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Escaping the bombs. September 1939 in Henryk Zygalski’s life

At the end of August 1939, upon leaving his home city of Poznań, Henryk Zygalski said to his sister Monika’s husband ‘There will be a world war. Look after my mum and sister.’ This proves that the cryptologist was perfectly aware of the inevitability of the armed conflict with Germany.

Significant military advantage of the Third Reich led to the quick breaking of the front and the loss of the listening stations in the west and north of the country, which rendered all further work of the secret team of cryptologists in Pyry useless. Already on the first days of September 1939 the cryptological centre was being prepared for evacuation and then partially blown up out of fear that it could be taken over by Wehrmacht troops advancing from the capital. Zygalski was engaged in burning the files and preparing the Cipher Bureau’s equipment for evacuation.

In the evening, on 6 September 1939 a train used for evacuation left Warszawa Wileńska railway station and headed towards Brześć on the Bug River. It carried documents and some equipment from the Cipher Bureau, including the cryptological bombas and Polish replicas of the Enigma machine. On board the train were also three cryptologists: Henryk Zygalski, Marian Rejewski and Jerzy Różycki. The journey was slow due to damaged tracks and the train was attacked by German air force. On 8 September 1939 Zygalski and Różycki with his wife and child were almost killed while hiding from an air raid. ‘(…) A bomb fell right next to us. A deep crater was formed in front of us. Fortunately, we were just partially covered with dirt’, wrote in her memoir Barbara Różycka, Jerzy’s wife.

On 9 September 1939 the train reached Brześć. There Polish cryptologists were given a heavy-loaded truck, which was arranged by colonel Gwido Langer, and were ordered to evacuate further towards Romania. The truck, which also transported ten replicas of the Enigma machine, took Zygalski, his friends and major Maksymilian Ciężki to Kovel and then to Lutsk. On 13 September 1939, when they were near Lutsk, the cryptologists were ordered to destroy the documents and the cipher machines as soon as possible. This was prompted by the reports of the sightings of German tanks near Hrubieszów. There was a grave risk that the cryptologists and their machines would fall into the hands of Germans who would discover that the Poles had been reading messages encoded with the Enigma.

The Cipher Bureau’s cryptologists continued their evacuation towards the Romanian border while the air strikes persisted. They travelled via Dubno, Terebovlia and Kolomyia. When on 17 September the news of the Red Army’s attack reached the Poles, Zyga calmly wrote ‘Sunday. Breakfast, dinner, card game. News about the Bolsheviks. We keep going. Arrival at Kuty. Crossing the border at night on 17 and 18 September.’

Despite being directed by Romanian authorities to a temporary camp in Adancata, the cryptologists took a train to Bucharest. There they were given visas and French passports with fake names necessary for their further journey to France. They reported in Paris on 27 September 1939. A new chapter of their service began for the cryptologists. This time they were under the command of their French allies, not in name only but in reality.

Piotr Bojarski, Enigma Cipher Centre