THE BOX ARRIVED on the last Saturday in January.
Business in the Polish customs office went on as usual, the rhythm of sorting and inspecting undisturbed by the heavy package with a German postmark. In fact, the officer in charge had nearly finished when the urgent request came in.
Return it immediately, the German embassy demanded. There had been a mistake. It was a German package, intended for a German recipient. It should never have been sent to Poland. Cease operations and give it back.
Now, that made the customs officer pause.
He did not return the box. He opened it.
A polished surface gleamed in the light. Along a hinge in the back, a wood cover opened to reveal something almost like a typewriter. Elevated keys were arranged in three rows along the bottom, each labeled with a letter of the German alphabet.
But that was where the similarity to a typewriter ended.
There was no inked ribbon, no carriage in which to hold paper to type a letter. Instead, the top of the box was filled with small circular windows arranged in three rows identical to the keyboard below; each window contained a single letter printed on translucent material.
If the customs officer pressed a key, instantly, in the top rows, one letter began to glow. As soon as he released the key, the light went out. If he pressed the same letter key again, an entirely different light and letter shone back.
Quickly, the Polish customs officer made a call. Across town, two men secretly working for the Polish cipher agency understood immediately and rushed to the customs office.
Over the next two days and through the next two nights, the men disassembled, examined, and reassembled the machine.
By Monday morning, they had meticulously put every part back into place. They repackaged the machine in the same box and wrapped it in the same brown paper in which it had arrived.
Poland would return German property to Germany, as requested. The delay, inevitable, due simply to the weekend.
No one in Germany suspected a thing.
Enigma in use.
[Bundesarchiv, Bild 183–2007–0705–502 / Walther / CC-BY-SA 3.0]
Two years later, Sunday, November 1, 1931—the German-Belgian border
Hans-Thilo Schmidt rushed through the doors of the Grand Hotel in Verviers, Belgium, two hours late. He never saw the man sitting in the lobby waiting for him.
To this man, Schmidt was an ordinary German of average build, wearing a dark hat and dark coat. Schmidt was red in the face and puffy around the eyes, both traits the man watching him had been expecting. He knew that Schmidt’s train was late, and Schmidt sweated and grew flushed as he hurried to make up lost time. Schmidt’s puffy eyes had been expected as well. The people this man watched often suffered from sleepless nights. Treason was never an easy decision.
Not that Schmidt would have noticed the man even if he’d been relaxed and alert. Hans-Thilo Schmidt was far from experienced in spy craft. Last June, when he had first decided to trade secrets for money, he simply walked into the French embassy in Berlin. Incredibly, he plainly announced his intent to sell information to the French government. Without cover and without any personal security, he asked whom he should contact in Paris to do so. Somehow, he had neither been arrested by the Germans nor ignored by the French.
Now, five months later, the German Schmidt was about to meet face-to-face with a French intelligence officer. Hans-Thilo was nervous, and he was late.
At the front desk, the receptionist checked Schmidt into a room already reserved for him and handed him an envelope along with his key. He entered the elevator, and as the doors closed in front of him, the man watching him from the lobby saw him rip into the letter, which read “You are expected in suite 31, first floor, at 12 noon.”
At precisely noon, as the letter instructed, Schmidt knocked at suite 31.
The door opened into another world where time seemed to slow as an older woman with elegantly styled white hair greeted him and asked him to wait in the comfortable, richly furnished room. Soft music played gently over the radio. An inviting arrangement of liquor and crystal glasses was set out next to a display of fine cigars. Gratefully, Schmidt eased himself into a plush chair.
“Guten Morgen, Herr Schmidt! Hatten sie eine gute Reise?”
Schmidt jumped as an unfamiliar voice boomed at him in German. An immense man with a shaved head came through a doorway, entering the living area through another room in the suite. Round, dark spectacles framed icy blue eyes that pierced Schmidt with an unwavering stare.
“Sit down, please,” the man continued. “How are Madame Schmidt and your two children?”
Schmidt, already on edge, tensed more. He was currently living alone, and his wife, son, and daughter were living with his wife’s parents.
“I know,” the man said, cutting Schmidt off before he had a chance to answer. “You will want to bring your family back together soon and resume a pleasant life. That, of course, depends on you. We will assist you if your cooperation proves fruitful to us.”
Taking an offered glass of whiskey, Schmidt sat back down.
The man confronting him became even more serious. “Your resourcefulness last June in Berlin was quite exceptional and effective, Mr. Schmidt. Quite fortunately you happened upon an official of the French embassy who … was inconspicuous. What would you have done if he had thought you were an agent provocateur and called the police?”
This pushed Hans-Thilo Schmidt to his limit. “I thought you would understand!” he snapped, defiant. “If you feel this way, my only option is to withdraw. Others will know how to interpret my motivations and the rationale of my propositions.”
“Easy now, Mr. Schmidt,” the man responded. “We appreciate your initiative and the benefit we can gain from it.
“Let me be frank,” the man continued, “my name is Lemoine, and I represent the French Intelligence Bureau.”
Copyright © 2022 by Rebecca E. F. Barone