Enigma: In Kabaty Woods…

I was particularly pleased to be working on the ‘Enigma’ episode in the ‘Heroes of War: Poland’ series, as I have for sometime now wanted to make something about the Polish mathematicians who broke the Enigma code in 1932.

In England, the word Enigma is almost synonymous with Bletchley Park, and seemingly few are aware that the race to crack the code began much earlier…

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Since the Polish-Soviet War (1919-1921) Polish cryptologists had been at the very forefront of code breaking – leading to the crucial change of breaking ciphers through a mathematical rather than a linguistic approach.

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In 1929 a cryptology course was organized at Poznań University and the outstanding mathematics students Marian Rejewski Jerzy Różycki and Henryk Zygalski managed to reconcile this very demanding cipher course alongside their regular university work…

Polish General Staff building (the Saxon Palace), in Warsaw, where German Enigma ciphers were first broken (1932).

In 1932 the Poznań based cipher office was disbanded and the trio of mathematicians started working as regular employees at the Polish Cipher Bureau, housed in the Polish General Staff building at Pałac Saski / Saxon Palace in Warsaw*, where they began their first attack on the Enigma cipher…

The chief breakthrough came few months later, in the final days of December 1932.

Breaking the Enigma system required solving 2 specific matters:

  1. A theoretical reconstruction of the cipher device itself – especially the wiring of the Enigma. This would enable building doubles of the military Enigma machine that would make it possible to read German ciphers (assuming one had the correct key – i.e. the initial settings prior to encipherment of a message).
  2. Methods of reconstructing the Enigma keys based only on intercepts (supplied daily by monitoring stations).

Both these fundamental problems were solved in theory and practice by, at the time,  27 year old Marian Rejewski, 25 year old Henryk Zygalski and 23 year old Jerzy Różycki at the Biuro Szyfrów (Cipher Bureau) B.S.-4 Section.

It is also important to note that breaking the Enigma was not a ‘one-time feat’. This was a continuous cryptological race with constantly ‘upgraded’ Enigma ciphers and new components introduced by the Germans…

In 1938 Rejewski worked out a mathematical model for a so called ‘bomba’ – an aggregate of 6 Enigma machines and Zygalski created a series of perforated sheets  - designed to enable the breaking of the by then double enciphered message keys.

So, working our way back through time and space in this production…

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Our first – and only! – shooting day in England was at Bletchley Park, where we filmed with Frank Carter, who showed us how the Enigma worked…

Frank was also kind enough let me ‘have a go’ pushing a few keys… lighting up a few lamps… on one of their Enigma machines! (Then again, I did take a rather good portrait of him in return…)

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The buildings and rooms at Bletchley Park have much character – with Griffins guarding the entrance!… and of course it is good to see the memorial to the Polish code breakers!

Our main Enigma expert in the programme was author Marek Grajek, with whom we filmed on location and also at the Museum of the Polish Army, where they have 2 Enigma machines on display. Polish Museums are often closed on Mondays (our filming day) – so I found it terribly exciting to have this place and the amazing objects they keep here “all to myself”…

One of the most lovely and eloquent people I have ever had the pleasure of interviewing was Jerzy Palluth.

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Portrait of Jerzy Palluth.  Photo © Copyright Bartłomiej Ryży

His father, Antoni Palluth was a civil engineer and one of the founders of the AVA Radio Manufacturing Company. The AVA Radio Company based at 34 Nowy Świat Street in Warsaw, was commissioned by the Cipher Bureau  to build the Polish Enigma doubles based on Rejewski’s mathematical model in 1933.

The story of Antoni Palluth and the work at the AVA factory is truly remarkable. (I will be writing a longer separate article based on my notes and conversations with Mr. Palluth.)

In 1937 the Polish Cipher Bureau moved from Pałac Saski to Kabaty Woods, in Pyry, south of Warsaw…

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Standing by the memory plaque dedicated to Marian Rejewski, Henryk Zygalski and Jerzy Różycki at Kabaty Woods.

In almost every production there is that one specific location that is little bit more mysterious and a little bit harder to get filming access to and in the ‘Enigma’ programme this was that place…

So I was absolutely thrilled after contacting the Ministry of National Defence (MON) to be granted permission by the ‘Centrum Operacji Powietrznych’ – Siły Powietrzne (Polish Air Force) to film at their military base.

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Today this is still an active military facility – and it was right here, in July 1939, that the Polish Cipher Bureau’s chiefs, Lt. Col. Gwido Langer and Major Maksymilian Ciężki and the three civilian mathematician-cryptologists revealed Poland’s achievements and explained how they had broken Enigma to the French and the British.

The meeting was attended by British Commander Alastair Denniston, head of Britain’s Government Code and Cypher School and Dilly Knox, chief British cryptanalyst and (from France) Major Gustave Bertrand, the French radio-intelligence and cryptology chief and Capt. Henri Braquenié.

The Cipher Bureau gave a Polish-reconstructed Enigma, to both the French and the British – along with details of their equipment, including the  Zygalski sheets and Rejewski’s cryptologic ‘bomba’. 

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And here I am – at the military facility base, deep in snowy Kabaty Woods, standing right outside this very lovely little yellow house where they all met and… I’m absolutely freezing!

We filmed this in February and our shooting permit only allowed for exterior shots – which meant we spent many, many hours outdoors in the cold and snow…

And you may be thinking:

– Does this woman not know how to dress for winter in Warsaw?

And the answer is yes, yes I do. Of course I do. In fact, like any production crewmember, I am the owner of puffy, wind and rainproof clothing that should keep me warm should I ever find myself on the North Pole…

But how could I ever go to a military base – and not dress in my very own army style?

So, I may be frozen through and through – but my beret is still ‘na bakier’ and I’m smiling, albeit with something resembling a British stiff upper lip…

*The Saxon Palace was destroyed by the Germans in WW2. Today, a few of it’s remaining columns mark the location of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Piłsudski Square in Warsaw.

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4 comments on “Enigma: In Kabaty Woods…

  1. geoff says:

    Fascinating. So close to history.
    They did not let you carry a rifle in the woods!

    • No, certainly not! This is a highly secure facility: No re-enactment – however glamorous :) allowed there!
      But you may find it interesting that the red bars covering the windows of the yellow house are also still authentic and still have WW2 bullet holes and markings on them!

  2. omar says:

    Beautiful article. I ve been reading a lot lately about these 3 men (Zygalski, Rejewski and Rozyski) and im finding pearls everywhere. Im writing a book about the Poland of 60s and they ll be part of the story. Since today i follow your site :) Greetings from Argentina/Poznan. Omar

    • Thank you for your kind words about my blog – I’m very happy to hear that you found my article interesting! So, thank you very much for taking the time to write.
      I’m planning on writing a longer piece based on my talks with Mr Palluth, whose father worked at AVA – when I get a chance to.
      The episode about Enigma (part of Heroes of War Poland series) will be shown across different countries by the History channel this year. Kind regards, Marianna

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