The Ultra Secret

Title:                  The Ultra Secret

Author:                 Frederick William Winterbotham

Winterbotham, Frederick William(1974). The Ultra Secret. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson

LCCN:    77372493

D810.C88 W56 1976


Date Updated:                     June 14, 2016

The German military came to rely on the ENIGMA machine and the British came to rely on the information they derived from breaking ENIGMA-coded messages. The role of the information derived from the codebreaking in some of the most decisive battles of WWII remained largely untold until 1974, when British Group Captain Fred W. Winterbotham published the first account, The Ultra Secret. His memoir and later studies required that the historical understanding of the way WWII was fought had to be seriously revised.

Not everyone accepted Winterbotham’s work as accurate. A CIA reviewer called it “[A] book purporting to reveal facts about British communications intelligence successes in World War II. He found what he called errors in the book.

Winterbotham’s work is primarily British oriented, with some passing references made to U.S. work in this field. Objections arise from the CIA for two major reasons. First, Winterbotham does not discuss contributions made by Allied efforts. Secondly, and I think somewhat in a petty manner, CIA object whether, “ a professional COMINT officer would want [revelations about ENIGMA] made by a person who knew absolutely nothing of any technical aspects of the subject …. or by one possessing at least the most elementary technical knowledge.” Certainly, from his position during the war, Winterbotham can reveal the fact of analytic operations against the German ENIGMA. I don’t think it essential to the reader that a full discussion of all the types of other types of machines and hand systems that were involved must be laid out.

For all readers, excepting a person with a technical background could never, the words ULTRA and ENIGMA are practically synonymous. This is not accurate, but a technical division between the two is not essential to understand the enormity of the success with ENIGMA decrypts. ULTRA simply was an UK/US agreed word to designate decrypts resulting from decrypts against any targeted high-level system, and did not apply only to ENIGMA.

Once reconciled to the inevitability of publication, a cryptanalyst can single out a number of interesting aspects of The Ultra Secret. It increases, for instance, the depth of meaning of Churchill’s famous statement “Never was so much owed by so many to so few.” There actually were two “fews” involved, one of them the RAF fighter pilots and the other the “cryppies” at Bletchley Park, the site of most of the British wartime cryptanalysis.

But let us not unduly distort our perspective because of the book. Cryptanalysis did not win the war either in Great Britain, in the Atlantic, in Europe, or in the Pacific. As we shall see, it made major contributions to specific battles. It was a weapon, one of utmost value, but still a weapon to be used either skillfully or clumsily. Both usages occurred, and many are highlighted. In the glow of crvptanalytic successes, the reader may overlook the need for the blood and the sweat and the tears of the fighting men. There was extended hard and very bloody fighting in all theatres, without whose success there would be no Free World as we know it.

The fearlessness and self-sacrifice of the skilled and all-too-few RAF fighter pilots gave Britain a chance to survive. True, they were often positioned in advance and the number of them actually committed to any engagement was carefully scheduled and controlled by knowledge derived from ENIGMA (when available) and other decrypts. We should also note that the actual engagement and the fighting, once a German raid was launched, were heavily influenced by British radar which was vital both to give the precise last-minute timing and location of the raid and to provide plausible cover for the effective fighter attacks. This cover was good enough to fool the Germans and most of the English, for only a very few most senior English commanders knew of the existence of the decrypts.

Full credit must be given to Group Captain Winterbotham for the establishment and maintenance of what today we would call an SSO (Special Security Officer) system. He worked hard at it, and it was effective. I am not so sure that the comparable United States SSO system, particularly in the Pacific, was as much dependent on his energy and travel as he would have the reader believe. But he does make crystal clear the successful and necessarily extreme measures that were used to control the handling of ULTRA and, where possible, to sanitize it so that it could be used in a timely manner. He leaves no doubt that some of the brilliant tactical victories achieved by maneuver and accurate estimation of enemy intentions were made possible by looking into the ULTRA mirror which revealed key cards in enemy hands. This information may, no doubt, reduce the stature of some battlefield commanders. Some were unable to grasp the meaning of the material made available to them or unwilling to use it promptly for some reason or other. No need for me to name names in this review, for Winterbotham’s book is based not on official history but on his recollections, which are at best incomplete even if quite accurate in places.

The Ultra Secret is a prolific source of misinformation. It is absurd or wryly laughable to read that the cryptanalytic coups against the Japanese navy, e.g., the Battle of Midway, were made possible because ENIGMA machines were used by that navy. None were used for any Japanese navy traffic at any time in any area. It is equally erroneous to imply that any Japanese diplomatic communications were ever enciphered by a derivative from any version of the ENIGMA. The “purple” (diplomatic) and the “red” (naval attaché) machines were related to one another, but in no way to any German equipments.

