Monday, 18 January 2021

Wartime Codebreakers at the University of Surrey

An interesting piece of history with a link to the University of Surrey came to my attention last night thanks to a Tweet from our Vice-Chancellor

It concerns one of the key players in the breaking of Enigma code prior to the Second World War,  Henryk Zygalski.  He was a Polish mathematician, educated at the University of Poznan who joined a small team working on deciphering Enigma encrypts.  They were not only successful in doing so, but the Poles also, vitally, made working models of the Enigma machines that the German military were using, and handed them to the British and French when it was clear (thanks to their decrypting work) that Poland was about to be invaded.

As soon as the invasion started, the team destroyed all evidence of their work and fled Poland, to Romania and then France.  Zygalski ended up in the UK before the end of the war, where he joined in work on decyphering Soviet signals.   He settled in England and ended up as an academic at the University of Surrey.  As was the agreement at that time, he never spoke of his wartime code-breaking work.  He died in 1978.  The Tweet above links to an open-access paper giving a more detailed history.  Our Deputy Vice-Chaceller for Research replied to the Tweet suggesting we put up something like a commemorative plaque at the University.  Sounds like a good idea to me.  We already have a statue of Alan Turing.  He (Turing) has links to Guildford, where the University is, though not to the University itself.

The picture below shows a commemoration to him at the Chichester Crematorium where, according to the Polish Embassy, his ashes were scattered.


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