Internet -- and an $8,000 reward to retrieve a machine that could be worth more than $150,000 on the war memorabilia market. If the thief could sell it. Estimates are that 100 or so Enigma machines of various types have survived the war.

But in this case, there are troubling questions: Who would steal such a machine, and why?

Was it an inside job, a theft-to-order, or a practical joke? No one is quite sure.

And how exactly could a thief spirit out the typewriter-like machine, housed in a worn wooden case, in broad daylight?

`This was very audacious," says Christine Large, who heads the trust that oversees the site.

The timing was also suspicious, coming weeks before an advanced security system was to be installed.

"It's a bit like stealing a Renoir. Everyone knows what it looks like. You can't sell it," says Dave Whitchurch, a 37-year Royal Air Force veteran who volunteers at the museum.

The theft has put nearly everyone here on edge, with the three remaining Enigmas on the site guarded even more zealously than before.

Police combed the 55-acre grounds, hoping the thief might have hidden it in bushes or dropped it into a lake. Tuesday, police detained for questioning and later released on bail a 50-year-old man from nearby Bedfordshire. They also asked the public to provide information about a woman who was seen siting in a red Peugeot parked in the old stable block, around lunch-time, when the theft apparently took place.

"It's very unusual and very high profile as well," says Thames Valley Police spokesman Jon Brett. `There is a high level of public interest to recover the machine."

The clandestine drama of World War II is evoked at Bletchley Park, where 12,000 people worked all hours, seven days a week at a site so sensitive, it wasn't publicly revealed until 1967.

The buildings are weathered with age. Paint peels from rickety wooden huts. Two tennis courts are rutted, without nets.

The inside of the main mansion is still glorious, with polished wood walls, ornate ceilings and heavy carpets. And the museum displays tell the story of the code-breaking that saved allied ships in the North Atlantic and helped the British forces in Greece and North Africa.

Forty-five minutes by train north of London, midway between Oxford and Cambridge, Bletchley Park, once home to a London financier, was perfectly suited as a place to bring together an amazing cast of characters -- chess champs, mathematicians, linguists, crossword puzzle experts, and others capable of solving one of the century's great puzzles. Wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill said the staff were "the geese that laid the golden eggs and never cackled."

The best brains were required to beat the Enigma code that was produced by the typewriter-like device developed in Germany to transmit military and commercial secrets.

With its rotors, boards and cross-wiring, the Engima was capable of configuring a message in "150 million million million" ways.

Alan Turing, a young mathematician, was credited with developing the Bombe, an electro-mechanical machine that speeded up the decoding process. He was also instrumental in developing a working computer, known as Colossus I.

"Bletchley Park is where the communications revolution really started," Large says.

Bletchley Park is also where World War II was brought to a close more quickly than it might otherwise have been, Large says.

"With the code-breaking, the war was shortened by two or three years," she says. "It helped the whole of humanity."

Now, Large is hopeful that the wider community here can help the museum retrieve its machine.

Does she think she'll ever see the Enigma again?

"I believe we will get it back," she says. "Somehow."

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