A new history reveals the unsung role of Polish intelligence in the second world war

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In 1939 Polish intelligence offered to the British the German encoding machine, Enigma, plus the keys to keep decoding Wehrmacht secret messages, 80 per cent of which the Poles could read. The British, obsessed with the Empire not Europe, had focused on trying to read Japanese naval codes and showed little interest in the fact the Poles were cracking German codes before the war started.

Throughout history, intelligence agencies and secret agents are the most easily mocked of public servants. Their necessary secrecy gives rise to sinister interpretations. They have to bribe, seduce, blackmail or cajole men and women into betraying their own country or cause. They make mistakes, are venal. But they are necessary. The terror attacks are alerting a public sleepy-eyed after reading too much John le Carre to the real-time importance of intelligence. To understand what needs to be done we need to look at past successes and failures. Luckily there is now a new wave of spy books - fact rather than fiction - which examines in detail achievements and cock-ups. These new volumes are much richer than the unending sequence of spy thrillers, a genre that is running out of steam.

The endless literature on Enigma and Ultra barely mentions the contribution the Poles made in giving Churchill the priceless secret that helped win the war. One reason was the disappearance in 1945 of all the files that recorded the contribution Polish intelligence made to the Allied war efforts. As the Soviet Union rose to world power status, official London placated Sovietism by writing the Poles out of second world war history. Polish airmen and soldiers were not even allowed to march in any of the victory parades at the war's end.

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Robert H. Holden - 9/8/2005

John Keegan (among many others) recognizes the Polish contribution in his _Intelligence in War_, published in 2003.

Michael Beatty - 9/5/2005

Holy cats! In 1939, the Poles gave the Brits the theoretical key to unlocking the German Enigma system! Hold the presses!
I wrote about this for a term paper in an ROTC class at The University of Alabama in 1986 or '87. As I recall, the Polish cryptanalysts got their clue when the radioman on one German ship asked another, in code via wireless, "Wann wurde Friedrich der Große geboren?" ("When was Frederick the Great born?"), and his buddy wirelessed back the appropriate reply.
I'm not sure that the Financial Times being scooped by almost 20 years by a senior ROTC cadet at an American university constitutes admirable newsgathering.