Sunday, 5 May 2013

Some Reflection on History and TICOM

I am generally interested in history and especially the history of cryptology. I have, as you can see on my CryptoCellar Web page, already published several articles with historical content, but I am no historian at least not in the sense of having an academic degree in the field. I therefore often use the title researcher instead of historian such that I don't pretend to be something I am not. A degree in history would probably be a valuable thing to posess, but often I find that my electrical and electronic engineering background is more useful when writing about cryptology. If there is something I really miss, then it is the mind of a lawyer. They usually have a good memory, they are good at separating the wheat from the chaff and they are trained to get to the truth, or at least that is what they are supposed to do.

The lack of a good memory is something that bothers me the most. The kind of research I normally do requires handling many small bits of information to try to make a complete picture. It is very much like laying a puzzle, only that often you don't have a good idea what the picture will be and you have no idea how many puzzle pieces there are. You therefore never really know when to stop; is it complete now or should I dig some more? I suppose many of you have been confronted with this dilemma.

With a name like mine you would think I was a born historian. The Frode men, that were the descendants of Ari Frode the first Icelandic history teller, were the Icelandic historians who carried the island's history in their heads. But alas, I am not related to them. Early on I found history boring; long lists of names of 'silly' kings, place names and dates. Why should I have to learn all that stuff? Then in junior high school I got a history teacher who had a completely different approach to teaching history. He would give us the all the names, the dates and the places, but he would also weave in exiting stories about people and events such that we got a feeling for the time we were studying. To me it was an eyeopener; he made history come alive. Thank you, Andreas Hjelm.

Andreas Hjelm was fond of details and so am I. He put people in the centre of history and he tried to explain their actions by trying to understand their personalities. I too feel people is an important part of history and I therefore try to dig a bit deeper into the personal histories of the persons I happen to discover during my cryptological research. This is not always easy and it is generally quite time consuming. It is more genealogical than historical research, but it can be very rewarding. In a few cases I have discovered relationships that have completely changed the historical canvas. I will expose some of these stories in due time.

It is easier to do both historical and genealogical research today than it was say 10-15 years ago. The Internet has changed all that. Thank you CERN for the World Wide Web. However, there are still many challenges such as trying to positively identify people and make sure you have not got the wrong person. Those of you who have some experience with the military know that they are fond of numbers and surnames. The use of first names are rare and in the German military it seems to have been taboo. This is generally true also in German society where a title and a surname is the most common construct. This is fine when the person is a well known personality or she carries a rare or uncommon name, but when this is not the case then identification can be very hard indeed.

An example of this is the name of Ing. Willi Korn, the engineer who worked with Arthur Scherbius on the development of the Enigma and whose name is on most of the Enigma patents. Everybody who has seriously studied the Enigma know about Willi Korn, but I think I am right to say that few know who he really was and what he looked like. I am not 100% sure I know either, but at least I know who was his wife. Her name is relatively rare while the Willi Korns come by the dozen. 

Another example is the case of the Schultz(e)s who worked as German cryptanalysts during the war. Their names pops up almost everywhere in the TICOM documents the British and Americans wrote after the war. To see for yourself I invite you to visit the TICOM Archive of Randy Rezabek and the TICOM Collection of Christos Triantafyllopoulos. These two gentlemen have done more for cryptologic history than most; they both merit a medal. Now back to the Schultz(e)s. The Allied TICOM researchers found it so difficult to keep the right Schultz(e) at the right place that they offered this little Schultz(e) guide. It is not known exactly when the list was made but probably some time in the spring or summer of 1946. In September 1945 the situation was much less clear and at that time they had not yet identified the Schultz(e)s at OKW/Chi, which this Schultz(e) listing shows.

