Defusing The Nazi Bomb: The Allies Tried 4 Times To Sabotage A Norwegian Plant And Deny Hitler’s Physicists A Vital Fission Ingredient For Making An Atomic Bomb
As we reflect on the meaning of Memorial Day, and honor those who gave their lives so that we can live freely, a new book by Neal Bascomb: “The Winter Fortress: The Epic Mission To Sabotage Hitler’s Atomic Bomb,” reminds us of the tremendous challenges that ‘the Greatest Generation’ faced in confronting Hitler — how to stop Germany from developing an atomic weapon. From the development of the English Longbow in 600 AD, to the development of gunpowder some three hundred years later, to the belt-fed machine gun of WWI, history is littered with examples where a new, game-changing battlefield weapon/technology was introduced; and, most often led to the adversary’s , swift and crushing defeat.
Just in time for this Memorial weekend, Howard Schneider had a book review of Mr. Bascomb’s new work in the May 28/29, 2016 Wall Street Journal, “Defusing The Nazi Bomb,” which tells the story of one of the most challenging and daring operations of WWII — how to prevent Hitler’s physicists/scientists from developing an atomic weapon — or, at least not before us.
“The winter fortress of the book’s title,” Mr. Schneider wrote, “was Vermork, a heavy-water plant in Norway, ‘perched on a ledge,’ over a gorge west of Oslo. it was, effectively,” he writes, “inaccessible – except for one bridge. For most of the war, Vemork was the only factory in Europe producing large amounts of heavy water, a form of H2O discovered in 1931 that incorporates an unusual isotope of hydrogen. Leif Tronstad, a young Norwegian physicist who was enthusiastic about the possible uses of heavy water, had persuaded a Norwegian company, Norsk Hydro, to build a factory based on his and a colleague’s design,” in 1934, Mr. Schneider wrote.
No one could figure out how to monetize this new discovery and by 1936 Norsk Hydro was effectively shutdown — just as physicists in Germany and the West began to experiment with a process called fission. Scientists and physicists learned that “energy produced by fission could, theoretically be harnessed to create a bomb of almost unimaginable destructiveness,” Mr. Schneider wrote.
“In September and October 1939, soon after the Reich invaded Poland, Germany’s so-called Uranium Club, a group of scientists, including the Nobel Prize-winning Werner Heisenberg, commenced studies on exploiting atomic energy,” Mr. Schneider wrote. “One aspect of their research involved the use of a “moderator,’ which slowed the speed of neutrons being discharged, into a uranium-235 atom, enhancing the fission process. Heavy-water, the German scientists surmised, was the ideal moderator. The only place [for the Reich] to obtain sufficient quantities, was Vemork: Norsk Hydro had resumed industrial activities in 1939. Germany tried to purchase heavy water from Norsk hydro during the early months of WWII; but, in March 1940, French intelligence outwitted Berlin, and spirited Vemork’s supplies to Scotland. In April 1940, Germany invaded Norway, and the Nazi regime no longer had to buy heavy water; it could simply demand it,” he wrote.
Then, the ‘fun’ begins and the great race to deny Hitler’s war machine a key ingredient of the atomic bomb-making process — turns into a high stakes game of survival. Indeed, the outcome of the war may be decided on who the successful party was in either developing an atomic weapon — or, denying the other from getting there. Mr. Tronstad, knowing the potential consequences of a Nazi success in this area, “passed on news of Vemork to British intelligence agencies — by way of Norwegian resistance groups.” But, Berlin soon learned of Mr. Tronstad’s actions, and he had “to flee to Britain,” where he soon “began to direct resistance and sabotage operations,” to thwart his Nazi counterparts quest for an atomic weapon.
