Rare pristine Nazi cypher machine sold at auction

An extremely rare German cryptographic machine in excellent condition has sold at auction for €98,000 ($110,000). The Schlüsselgerät (meaning “cipher machine”) 41 was supposed to replace the famous Enigma enciphering machine after it was cracked by Alan Turing and the Bletchley Park codebreakers in 1941, but very few ended up being produced and only a handful of survived in working condition. They’re so rare that even corroded husks are still prized by museums. This one is not only functional, it looks practically new.

The SG-41 was invented by cryptologist Fritz Menzer. Menzer had enlisted in the Reichswehr as a mechanic when he was 18 years old and without any formal training, developed an interest in cryptography into inventing new cracking methods and devices. In 1940, he was appointed Regierungs-Oberinspektor of the OKW/Chi, the cryptology division of the German Army High Command.

The new device had six wheels (Enigma had three, four in later models) that could rotate in both directions and used two reels of paper, one for the original text, the other for coded message, rather than bulbs illuminating letters. The keyboard operation made it much faster to use and the encryption algorithms were more complex and sophisticated. The hand crack on the side inspired the machine’s nickname: Hitlermühle, or Hitler Mill.

Even though it was distinctly superior to the Enigma machines in cryptographic functionality, the SG-41 wasn’t used until 1944. The problem was the hardware. They were supposed to lightweight and durable for use on the front lines, but shortages of aluminum and magnesium forced the use of heavier materials. The end-result was a machine that weighed 25-33 pounds which made them much too heavy for field use.

Three years after their invention, a few SG-41s made it into production. About 500 were made by Wanderer-Werke in Chemnitz, eastern Germany (makers of the iconic Continental typewriters), and dispatched to the Abwehr in late 1944 to replace the limping and inadequate Enigma-G machines still in use. Another thousand (the SG-41Z variant), were sent to the Luftwaffe weather service. The Wehrmacht planned to manufacture 1,000 of them by October 1945 and ramp up production to 10,000 a month by January of 1946. The war ended first.

The recently-sold example is one of the Abwehr machines, so one of only 500 ever made. The auctioneers enlisted cypher machine expert Klaus Kopacz to examine their Hitler Mill. They disassembled it, adjusted the wheels, inserted paper reels and tested it. Everything worked. All it needs is some WD-40 and fresh ink as the printouts were barely legible. There are only five small parts missing (a button, a spacer, a spring, a bolt and a metal disc), all easily replaceable.

2 thoughts on “Rare pristine Nazi cypher machine sold at auction

  1. Note that on the right side, there seems to be what might be a badge (of which I could not find a picture) with additional type or model information, possibly even inventory information. In 2013, the ‘Deutsche Museum’ in Munich bought one of these units, a slightly restored one that had been hidden in a “lake in East Germany” -i.e. possibly near Chemnitz- (still looks and possibly smells a bit like that, of the lake that is :boogie: ).

    Theirs is a ‘Model Z’ with 10 digits/keys used by the Luftwaffe for encrypting weather data (as the Enigma had been esteemed as insecure). The ‘Target Intelligence Commitee, USA und UK’ (TICOM), however, collected data after 1945, and in 2009 the NSA issued documentation as ‘declassified’.

    — (roughly translated from their homepage and the link in this post).

  2. …There is some more: SG-41 (video – w/ Vivaldi!), a page in German, one in English, and another one.

    “…The weather service ordered about 2,000 units, which were the versions that could only encode the numbers 0 to 9. However, it was produced only about 500 to 1000 pieces, because the chief of the Wehrmachtnachtnachrichtenverbindungen (Wehrmacht Intelligence Unit) in the High Command of the Wehrmacht, Major General Thiele, considered the weight of the SG-41 to be too high for front operations. From 12 October 1944 the delivery to the defense began, which used the SG-41 instead of the Enigma G in the last months of the war and began with its replacement. […]The weaknesses of the Enigma were eliminated by a completely different way of working, whereby one probably orientated oneself at the C-machines of Hagelin, because it also used a Hagelin-typical bar wheel. The mechanical progress of the key wheels was highly irregular. What was particularly unusual was that they could even turn backwards at times. Furthermore, the key wheels influenced each other in their movements. Comparable features only appeared in 1952 with the commercially available Hagelin machine CX-52. […] The red J-key was used to represent numbers as letters. For this purpose the rarely used J was placed at the beginning and end of the number and instead of the numbers a letter was taken from the column as printed above the keyboard, e.g. JpkqbJ for 0815. […]” [machine translated]

    In 1943/44, a family member of mine was defusing 240 allied bombs in the Berlin area, allegedly -i.e. according to a survivor- they were a ream of five, in which case 1200 bombs might have been defused in Greater Berlin in 1943/44 (could not tell, if this figure makes any sense). Weather data must have been very important before and during air raids, so -coming to think about it- he actually might have been using one of these.

    Therefore, should anyone have the records, of where and when the shells were dropped, I would have the ones were the 240 of them were defused, and which ones they were, and we then might compare the scores 😉

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