Friday, March 30, 2007

The Secret in Building 26: The Untold Story of How America Broke the Final U-Boat Enigma Code


March 30, 2007

The Secret in Building 26: The Untold Story of How America Broke the Final U-Boat Enigma Code, by Jim DeBrosse and Colin Burke, Random House. 2005. $14.95. ISBN: 0-375-75995-6. (

During World War II, my father worked within the U.S. Army’s Signal Corp as part of a code-breaking group at Arlington Hall Station in Virginia. So, I heard many stories about codes, ciphers and cryptography. My dad ensured I received the latest code-breaking and military-intelligence books as birthday and Christmas presents. While on a recent trip, I found this interesting book and once I started reading, I could not put it down. Engineers with an interest in the origins of electronic computers and military history will enjoy this fascinating book. Even if you know much about the Ultra intercepts and their role in the Battle of the Atlantic, you will find new material here and a new perspective on American code-breaking work.

When books discuss breaking the Enigma codes used by German military services, they focus on efforts at the UK’s Bletchley Park and its electromechanical “Bombes,” built to decipher Enigma messages. Only recently have historians discovered the role the National Cash Register Company (NCR) had in building code-breaking machines at its facilities in Dayton, Ohio. Until the mid ‘90’s, most materials relate to the NCR efforts remained classified or buried in unindexed archives. Based on declassified materials and oral histories, the authors have put together the amazing story of how engineers at NCR developed decoding machines that contributed to the defeat of Hitler’s Germany.

In this book, the authors explore not only the technology behind the US-made Bombes but the people involved; from the lab workers who build prototypes and production equipment, to the U.S. Navy WAVES who kept the machines working, to people such as Joseph R. Desch, the chief engineer for the “U.S. Naval Computing Machinery Laboratory” at NCR. Their stories help readers experience the urgency that drives engineers and cryptanalysts to quickly solve problems and create working machines.

Although some history books describe cooperation between British and American code breakers and scientists, this book adds greatly to the analysis of collaborations and tensions between groups on both sides of the Atlantic. At many times in this story, the frustrations experienced by the various teams seem almost palpable.

Americans should understand the large role their citizens played in defeating the German submarines that threatened to cut off supplies to the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, much of the NCR work remains classified and little, if any, hardware from the original machines remains. As of the book’s publication, Building 26 remained in place, but marked only with a 60-word plaque placed by the IEEE. Thankfully, this book illuminates the heroic work of many people at NCR and in the military.


Friday, March 16, 2007

Zylotech buoys to protect Japanese sub


The Sydney Morning Herald
March 16, 2007

High-tech buoys fitted with video and acoustic equipment, manufactured by Australian company Zylotech, have been purchased by the NSW government to protect a Japanese midget submarine recently discovered off the coast of Sydney.

A 500 metre protection zone was established around the sunken World War II midget M24 submarine after it was found by divers last November, 64 years after it disappeared following a Japanese attack on Sydney Harbour.

The NSW government now has purchased Zylotech's SeaWATCH Long Life Camera Sonobuoy to police the heritage site.

The sonobuoy contains acoustic and video surveillance technology to monitor and alert authorities of any incursion into the area.

In a statement to the Australian Stock Exchange, Zylotech chief executive officer Nicholas Sikiotis said the exposure the product would gain through the deal could be "pivotal" to securing other maritime surveillance work, such as on oil and gas platforms.

"With the SeaWATCH remote telemetry buoys, Zylotech is able to offer remote offshore multi-sensor platforms as well as seamless integration with land-based camera and vessel monitoring systems, such as AIS, allowing operators to access remote information from a distributed buoy/camera network," Mr Sikiotis said.

"This reference site could be pivotal in gaining further access to a wide range of maritime surveillance and marine research applications, including oil and gas platforms, aquaculture facilities, environmental monitoring, marine mammal research, defence and critical infrastructure facilities."

The M24 disappeared after three Japanese subs entered Sydney Harbour on May 1, 1942, in an attack that killed 19 Australian and two English sailors aboard the barracks ship HMAS Kuttabul.

The fate of the other two subs was always known, one of them blown up by her crew after it became entangled in a defensive boom net, and the other sunk by a depth charge.

But the M24 escaped, and its whereabouts had remained a mystery until a group of divers found the submarine off Sydney's northern beaches.

The wreck now is protected under the federal Historic Shipwrecks Act and NSW Heritage Act.


Wednesday, March 14, 2007



The Valparaiso Times
By Benjamin Witte
March 14, 2007

Three months ago documentary filmmaker Juan Enrique Benítez, working with a team of scientists, historians and Navy divers, took to the waters of Valparaiso Bay in a bid to make history – or at least to uncover it. Their mission: locate the missing Flach, an early submarine prototype (considered Latin America’s first) that in 1866 sank to the harbor floor with 11 crewmembers on board (ST, Dec. 15, 2006).

Going into the five-day, mid-December search Benítez, the driving force behind the odd endeavor, had already dedicated more than a year to the quest. Critics called it a wild goose chase. Still, the eccentric filmmaker was determined and this time around, he felt convinced that the end of his search was finally near. He and his collaborators were finally going to find the elusive Flach.

