Focus on...World War II
November 11 brings another opportunity to focus our attention on the wars of the past and present and contemplate the sacrifice made by many men and women. Our Focus is a reminder of World War II.
Hitler invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, an act which was to develop into a war embracing almost the entire world and causing the deaths of some 55 014 000 persons, military and civilians.
For almost six years, from 1939 to 1945, Britain fought the toughest war it had ever experienced. World War II was total war – every person, every business, every service was involved. About 85 million – men and women of all nationalities – served as combatants. Britain did not fight alone; the war involved 61 countries with 1.7 billion people – three quarters of the world's population. World War II ended in Europe on 8 May 1945, when the Allies accepted Germany’s surrender, but the war did not end completely until 14 August 1945, when Japan surrendered.
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Did you know?
- the first shot of World War II in Europe was fired on 1 September 1939, 20 years, 9 months, 19 days and 18 hours after the last shot of World War I was fired
- more than twice as many civilians died than did uniformed soldiers.
- the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), located in Bush House on the Strand, London, was the most respected and listened-to radio station in the world
- the nerve centre of British planning and conduct of the war was the War Cabinet Rooms. Situated at Storey's Gate in London, close to the houses of Parliament, the Foreign Office and Downing Street, its location was one of the best kept secrets of the war
- during the war, a total of 2 250 000 Anderson air raid shelters were erected in Britain. Named after its designer, Dr David A. Anderson, they cost seven pounds for those earning over £250 per year, free for those earning less
- between 23 August and 2 September 1939, Britain's art treasures and other historical artefacts were removed from the National Gallery and transported to Wales for safe keeping
- between 1939 and 1945 the Allies dropped 3.4 million tons of bombs, an average of about 27 700 tons of bombs each month. Over 100 000 Allied bomber crewmen were killed over Europe
- there were 433 Medals of Honour awarded during World War II; 219 of them were given after the recipient’s death
- although a member of the British Commonwealth, Ireland (Eire) remained neutral throughout the war
- the women's branch of the Royal Air Force was formed on 28 June 1939. Their tasks were: general duties, office clerks, operation room plotters, radar operators, telephonists etc. In September of that year it comprised 230 officers and 7 460 airwomen. By 1945 its ranks numbered around 170 000.
All facts sourced from George Duncan's Historical Facts of World War II website.
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One of the major breakthroughs in World War II was when code-breakers at Bletchley Park managed to break the Enigma code and read all the messages sent by the Germans. Many historians believe that having this information shortened the war by two years.
As long ago as the Ancient Greeks, warring armies have encrypted their communications in an attempt to keep their battle plans a secret from their enemies. However, just as one side invented an ingenious new way to encipher its messages, so would its enemies discover a clever way of cracking that code. The result has been that codes and ciphers have become more and more complex and increasingly difficult to crack over time, as, throughout history, an intellectual battle has raged between code makers and code breakers.
The battle of wits was never keener than during World War II, when the Germans used the famous Enigma machine – which they believed uncrackable – to encode messages. Enigma's complexity was bewildering. Typing in a letter of plain German into the machine sent electrical impulses through a series of rotating wheels, electrical contacts and wires to produce the enciphered letter, which lit up on a panel above the keyboard. By typing the resulting code into his own machine, the recipient saw the deciphered message light up letter by letter. The rotors and wires of the machine could be configured in many, many different ways. The odds against anyone who did not know the settings being able to break Enigma were a staggering 150 million, million, million to one.
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Here is a table containing all the letters of the alphabet:
It has six rows (going from left to right) and five columns (going from top to bottom). The Vikings communicated in writing by making simple scratches on wood or stones called runes. Sometimes they were written in a secret or coded way. Here is 'was' written in NRICH's coded runes:
Hint: each symbol has a line drawn vertically (from top to bottom). Can you see a connection between the number of lines drawn off the left of this vertical line and the row where the letter is in the table? Perhaps there is a similar connection between the lines off the right and the column position?
Can you work out how the code works using the table of the alphabet?
Here is a message in secret runes:
Can you decipher it?
Perhaps you can make up your own message. You can download this as a pdf.
This task is available on NRICH.
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The Babbington Plot
Another way of coding massages is to use a symbol or a picture, for example, instead of an 'A' we could write *, instead of a 'B' write + etc. This type of code was used by Mary Queen of Scots when she was plotting against Elizabeth I. Mary wanted to kill Elizabeth so that she could become Queen of England and was sending coded messages of this sort to her co-conspirator Anthony Babbington. Unfortunately for Mary, there is a very simple way of cracking this code that doesn't involve trial and error, but which does involve, surprise, surprise, maths. Letters in a language are pretty unusual because some get used more often than other letters.
Try this easy experiment that the children can do to test this out:
Using the same system of tallying the frequency of the symbols they should be able to de-code the message sent between Mary Queen of Scots and Anthony Babbington below.
- choose a page of a reading book
- make a frequency table of the alphabet
- count 100 letters and tally how many of each letter
- compare the results of the whole class (perhaps they could combine all their results in a spreadsheet using Excel)
- calculate the mean for each letter, rounded to the nearest whole number.
- which is the most common letter used in your sample?
- which are the next four most common letters?
- which letters occur most rarely?
- what two letter words are used most frequently in the sample?
- do some letters start words more often?
- what letters often appear as double letters, eg. oo ?
By tallying the frequency of the symbols of the message, children should be able to identify the most commonly used letters in English (E, T, A and N) and then should be able to use reasoning, familiarity with the English language and their knowledge of the story to work out the rest of the message. Letter frequencies fit those that you might expect in the English language.
Some facts about the English language that may help:
- the most common two-letter words in English are: of, to, in, it, is, be
- the most common three-letter words in English are: the, and, for, are, but
- the most common starting letters for words are: t, o, a, w, b
- the most common ending letters for words are: e, s, t, d, n
- the most common repeated letters are: ss, ee, tt, ff, ll, mm, oo.
Hints to give pupils as needed:
You may wish to download this grid as a pdf for the children to work on.
- what are the most common symbols in the coded message? Perhaps they match the most common letters in English, which are E, T, A and N
- can you guess any parts of the message? Who might it be to and who might it be from?
- focus on any one-letter words. What words have only one letter?
- focus on any three-letter words. What are the common three-letter words in English?
- if you know the story of Mary, who might she talk about in the message?
To Anthony Babbington, I agree that you can murder Queen Elizabeth at the earliest time. From Mary.
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Further activities and information
For more interesting facts about World War II visit these sites:
- for more challenging code-breaking activities go to CRYPTO CD-ROM by Simon Singh. This resource is available as a free download
- to find put more about the Enigma Code breaker visit The Enigma Project
- there are some further code breaker activities in the National Strategies Primary Framework for Mathematics, for example No. 72.
- BBC History
- The Imperial War Museum Terrible Trenches exhibition
- BBC Schools Primary History, for life as a child during the war