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'Enigma' story a puzzle for Author

By Stephanie Holmes for Reuters, 10th September 2001

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BLETCHLEY - The story of the cracking of Enigma, the secret code used by the German military in World War Two, remained hidden for decades after the war.

One man who tried to piece the jigsaw puzzle together is author Robert Harris whose novel "Enigma" has now been turned into a film of the same name.

Harris's book describes how the code was cracked by an eccentric cast of characters at Bletchley Park, an isolated, windswept manor house north of London.

The author says he was attracted to the story by a combination of factors; the intensity of the wartime experience, the high stakes and "the exoticism and glamour" of the forties.

"When you combine these with a story like Bletchley Park which is not about some gung-ho, macho characters but cerebral, quite bookish types, not military types and yet instrumental in breaking probably the greatest war machine put together, it is a very compelling, timeless story," he told Reuters in an interview.

The film "Enigma", which opens in Britain at the end of September, features "Titanic" star Kate Winslet as a young codebreaker and is produced by Rolling Stone Mick Jagger.

The enigma code was cracked by thousands of men and women, including chess masters, debutantes, civil servants, university lecturers and maths whizz-kids.

Breaking the code was vital because it held the key to the enemy's communication system, Harris said. Some experts say being able to read German messages shaved two years off the war.

"The Germans were a very efficient military machine and they believed they had an absolutely unconquerable cipher system and therefore it was absolutely embedded in their whole military system -- a U-boat, a police station, a railway station -- everything used this enigma code," he said.

"So if you could break the enigma code you really had the nerve system of your enemy laid out in front of you. There had not been anything like it in the history of warfare."

SILENT SECRETS

But until very recently those involved in the wartime decryption effort at Bletchley, codename "Station X", had kept their lips sealed, not even telling partners how they had spent the war years.

Such was the secrecy at Bletchley that most of the codebreakers themselves did not have a complete understanding of exactly what they were involved in at the time.

This made unravelling the story something of an intellectual puzzle for Harris when he started his research in the early 1990s.

"It took me three years to research and write the book. It was a hard slog. There was not that much material on enigma," he said at a reunion of codebreakers at Bletchley Park on Sunday.

Apart from the intrigue, Harris says it was the sheer variety of characters -- flirtatious debutantes, fusty civil servants and brilliant intellectuals teetering on the edge of madness -- that also attracted him to Bletchley.

"I feel part of the endearing fascination of this place is the cult of the amateur, it was first-name terms, lunatics, crossword addicts, not physically strong people, quite often," Harris said.

"But they beat this amazing military machine and they did it, in a way, because Bletchley encouraged oddity, it encouraged people to speak out. It was pure intellect."

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