The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Tag: Code Girls

Codebreaking Wins Wars

Hiroshi Oshima, the Japanese ambassador to Germany, played a big part in losing World War Two for the Axis. He had sent a series of messages home to Tokyo, describing seemingly every military secret that Hitler could possibly have wanted to keep a secret. Detailing the strengths and weaknesses of the German defenses along the northwestern coast of Europe must not have seemed like a big deal to him because his message was encrypted. Unfortunately for him, his messages were deciphered. Later in the war, Oshima again unknowingly revealed to the Allies ore crucial information that helped them win the war.

Oshima made several mistakes. Firstly, he trusted in the security of his code. The fact that he was so sure that his communications were secure made him reveal information that he might have otherwise kept more closely. The second was that he didn’t try to make life any harder for the American code-breakers working on his messages. His messages were a “wordy, effusive, somewhat emotional, meticulous description of German fortifications along the northwestern coast of France, from Britany to Belgium and everything in between.” (pg. 297) As anyone who’s ever tried to decipher a chunk of ciphertext knows, the more ciphertext you have to work with, the easier your job is. By being both wordy and specific, Oshima gave code-breakers a gift: they could find out what he was saying because he said so much, and what he said was immensely helpful to the Allies in the war effort. The information gained from Oshima, and from other Axis communications in Europe gave the Allies a leg up in the war, and led to the success of their D-Day invasion of Normandy.

Mundy, L. (2017). Code Girls. New York, NY: Hachette.

Mean Girls (WWII Edition)

Arlington Hall, the epicenter of the American code breaking effort, was s densely populated pseudo-tenement housing for some of the brightest and most flexible minds the country had to offer. Of course, with such a high population of men and women living together in close quarters, gender played a significant role in both the code breaking efforts and daily lives of the residents of Arlington Hall.

The most prominent aspect of the gender dynamic in Arlington Hall was complaining. Most notably was the case of William Seaman, who consistently complained of being the target of a clique-y group of female coders who bullied and harassed him. Many other men in the facility voiced a similar complaint, especially of the college-educated women, a group of people who seemed to point their nose up and look down on a good portion of the civilians and other employees that populated the hall.

Further, gender also played a significant role in the jobs that men and women carried out on campus. Women were placed into every level of codebreaking on account of their skill in reading and interpreting languages and having a general understanding of mathematics. However, in addition to this, women also filled in many of the mundane and rudimentary jobs, such as sanitation or security. On the other hand, the men staffed at Arlington Hall all were involved in many of the higher level positions, as any who were of the physical capacity to go to war were sent away as such. This left behind many men who, despite lacking in the masculinity department, could contribute more than their fair share to the code breaking efforts. However, despite these differences, it would take the harmonious cooperation of men and women to thwart the Axis’ cryptographic efforts and ultimately win the Second World War.

The Secret Struggles of WWII’s Female Codebreakers

Although female codebreakers were completing some of the most important work on the intelligence front during World War II, the necessary secrecy of their work as well as their gender led these women to not always receive the treatment that they deserved. In the 1940s women in general were seen as subordinate to men, and deemed more suited to tedious tasks—for example, in Chapter 11, upon their arrival at a training camp in Dayton, Ohio the women were set with the laborious and monotonous, yet exacting task of using a soldering iron to connect intricate wire systems, all before they even knew why they had been send to the camp. And even once female code breakers proved their worth and gained respect from their male counterparts (men that often served as their superiors even when the women were clearly more experienced and knowledgeable about the codes being worked on), they still consistently dealt with the innate sexism of other army and navy personnel. Louise Pearsall, already considered one of the “top girls” by all of her male superiors, was held up with her female coworkers for hours when they were supposed to be on official and pressing business in Washington because the sailors in charge of processing them were under the sexist impression that the women working in Dayton were shameful. This impression was due to yet another obstacle placed in the way of women with hopes of helping their country through Naval service—that of the forced choice between work and motherhood, an obstacle still prevalent for women in the work force to this day. Despite all of these obstacles, the female codebreakers of World War II persevered and excelled at their tiring and often thankless work.

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