D-Day: The Jewish contribution to the largest seaborne invasion in history

D-Day: The Jewish contribution to the largest seaborne invasion in history

While many know D-Day was an intelligence triumph, experts say few appreciate the Jewish community's input to the key turning point in the Second World War

Stephen is the Jewish News' Foreign Editor

A Colossus Mark 2 codebreaking computer, 1943. (The National Archives (United Kingdom)/Wikipedia)
A Colossus Mark 2 codebreaking computer, 1943. (The National Archives (United Kingdom)/Wikipedia)

Intelligence (knowing what your enemy is thinking) and deception (making your enemy think you are thinking something else) were crucial in the run-up to Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Nazi Europe from Normandy on 6 June 1944.

There were several Allied deception efforts to throw the Nazis and their 50 armoured divisions patrolling the Atlantic coast off the Normandy scent.

Chief among them was an operation to deceive Field Marshal Erwin Rommel into thinking the Allies’ 7,000 ships would land at Calais.

Decoding the messages of the Nazi high command was crucial to knowing whether the deception had worked. The Allies, led by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, needed to know what the Germans suspected, what they were planning for, and where.

The codebreaking at Bletchley Park is most famous for breaking the Nazis’ encrypted Enigma machine, but Hitler communicated with his generals with the Lorenz SZ/40/42.

Bletchley Park Mansion. (Wikipedia/DeFacto)

An opportunity arose after an error was picked up in a Lorenz message sent from Athens to Vienna. After a brilliant bit of reverse engineering at Bletchley by mathematicians and cryptographers Bill Tutte and John Tiltman, neither of whom were Jewish, the Allies were able to begin reading the Nazi generals’ messages to Hitler and vice versa.

A special team, comprising members of Alan Turing’s now-famous Hut 8, was set up at Bletchley (known internally as the Testery) to decipher this high-level intelligence, but there was a problem.

“It was taking six to seven weeks to decrypt each message,” says Michael Kushner, a volunteer guide and lecturer at Bletchley Park, who gives talks to Jewish organisations about the Jewish contribution to wartime signals

Michael Kushner

If D-Day was to be a success, the Allies needed to know in more-or-less real time what the Nazis were planning. Enter Max Newman. Born in Chelsea in 1897 to Jewish parents who had fled Poland, Newman grew up in Dulwich, excelled at chess as a child, studied maths at Cambridge and by 1942 was drafted in to work in the Testery.

Newman felt Tutte’s methods could be mechanised and speeded up, so he convinced the operational head of Bletchley Park, Commander Edward Travis, to fund a separate team to do so.

The department that became known as the Newmanry would soon house Colossus, the world’s first programmable electronic digital computer, was used to read the Nazis’ most secret messages.

Working with Newman were the brilliant Jewish mathematicians Jack Good and Peter Hilton. “Through their intellect and intelligence, they sped up the process of reading Hitler’s messages from weeks to 2.5 hours,” says Kushner.

Into the Jaws of death – Omaha Beach, June 6, 1944. By Robert F. Sargent.
(National Archives and Records Administration (www.archives.gov)/Wikipedia/Chief Photographer’s Mate (CPHoM) Robert F. Sargent)

 “From this information, the codebreakers informed Winston Churchill that Hitler had reinforced Calais with the mighty 15th Panzer division commanded by Gerd von Rundstedt and Irving Rommel.

“From this ultra-intelligence Operation Overlord went ahead and proved a resounding success. General Eisenhower wanted 48 hours of no heavy resistance. We gave him 36 days.”

Kushner says there were almost 200 Jewish personnel working at Bletchley Park during the Second World War, all of whom played their part in the downfall of Hitler.

Alan Turing

“Many became very important figures post-war. Along with Alan Turing, the trio of Newman, Hilton and Good went to Manchester University to create the first fully programmable computers.

“Harry Golombeck, the brilliant Hut 8 code-breaker and chess champion, became The Times’ chess correspondent and author. Maurice Hoffman, a brilliant Bletchley linguist, eventually became life president of Barnet Synagogue. And then there was Walter Ettinghausen.”

Ettinghausen was a German naval translator working in Hut 4, who established a Zionist Society in Hut 12. After the war, he changed his name to Walter Eytan, became Israel’s Ambassador to France and later became director-general of the Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“These are just a few of the many Jewish personnel who worked at Bletchley Park during the war. I think it is underestimated the work they put into the success of what happened here.”

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