German man beats WWII Colossus code cracker

A rebuilt British cipher-breaking machine used in World War II has been beaten in a codebreaking challenge by a German man who wrote his own software.
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor

In an ironic twist, a British team operating a World War II code-breaking computer has been beaten in a cipher-breaking contest by a German.

In the Cipher Challenge, a competition run by the United Kingdom's National Museum of Computing on Thursday and Friday, the cipher-breaking computer Colossus had to decode encrypted radio communications intercepted from Paderborn in Germany. Competing against Colossus, which took 14 years to rebuild, were radio enthusiasts from across Europe, who had to beat the WWII code cracker using whatever computing means they had at their disposal.

The winner was Joachim Schüth, from Bonn, who completed the task using software he wrote himself.

"[Schüth] cracked the most difficult code yesterday," the museum's representative said Friday. "We're absolutely delighted. He used specially written software for the challenge. Colossus is still chugging away, as we got the signals late. Yesterday the atmospheric conditions were such that we couldn't get good signals."

The team operating Colossus managed to intercept the radio signals early on Friday, before loading the paper tape containing the encoded cipher stream. At the time of writing, the tape was still running, and the team expected to break the cipher later on Friday.

Schüth had "been much quicker and done a stunningly good job," said the museum's representative. Few technical details were available at the time of writing about the systems or software used to break the cipher, although the representative said Schüth had used the Ada programming language. Ada is used for military systems and was created by the U.S. Department of Defense in 1980.

Anthony Sale, the head of the team that rebuilt Colossus, said that the transmitted text had been encrypted using a Lorenz teleprinter cipher machine, the same type of machine which was used by Germany for high-level communications in WWII.

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