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Monday, 24 September, 2001, 15:30 GMT 16:30 UK
Robert Harris: Unravelling the Enigma
As the movie Enigma hits our screens BBC News Online talks to Robert Harris, whose original novel about the work of wartime code breakers inspired the film makers.

For Robert Harris, best-selling author of Enigma, Fatherland and Archangel, the work of code breakers at Bletchley Park during World War II cannot be overestimated.

"It probably shortened the war by two years and given that Hitler had developed jet engines and rockets, it's clear that Bletchley saved millions of lives," he says.


Enigma was the nerve centre of the whole German war machine

Robert Harris
"I think it was the most successful sustained intelligence effort in the history of warfare."

For many years after the war the work at Bletchley Park, codenamed Station X, remained a closely guarded secret.

Intense conditions

The former home of a London financier, Bletchley Park became the focus of wartime efforts to break codes used by Nazi Germany, which were encrypted using their Enigma machines.

Under intense conditions Station X seethed with life, intellectual stimulus, individuality and eccentricity.

Kate Winslet
Kate Winslet stars as a code breaker in Enigma
It was not until many years after the war that TV documentaries began to unravel the important work that went on behind closed doors.

Harris first stumbled across the tale while watching a documentary about the brilliant mathematician Alan Turing who worked at the establishment.

"I thought what a great character a code breaker would make.

"My initial thought was a code breaker who saw a message or broke a message he wasn't supposed to read."

Short period

It took Harris three years to write the book as he tracked down former Station X code breakers and personnel from the site who were able to detail the minutiae of life at Bletchley Park.

"The detail of Bletchley Park - how it worked, where the coders worked - nobody really knew that.

Dougray Scott
Dougray Scott stars as a mathematical genius
"I spoke to a lot of code breakers, most of whom sadly are now dead.

"I tried to pick the single most dramatic short period I could find in Bletchley's history.

"I picked on a week in March 1943 where, briefly, the British were blacked out in reading the Shark Enigma - which was the Enigma key for the U-boats - and they lost the ability to read Enigma just as the biggest two convoys for the war left New York.

"There was carnage in the North Atlantic and I took the frantic battle to get back into reading the code as the backdrop for the book."

Historical background

Around that backdrop Harris wove a story about "a rather naive code breaker who was a genius, who worked under great strain and whose girlfriend had disappeared".

Together, the historical background and detail and the fictional tale of a code breaker are combined to create a fast-paced thriller.

Harris says his "literary career was a fluke" but his first novel Fatherland, published in the early 1990s, became an international bestseller.

He followed it up with Enigma and Archangel.

A former correspondent with the BBC and a political columnist for the Sunday Times, his novels have sold more than six million copies and have been translated into 30 languages.

He has been likened to Orwell, Greene and Le Carré, weaving his fictional tales against a backdrop of strong historical fact.

The 44-year-old also has strong links with the Labour government - he is a close friend of former cabinet minister Peter Mandelson - and was one of a few journalists given close access to Tony Blair when he fought the 1997 election campaign.

The cracking of the German code meant the Allies were able to beat Rommel in north Africa, route convoys around the U-boats and fool the Nazis over the true location for the D-Day landings.

Perfect vehicle

"Enigma was the nerve centre of the whole German war machine - there were about 200,000 Enigma machines and every railway station, every air base, every warship and army unit all used Enigma to communicate.

"It meant they could see virtually everything the enemy was going to do," explains Harris.

Oddly enough, this totally British film has been financed by foreign money, most of it German

Robert Harris

The novel would have seemed a perfect vehicle for a film but it took six years to bring to the screen.

"The basic problem was that it was always a very British story - the novel is very British, there are very British characters," says Harris.

"As we know, to get a film made you really have to appeal to the American market.

"There certainly was pressure to have more Americans in it and to beef up the part of the Americans in the film."

'Intricate story'

But the film finally went into production as Harris planned - with a screenplay by Tom Stoppard - thanks to the success director Michael Apted enjoyed with the last Bond movie.

"Michael Apted made the last James Bond film and that made him much more commercial and the money was advanced.

"Oddly enough, this totally British film has been financed by foreign money, most of it German."

Harris says he likes the film version "very much" but he has a warning.

"I think anyone going to see it should be aware it is not your traditional blockbuster movie - it is quite an intricate story and you have to concentrate."

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Robert Harris
"It was the most sustained intelligence operation in the history of warfare"
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