Archive project will digitize WWII Enigma messages
- — 05 June, 2010 16:04
During World War II, Britain's brightest minds routinely decoded encrypted German military messages, an effort believed to have significantly shortened the war and saved the country further devastation.
The mathematicians and cryptography experts at Bletchley Park broke the code used by Germany's Enigma machine, a complex encryption device used across the German military. By January 1940, Britain was decoding the majority of the Enigma-encrypted radio messages intercepted by its signal intelligence stations.
Since then, buildings on the 25-acre Bletchley Park estate have fallen into disrepair: At one stage the site was close to being demolished to make way for a supermarket and housing development, and efforts to raise money to preserve it have struggled.
Existing funds have been consumed by emergency infrastructure repairs such as keeping the roofs of buildings from caving in, said Simon Greenish, director and CEO of Bletchley Park Trust. Preserving the core of Bletchley Park's heritage -- the intercepted messages -- was far down the list of priorities, he said.
Those messages are still in the building's archive after more than six decades, neatly typed on trimmed slips of paper and glued into fragile, decaying books. Also in the archive are drawers full of maps and a system of index cards used to classify messages by subject.
With the archive building's roof among those that needed fixing earlier this year, the flimsy documents stored there "really ought to be properly dealt with," Greenish said.
That is starting to happen, with the launch of a project to digitize the documents in the archive and make them accessible to the public.
Hewlett-Packard has donated servers, storage and five of its latest enterprise-level Scanjet scanners to get the project going, said Laura Seymour, marketing manager for HP's LaserJet and enterprise solutions. The company has also assigned consultants to help train volunteers and Bletchley staff on the equipment.
Volunteers will use HP's Scanjet 7000 to scan the index cards used to classify messages. Once the cryptanalysts had decoded a message, a summary of it would be written on an index card and filed under a subject heading to make it easy to find groups of related messages. The cards -- which number in the tens of thousands -- are handwritten in cursive, often on both sides.
The Scanjet 7000 can scan both sides of the cards quickly in batches. The scanner can detect if a card has been incorrectly fed or if two cards are stuck together. A larger flatbed scanner, such as HP's N9120, will be used for the books containing the actual messages. The pages of those books will have to be turned by hand in order to scan them since they are too fragile for automated page-turning scanners.
Another bit of technology can help compensate if an index card's writing is fading. HP's Kofax Virtual rescan software inspects the material, then adjusts its brightness and contrast for clarity so that the image is more readable, said Mander Thiara, a specialist with HP's imaging and printing group.
Archivists are still deciding exactly how the digital archive will be structured. Once that is determined, volunteers will be recruited and trained on the scanners and software. Thiara said volunteers will use a touchscreen menu on HP's Scanjet 7000n in order to classify the material they are scanning and ensure it goes into the proper place in the digital archive. In addition to HP's software, the project will also use software from Digital Workplace, a company that specializes in large-scale document management software, Seymour said.
Eventually, the typed transcripts of the decoded messages will also be indexed using OCR (optical character recognition) technology, which means the messages will be searchable by keyword. That will be a boon for historians, who will not only have access for the first time to reams of messages, but also be able to quickly search them.
"You can start to do research and connect up names, places, phrases, which is exactly what we want in this because these messages never tell you a whole story, they tell you a bit of a story," Greenish said.
Among the messages at Bletchley Park are ones showing how the Germans were duped into believing the Allies were going to land elsewhere than Normandy, France, in June 1944, and the transmissions of British double agent Eddie Chapman.
Chapman was a womanizing safecracker. During the war, he was imprisoned on the Channel Islands. The Germans took over the islands and he volunteered to work as a spy in order to get hack home. Once back, he switched sides again, agreeing to work for Britain as a double agent.
When he transmitted messages to the Germans, Chapman -- whose German code-name was "Little Fritz" -- was supposed to include five letter "Fs" in a row to indicate he hadn't been discovered by the British.
In one message, Chapman forgot to include the Fs. But he then quickly sent another message, which was intercepted and decoded at Bletchley, where it now is glued in a book: "Sorry. Drunk over Xmas. Forgot FFFFF in last message. Fritz. Happy Xmas"
"You want stories, we've got stories," said Peter Wescombe, a volunteer archivist and one of the founders of the Bletchley Park Trust. "This is the kind of stuff we'll be able to keep for posterity."