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article number 635
article date 02-09-2017
copyright 2017 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
All Brains Together—First to Develop the Atom Bomb, Part 5: We Need to Develop . . . We Fear the Germans
by William Laurence, Reporter, New York Times

From the 1946 book, Dawn Over Zero.

* * *

We Need to Develop

ON October 11, 1939, two weeks after the Nazis had crushed Poland, President Roosevelt took time out to listen to a man who was initiating him into the mysteries of the atom. The man who was explaining to the President the meaning of the fission of uranium and a self-perpetuating chain reaction was Russian-born, Columbia-educated Alexander Sachs, of New York City, a consulting economist and a director of the Lehman Corporation, who, because of his gloomy views and predictions on Nazi power and world destiny in the prewar years, had been dubbed the “economic Jeremiah.”

Sachs had come to the President as the emissary of three exiled scientists, one of whom was Dr. Albert Einstein. They wanted the President to know that the Germans had started work on an atomic bomb, to be informed of the danger confronting us and the world and of the urgent need for starting such work in our own country. Through Sachs they offered their services to their adopted land.

Sachs’s visit to the President had come as the result of discussions at Princeton, New Jersey, between Drs. Einstein, Szilard, and Wigner. In March 1939 Dr. Szilard had carried out experiments that proved conclusively that fast neutrons are liberated in the course of the splitting of uranium by slow neutrons. This, of course, opened the possibility of a chain reaction.

Dr. Szilard had at once communicated his discovery, made independently at about the same time by Dr. Joliot in Paris, to Dr. Einstein, who in the meantime had already received disturbing news from Germany. They were soon joined in their discussions by Dr. Wigner.

They decided there was no time to lose. Somehow they must manage to bring the matter to the attention of the President himself. It would be hopeless, they realized, to approach any lesser official. It is typical of the modesty of Dr. Einstein that he did not consider himself of sufficient importance to obtain an appointment at the White House.

It so happened that Dr. Szilard shortly thereafter met Sachs, who had on occasion served the President as an informal adviser. In addition to being an economist, Sachs had also displayed a keen interest in scientific developments. He was just the man Drs. Einstein, Szilard, and Wigner, and later Dr. Teller, had been looking for.

On that October day at the White House Sachs was reading to the President a letter Dr. Einstein had prepared for that occasion on August 2, 1939. In it he had written to the President as follows:

"Some recent work by E. Fermi and L. Szilard, which has been communicated to me in manuscript, leads me to expect that the element uranium may be turned into a new and important source of energy in the immediate future. Certain aspects of the situation which has arisen seem to call for watchfulness and, if necessary, quick action on the part of the administration. I believe therefore that it is my duty to bring to your attention the following facts and recommendations."

Here Dr. Einstein described in simple terms the phenomena of uranium fission and the chain reaction, and pointed out that the main sources of uranium supply were outside the United States, that the United States has only very poor ores of uranium in moderate quantities and that there was some good ore in Canada and conquered Czechoslovakia. As to that, Dr. Einstein reported to the President as follows:

"I understand that Germany has actually stopped the sale of uranium from the Czechoslovakian mines which she has taken over. That she should have taken such early action might perhaps be understood on the ground that the son of the German Under Secretary of State, von Weizsaecker, is attached to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, where some of the American work on uranium is now being repeated."

Then Dr. Einstein told the President the main reason for his concern:

"In the course of the last four months it has been made probable through the work of Joliot in France, as well as Fermi and Szilard in America—that it may become possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium, by which vast amounts of power and large quantities of new radium-like elements would be generated. Now it appears this could be achieved in the immediate future.

"This new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs, and it is conceivable, though much less certain—that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed. A single bomb of this type, carried by boat and exploded in a port, might very well destroy the whole port, together with some of the surrounding territory. However, such bombs might very well prove to be too heavy for transportation by air."

This is the first mention of the atomic bomb on record.

Dr. Einstein also enclosed the scientific report sent to him by Dr Szilard, to which Sachs had attached a memorandum written by Dr Szilard, explaining the contents and the meaning of the scientific paper in popular terms.

After listening attentively to what Sachs had to say, and carefully examining the Einstein letter, the President said:

“What you are after is to see that the Nazis don’t blow us up.”

“Precisely,” Sachs replied.

President Roosevelt called in Brigadier General Edwin M. Watson, Secretary to the President.

“This requires action,” he said.

This was the initial neutron that started a chain reaction that ended in a chain reaction of another sort over Hiroshima six years later.

German troops enter Austria, March 1938. Austria was preparing a hold referendum on annexation but Hitler would have none of that.

At the order of the President, General Watson formed a committee to look into the matter. It was known as the Advisory Committee on Uranium and was headed by Dr. Lyman J. Briggs, director of the National Bureau of Standards. Other members were Lieutenant Colonel Keith F. Adamson of the Army Ordnance Corps, and Commander, later Admiral, Gilbert C. Hoover, of the Navy Bureau of Ordnance.

This committee held its first meeting ten days later. A number of scientists were invited to attend. Many of them expressed themselves as opposed to support of such a project by the Government. It was Sachs’s task in those early days, he related afterward, to try to convince “these gentlemen of science and Government officials, including the Army and the Navy, to indulge . . . in a ‘willing suspension of disbelief.’”

On November 1, 1939 a report was submitted to the President, which contained the following:

"The energy released by the splitting of a mass of uranium atoms would develop a great amount of heat. If the chain reaction could be controlled so as to proceed gradually, it might conceivably be used as a continuous source of power in submarines, thus avoiding the use of large storage batteries for underwater power.

