The Man who Cracked the Nazi Code: What if the D-Day landings were only possible thanks to a chess player who cracked the encoded communications of the German army? 6 June 1944. D-Day. The biggest land and sea operation in history: 256,000 men, 20,000 vehicles and 4,000 landing craft. On this pivotal moment in history when the outcome of the Second World War was at stake, much has been written, recounted, analyzed, examined, filmed and filmed again.
And yet, what if I told you the D-Day landings were only possible thanks to a socially-awkward, antimilitarist mathematician whose dream was to build an artificial brain? Far-fetched? Let’s add that this crazy dream, besides bringing a halt to Hitler’s plans, gave rise to modern computer science. The dreamer in question was Alan Turing and his field was the most fundamental branch of mathematics: logic. How could someone who lived in the realm of ideas have had such an impact on history and the world?
Without a doubt, Alan Turing was one of the boldest scientific minds of the twentieth century. A brilliant mathematician and a long-forgotten hero of the Second World War, he contributed to the Allies’ victory by cracking the encrypted Nazi codes, and as a result, he prepared the way for the D-Day landings. Indisputably, a true pioneer of computing, he was the one who wrote some of the first computer programs and the inventor of the artificial intelligence concept.
In this fascinating documentation of English Alan Turing’s incredible story, we will take a glimpse inside his extraordinary, brimming with speculations and abstract notions brain, to see how the genius, yet unfortunate logician and cryptanalyst played a major part in the glorious history of WWII by shortening the war’s duration by two years. The unlikely trajectory of this genius, entwined despite himself with world events, will allow us to take a fresh look at a whole section of the history of the Second World War, and discover that a close link exists between the Allied victory and the invention of the computer. How could a single man’s ideas have such a tremendous impact on history’s course?
The Man who Cracked the Nazi Code
Alan Mathison Turing was an English mathematician, computer scientist, logician, cryptanalyst, philosopher, and theoretical biologist. Turing was highly influential in the development of theoretical computer science, providing a formalisation of the concepts of algorithm and computation with the Turing machine, which can be considered a model of a general-purpose computer. He is widely considered to be the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence.
Born in Maida Vale, London, Turing was raised in southern England. He graduated at King’s College, Cambridge, with a degree in mathematics. Whilst he was a fellow at Cambridge, he published a proof demonstrating that some purely mathematical yes–no questions can never be answered by computation and defined a Turing machine, and went on to prove the halting problem for Turing machines is undecidable. In 1938, he obtained his PhD from the Department of Mathematics at Princeton University. During the Second World War, Turing worked for the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) at Bletchley Park, Britain’s codebreaking centre that produced Ultra intelligence.
For a time he led Hut 8, the section that was responsible for German naval cryptanalysis. Here, he devised a number of techniques for speeding the breaking of German ciphers, including improvements to the pre-war Polish bombe method, an electromechanical machine that could find settings for the Enigma machine. Turing played a crucial role in cracking intercepted coded messages that enabled the Allies to defeat the Axis powers in many crucial engagements, including the Battle of the Atlantic.
After the war, Turing worked at the National Physical Laboratory, where he designed the Automatic Computing Engine (ACE), one of the first designs for a stored-program computer. In 1948, Turing joined Max Newman’s Computing Machine Laboratory, at the Victoria University of Manchester, where he helped develop the Manchester computers and became interested in mathematical biology. He wrote a paper on the chemical basis of morphogenesis and predicted oscillating chemical reactions such as the Belousov–Zhabotinsky reaction, first observed in the 1960s. Despite these accomplishments, Turing was never fully recognised in Britain during his lifetime because much of his work was covered by the Official Secrets Act.