The Desire for Enigma: The Mysterious Theft of the Code Machine

Days to Centenary: 234

On April 1, 2000 someone pulled a major April Fool’s prank, stealing one of only three Enigma code machines in the world from Bletchley Park. The Abwehr Enigma G312 machine was valued at £100,000.

Police believed that the machine had simply been carried out of the historic site, but don’t blame Bletchley Park. The enigma was secured in a glass cabinet which was not broken in the theft. An alarm system was in use and volunteers were watching over the site’s displays. Whoever carried out the theft was either very lucky or, more likely, very professional. All the more so because the theft happened just a week before a new infrared security system was to be installed.

Just what had happened to the machine was a mystery for several months. Then, in September 2000, police began receiving letters from a man who referred to himself as “the Master,” who claimed to be acting on behalf of a third party who had innocently purchased the machine, not knowing that it was stolen.

At one point police entertained the charmingly recursive theory that the letters from the Master contained coded clues as to the Enigma’s location and called in expert code breakers.

The Master’s letters demanded £25,000 for the machine’s return, to be paid by October 6, 2000. Bletchley Park announced that it would pay the ransom and had the money ready, but even as the deadline passed the Master failed to make contact to collect it.

Two weeks later Jeremy Paxman, a television presenter at the BBC, opened a parcel at his office and found the Enigma machine inside. It was missing a few parts, but these were later delivered as well.

Paxman and the purloined Enigma

Paxman and the purloined Enigma

Ultimately a dealer in World War Two memorabilia named Dennis Yates was charged with “handling” the stolen merchandise after admitting that he sent the letters and delivered the machine to Paxman. Yates was scheduled to stand trial at Aylesbury Crown Court, but decided at the last moment to plead guilty and was sentenced to ten months in jail.

In court, Yates said he had become involved in a scheme which soon passed out of his control and that his life had been threatened by persons involved in the theft. He never named the actual theives and they were never caught.

The title of this post is an allusion to a painting by Salvador Dali called The Enigma of Desire — My Mother, My Mother, My Mother (1929). Details of its creation and underlying psychology here.

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