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Thread: Soviet code breaking in the east

  1. #1
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    Soviet code breaking in the east

    Seems an appropriate time given all the attention to allied successes in the west in recent times.

    The Soviet archives relating to signals intelligence are closed and information on codebreaking is hard to find and verify.
    The Soviet foreign intelligence service was able to recruit personnel with access to cipher material in many countries during the 1920’s and 30’s....The main target was Japan due to the military incidents in the Far East between the Soviet forces and the Kwantung Army.
    In early 1938 a group was sent to China to assist the Government forces of Chiang Kai-shek in their fight against Japan. In the course of the following months 10 Japanese tactical cryptosystems were solved.

    In 1939 the codebreakers were able to assist General Zhukov in the battle of Khalkhyn Gol by reading the code used by the Kwantung Army.
    The crushing defeat at Khalkhyn Gol is regarded to having been important in convincing the Japanese high command and political sphere to favour the navy's plan of a southern expansion over the army's land expansion to the north, changing the dynamic of the entire war that was to come.

    The purges crippled the cryptologic service since many of its workers were executed along with the top administrators. Bokii was executed in 1937 with most of the section heads and the Tsarist era personnel suffering the same fate.

    These self inflicted wounds came at the worst possible time since in September 1939 Germany invaded Poland and thus started World War II.
    The German invasion led to the rapid expansion of the department and Shenelev recruited some of the best mathematicians and technicians in the Soviet Union. According to Matt Aid ‘By the end of World War II, the 5th Directorate controlled the single largest concentration of mathematicians and linguists in the Soviet Union.’
    We know that in 1941 they were suffering from the loss of experienced personnel. It also seems that the numerous GRU radio battalions were primarily tasked with monitoring their own military forces for breaches of security and thus neglected to keep foreign units under close observation.
    That fits appropriately into a long history alright. To be fair, the remarkable fact that the Stalin survived the initial invasion and the soviet war machine failed to collapse, such as in 1917, might be testimony to time well spent in watching their own. The barn stayed standing after the door was well and truly obliterated.

    The great defeats of 1941 led to the loss of equipment, cipher material and personnel. However it seems the Soviets were also able to win some important victories in the radio war.
    In the autumn of 1941 a group led by NKVD cryptanalyst Sergei Tolstoy was able to solve the PURPLE cipher machine used by the Japanese Foreign Ministry. The decrypts showed that Japan would not attack the Soviet Union in support of the Germans. This information allowed the Soviet leadership to concentrate all available resources against Germany. Japanese diplomatic traffic continued to be read throughout the war and provided important insights into the political and military developments in Axis countries.
    ...Soviets were able to capture Enigma machines and documentation of the German Second Army. The information obtained might have played a role in the Battle of Moscow.
    Germany’s Allies were easier targets....The Soviet Stalingrad offensive took advantage of the fact that the sides of the German front were held by Romanian and Hungarian troops.
    The cryptanalytic service of the Chief Intelligence Directorate of the Red Army identified the main German and Japanese general military, police and diplomatic ciphers, including 75 systems of German intelligence. More than 220 keys to them, and more than 50,000 German messages were read…
    In the second half of the war the German forces were in retreat and the Soviets liberated the occupied territories and ended the war by capturing Berlin. During this period the Soviet military had a significant numerical advantage in troops and equipment against the Germans. This makes it difficult to assess the importance of signals intelligence in the Soviet victories since many different factors were at play.
    For example the article ‘Spies, Ciphers and 'Zitadelle': Intelligence and the Battle of Kursk, 1943’ says : ‘a captured intelligence report of the Soviet 1st Tank Army dated 5 July 1943 revealed that radio intelligence had identified the positions of the headquarters and units of II SS Panzer Corps, 6th Panzer and 11th Panzer Divisions before the offensive began. Other captured documents disclosed that 7th Panzer Division, XIII Corps and Second Army headquarters had all been similarly ’fixed’ by Soviet radio intelligence.’
    ...the Brits also sent more detailed reports. In April ’43 they transmitted a report sent by General von Weichs to Foreign Armies East that revealed the main points of the German plan for the battle of Kursk.
    Important challenges that faced the soviets...
    They started their analysis of the Enigma late in the war and thus could not exploit the insecure signaling procedures of the period up to May 1940. In the period 1942-45 the Germans introduced many new security measures that would have made a solution much more difficult than in 1939-40 when Bletchley Park made its start.
    2). Most of the Enigma traffic in the East would be from Army units that traditionally had a higher level of security than their Airforce counterparts. Army traffic routinely caused problems for Bletchley Park...
    When it comes to the Soviet side we know that they performed well prewar but there is limited information on the codesystems they solved during the war. The Soviet state invested significant resources in its signal intelligence agencies and the NKVD crypto department apparently gathered the top mathematicians and linguists in the country. The collaboration of such a gifted group of individuals must have led to the solution of numerous foreign cryptosystems
    Unfortunately the information we have so far is limited and fragmentary
    full article Christos military and intelligence corner: Soviet codebreakers of WWII

    The chaos of the purges and the shock of the initial invasion left the soviet union in a poor position. But I wonder if the allies were always in a better initial position to utilise code breaking to their advantage. They clearly had far greater success.

    Any thoughts?
    Last edited by tantalus; 20 Jan 15, at 02:23.

  2. #2
    Senior Contributor Triple C's Avatar
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    You probably already know this, but the British had the benefit of Polish knowledge that their intelligence officers gave before Poland was overrun. The Poles successfully broke into an earlier type of Enigma and obtained a functional machine which was also sent to the British as a military gift. So I would imagine that the Brits did have a pretty big head start.

    Glantz wrote somewhere that Wehrmacht failure to break into STAVKA's strategic communications imply pretty impressive Soviet capability in encryption.
    All those who are merciful with the cruel will come to be cruel to the merciful.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Triple C View Post
    You probably already know this, but the British had the benefit of Polish knowledge that their intelligence officers gave before Poland was overrun. The Poles successfully broke into an earlier type of Enigma and obtained a functional machine which was also sent to the British as a military gift. So I would imagine that the Brits did have a pretty big head start.

    Glantz wrote somewhere that Wehrmacht failure to break into STAVKA's strategic communications imply pretty impressive Soviet capability in encryption.
    Yes, the poles are accredited to having made a massive contribution to enigma, a fine gift.

    But I was also alluding to a more fundamental difference between the soviets and the brits/americans at the cultural level. One that allowed academia to prosper in the west, breeding the right kind of conditions for successes of this nature. It's speculative I admit and even if the conditions differ, it may not translate in a noticeable difference to projects that require a small number of brilliant individuals.

    That said, the Polish contribution, the greater co-operation in the west, some luck, the purges and the damage of the initial land invasion were clearly major factors in any disparity.

  4. #4
    Senior Contributor Triple C's Avatar
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    Not sure if Soviet societal weakness applies to codebreaking. The Soviet suffered in that they didn't produce a pool of skilled workers and technicians that was as large as western states proportionally. But their vast population bred enough geniuses that tasks require concentrated effort usually flied when their leadership had the political will for it. An interesting side note, in spite of terrific encryption for strategic raido coms, Russian encryption for tactical units was awful according to von Melenthin.
    All those who are merciful with the cruel will come to be cruel to the merciful.
    -Talmud Kohelet Rabbah, 7:16.

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