South African Military History 


Newsletter No 6: March 2005
Nuusbrief Nr 6: Maart 2005

The first Annual General Meeting of the Eastern Cape Branch of the Society was held on 10 February 2005 in lieu of the usual curtain raiser. Malcolm Kinghorn (Chairman), Ian Pringle (Secretary and Scribe), Dennis Hibberd (Treasurer), Piet Hall (Tours), Jock Harris (Social) and Pat Irwin (Co-ordinator of members not resident in Port Elizabeth) were elected as the Branch Committee.

The main lecture was given by Barry Irwin, who covered the use of ciphers and cryptography to the end of WWII. The word cryptography is derived from the Greek words "Kruptos" (hidden) and "Graphia" (writing). Encrypted messages should have the characteristics of confidentiality (only intended receivers should be able to read the message), integrity (receivers must receive the message as intended by the sender), authentication (receivers should be able to recognize the sender) and non-repudiation (sender should not be able to deny sending the message).

The earliest codes were the Egyptians' hieroglyphics used from about 4000 BC. The Spartans developed the first mechanically assisted cipher system in the war against the Persians in the fifth century BC. This code entailed writing on a strip of parchment wrapped around a stick. The receiver could read it only when it was wrapped in similar fashion around a stick of the same diameter. During the Gallic Wars in the first century BC, Julius Caesar devised a code, known as the Caesar Cipher, which was based on the manipulation of the alphabet, where letters were moved in a secret pattern in order to be read.

During the Renaissance, Europe, and especially Italy, was a place of intrigue, both political and financial. Three eminent contributors to the science of cryptography emerged in this period, namely Johannes Trithemius, Blaise de Vigenere and Giovanni Porta, with the former's code only being cracked at the time of the Crimean War by Charles Babbage. Babbage also developed a mechanical deciphering system for the Vigenere code.

During World War I, the Vigenere code was still in use, but the British were able to decipher its messages, a classic example being the Zimmerman Telegram, which contributed to the United States' entry into the war.

During the Second World War, the Americans became adept at cracking Japanese codes. By 1932 they had mastered the Red code used by Japanese embassies. That code used a laborious system of being typed in on one typewriter in code, then being fed through to a similar machine with the message being decoded in the process. By 1939 the Red code had been replaced with the Purple but the Americans were able to break enemy codes throughout the war. The Japanese contributed to the cracking of their own codes by always starting messages with a respectful "I have the honour to inform Your Excellency". It should be noted, however, that American security on their own codes was sometimes lacking, for example, an Italian spy obtained a key to a safe at the US Embassy in Rome, where he was able to steal, photograph and replace the code book without being detected.

By the 1920's the Germans had developed an electromechanical cipher device named Enigma. Each arm of their forces developed the device to meet its own needs. After this code was broken by a Pole, Rejewski, German messages encrypted by this system were consistently read by the British at Bletchley Park.

Various pivotal events during WWII, the outcomes of which were determined by the breaking of the codes used by one of the opposing sides, were discussed. Also discussed were events where leaders decided not to use intelligence gained from the breaking of codes in order to protect the fact that enemy codes were compromised.

Barry's was a most interesting lecture and we look forward to a sequel on the development of cryptography during the last sixty years.

South African Military History Society Membership

We welcome the Anderssen family, Len Bezuidenhout, Peter and Karen Duffel-Canham, Mike Duncan, Piet Hall, Geoff Hamp-Adams, Jock Harris, Des Kopke, Deryk Langman, Chris McCanlis, Tom Mullins, Chris Papenfuss and Charles Tregonning as members. Longstanding members Taffy Shearing, Ian Uys and Lionel Wulfsohn have become SAMHSEC members.

Next Meeting

The next meeting will be held at 1930 on 10 March 2005 in the Prince Alfred's Guard Drill Hall, Central, Port Elizabeth. The curtain raiser will be "The North African Campaign" by Prof Pat Irwin and the main lecture will be given by Jimmy Mullins on "The Gazala Gallop to El Alamein".

Ian Pringle, SAMHSEC Scribe or Cell 0836366623 or fax 041-3688798

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