NSA finds ‘rare Italian cipher machine’ lost in collection


The NSA in October 2021 released a headline with the interesting headline “Lost and rare Italian cipher machine foundIt sounds innocent enough, but look at the shaky story they posted with:

At the start of World War II in 1939, Nazi Germany’s Enigma encryption machine was the leading method for sending and receiving secret messages. It wasn’t until 1940 that English mathematician Alan Turing and the Bletchley Park team deciphered Berlin’s daily changes to its cipher system and helped the Allied Powers win the war.

Technically, those words aren’t wrong, but the paragraph really obscures an important story. For years (the last decade, really), the British have tried to raise the flags and publicize the Polish cryptographers who deserve all the credit for shattering the enigma of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Almost immediately after the end of WWI, the Enigma began to circulate and the British tried to break it down, but they owe a lot to others for their breakthroughs.

I have written here before in detail about it.

… In 1927, the British government gave Enigma’s plans to code breakers Foss and Knox for review. A book on Knox’s role in Enigma’s breakdown explains how Foss theoretically reported that he “could be broken under certain conditions” knowing as few as fifteen letters to figure out the parameters of the machine. This effort led the British and French to work together to decipher Spanish (Civil War) and Italian (Invasion of Ethiopia) military communications in 1936. […] Here is the key problem (pun intended). Britain was not as keen on monitoring German Enigma traffic as it was long after the French and Poles warned of its importance. France was able to extract the German documentation and gave it to Poland, who then deciphered even the most advanced riddle in 1933. This should put in perspective Britain listening to signals from “many countries” in 1936. It was the year that Germany was pushing into the Rhineland and getting no reluctance from Britain.

Do you see how different this reading is from the tone of the NSA?

It is unfair of the NSA to suggest that in 1940 the British suddenly and initially cracked a German Nazi Enigma machine. When someone adds a caveat to text like “Berlin’s daily changes to its encryption system” it doesn’t really give a fair description of who broke what, why and when.

I bring up an earlier story of the Enigma also because the The NSA post gives us the following paragraph, which seems to obscure the fact that the Italians had used their own Enigma-type system before Germany and that it was just as technologically advanced before the start of WWII:

As the Enigma establishes itself as the most famous of the cipher machines, Italy set out to develop a high-end machine to compete with its war partner, Germany. In 1939, the Italian government secretly commissioned a little-known photogrammetric equipment company, Ottico Meccanica Italiana (OMI), to build a device capable of competing with its more famous cousin.

I’m a long way from government records right now where I could go. Is there any evidence in British military intelligence files from the 1930s that Italy knew its encryption was cracked? In other words, what if Italy set out to develop a replacement because it realized its system was vulnerable. Just a guess, but maybe IMO wasn’t trying to compete with a German Enigma as much as stopping suspected leaks in early Italians.

The cryptomuseum supports this assumption and even calls Italian machines more advanced than the German ones at the start of World War II.

Cryptograph-Alpha, or Alpha, is an electromechanical wheeled cipher machine, developed and produced in secret by OMI in Rome (Italy) around 1939, at the start of World War II. It was intended for use by the Italian Army (Regio Ersetico), the Air Force (Regia Aeronautica) and the Navy (Regia Marina). […] The OMI Alpha is very similar to the Zählwerk Enigma, but is more advanced.

More advanced than Enigma in 1939? Keep in mind that the German Engima was cracked as early as 1931 by the Poles, and an ability to continue such secret and successful efforts was fundamentally destroyed (abruptly offered to the British) after the German invasion. Once again the the cryptomuseum explains:

From 1933, the Poles intercept and decipher a large part of German radio traffic. In 1938, they noticed an increase in the number of messages sent by the Germans and it seemed clear that Germany was preparing for war. During this time, the Germans used a common Grundstellung (basic setting) for all Enigma traffic. On September 15, 1938, however, this procedure was abandoned.

A year later, on September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland and the decryptors were forced into exile under extremely difficult conditions (unable to discuss their work to obtain protection, but needing it to continue immediately under protection).

So while the British focused heavily on cracking Spanish and Italian cryptos in the mid to late 1930s, Poland had focused on cracking the German Enigma around the same time. Perhaps the history of IMO should be classified as a tangible result of the earlier British focus on deciphering Italian codes rather than German codes.

The crytomuseum, as well as the NSA, mention that very little is known about Italian crypto systems but I would go even further. The British decryption of Italian codes must have had a decisive effect on Allied victories in North Africa, such as Mission 101 (a small force sent to Ethiopia in 1940 and quickly routing Axis forces at least 10 times the size), far too few people know anything about.


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