This is just to illustrate some of the difficulties one runs into when doing cryptological research. A more serious problem is the lack of good, verifiable sources. Good scientific and historical research mandates that one try to use multiple sources, but with cryptology one is often happy to have just one single written source. The TICOM documents falls into this category. A single document does not always tell the full story and sometimes the information is incomplete and sometimes even wrong. The TICOM documents should be looked upon more as research notes than final research reports. The case of the Schultz(e)s above illustrate this problem. The 9-volume TICOM study European Axis Signal Intelligence in World War II, EASI for short, is a very useful overview of German signal intelligence during WW II, but it has its shortcomings. The TICOM researchers were trying to piece together a picture of the very confusing layout of German signal intelligence and they were on a very steep learning curve. Even if the Allies had acquired some solid knowledge about German SIGINT through their decoding of the Enigma and Tunny messages, they had little or no knowledge about some of the TICOM targets. Göring's Forschungsamt was one of the organisations they knew virtually nothing about before the end of the war. You would think that they knew everything about the Enigma, its development and production, but it turns out that they even had the wrong address for the Enigma engineering offices of Chiffriermaschinengesellschaft Heimsoeth und Rinke, which had been at Berlin-Wilmersdorf, Uhlandstrasse 136 since December 1938. When they finally arrived at the correct address they found the Russians had arrived there first. I had thought of giving you some details about the Russians who visited Heimsoeth & Rinke and their interest in the Enigma, but unfortunately it seems I don't have these notes with me here. So it will have to wait for another time.

My intension is not to wear you out with details about TICOM but to show that we have to use these documents with some care and to weigh the evidence several times before we decide to use the information they contain. Much of the information is very fragmented and even if the bits we have are correct, the picture they  suggest might very well be wrong. Caveat Emptor. Having said this, I should like to stress that the documents are a real gold mine with respect to information about German signal intelligence. They give a good picture of the German capabilities in this field during the Second World War, and in a few cases also what the Germans did during the inter-war years and in the First World War. However, the TICOM reports, the interrogation reports and other evaluation reports, are only the tip of the iceberg. The real interesting stuff is in the TICOM files, the files with the raw, original German source documents. 

TICOM reports were written on subjects that had real intelligence value, such as German cryptanalytical capabilities, information about German success or failure against Allied cryptographic systems, and information about Russian cryptology. A lot of the raw TICOM material does not fall into any of these categories and hence no TICOM reports were produced. However, the material still is of interest to cryptologic history. Quite a number of the files contain documents that the Germans captured when they invaded the different European countries. There are documents that they captured in Belgium, France, The Netherlands, Norway etc. Many of these documents give details about the cryptological systems and capabilities of these countries, something which I find very interesting. There is only one problem. Very little of this material has been declassified and released. The only collection we know of today is the TICOM files collection at the German Foreign Office, Bestand Rückgabe TICOM, Politisches Archiv des Auswärtigen Amts, Berlin. This collection of original TICOM files is extremely interesting, but it is only a part of what the British and American TICOM teams collected. There are many files that we know existed that are missing from this collection. GCHQ says they have returned to Germany everything they have, but it is curious that some very interesting files about Russian cryptology are missing. This seems to indicated that some files were considered too sensitive to be returned to Germany. And if GCHQ tells the truth that they have released all they have, then what happened to the microfilms that were made of this material and sent to USA? Do they still exist somewhere at NSA? If they do, I hope they soon will be released because the material they contain should keep us busy for many, many years to come and the end result might be a much better picture of European cryptology.


Christos T. said...

Nice overview. You’ve given me the idea to write something similar on the reliability of the information from TICOM reports.

Frode Weierud said...

Hi Chris, That is a good idea. It is such a lot of information and difficult to get a feeling for how good and reliable it is.
Cheers, Frode

nanodome said...

May I please ask if you know where in the Political Archives all these returned raw TICOM files went?

I had a root around various catalogues but couldn't find anything... perhaps I'm missing something obvious. :-)

Thanks, ....Nick Pelling....

Frode Weierud said...

Hi Nick,

They have not yet been properly catalogued as far as I know. I have compiled my own private listings but it is not complete and some of the files I have asked for they were not able to trace. If you take direct contact with me I can give you contact details for people at the FO/PA. You find my address in the full profile.

Best wishes, Frode