"I went through a whole series of very, very strong emotions," Benítez recently told the Santiago Times. "Several times we thought we’d found it. All that adrenaline, thinking ‘I can’t believe it. This is incredible. We’re finally going to find this thing that’s been lost for so long, forgotten by history. We’re going to rescue it and give it the place it deserves in history.’"

For nearly a week the team attempted to do just that. Working in pairs, divers descended over and over again into the Bay’s dark, frigid waters. They made some interesting finds. Six times the divers stumbled upon previously unregistered shipwrecks, among them an ornate and well-preserved
century clipper. Aware that the clock was ticking, however, Benítez urged the divers not to waste too much time on the accidental finds. Instead he pleaded with them to stay focused, to keep looking.

In the end, the divers were not able to locate the Flach. As the fifth and final day of the expensive search came to a close, Benítez was forced to admit defeat.

"When we didn’t find it," the eccentric sub seeker explained, "I felt a huge sense of frustration, of deep sadness. Alone in my car, at about 6 p.m., I headed back (to Santiago). The last dive had come to an end. All the reporters were calling me, asking me how I was, how I felt. I didn’t want to answer. I wanted time to reflect on it all."

It was then, during that moment of reflection, that Benítez experienced something of a revelation. Driving alone along Route 68, the gray-haired filmmaker received what he now describes as a direct message from the very man who created the one-of-a-kind submarine: Karl Flach himself.

"The idea (of the message) was that there was no way it would only take me five days to find something so important, in which 11 people died, something that involved such an enormous effort (to build). This search was going to be difficult. Our effort was going to have to somehow measure up to all that... And so I said to myself, ‘go for it. Keep going for it. Stay with it. We’re getting closer.’"

Between 1864 and 1866 Chile and Peru were embroiled in a war with Spain that began when the later seized Peru’s guano-rich Chincha Islands. As part of the war effort, then Chilean President José Joaquín Pérez commissioned the construction of a submarine, only a few of which had ever been built anywhere in the world.

The president’s request actually resulted in two submarine prototypes – one designed and built by a man named Gustavo Heyermann, the other by Flach. Heyermann’s vessel, unfortunately, sank on its maiden voyage. Flach’s sub, however, seemed to work quite well – at least during several days of initial testing.

Designed to protect Valapariso harbor from attack (the Spanish fleet in fact bombarded and leveled the city on Jan. 31, 1866), Flach’s pedal-powered submarine was equipped with two cannons, one built right into the nose of the vessel. Constructed entirely of steel, it was 12.5 meters long, 1.5 meters wide and weighed an estimated 100 tons.

Then, on May 3, 1866, Flach, his 11-year-old son and nine other crewmembers boarded the doomed submarine for what would be its final voyage. Something went horribly wrong and the heavy machine sank to the ocean floor, condemning all 11 people to Davey Jones’ proverbial locker.

Benítez first learned about the tragedy only about a year-and-a-half ago – through a man called Salvador Villanueva, a Chilean inventor he met while working on a television program called "De Mentes Geniales." (Ed. note: the title of the program is a Spanish play on words, meaning both ‘Mad Geniuses’ or ‘Of Brilliant Minds’)

"He seemed to me to be a demente genial (a mad genius), someone who would be perfect for the show," according to Benítez. "Then (Villanueva) said to me, ‘no, there’s something even crazier, even more brilliant that’s located in the middle of Valparaiso Bay. It’s Latin America’s first submarine, which sank 140 years with 11 people on board. And no one has ever looked for it.’"

Benítez, attracted in large part to the sheer madness of it all, decided to do just that – to set out in search of the sub. The result has been months and months of research, fundraising, filming, interviewing and, most recently, actual exploration of the bay. He convinced companies like Subaru and Lider to invest. He brought the Chilean Navy on board. At one point he even visited a psychic, to bring in, he said, a paranormal angle to the story.

"The psychic corroborated everything," said Benítez. "She said to me, ‘I don’t look for objects. I don’t have that ability. I don’t look for trucks, or cargo containers. I don’t look for treasure. And I don’t look for submarines. Because I can’t perceive objects, only people.’ And I said, ‘Inside this submarine there are 11 people who have been dead for 140 years.’ Then she was able to corroborate exactly the same information that we also had; that it was located 50 meters down, that it was near the coastline, etc."

Now, despite his disappointment over the failed December search, Benítez is ready to try again. With the assured cooperation of the Navy, the Santiago-based Universidad Internacional SEK – which happens to have a department dedicated exclusively to sub-aquatic archeology – and the continued support of their corporate sponsors, the team is preparing to resume the search starting in early April.

This time around Benítez is even more confident he’ll finally locate the missing Flach. For starters, the team will be using twice the number of divers and spending twice the number of days out on the water. They’ve also, through trial and error, improved their search techniques, according to Benítez.

