Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Italian codebreakers of WWII

Fascist Italy was one of the main Axis powers. At the start of WWII Mussolini remained neutral but he joined the war in 1940 after it was obvious that France would be defeated. From then on Italian troops fought in the Balkans, against the Soviet Union and in North Africa.

Mussolini’s adventurism led to military reverses as the Italian economy was not mobilized for war and the military did not have modern equipment and training. This forced the Germans to come to their aid in the Balkans and in North Africa. However that does not mean that the Italian military didn’t fight bravely.

In the Mediterranean it was the Italian navy that successfully transported troops and supplies to the Axis forces led by Rommel. Italian troops fought bravely in North Africa even though they were deficient in modern weapons and lacked mobility.

The Italians may have lacked modern weapons however they did have a small but effective cryptologic capability.

The Italian Army and Navy had separate codebreaking agencies that managed to exploit important foreign crypto-systems.

The Army codebreakers could read the codes of several foreign countries, including the communications of US military attaches and especially those of a mr Fellers in Cairo.

The Navy codebreakers were very successful with Royal Navy codes and cyphers.

The Italian codebreakers were assisted in their efforts by the good work of a special undercover squad that entered foreign embassies and copied the codes.

Army agency

The Italian army’s intelligence agency SIM (Servizio Informazioni Militari) had a cryptanalytic department that attacked foreign crypto-systems. This section was headed by General Vittorio Gamba and was located in Rome. Personnel strength was roughly 50 people (half cryptanalysts-half linguists and clerks).

The cryptanalytic department was divided into three sub-sections:

1). Diplomatic

2). Military and Research

3). Commercial

Personnel were moved from section to section based on the current priorities.

The diplomatic section was subdivided into nine groups.

The military and research section had 5 cryptanalysts. The research section was responsible for the initial ‘break’ into hard systems. Results were sent to field units.

The commercial section’s task was to check Italian commercial codes for irregularities.

On average 8.000 messages were intercepted each month, 6.000 were studied and out of these 3.500 translated. The codes of several countries were read including France, Turkey, Rumania, USA, Britain, Yugoslavia and the Vatican.

According to post-war reports there was a serious shortage of foreign speaking personnel and a lack of funds. There was also lack of IBM equipment for statistical work.

The Italians used a small number of IBM punch card machines for cryptanalysis. Initially IBM machines were used only at the offices of the Watson Corporation in Rome. However it was only in the last stages of the war that these machines were used regularly.

Intercept section

The intercept section of SIM was the one that provided messages for cryptanalysis. It had 4 stationary intercept stations in Italy and 7 mobile units in Italy, the colonies and the occupied territories.

There was poor liaison between the intercept section and the cryptanalytic department and all requests had to go through SIM headquarters.

The Sezione P unit

The Italians were often able to read foreign codes without the use of cryptanalysis. Their secret? They had a very efficient undercover team that entered foreign embassies and copied codes and ciphers.

This was the Extraction Section (Sezione Prelevamento), headed by colonel Manfredi Talamo of the Carabinieri (military police). Its operatives were experts in entering guarded areas and opening locks.

It was this unit that copied the Military Intelligence code No11 used by the US attaché in Cairo colonel Bonner Fellers.

Cooperation with foreign countries

Cooperation with Germany

General Gamba arrived unannounced at OKW/Chi in 1938 and requested cooperation in the cryptanalytic field. The Germans initially agreed to share results on French diplomatic and military systems.

This collaboration was expanded and provided the Germans with important cryptologic material like the US Military Intelligence code.

However relations between OKW/Chi and SIM were not as close as with the Finns and the Hungarians. According to Fenner, head of the cryptanalysis department of OKW/Chi, the Italians took too long to respond to requests or did not send the agreed upon material. An even greater problem was their resistance regarding the change of their weak cipher systems. As the war went on relations became strained since the Germans came to distrust the Italians.

Cooperation with the German army‘s signal intelligence agency - OKH/In 7/VI seems to have been poor as the Germans had little respect for Italian cipher security.

Cooperation with Hungary

According to ‘European Axis Signal Intelligence in World War II’ vol8, there was cooperation between the Hungarian cryptologic service and the Italians.

In page 21 it says:

Liaison with the Italians on cryptanalytic matters appears to have been very good. The Hungarians maintained liaison officers in Rome and made the results of their work available to the Italians.

Cooperation with Finland

Some intercepted traffic was sent to the Finnish cryptologic service.

Notable successes

Fellers code

In late 1941 the Sezione P unit managed to infiltrate the US embassy in Rome and copy crypto material. One of the systems copied was the Military Intelligence Code No11 used by military attaches. This allowed the Italians to decode the messages of US attaches from embassies around the world.

The most important transmissions were those of colonel Fellers US attaché in Cairo.

Fellers was a graduate of West Point and former assistant of General Douglas MacArthur. He was posted to Cairo in October 1940. His job was to provide Washington with detailed information on all important military operations. The British allowed him access to their facilities and shared sensitive information on upcoming operations.

All this information was extremely important for the Axis side. The Italians shared the Military Intelligence code with the Germans.

According to Fenner, head of the cryptanalysis department of OKW/Chi, the Italians sent him a copy of the codebook in 1941 but not the encipherment tables. He got these from the Hungarians.