No one from Bletchley Park, either in the British party or in the sizeable American contingent, had ever written about knowing of the “bronze goddess” or the “Eastern Goddess” or the “oracle of Bletchley” until they read this book. Winterbotham speaks of one decryption device, whereas in fact there were almost two hundred British devices by 1944, and more than one hundred equipments in the U.S. of a more complicated nature to deal with more sophisticated versions of the ENIGMA. All were called “BOMBES” after the Polish name for their analytic equipment, “bomba,” since the Poles first achieved a cryptanalytic solution in the late 1930s of one of the original (and simpler) versions of the ENIGMA.

I have seen exhibits of the “BOMBES” at Bletchley Park. They were used to set messages and not to decrypt them. Decryption was done either on replicas of the German equipments or on higher-speed cryptographic equivalents manufactured by the United Kingdom or the United States. No “goddess” or “oracle” did any speaking.

Seriously misleading inferences can be drawn from the book, e.g., that almost all German traffic was read and that all levels of traffic, including the highest level of command, were enciphered by using ENIGMA machines. In actuality a very skilled management of available COMINT resources was mandatory, for there always was more traffic to be set and decrypted than available cryptanalysts and equipment could manage. Selectivity of material and direction of effort were skillfully accomplished, as the results show. There also were several other kinds of German machines in use; the several different versions of the ENIGMA were devoted almost exclusively to operational traffic. A message from Hitler enciphered by ENIGMA is so rare as to be almost if not actually non-existent. I have heard of none such. Highest-level German Command traffic, including messages from Hitler, was enciphered in other machines not mentioned by Winterbotham. An occasional German commander would insist that his orders not be transmitted on the air, possibly (or probably) more because he mistrusted the setup which made cryptographic and code room personnel knowledgeable of his plans than because of any doubts about the security of the cryptography.

Another major aspect of the problem, apparently quite unknown to Winterbotham, was the difficulty of actually understanding and making operational sense out of the decrypts. This statement might be clearer if the reader were to imagine that he began to have somewhat random access to streams of technically-oriented telegrams and not to all of them in any one stream. It would take some time and intensive study and imagination to develop the background and the specialized vocabulary necessary to understand the telegraphese, the abbreviations, the specialized allusions, the references to past events and statements, etc. A very major effort had to be put into this work, and brilliant results followed. But the work involved, the competence of the intelligence analysts engaged in this area, and the many frustrations and false leads that were not allowed to hamper the flow of useful material are not even alluded to in the book.

The sizeable American contingent working side by side and around the clock with their British colleagues at Bletchley Park has been overlooked. There is almost no mention of the German Naval ENIGMA, a more complicated equipment than the Army version, whose solution was so important in winning the battle of the Atlantic. Nowhere in Winterbotham’s book is there any clear indication of the effective wartime liaison and exchange of technical personnel and data between the British and the U.S. Army and Navy COMINT organizations.

Judged from the viewpoint of today’s cryptanalysts, it is most helpful that The Ultra Secret is the bad and incomplete book it is. His account is inaccurate in detail, and although it resembles the truth in outline, much of it is purely imaginary. Nonetheless, one seriously damaging effect the book will have is to give target communications security organizations an accurate base line from which to estimate the competence of the US/UK SIGINT organizations. The successful cryptanalysts of the ENIGMA in the 1940s as set forth in the book gives an accurate measure of competence not hitherto available in unclassified literature. Extrapolation from that information in light of the power of modern, very powerful computers may well cause several lucrative targets to have second thoughts about their present systems and to take remedial measures.

Reviewed by George C. Constantinides[1]

Certain books stand out because they are conceived of as the first to tell something, not because of how well or how accurately they tell it. The Ultra Secret falls into this category. It revealed the British successes against German military ciphers in World War II; more accurately, it used this important subject and development in the intelligence war as its central theme. Winterbotham, because of the details given and due to his position in SIS as special security officer who set up the system of distribution and control, lent the revelations the necessary authority. Allied successes against ENIGMA and German and Italian cryptographic systems had surfaced in some form in a number of works before Winterbotham: Bertrand, Trevor-Roper, Philby, Muggeridge, Farago, Deacon, and Hyde are some who mentioned this in one way or another; Hinsley in British Intelligence in the Second World War[2] believed that a 1967 book in Polish by W. Kozaczuk, The Battle of Secrets, was the first to reveal details of the breaking of ENIGMA, the German cipher machine; it preceded Bertrand’s Enigma[3], published in France.

