Enigma at School
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The story

The story of the Enigma is a combination of technology, military history and the mysterious world of espionage, code breakers and intelligence. As it happens, these are the perfect ingredients to attract the attention of young people. Therefore Enigma provides the perfect subject to stimulate students to explore maths and WW2 history.

Boring School Stuff

Imagine the response of your 12 year old pupils if you tell them that you're going to talk about the Second World War and the invasion of Poland. Exactly, they start falling in a coma! But what if you start by telling about a code machine on German U-boats? What about top secret missions to capture code books? And students, picked out of college to work on the largest and utmost secret code breaking project ever in Bletchley Park? What if your pupils where code breakers? What skills would they need to crack top secret German codes? You will have all eyes and ears in your classroom!

Fun With History

The story of the Enigma machine is ideal to get your students interested. As they dive into this story, they will discover amazing wartime stories. Of course, once interested in that Polish top ace codebreaker, it's a small leap to the invasions of Poland. Once they know about the U-boat communications and how Bletchley Park located these iron sharks, it's a small step to the history of naval warfare. The whole war was influenced by information, codenamed ULTRA, retrieved by cracking German codes. ULTRA played a decisive role in the Atlantic, in Africa, Russia and during D-day. How many young people know about the importance of the battles in Africa or know the desert fox, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel? Or how and why Germany invaded the Soviet Union?

Useful Maths

But it's not all about history! Maths played a crucial role in breaking the codes. Enigma is the perfect way to show your students that maths can make the difference! Brilliant people like Alan Turing and Max Newton, founders of computer history, were ace code breakers in Bletchley Park, England. And it all started with maths! How many possible combinations are there to place the rotors of the machine? And the number of plug combinations? How much more complicated is a four rotor Kriegsmarine Enigma to crack than a three rotor version? It doesn't even have to be Enigma all the time. There are many pencil-and-paper codes, which can be broken by some simple methods like letter frequency analysis. And we even didn't talk about the Colossus, the first computer ever, build to crack German messages, encrypted with the Lorenz machine. It was so secret that people believed for decades that the American ENIAC was the first ever computer.

Do It!

If you're interested in using the story of Enigma in your school, this website is a great place to start collecting information on this subject. Of course, there are many other sources, especially on WW2 history, and I have put in many links to other interesting information. You can get a taste of code breaking excitement by visiting my Enigma Cipher Challenge which might be a great class project. As you progress through the stages and break new messages, the message content reveils more and more pieces of actual wartime history. Some of the most important moments in WW2 are captured in these encrypted messages! Googeling around on names of operations, persons or ships in these messages will bring up some thrilling stories, straight from the war zone! Let your students crack the codes and let them investigate on the history from a particular message. Of course, there are many other ways to compile an interesting project or some fun hours in your class. If you have any questions regarding the Enigma or other cipher machines and their role in wartime history I will be pleased to help you with your school project. Just mail me!

If you live in the UK, you might want to contact some people of the Enigma School Project. They can even visit your school with a real Enigma machine! It's an idea of Simon Singh which has enyoued enormous success. Simon's Black Chamber is a great place to discover the world of codes and explaines how to break some of them.

Copyright 2004 - 2016 Dirk Rijmenants

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