Esther Herlitz still remembers the mysterious building she was stationed in by her commanders in the British army in 1943. A young sergeant in the pre-state volunteers to the British forces during World War II, she was one of about 40,000 youths from the Jewish settlement in Palestine, including some 4,000 soldiers in the Auxiliary Territorial Service, the women's branch of the British army.
"In Cairo and the surroundings there were thousands of women soldiers from Palestine - hundreds of quartermasters and drivers. The officers were British and the troops were from Eretz Israel," the 87-year-old Herlitz recounts.
The women from the pre-state Yishuv were proud to take part in fighting the Nazis, particularly so close to the battle of el Alamein in which the Nazi advance in North Africa was repulsed. Herlitz was stationed in Cairo with company 525. But morale in her squad was low and the women were on the verge of mutiny. Instead of working in the Cairo military hospital like most of their friends, the 30 volunteers under Herlitz's command were tasked with an odd job they didn't understand: punching holes in cards for no apparent reason. "When I got to the structure, I saw the soldiers seated in some dark Cairo basement. It was hot and unpleasant," she says.
The Jewish soldiers didn't know they were part of one of the British army's most secret projects: data processing through an early computer to prepare the Allied invasion of Europe. "The basement had a secret room, in which only British soldiers sat. There was a big machine in there that the soldiers weren't allowed to touch," Herlitz recalls.
One of the soldiers was Hanna Meron, later a star of Israeli theater. "I joined the British army and worked as a clerk in Egypt. At one stage, a few girls were chosen and transferred to Cairo. I guess we were chosen because we were smart enough and knew English," Meron recalls. "It was in the basement in a sort of fortress, and there was a huge machine with cards we had to punch. It was hard work and we were bored to death."
In order to improve morale, Herlitz sent her soldiers on her own secret mission: To ascertain what the machine was. "The British kept the machine very secret," she says. "I gave them a challenge: Find out what you are doing. The girls who used the machines worked with completely nondescript cards. In retrospect, it became clear this was probably the first time a computer was used for logistics."
The British army had just a few of these early computers, which were used for the most critical tasks of the war. According to the Weizmann Institute's Dr. Aviezri Fraenkel, a pioneer of computer use in Israel, "Basic computers of various kinds existed in the 19th century. Later, in the mid-20th century, 'electric calculation machines' were built that used cards with holes. There were a few computer development projects curing WWII. They served many military purposes, like calculating the trajectories of ballistic missiles. Later they were used in intelligence, such as for decoding."
"They told us not to talk about it, so we didn't, but we didn't even know what not to talk about," Meron says. "I don't even remember when it became clear to us that we had done something very important."
After a few inquiries, the mystery was solved: The machine processed supply shipments slated for the planned invasion of Sicily in July 1943, which was one of the largest and most decisive operations of the war. "That was the secret," Herlitz explains.
After successfully completing the North African campaign, the Allies planned the next stage: the invasion of Italy. The 150,000-strong invasion force involved some 14,000 vehicles and 600 tanks. That scope of troops involved planning on an unprecedented level. "They realized the numbers they were punching into the cards were the shipments: tanks, cannons, ammunition, battle rations. Of course the information on the invasion of Sicily was top secret. They didn't know when it would happen."
After the establishment of the state, Herlitz joined the foreign service and was a Mapai Knesset member, and is now the chair of the international harp contest in Israel. She wrote a letter about the computer to Haaretz last week.
According to Herlitz, the women didn't know of the success of the invasion of Sicily. "In the army, you know nothing, only what is going on around you," she says. "When the women understood they were doing something important, they calmed down right away and morale improved. Afterwards, the women kept working, but I was sent back to Israel for officer's training."
Did the British officers know that the secret of the machine got out? "To this day I don't know," Herlitz says. "There are far more important things that we don't know if the British figured out. We served two masters: the king and the Jewish settlement. There was a code: Anyone who said 'Regards from Shlomit' was working secretly for the [pre-state paramilitary] Haganah. Anyone who said 'Warmest regards from Shlomit' was supposed to go to armament training. I still don't know if the British officers knew we used them for Haganah training. Thank God there were things they didn't know."
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