It’s the simple things in life that trip you up

Ned Jilton • Jan 22, 2020 at 2:00 PM

One, two, three.

It’s such a simple and routine thing, one, two, three is.

But it’s the simple, routine things in life that can trip you up if you let them.

For example, during World War II, Maj. Richard “Dick” Winters, who commanded Easy Company, 506 Parachute Infantry Regiment, of “Band of Brothers” fame, made a mistake that he didn’t catch until after the war.

The mistake? One, two, three.

When giving orders in combat, he almost always went one, two, three. Such as “1st Platoon up the middle, 2nd Platoon on the right and 3rd Platoon in reserve.” Or, “1st and 2nd Platoon attack the center while 3rd Platoon provides a diversion.” Either that or it would just be something like “I need a platoon. 1st Platoon on me.”

Years later, when Winters showed up at Easy Company reunions, he would notice how many members from 3rd Platoon were still around, while how few were left from 1st and 2nd Platoon. Then it hit him what he had done.

Because he had gotten into the habit of going one, two, three, 1st and 2nd Platoon had carried most of the burden in battle and had suffered the most casualties while 3rd Platoon was spared.

Later, Winters wrote in his book. “Beyond Band of Brothers,” “Sgt. Johnny Martin passed away in late January 2005, which left only one survivor from 1st Platoon from Toccoa days. When I received a call that he had passed on, I could not help but think had I not always placed 1st Platoon in the lead, that more of Martin’s platoon members would be alive today.”

“Toccoa days” refers to Camp Toccoa in Georgia, where Easy Company was formed in July, 1942.

It was simple, routine things that tripped up the Germans as well.

Early in the war, Germany dominated the encryption and decryption of secret messages thanks to its Enigma machine.

The Enigma machine used three rotors with 26 electrical contacts each to scramble the message. Every time you typed a letter, the first rotor would turn, changing the scramble. After the rotor turned 26 times, the second rotor would turn and the first rotor would start over again. When the second rotor turned 26, times the third rotor would change and the first start again. You could also change the order of the rotors at the start.

Because of the way Enigma worked, you could type the letter “E” three times in a row, but it would be a different letter in the message every time. The way you decrypted the message was to have your own Enigma machine and know how the rotors were set at the start.

The British managed to capture a couple of Enigma machines, but without knowing the starting combination of the rotors, they weren’t of much help.

Enter bombe, the electro-mechanical device that could grind through the more than 100,000 starting combinations for the Enigma machine given enough time. The problem was that just about the time bombe, later named Victory, would crack the code, the Germans would change the starting order of the rotors and things would have to start over.

Even Britain’s faster machine, code named Agnes, was just not quick enough to break the code before the Germans changed it. If they only knew something that was in the message, it would give Agnes a starting place and make breaking the code much simpler.

At first the British tried guessing the names of generals and places, but that was just hit or miss. But then somebody hit upon something so simple that it astonished everyone.

There are two stories here. The first, and more popular story, is that like all good Nazis, the radio operators ended their transmissions with “Heil Hitler.” All the cryptologists had to do was match the letters to that and it gave Agnes a starting point. The machine would grind through the greatly reduced starting combinations and the code would be broken in time to be of use to the war effort.

The second story, and the one that makes more sense to me, is that all German radio operators followed routine procedure, and messages were dated. Knowing where the date was in the message gave Agnes the starting point needed to break the code.

In an effort to improve security during the war, the Germans added more rotors to Enigma to increase the possible starting combinations. But by 1943, the British had built Colossus, the world’s first programmable computer.

Thanks to Colossus, and the daily routine used by German radio operators, the Allies were well informed of Nazi deployments when the time came for the invasion of Europe, known to many as D-Day.

As I said, it’s the simple, routine, things in life that will trip you up if you’re not careful.

Ned Jilton II is a page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at [email protected]