Tales From The Black Chambers


Here was a nice puzzle. If the contents of the note were made public, the Germans would know that their diplomatic code had fallen into the hands of England or the United States. On the other hand, the bold effrontery of the message cried for public disclosure. Wilson decided that a crystallized public opinion was of greater value than any further information that might be obtained by intercepting other messages in the German diplomatic code. He made public the German offer to Mexico. An effort was made to cover up the fact that the code had been stolen, and Szek was spirited out of Brussels. In a strange aftermath to one of the strangest stories to come out of the code rooms, the code thief disappeared from the ship that was bearing him to England and safety. Some speculate that a German agent was responsible for his disappearance. After the war Szek’s father accused the British of having engineered his son’s disappearance to prevent the Germans from learning how they lost their topsecret code.

But the most bizarre episode in the annals of American cryptography began when a fleet of zeppelins floated skyward for what was to be the last great raid on London in October, 1917. At that point not only was London suffering the terrors of the raids, but German U-boats had recently been enjoying their greatest successes on the high seas. There was some hope of relief from the submarines; the new convoy system was proving effective, and British divers had recently obtained from a sunken submarine a copy of the Imperial German Navy’s code book. But two vital types of information were missing from the book: the identifying call letters of the German U-boats and the enciphered letters that pinpointed, for German naval headquarters, the position of a submarine whenever it transmitted a message.

At this point a windstorm intervened for the Allies. The high winds blew straight against the noses of the zeppelins returning from the big raid. By morning four of the huge bags had used all their fuel and were drifting helplessly across France. Zeppelin L-49 gradually settled toward the ground, scraped the trees, bounced across the fields, and at last came to rest and was captured on a farm near Chaumont. By the hand of fate, Chaumont was the headquarters of the American Army.

Colonel Richard Williams of American intelligence at Chaumont started unravelling an interesting line of thought. Each zeppelin probably carried a code book. What could the commander do with the book when he found himself adrift across France, his fuel exhausted? He couldn’t drop it overboard, as he could over open seas. He couldn’t burn it—indeed not, beneath that vast hydrogen-filled bag. Williams decided that if he had been commander of the L-49, he would have torn the code book into fragments and scattered the pieces into the wind. And it might have been one of the last acts carried out aboard the stricken ship.

The enterprising Williams gathered a detail of men and retraced the bumping, scraping trail of the downed zeppelin. Within a quarter of a mile the men began finding scraps of paper. By nightfall they had gathered a whopping twenty-two gunnysacksful. They took their find to the huge map room and began working on the gigantic jigsaw puzzle.

They had little success. About midnight, when they were tempted to give up, Lieutenant Samuel Hubbard walked into the room. An amateur yachtsman, Hubbard had sailed the North Sea prior to the war. On one fragment of the maze of shredded paper, a fragment with a faintly bluish tinge, he thought he recognized a bay he once had known and suggested that the men sort out all the bluish pieces. Soon a huge chart began to take shape, a chart of all the North Sea waters sailed by German submarines. The chart was gridded with position lines, and each line was labelled with its cipher symbol. These were the symbols that had been lacking. As a bonus one of the men produced from his pocket a small book that he had picked up and intended to keep as a souvenir and asked if it was of any significance. The book contained a photograph of every vessel in the Imperial German Navy, along with its coded call sign.


Today it is difficult to evalute the results of Colonel Williams’work with pastepot and scraps of paper. In the single month of April, 1917, some 840,000 tons of Allied shipping had been sunk. By November those losses had been cut by two-thirds as a result of the convoy system hastily inaugurated in the intervening months. But cryptography buffs point out that during November, the month after the zeppelin code book had been strewn to the winds, nine U-boats were sunk, and the submarines were never again a menace.

After the sudden disbanding of Yardley’s group of cryptographers between the wars, no black chamber of any size existed in the United States until the approach of World War II . During that war a good many oss agents were given code and cipher training in the basement of the oss administrative building overlooking a Washington brewery. The trained eyes of the agents quickly spotted the brewery, and the trainees regularly followed the tourists on guided tours to collect the inevitable glass of free beer after arduous hours of memorizing cipher systems.