World’s First Hackers & World War II
Source: Cat Techie
An obscure country mansion in Buckinghamshire housed a top secret mission during World War II. It has been redesigned as a museum. Think hackers and what comes to mind is the image of a group of people hunched over a computer keyboard, their skin ashen-hued because they haven’t seen the sun in ages.But the world’s first hackers cut a very different picture. Captain Ridley and his boys, who arrived at Bletchley Park, a mansion in the Buckinghamshire countryside in England, had the air of a party of friends out for some rest and recreation. Dressed in elegantly cut suits, their backs were ramrod straight and their faces had a healthy sheen that spoke of long familiarity with the sun. They even brought with them a chef from the Savoy Hotel.But all this was a sham, an elaborate cloak of secrecy to disguise the fact that they were, in fact, members of the Government Code and Cypher School who’d arrived at Bletchley Park with the mission to hack into Hitler’s t-mail (telegraphic-mail).That small group which came to Bletchley Park in August 1938 grew to 10,000 people by the end of the second world war. It was here that Nazi codes and cyphers were cracked.
The computing machines that were developed here to make sense of Nazi telegraphic chatter (from the Abwehr, the German military intelligence, as well as the Wehrmacht, the German army, navy and air force) and figure out the cyphers that were used to scramble the messages at origin, paved the path for computing as we know it today.The biggest star of Bletchley Park remains the Enigma, an electro-mechanical rotor machine used for the encryption and decryption of secret messages. The Wehrmacht used these machines to encode telegraphic messages to their units on the field. The scrambling of the messages depended on the setting of the cypher wheels. Some Engimas had four cypher wheels and each could be set at 26 different positions. To unscramble the message, you not only needed an Engima machine, but also knowledge of the position of the cipher wheels, and choose one setting of the cypher wheels from a possible 150 million million million possible settings.
An Enigma machine was bought, but it was their breakthrough in finding a way to crack the Enigma code on January 20, 1940 that gave the Bletchley Park team its first break. By April 1940, the hackers at Bletchley Park were intercepting and cracking virtually every detail of Nazi chatter. They knew where the Luftwaffe was flying to, where the Panzers were headed and most important, it revealed the movements of the U-Boat wolf packs on the Atlantic that preyed on Allied convoys bringing vital arms and equipment from the New World to the old.The process of breaking the Enigma was aided by a complex electro-mechanical device called the Bombe. It ran through every possible permutation in order to determine the settings used. It kept on ticking till it arrived at the correct setting and hence the name Bombe.It was designed by a mathematician called Alan Turing who is considered the father of modern computing. The Bombe was operated by the Wrens (the popular name for the Women’s Royal Naval Service). One of them, Jean Valentine, is now well over 80 and a guide at Bletchley Park today.So shrouded in secrecy was Bletchley Park that reports from here were given the appearance of coming from an MI6 spy codenamed Boniface who ran a network of agents inside Germany and the occupied countries.
Then there are the Colossus machines — the world’s first-ever programmable, electronic computing devices. They were colossal in size and used 2,500 thermionic valves — vacuum tubes — to perform the calculations, since the semiconductor devices and transistors that make our computers so compact were still a thing of the future.Developed by Tommy Flowers in 1942, the Colossus was used to crack the Lorrenz — the big daddy of Nazi encrypting machines. The Lorrenz was used to scramble Hitler’s communications with his generals in Russia, Africa or France and was much more complicated than the Enigma. For starters, it had 12 cyphers and each cypher had a different number of settings, which made it even more difficult to crack. Cracking the Lorrenz cypher meant that the Allies could listen in on what Hitler was ordering his generals. One of the biggest successes was D-Day because the Allies knew that Hitler had ordered a majority of his forces to move to Calais — away from Normandy.
Bletchley Park and the machines that were developed there were so secretive and futuristic for the time that Winston Churchill had ordered them to be destroyed. So the Bombe and the Colossus were chopped to pieces and then reduced to scrap. Design documents were destroyed as well. Bletchley Park fell to disrepair and there were plans to turn it into a housing estate. Fortunately a new trust board formed in 2000 has resurrected the place, brought it back from the brink of destruction and given the park and the men and women who worked there during the war their rightful place in history.Visiting Bletchley Park is a fascinating experience. The Enigma machines are on show as also the Abwehr Enigma and the Lorrenz, part of the main Block B museum, which tells the complete Bletchley Park story. Then there is Hut 8 where Alan Turing worked, now home to a variety of exhibitions including the one on ‘Women at War’.But what is most fascinating is that both the Bombe and the Colossus have been meticulously rebuilt now that the 50 years classification limit has expired. Rebuilding the Colossus took 10 years and 6,000 hours of effort. Today you can see both of them running.It is an especially magical moment to see the Colossus hum, chatter and click as it puts out information through a teleprinter, its thermionic valves glowing brightly. Information is fed into it through a perforated paper tape and the speed of the machine is limited by how fast the paper tape can move.If you wanted to programme a modern computer to do what the Colossus does, you’d need a 2GHz Pentium to match it.