David Kahn in his review in the New York Times gave one of the first warnings that The Ultra Secret had to be read with caution. Among Kahn’s caveats were: it exaggerated the importance of ULTRA as decisive in the war; there were errors because the author was writing from memory—for instance, U.S. solutions to Japanese systems were not factors in breaking ENIGMA, and the version of how the Poles made the first solution is incorrect. Since then, we have learned that many more things are wrong with Winterbotham’s version. The technical explanations are sometimes all wrong or too elementary; his account of the British handling of the Coventry raid is incorrect (see R. V. Jones[4] and others on this); he fails to give the Americans anything but passing references and does not give the French any credit or mention Bertrand; the accuracy of his accounts of the role of ULTRA at certain stages of the war is questionable; he wrongly suggests that ENIGMA was synonymous with ULTRA and that it was the only valuable or high-level German cipher. Winterbotham was wrong on some details of British organizational attitudes where he could be expected to be very reliable-see Montagu’s explanation in Beyond Top Secret Ultra[5] of the British Navy’s position on the handling of special intelligence, which refutes Winterbotham’s account. All the above comments should suffice to reinforce Kahn’s advice that care should be taken in relying on this work as a dependable and accurate account of ULTRA and the Allied cryptologic successes and how they were used to wage the war. The Ultra Secret has its niche in intelligence history for what it did in bringing to attention one of the most significant events of the war. But it has been superseded by subsequent works, such as those of Lewin, Calvocoressi, Bennett, Beesly, Montagu, R. V. Jones, and Johnson, that deal with technical, cryptologic, and operational aspects of ULTRA in a more complete and more accurate way.

This is a review by the Defense Intelligence School.[6]

One of the most carefully concealed intelligence secrets of World War II was the fact that the British had broken many of the German codes, and in particular were reading high-level German material encrypted on the ENIGMA machine. This major communications intelligence triumph (the product of which received the code word ULTRA) played a significant role in the Allied victories. Former RAF Group Captain Winterbotham was an officer in the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and was responsible for developing security procedures for the liaison units which handled Ultra material in England and in senior headquarters in the field. The historical implications of Winterbotham’s revelations still remain to be put into focus, debated and digested, particularly in the light of some errors in the book. (See Beesly[7], Calvocoressi[8], Jones[9], Lewin[10], Montagu[11]).

Reviewed by Paul W. Blackstock and Frank L. Schaf[12]

This is the remarkable revelation of haw the British were able to decipher the most secret radio communications of the Germen High Command to the major field commanders, and from the field commanders to minor commands. It was written by a retired group captain who for ten years prior to 1939 was the senior air staff representative in the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). In the early days of the war the author was largely responsible for the inception of the ULTRA operation and subsequently for its working throughout the war. The author credits the original solution of the German ENIGMA coding [actually a cipher machine] machines to information obtained from a Polish employee of the coding machine factory. But Winterbotham admits that while this was the story he was given at the time, the Polish cipher bureau first made copies of the ENIGMA machine and turned one over to the British. More interesting than the technical aspects of the Ultra code-breaking [actually deciphering] operation are the strategic effects of knowing the German military strengths, dispositions, and intentions before key battles, and disseminating this information quickly to British and U.S. field commanders. The author discusses which of these field commanders best utilized the ULTRA information. The book provides new insights into some of the most famous bottles of World War II and is essential reading for the history of that war. Additional information on the ULTRA operation is provided in Anthony Cave Brown’s Bodyguard of Lies[13] (see chapter 21, section B). The Ultra Secret was written and published while Brown was researching additional source material.

[1] Constantinides, George C. (1983). Intelligence and Espionage: An Analytical Bibliography. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, pp. 493-494

[2] Hinsley, F. H. (1979-1990) with E. E. Thomas, C. F. G. Ransom, and R. C. Knight. British intelligence in the Second World War. New York: Cambridge University Press

[3] Bertrand, Gustave (1975). Enigma; ou, La plus grande énigme de la guerre 1939-1945. Paris: Libaririe Plon

[4] Jones, R. V. (1978). The Wizard War: British Scientific Intelligence, 1939-1945. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan

[5] Montagu, Ewen (1977, 1978). Beyond Top Secret Ultra. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan

[6] Defense Intelligence School (1981). Bibliography of Intelligence Literature: A Critical And Annotated Bibliography of Open-Source Literature (7th ed, rev.). Washington, DC: Defense Intelligence School, p. 72

[7] Beesly, Patrick. (1981, 2006). Very Special Intelligence: The Story of The Admiralty’s Operational Intelligence Centre, 1939-1945. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press

[8] Calvocoressi, Peter (1980, 2001). Top Secret Ultra. Kidderminster, England: M. & M. Baldwin

[9] Jones, R. V. (1978). The Wizard War: British Scientific Intelligence, 1939-1945. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan

[10] Lewin, Ronald (1978). Ultra Goes to War: The First Account of World War II’s Greatest Secret Based On Official Documents. London: Hutchinson

[11] Montagu, Ewen (1977, 1978). Beyond Top Secret Ultra. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan

[12] Blackstock, Paul W. (1978) and Frank L. Schaf, Jr. Intelligence, Espionage, Counterespionage, And Covert Operations: A Guide to Information Sources. Detroit: Gale Research Co., pp. 126-127.

[13] Cave Brown, Anthony (1976). Bodyguard of Lies. London: W. H. Allen


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