For the first time, the inside story of the brilliant American engineer who defeated Enigma and the Nazi code-masters
Much has been written about the success of the British “Ultra” program in cracking the Germans’ Enigma code early in World War II, but few know what really happened in 1942, when the Germans added a fourth rotor to the machine that created the already challenging naval code and plunged Allied intelligence into darkness.
Enter one Joe Desch, an unassuming but brilliant engineer at the National Cash Register Company in Dayton, Ohio, who was given the task of creating a machine to break the new Enigma settings. It was an enterprise that rivaled the Manhattan Project for secrecy and complexity–and nearly drove Desch to a breakdown. Under enormous pressure, he succeeded in creating a 5,000-pound electromechanical monster known as the Desch Bombe, which helped turn the tide in the Battle of the Atlantic–but not before a disgruntled co-worker attempted to leak information about the machine to the Nazis.
After toiling anonymously–it even took his daughter years to learn of his accomplishments–Desch was awarded the National Medal of Merit, the country’s highest civilian honor. In The Secret in Building 26, the entire thrilling story of the final triumph over Enigma is finally told.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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Building the Perfect Machine
March 1943-Dayton, Ohio
In a secure meeting room inside NCR's Building 26, while shotgun-toting Marines stood guard outside, chief engineer Joe Desch grew increasingly impatient as he listened to one staff member after another report on continuing glitches with the two prototypes of the U.S. Bombe, Adam and Eve. After enough bad news, Desch resorted to what was becoming an all-too-familiar motivational technique among his hard-pressed group of seventeen engineers and technicians. He jumped out of his seat and onto the meeting-room table and began pounding his fist into his hand with every word he shouted. "No more excuses! We've got to work harder, faster, smarter! Everybody's ass is on the line!"
What Desch couldn't tell his staff, and what had been pointed out to him repeatedly by his own Navy supervisors, was that too many ships were going down, too many men were dying at sea, while the team failed to produce a working codebusting machine that had been promised for delivery to the Navy three months before.
Because of the project's ironclad security, Desch's staff was not permitted to utter even among themselves the words "Enigma" or "Bombe" or the seemingly innocuous name for the top secret operation, "U.S. Naval Computing Machine Laboratory." The project was self-contained within NCR's former night-school building, constructed seven years before on a large, open tract that had once served as the city dump. Behind the building, on a lonely spur of railroad track, sat an empty baggage car with an overdue delivery date to Washington, D.C.-the Navy's not very subtle way of reminding the project's managers that the top brass was impatient for results.
But OP20G, the Navy unit in charge of analyzing and decoding enemy radio communications, may have been asking for the impossible. As late as August of 1942, the Americans still had high hopes that an all-electronic decoding machine-at least one hundred times faster than anything built before-would be able to crunch through more than four hundred thousand possible Enigma solutions in the unheard-of time of fifty-five seconds.
From those wildly optimistic expectations, the American team plummeted two months later into a misinformed pessimism. Desch then thought his best possible Bombe might take hours to complete a run of all the Enigma possibilities, not just a few seconds, and that the Navy would need 336 of the sophisticated machines to get the job done. A big part of the problem was that the Americans had still not mastered the information the British were supplying about all the challenges in the Shark system, nor did they know all of Bletchley Park's clever methods in attacking them.
For the Navy and Desch, the race was on, not only against the Germans and the U-boats in the Atlantic but in some ways against the British. The Americans knew that Bletchley Park was working on its own design for a four-wheel Bombe and that their careers, their nation's prestige, and the Navy's investment of millions of dollars and scores of highly skilled personnel were at risk if they failed to arrive first at a working machine.
The designing engineers in both countries were under enormous pressures: they were told that only a perfect machine-one that was fast enough, reliable enough, and could be produced in sufficient numbers quickly enough-would be able to turn the Battle of the Atlantic. What was needed was a high-speed machine that could complete each of its runs without a single mistake. The codebreaking method it embodied could not tolerate even one missed connection, one electrical spike, or a tiny slip of its gearing.
Navy theoreticians had envisioned an all-electronic machine, using thousands of Desch's fast-firing miniature tubes, that would leave the more mechanical British three-wheel design clanking far behind.
In the end, the weight of the Navy's demands-and the nation's-fell most heavily on one man's shoulders: those of thirty-five-year-old Joseph R. Desch, NCR's chief of electrical research.
from the front steps of Building 26, Desch could have looked out across South Patterson Boulevard to the steep, grassy banks of the Great Miami River, in which he had swum and fished as a child, and across the river to his roots in Edgemont, the working-class neighborhood where his German-immigrant mother, Augusta Stoermer Desch, and most of his relatives still lived. Desch's escape route to a new life had been the Stewart Street Bridge, the link from Edgemont to Dayton that crossed Patterson Boulevard just a few yards north of Building 26. As a college student living at home, he had crossed the bridge countless times on his beat-up Henderson motorcycle, traveling to and from classes at the University of Dayton campus, a mile farther east on Stewart Street, until the freezing winter morning he hit a patch of ice on the bridge, spun out of control, and crashed. Though not gravely injured, he never again mounted a motorcycle.