Both sides were able to read the Fellers messages during the first half of 1942.

Yugoslav army code

In 1940 the Italian forces in Albania invaded Greece. The Greek army was able to drive them back and hard fighting ensued.

Practically all the Italian forces were concentrated in the south of Albania. This meant that the Albanian-Yugoslav border was not well protected. A sneak attack by Yugoslav troops had the potential to destroy the Italian forces.

In April 1941 this operation was put in motion by the Yugoslav high command. The Italians were in a tight spot however they were able to cope with the situation through their mastery of Yugoslav codes.

The Italian codebreakers sent two messages to the Yugoslav divisions, written in the correct format and ‘signed’ by General Dusan Simovic, head of the new government. These said:

1). To the Cetinje divisional headquarters:

Subordinate troops will suspend all offensive action and retire in the direction of Podgorica, organizing for defense.

2). To the Kosowska Mitrovica divisional headquarters:

Withdraw immediately with all subordinate troops back towards Kosowska Mitrovica.

Since the messages were enciphered with the Yugoslav army code and had all the signs of a real order they were accepted by the divisions and the offensive was halted!

The Cetinje division requested confirmation from HQ but none came and it too retreated. When the next day HQ responded that no retreat had been authorized it was too late. Italian military units had occupied the abandoned areas and the Yugoslavs had bigger problems to handle as the German invasion had led to the collapse of their military forces.

Naval agency

The naval intelligence agency SIS (Servizio informazioni Speciali della Royal Marina) was divided into 4 branches. Branch B was tasked with signals intelligence. It was subdivided into cryptanalysis, direction finding, security and clandestine radio intercepts.

The cryptanalytic department was located in Rome and headed by Commander Mario De Monte.

In the 1930’s they solved several French naval systems.

During the war the emphasis was on British naval and naval aviation codes. Low level British naval codes were easily solved. The Italians also read the Royal Navy’s Administrative Code, the Naval Code No1 and No2 plus the Naval Cypher No1 and No2. They acquired Naval Cypher No3 (Anglo-American Cypher) from the Germans and were able to solve the encipherment. 

For speeding up their work they used punch card equipment in 1942.

The main advantage from reading British naval codes was gained by learning of their plans to attack Italian convoys to N.Africa. In those cases the Italian command quickly warned the convoys and had them change their course.

The Italian Air Force Intelligence Service (Servizio Informazioni Aeronautica) relied on the Navy department for interception and cryptanalysis. In 1941 the Airforce set up its own intercept station and sent the messages to the Navy.

Intercept section

The direction finding department of Group B supplied intercepts. It had 7 main intercept stations in Italy and its possessions. Additional material was received from the Germans. The daily average was 3,000 messages.

Cooperation with the Germans

During the 1930’s liaison was established with the German Navy’s cryptanalytic service and some information on French codes exchanged. The Germans also gave information on the British Administrative code but did not share their work on other systems.

After Italy’s entry into the war relations became much closer and information was exchanged on the Naval Cypher and Naval Code. Finally in 1942 the Naval Cypher No3 (Convoy Cypher) was shared.

There was a daily exchange of recovered code groups via teleprinter and every week a written report was sent.

Work after the surrender of 1943

In September 1943 the Italian government surrendered to the Allies and tried to exit the war. Unfortunately the Germans were expecting such a move and quickly occupied the country.

Mussolini was established as head of the Italian Social Republic covering the German occupied areas. This state continued to use a small number of SIM codebreakers. They mostly exploited systems already broken before the surrender. The main emphasis was on diplomatic messages in order to get information about conditions in the liberated areas.

The Germans were not helpful and they did not exchange results with the codebreakers of the Social Republic.


Italy entered WWII hoping to exploit Germany’s victory for its own gains. When the war dragged on the Italian economy and the military forces were unable to deal with the new situation and the country tried to surrender to the Allies in 1943.

Despite these shortcomings Italian army units and the Navy fought well in the Mediterranean and North Africa.

In the cryptologic field the Italians were hampered by the lack of personnel and resources. Still they were able to exploit several important enemy systems and provide the Italian leadership with the confidential messages of several foreign countries. In the case of the Fellers messages and the Yugoslav army code their efforts truly had a strategic effect. Their navy codebreakers successfully solved the codes of their main opponent, the Royal Navy, and took advantage of this in several naval engagements.

Considering the resources at their disposal it would be hard to ask more of the Italian codebreakers.


HW 40/75 ‘Enemy exploitation of Foreign Office codes and cyphers: miscellaneous reports and correspondence’, TICOM DF-187D ‘Relations of OKW/Chi with foreign cryptologic bureaus’, ‘The codebreakers’, ‘European Axis Signal Intelligence in World War II vol8’, Cryptologia article: ‘The cryptographic services of the Royal British and Italian Navies’,
International Journal of Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence article: ‘Left in the Dust: Italian Signals Intelligence, 1915-1943’, TICOM I-12 ‘Translation of the Preliminary Interrogation of O.R.R. Tranow of 4/SKL III/OKM, carried out at Flensburg on 24-25 May 1945 by TICOM Team 6’, Wikipedia, Naval War College Review article: ‘The Other Ultra: Signal Intelligence and the Battle to Supply Rommel's Attack toward Suez

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