Alan Turing could not have cracked the Enigma Code without the help of Polish mathematicians and it is time to “right the wrong” and acknowledge their contribution, the Polish government has said.
Deciphering the German system is believed to have shortened World War Two by two years and saved countless lives.
But few people realise that early Enigma codes had already been broken by the Poles who then passed on the knowledge to Britain shortly before the outbreak of war.
They even taught Turing how to build electro-mechanical devices which simulated the workings of the Enigma machine and enabled operators to cycle through one possible setting after another.
By the time war broke out the Germans had increased the sophistication of the machine and the Poles were struggling to make more headway. But based on the Polish knowledge, Turing managed to build a huge computer that would finally crack the cipher.
However, despite their help, history and Hollywood has largely ignored their role. The most recent film The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, barely mentioned the Poles.
Now the Polish government has launched a touring exhibition entitled “Enigma – Decipher Victory” to remind the world of their crucial contribution. They have already taken the exhibition to Canada and Brussels.
Maciej Pisarski, deputy chief of mission, Polish Embassy in Washington, said: “The story of Engima was very important to us and the breaking of Enigma code was one of the most important contributions of Poland to the Allies victory during the Second World War.
“Out contribution to Enigma is something that we learned a lot about as children in Poland but we have a feeling that the knowledge is not so widespread. It was a crucial association which gave the allies the edge over the Germans.
“We were trapped on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War which meant we did not get the credit that we should have received and nobody wanted to admit that anyone in Eastern Europe had anything to do with Enigma.
“We felt it was important to fill in the blanks. It is our moral obligation to right this wrong and put this picture in a more complete way.”
The Enigma machine was invented by German engineer Arthur Sherbius at the end of the First World Wat and were used by the military and government of several countries. The British had struggled to work out how to crack the early Enigma machines, and by the early 1930s the Poles were way ahead.
Poland’s main codebreakers were Jerzy Rozycki, Henryk Zygalski and Marian Rejewski who joined the Polish General Staff’s Cipher Bureau in Warsaw.
While Britain still used linguists to break codes, the Poles had understood that it was necessary to use mathematics to look for patterns and had broken some of the early pre-war German codes.
They had then taken a further step by building electro-mechanical machines to search for solutions, which they called “bombes”.
On the eve of war in 1939 Bletchely codebreakers Alastair Denniston and Dilly Knox met with members of the Cipher Bureau at a secret facility in a forest in Pyry near Warsaw to share their knowledge.
Alan Turing, also later visited the Polish code-breakers and used their knowledge to develop his own “bombe” capable of breaking the more complex wartime Enigma codes.
But the Poles have received little credit, most notably in the recent film The Imitation Game, where their contribution was dismissed with a single sentence.
Dr Grazyna Zebrowska, science and technology advisor for the Polish Embassy in Washington, said: “I think the real story has been lost over time.
“The Polish involvement was well known during World War Two but during the communist time it was not so convenient to admit that there had been so much cooperation between Britain and Poland. It was a very special and very secret alliance.
“The Imitation Game film is all about Turing and everyone in Britain and it is just meant to be a short space of time, but I think there was an audible sigh in Polish cinemas when our contribution was reduced to just one line.
“We’re hoping this exhibition will show the work of the Polish mathematicians.”
Speaking about The Imitation Game, Pisarski, added “I am sure it is a very good movie but I don’t think it tried to tell the whole story.
“We want to present a more complete picture of the past. It’s important to do justice to the people involved but to underline and underscore the strong cooperation between Britain and Poland when it came to Enigma.”
Polish pilots had the highest kill rates in the Battle of Britain, Polish troops fought in the North African, Italian and Normandy campaigns, and were involved in the Battle for Berlin.
Despite their efforts, a British desire to appease Stalin meant that Polish forces, still under the command of Poland’s independent government in exile, were banned from taking part in official V-E Day celebrations.
During the war Polish codebreakers Zygalski and Rejewsk ended up in England with the Army where they tried to join the Bletchley codebreakers but nobody would acknowledge the team existed.
Zygalski ended up working as a mathematician at the University of Surrey.