Like the machine he was charged with engineering in late 1942, Desch was complex and temperamental. He was a devout Catholic, a heavy after-hours drinker and a chain-smoker considerate enough to confine his habit to his own office. He loved to use his hands as much as his brain. He delighted in gardening, in chopping wood, and, even in his teen years, in designing and making his own glass-blown gas tubes for his many electronic exploits. He could be brash and irreverent and had a temper that, when triggered, could propel a torrent of harsh invective. But he also had a gentle side that shrank from physical violence-a trait that had kept him from seeing war as anything but "a damned, dirty business."
Although he passed his childhood days like an early twentieth-century Huck Finn, canoeing and camping and fishing along the banks of the Great Miami, he was never interested in hunting like the rest of his young friends. He couldn't bring himself to kill-not even, according to his daughter, Debbie Anderson, the rabbits his father had asked him to raise. "He loved taking care of the rabbits and building the hutch and all, but when it came time to do what he had to do with them, he couldn't do it," she said. "I don't know if he sold them or gave them away, but they ended up with a friend."
Born in 1907, four years after Orville and Wilbur Wright took their first flight and fewer than ten blocks from the bicycle shop where the brothers had built their first airplane, Desch was the only son of his mother and a Dayton wagon maker, Edward Frank Desch. On his days off from school, young Desch often visited his father at his wagon-making shop, which the Great Depression later forced into closure. His father was a quiet, modest man who never raised his voice with his son and two younger daughters. Desch's mother was the disciplinarian as well as the outgoing, social half of the couple, well-known and liked by everyone in the neighborhood, including the Italian family across the street who ran a bootleg winery during Prohibition and often stored their casks in the Desch basement whenever a police raid was imminent.
Desch would have been content to go to the local cooperative high school and, after graduation, enter a skilled trade like his father's. But his mother and his Marianist instructors at Emmanuel Elementary recognized his greater gifts and pushed him toward the preparatory school at the local Catholic college, the University of Dayton. The deciding factor, however, may have been the influence of his lifelong friend Mike Moran, who got Desch a job as an usher at the Victory Theatre when they were both sixteen. Desch's exposure to national touring acts at the Victory, including the Ziegfeld Follies, vaudevillians, and opera companies, opened his eyes to a much wider world.
Thanks to NCR and the vision of its eccentric founder and business pioneer, John H. Patterson, much of the world had come to Dayton in those years. Patterson had bought the rights to one of the first cash-register machines in 1884 and then set about persuading the entire business world it couldn't live without them. His determination to build NCR into a world-class industrial organization, dominant in manufacturing, marketing, and research, drew to Dayton the likes of Edward Deeds and automotive genius Charles F. "Boss" Kettering.
Patterson epitomized the bold thinking and odd quirks of the men whose leadership ushered America into the twentieth century. Growing up on his father's sprawling farm outside of Dayton, Patterson
was desperately eager to be a businessman, and almost as desperately ignorant of what businessmen did. He decided to follow his own best advice, creating thereby most of the forms of American merchandising-the trained salesman, the sales territory, the quota and the annual convention. . . . There may today be captains of industry who, like John Patterson, take four baths a day, wear underwear made from pool table felt and sleep with their heads hanging off the side of the bed so they may avoid rebreathing their just exhaled breath, but if there are, they keep pretty damn quiet about it.
Patterson also was an extremely visual man, perhaps ahead of his times. He was fanatical about recording every detail of his company's growth and operations. The NCR Archive in Dayton today contains some four million images from around the world, stretching back to the early 1900s.
Ironically, among the images of Dayton's early street life are two pictures of a young, barefoot Joe Desch-one of him shooting craps in an alleyway and another of him shimmying his hand up a baseball bat against another urchin to see whose team would take the field first in an overgrown sandlot. The pictures make clear that Desch had grown up in a rough-and-tumble neighborhood. But true to his mother's dreams, young Desch never neglected his school...
The Ultra secret (Allied decryption of German messages during World War II) has produced a growing body of literature since it was revealed 30 years ago, indicative not only of steady interest in the topic but also of the fact that it still retains its own secrets. DeBrosse and Burke benefit from the former, and make fascinating disclosures of the latter, in their account of the machines, called "bombes," that broke the German encryption tool, Enigma. Due to wartime exigencies, the construction of bombes, first built by the British, shifted to the NCR Company in Dayton, Ohio. On the technical side, the authors detail problems in building them and the ensuing strain placed on NCR's man in charge. On the intelligence side, DeBrosse and Burke dramatically recount a crisis generated by a complication added to Enigma in 1942 that, for the moment, thwarted Ultra and gained U-boats the upper hand. In addition to narrating NCR's literal life-and-death performance, the authors uncover an espionage affair within company ranks. This is an important new angle on Ultra. Gilbert Taylor
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