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German divers discover World War II Enigma machine

December 4, 2020

German divers have presented a World War II Enigma encryption machine that they found in the Baltic Sea to a museum. The underwater team initially thought the cipher device was an old typewriter.

The Enigma machine at the handover
Image: dpa/picture alliance

The famous code machine was fished out of the sea last month by divers on assignment for the environmental group WWF.

The team was searching for abandoned fishing nets in the Bay of Gelting in northern Germany.

"A colleague swam up and said: there's a net there with an old typewriter in it," Florian Huber, the lead diver, told the dpa news agency.

The team quickly twigged that they had found a historic artifact and alerted the authorities. During the war, Allied forces worked relentlessly to decrypt the codes produced by the Enigma machine, which were changed every day, to gain vital details about German troop movements.

Ulf Ickerodt, head of the state archaeological office in the German state of Schleswig Holstein, said the machine would now be restored by experts at the state's archaeology museum.

Ickerodt said such finds were valuable because the period was "increasingly threatening to disappear from view" as time passes.

 Diver and underwater archaeologist Florian Huber touches a rare Enigma cipher machine used by the Nazi military during World War Two
The machine was found in an old fishing net in a bay near the city of FlensburgImage: REUTERS

Restoration expected to take about a year

The restoration, which will include a thorough desalination process after so long on the Baltic seabed, is expected to take about a year. After that, the Enigma machine will go on display at the museum.

It is believed that the machine was thrown overboard from a German warship in the final days of the war. Experts think it unlikely that the three-rotor Enigma machine came from a submarine because Nazi U-boats used more complex four-rotor devices.

Read more: Valuable German WWII Enigma machine found in flea market

British mathematician Alan Turing, regarded as the father of modern computing, led a team at Britain's Bletchley Park code breaking center, which cracked the cipher system in 1941.

The breakthrough helped the Allies decipher crucial radio messages about German military operations. Historians estimate that it shortened the war by about two years. Only hubris led to the Nazi code being cracked: the insistence on signing some messages with "HH" (Heil Hitler) ultimately provided the weak spot that the code breakers were able to exploit.

The story of Turing and his team was made into a 2014 movie called The Imitation Game, starring Oscar-nominated UK actor Benedict Cumberbatch.

Richard Connor Reporting on stories from around the world, with a particular focus on Europe — especially Germany.