"We’re now going to make corrections, improve and optimize our search," he said. "First off, the divers are very motivated. Their instructions usually involve things like going down and removing a mine, things that aren’t all that exciting. Now they’re moved by this very historic, very (Jaques) Cousteau-like spirit. They’re hungry."

The team also comes armed with some new – and potentially valuable – historical clues. Benítez was recently able to acquire a copy of a letter written by the commander of the HMS Leander, a British naval ship that was anchored in Valparaiso Bay on the day the Flach sank. The commander, a man named Michael de Courcy, witnessed the tragedy and, in the letter now in Benítez’ possession, details the exact location the Flach went down.

"This letter is incredible. Incredible," said Benítez. "I have three pages. There are more. Everything’s written here. The inches, the position, it has everything... and the letter comes with a map and a drawing of the submarine."

"We’re absolutely convinced," he added. "The likelihood of finding it now is very high."


Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The sinking of a C3 submarine in the Strait remembered in Málaga Film Festival

March 13, 2007

An interesting film in the documentary section of the continuing Film Festival in Málaga.

‘Operación Úrsula’, from MLK Producciones, is directed by José Antonio Hergueta, and co-produced by Canal Sur Television.

It tells the story of a republican C3 submarine which was sunk in the Strait of Gibraltar while carrying out a secret mission in 1936. It was hit by torpedoes from a U-34 Nazi vessel, and 37 of the 40 crew on board lost their lives.

The 100 minute long documentary is voiced by well-known Spanish actor, José Coronado, and covers one of the least known events of the Spanish Civil War.

It interviews the families of some of those to lose their lives. Their remains remain on the sea bed.

The film competes against 17 other documentaries in the current Málaga Film Festival.


Friday, March 02, 2007

After nine decades, lost sub may have been found


The Age
By Brendan Nicholson
March 02, 2007

SEVERAL of Australia's neighbours are building up fleets of submarines — but Australia may have added one to its fleet, with the possible discovery of the nation's first sub in Papua New Guinea waters.

On August 11, 1914, five days after Australia declared war on Germany in World War I, the submarine AE1 was sent to a PNG island, which was a German possession. But on September 14, it vanished without trace, possibly due to an accident, taking with it its 35 crewmen.

Nine decades later, HMAS Benalla and HMAS Shepparton are searching for the AE1, and may have found it.

Veterans Affairs Minister Bruce Billson said yesterday he was cautiously optimistic an object detected during the search was the AE1, and further work would be done when "operational commitments permit".

Ancient subs aside, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute says that today's navy is not equipped to deal with the regional build-up.

Institute analyst Dr Andrew Davies warned that regional fleets could threaten Australia's maritime movements and the safety of Australia itself.

" Submarines will be able to seriously threaten the operation of surface fleets and commercial trade," he said. "Australia simply cannot expect to be able to conduct major naval operations in waters patrolled by submarines without a major upgrade to its anti-submarine warfare capabilities."

China and India are working on building their own nuclear submarines and China's large fleet of conventional submarines is set to double to 40 in 10 years.


Thursday, March 01, 2007

Sub missing since 1915 may be found


The Age
March 01, 2007

Australia's first submarine, missing with all hands since the start of World War I, may have been found in Papua New Guinea waters.

Veterans Affairs Minister Bruce Billson said he was cautiously optimistic an object detected by the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) survey ship HMAS Benalla on the sea floor off the island of New Britain was the wreckage of AE1.

But he cautioned that it was early days.

"Further investigation using a remotely operated vehicle with imaging capabilities will be necessary to positively identify the object found by Benalla,'' he said in a statement.

"The RAN is looking at options to deploy a mine hunting vessel to the area when operational commitments permit to determine whether the object is in fact a wreck.''

The disappearance of AE1 with all 35 crewmen was Australia's first major loss of World War I.

Like the loss of HMAS Sydney in World War II, the sinking of AE1 in 1914 remains a complete mystery.

AE1's sister ship AE2 is far better known. This vessel managed to penetrate the Dardanelles during the Gallipoli campaign and was lost in the Sea of Marmara on April 30, 1915. AE2's wreckage was located in 1998.

Australia purchased both vessels from Britain before World War I and they were commissioned into Australian service at Portsmouth on February 28, 1914. Both were commanded by British officers with a mixture of British and Australian crew members.

Both set sail for Australia in March and arrived in Sydney on May 24, 1914.

On August 11, 1914 - five days after Australia declared war on Germany - AE1 was dispatched to support operations against German forces on New Britain, then a German possession.

Patrolling off the east coast of the Duke Of York Islands on September 14, AE1 vanished without trace. A brief search revealed no sign of the vessel.

The search mounted this week by Benalla and HMAS Shepparton was aided by the work of retired navy commander John Foster who researched the loss of AE1 over the past 30 years.

His research suggested the vessel sank in a particular area, most likely from an accident rather than enemy action.

Mr Billson said the search was conducted over the last two days using a towed side scan sonar.

He said Benalla discovered what appeared to be a man-made object approximately 25-30 metres long and four metres high.

To protect the site pending a further survey, no further details of the location will be revealed.