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Seizing the Enigma: The Race to Break the German U-Boats Codes, 1939-1943 Hardcover – March, 1991


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Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

F.W. Winterbotham's The Ultra Secret (LJ 2/1/75) was the first book to reveal how the Allies broke the main German code system in World War II. Many books, such as Ron Lewin's Ultra Goes To War (LJ 12/15/78), have since expanded upon the process and its impact on the war effort. Kahn, a noted historian of codebreaking, provides a specialized part of the story not previously detailed. He underscores the strategic importance of submarine warfare in the Atlantic, giving a balanced account of the ultimate importance of codebreaking in that arena. High drama at sea seizing German codebooks and equipment and analytical genius ashore were essential. Kahn describes both of these matching efforts expertly. Informed laypersons and specialists will find this book valuable and intriguing. Recommended.
- George H. Siehl, Library of Congress
Copyright 1991 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 16 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin (T) (March 1991)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0395427398
  • ISBN-13: 978-0395427392
  • Product Dimensions: 6.8 x 2.6 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #559,481 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

David Kahn, a recently visiting historian at the National Security Agency, is the world's leading expert on the history of cryptology, and the author of Hitler's Spies, Seizing the Enigma, and Kahn on Codes, as well as articles in numerous popular and technical journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Modern History from Oxford. An editor at Newsday, he lives in Great Neck, New York.

Customer Reviews

4.6 out of 5 stars
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Primoz Peterlin on May 21, 2001
Format: Hardcover
The year is early 1941, and the Battle of Britain is intensifying. The Kriegsmarine submarines, organized in groups - wolf packs - are trying to cut the life-line the British defense depends on - the convoys which supply Britain with food, military supplies and raw materials. And they are pretty much successful in it, sinking more ships each month than Britain and United States can build. Meanwhile, a group of mathematicians, linguists and other odd characters located a top-secret base in Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire, is trying in frenzy to decode the German naval code, Enigma...
David Kahn has produced a well researched and clearly written book on this segment of naval history, which has long remained classified. The story of Enigma is traced from the Arthur Scherbius's design, through the first successful decoding made by Marian Rejewski's group in Poland, and finally to Alan Turing and the Hut 8 staff in Bletchley Park. We learn that while direct attack on the cipher was mindbogglingly impossible, the chances for decoding being 150 million million million to one, the Brits had to find bypasses, raiding German boats for the on-board code books, employing "kisses" (identical messages transmitted in two different cryptosystems), and finally mechanising the solution finding with the "bombes".
The emphasis of the book is more on the naval war than on the cryptology. Although the operation of Enigma machine is described to some extent, you will not be able to fully understand its workings from it alone. Singh's Code Book, for instance, has a much better introduction to it.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Likes to eat Pi on February 24, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I thoroughly enjoyed this book which focuses on an important yet frequently ignored piece of WWII history. The book is more engaging than a textbook, but at the same time less so than a novel. It contains a lot of fascinating insights into this "war within a war" which make it a wonderful book for anyone intesrested in the subject.

The book's focus is much more on the history of Enigma than on the technical aspects of Enigma or cryptography in general. However, There is also a lot of general "best practices" information to be gleaned from this book. (Admittedly, a background in cryptography or information security will help). Principles such as protecting the cipher, security through obscurity, brute forcing, key rotation, and others are all dealt with, although they are rarely called by those titles.

Overall this book is a very good look into some of the early history of modern cryptography.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Jan Peczkis on August 7, 2007
Format: Hardcover
In contrast to some English-language books on this subject, Kahn gives credit squarely where it is due. He emphasizes the fact that the Poles cracked the German Enigma code, and that "Poland did what no other country had done--and what the Germans believed impossible." (p. 67). Kahn recognizes the fact that Polish mathematician Marian Rejewski was the "solver of ENIGMA." (p. 323). He even calls Rejewski one of the "greatest cryptanalysts of all time". (p. 66).

Kahn emphasizes the codes used by the German Navy, but also touches on other aspects of WWII. He notes the Katyn massacre, wherein the Soviets murdered tens of thousands of disarmed Polish officers and intellectuals. He points to the irony of the Germans exploiting this tragedy for propaganda purposes while at the same time having killed many more Poles and Jews.

Kahn believes that the ULTRA was the greatest WWII secret after the atom bomb. However, he rejects the premise that the cracking of the "invincible" German codes by the Allies enabled them to win the war. Instead, he supposes that the Allied victory in the European theater would have been delayed by about a year, and with much greater casualties, had the Allies not broken the German ciphers.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on May 29, 1999
Format: Hardcover
This book is very interesting, and relates the struggle to break the German WWII Enigma code that sent information about Allied convoys to the wolfpacks. With some interesting pictures.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Y. Sageev on October 21, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Kahn hits it out of the park again with this look at the race to break the German Enigma cypher during WWII. The strategy and success of the Third Reich -- particularly the Kriegsmarine -- rested on the infallability of the code.

While Hitler's tank-based blitzkrieg gets the most credit for his effective rampaging across the European continent, Doenitz's u-boats played an equally important role in the initial victories of the fatherland. How was it possible that so many u-boats could sink millions of tons of allied shipping every month, in the most coordinated fashion, with the allies virtually helpless to stop it?

The answer: Doenitz, master strategist, centrally controlled all u-boats via radio communications. For this to work, those communications needed to be encrypted in an unbreakable manner. The admiral had such a device in the Enigma machine -- until, that is, the best Polish, British, and American minds began to make progress against it....

In the same tradition as his masterpiece, The Codebreakers, Kahn presents audiences with as much technical detail as possible without deterring any one of them. Readers cannot escape the nail-biting prose that educates us despite ourselves.
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