“In June 1942, the British War Cabinet “put forward plans, of the highest priority, for a raid on Vemork. And from that point,” Mr. Schneider wrote, “The Winter Fortress,” metamorphoses from engrossing history — into a smashing thriller,” he added. “There were four Allied attempts to eliminate Norway’s heavy-water supplies,” that Mr. Bascomb aptly describes. “The first, “Operation Freshman (1942), involved landing gliders containing British sappers [Royal Engineer’s], so they could infiltrate, and obliterate Vemork.” “The venture,’ Mr. Schneider says, “was a disaster: most of the British sappers were killed when their gliders crashed; the survivors were captured, tortured by the German Gestapo, and subsequently executed.” A second attempt to render the facility useless, occurred on November 1942, when 176 American B-17s attacked the plant. But, poor marksmanship by American bombers left the plant “unscathed.” “Then, on February 16, 1943, a six-man team of Norwegian commando’s attempted to fatally sabotage the plant with well-placed explosives. After suffering defeat once again, the Allies made one last desperate try at destroying the facility — indirectly — on February 20, 1944, by “sinking a Norwegian ferry carrying drums of heavy water,’ to the plant. Mr. Schneider writes that “I would be a scoundrel, if I ruined the book’s suspense by revealing the particulars of the last two [failed] raids.
As you would imagine, the German high command did not suffer these attempts by their adversary to stop their pursuit of an atomic weapon — without responding and they did so in spades. Mr. Schneider describes how “the Gestapo routinely murdered innocent civilians in reprisal killings; and in one particularly brutal episode, demolished the entire town of Telavag: “every house, and building burned down, every boat in the harbor sunk, every animal killed, and the entire community — men, women, and children alike — sent to various concentration camps…..Eighteen citizens who were caught trying to escape were executed by firing squad.”
There are several lessons to be learned from this effort that still has applicability today. When you attempt to deny the adversary something they want very badly, they aren’t going to suffer failed attempts lightly. It must have weighed heavily on the consciousness of the Allied high command who almost certainly knew their captured fellow soldiers would be tortured before being executed. Granted, in wartime, some decisions are harder than others; but, dealing with the aftermath and consequences of those decisions can be no less burdensome, And, while “the question of whether the Germans might have [ultimately] created an atomic bomb is a tangled one,” Mr. Schneider wrote, Berlin no doubt worked very hard to determine why the Allies were so intent on destroying an obscure industrial plant in Norway. If nothing else, these failed raids demonstrated the importance the Allies placed on destroying the Norsk Hydro facility– something which had to make Hitler and his high-command sit up and take notice of just how valuable the plant was to their potential survival, and perhaps victory. It would also be instructive to learn if Russia knew of the failed Allied attempts to sabotage Vemork; and, whether these actions underscored and gave impetus to their own quest for an atomic weapon. Sadly for now, this story remains buried in Soviet archives and unavailable for scholarly research. What was the fate of the villagers from Telavag? Did any survive the war; and, are there any left alive today?
We all also know about “the best laid plans.” Always have a Plan B, should Plan A fail; and, wargame/red-team what the worst outcome might look like. Did the Allied high command anticipate that some, or all of those who actually landed safely at Vemork — would ultimately be captured alive? Did we know where these brave men were taken for interrogation? And, if we did, did we consider bombing their place of captivity? — Knowing that if we did so, we would be killing our own men; but, sparing them torture — and denying Hitler from knowing why we placed such emphasis on destroying this obscure facility. And, what — if anything — did Germany learn from interrogating the survivors? Did we actually attempt a rescue; but, the mission failed, or was called off at the last minute?
When at first you don’t succeed, try and try again the saying goes. Going after the ships ferrying key materials for the plant’s success is certainly ingenious; but, it sort of reminds me in a way of how today’s cyber thieves operate. They more often don’t attack the major player of their desires; but instead, go after the secondary and tertiary targets — as a means of gaining access to their primary target. This should remind us that as we seek to deny options to either cyber thieves, or the Islamic State — they will think of clever, and unconventional ways to ‘get around’ the obstacles we place in their path. Red-teaming can help; but, we still do too much mirror imaging.
Finally, we are once again reminded of the sacrifices made by the Allies — in defense of liberty and freedom. Mr. Bascomb has done us all a great service in bringing this saga to light; and, especially on this Memorial Day — a reminder of this holiday’s true meaning. V/R, RCP