Code expert cracked on across Europe to new Bovingdon base

Henryk Zygalski, while a mathematics student at the University of Poznan, was ‘talent spotted’ by the head of the Polish Cipher Bureau’s German section.

He was recruited with a number of other students to work in the cipher team because the Poles, from as early as 1929, had been aware of German developments in the Enigma coding system.

After joining the bureau, Zygalski worked on methods of deciphering Engima messages with his colleagues.

A number of tools were devised for this purpose and one in particular, known as ‘the perforated sheets’, was his creation.

In 1939, some of this information was passed by the Poles to the British and French, who by that time were anxious to work out how to decipher Engima messages.

There seems to be some suggestion that the Poles were less than candid with their potential allies.

However, in September 1939 the Germans invaded Poland and it was necessary to evacuate the Cipher Bureau and its equipment.

Zygalski was among those who were dispatched to the West.

They had a hair-raising escape, which involved having to transfer their vital Enigma equipment to lorries, after the train on which they were travelling was bombed by the Germans.

They then had to bury much of it when one of the lorries ran out of petrol.

Eventually, they reached the Romanian border and found their way to Bucharest. They presented themselves to the British Embassy, where the staff had other things on their minds and they were told to try the French, who welcomed them. They then made their way to France.

At last, the Polish cipher team was reassembled at the Chateau de Vignolles in north eastern France.

Though they had managed to rescue two Enigma machines, all of Zygalski’s perforated sheets were lost and they were unable to decipher messages until new sheets were made in England.

Meanwhile, attempts were made to get some of the Polish team, including Zygalski, to England, but it was vetoed by Gustave Bertrand, head of the cipher section of the French Deuxieme Bureau.

He had been working on the Enigma himself since the early 1930s.

Early in 1940, Alan Turing, the star British code breaker from Bletchley Park, went to visit the Polish team in France. He had been working on the electronic ‘bombe,’ which surpassed all previous methods of deciphering Enigma, and after this meeting perhaps Zygalski and his perforated sheets assumed less importance.

Zygalski and his colleagues found themselves fleeing once again from the advancing Germans to Vichy France. Their main fear was that the Germans would discover how much work had been done on deciphering Engima.

Somehow, despite intrigue and rivalry within the French and exiled Polish security systems as well as the exiled Polish government, security held.

Attempts to move the Polish experts to England came to nothing until after the Germans occupied Vichy France. It then became essential to move them. Eventually, Zygalski escaped with a colleague, Marian Rejewski, over the Pyrenees to Spain in January 1943.

Their French Resistance guide claimed he had not been paid and threatened to abandon them unless the account was settled.

Using their last cash, they satisfied his demands and, after a spell in a Spanish jail for entering the country illegally, they got out through Portugal. Sadly, others were captured by the Germans.

So it was that in 1943 that Henryck Zygalski arrived in Bovingdon and lodged with a Mrs Bertha Blofield, a recent war widow, in Bury Rise.

But he did not go to work with the codebreakers at Bletchley Park.

He worked instead at a Polish army establishment at the Shendish Dower House in Kings Langley.

He and Rejewski broke the SS code but never again worked on Engima.

After the war, he stayed with Mrs Blofield and became a lecturer in mathematics at Battersea Polytechnic. Rejewski eventually returned to Communist Poland where he was treated disgracefully.

In 1983, Rejewski and Zygalski were finally honoured in Poland by the issue of a special stamp. By then both men were dead.

It would be good if some kind of tribute could be sited in Dacorum.

Written by Gordon Hodgson