"If the reaction turned out to be explosive in character it would provide a possible source of bombs with a destructiveness vastly greater than anything now known.

"The military and naval applications . . . must at present be regarded only as possibilities because it has not yet been demonstrated that a chain reaction in a mass of uranium is possible.

"Nevertheless, in view of the fundamental importance of these uranium reactions and their potential military value, we believe that adequate support for a thorough investigation of the subject should be provided.

"We believe that this investigation is worthy of direct financial support by the Government."

This was a step in advance over a previous adverse report, submitted by a technical adviser to one of the services following Dr. Fermi’s first approach to Army and Navy representatives in March of that year. But, as Mr. Sachs commented, though the recommendations this time were more encouraging, “alas, we had no money.”

In those days General Watson stood up against military and naval men who kept saying: “Well, this is still so remote; what is this thing? Let’s wait and see.” To which General Watson would reply: “But the boss wants it, boys.”

Hardly any progress, however, was made in those early months. Mr. Sachs talked the matter over with Dr. Einstein and on March 7, 1940, the scientist addressed a letter to him for presentation to President Roosevelt.

"Since the outbreak of the war," [the Einstein letter read] "interest in uranium has intensified in Germany. I have now learned that research there is being carried out in great secrecy and that it has been extended to another of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes, the Institute of Physics. The latter has been taken over by the Government, and a group of physicists, under the leadership of C. F. von Weizsaecker, who is now working there on uranium in collaboration with the Institute of Chemistry. The former director was sent away on a leave of absence apparently for the duration of the war.”

He then went on:

"I have discussed with Professor Wigner and Dr. Szilard the situation in the light of the information that is available . . . You will see that the line he" [Dr. Szilard]" has pursued is different and apparently more promising than the line pursued by M. Joliot in France . . ."

The first transfer of funds from the Army and Navy for the project that was later to cost two billion dollars was $6,000. This gives an indication of the pace at which the work was proceeding during 1940 and the greater part of 1941.

Meantime in Great Britain things were moving at a much faster pace. “The potentialities of the project were so great,” Prime Minister Churchill stated, “that his Majesty’s Government thought it right that research should be carried on in spite of the many competing claims on our scientific manpower.”

Accordingly, intensive work was started under Government auspices at the great British universities, principally Oxford, Cambridge, London (Imperial College), Liverpool, and Birmingham. Responsibility for co-ordinating the work and pressing it forward lay in the Ministry of Aircraft Production, advised by a committee of leading scientists presided over by Sir George Thomson.

Later, on the recommendation of the Chiefs of Staff (whose advice had been asked by Mr. Churchill), urging “immediate action and maximum priority,” a special division was set up within the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, which, for purposes of secrecy, was called the Directorate of Tube Alloys.

Germany take all of Czechoslovakia, March 1939. In September 1938 the "Munich Agreement" gave part of Czechoslovakia to Germany in exchange for what British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain termed, "Peace for our time." Less than 6 months later, Germany decided to take the whole country.

Work on uranium was also being pushed in France during 1939 and through the spring of 1940 under the direction of Dr. Joliot. At the fall of France, in June 1940, Dr. Joliot sent two of his co-workers, Drs. Halban and Kowarski, to England. With them they brought 16 liters of heavy water—practically the whole world stock of this material—which the French Government had bought from the Norsk Hydro Company just before the invasion of Norway.

They had smuggled the heavy water out right under the Nazi nose in one of the most dramatic episodes of the war. It delayed German progress in their uranium research by months, as subsequent events showed. Heavy water, in which the hydrogen has twice the atomic weight of the hydrogen in ordinary water, is an even more efficient moderator than graphite for slowing down neutrons.

Professor Joliot, who remained in France to play a major role in the underground, instructed Drs. Halban and Kowarski “to make every effort to get in England the necessary facilities to enable them to carry out, in co-operation with the British Government, and in the joint interest of the Allies, a crucial experiment which had been planned in Paris and for which the ‘heavy water’ had been acquired.”

Work was also carried on in Denmark by Professor Bohr until the Nazis invaded his country in April 1940. He had a small supply of heavy water, which, to prevent its falling into the hands of the Nazis, he kept in a large beer bottle in the refrigerator.

When, with the aid of the British, Bohr escaped from Denmark in a small boat four years later, he took the bottle with him, only to discover on his arrival in Sweden that in his haste he had taken along just an ordinary bottle of good Danish beer. The heavy water in the beer bottle was later rescued by the Danish underground.

The first interchange of information on uranium among Britain, the United States, and Canada, under a general arrangement then in force for pooling scientific knowledge, took place in October 1940. On October 11, 1941 President Roosevelt sent a letter to Prime Minister Churchill suggesting that “any extended efforts on this important matter might usefully be co-ordinated or even jointly conducted.”

Accordingly, all British and American efforts were joined, and a number of eminent British scientists proceeded to the United States.

Such progress had been made by the British group that by the summer of 1941 Sir George Thomson’s committee was able to report that, in the view of its members, “there was a reasonable chance that an atomic bomb could be produced before the end of the war.” This news soon reached scientists in the United States.

A first draft of the British scientists’ report was made available to Dr. Bush and Dr. Conant in the summer of 1941.

At the same time Dr. M. L. E. Oliphant, of radar fame, who was on a visit to this country, held several informal discussions with our scientists, and in particular with Dr. Lawrence. Oliphant told them of large-scale plans in Britain to push work on the subject to the limit.

This visit of Dr. Oliphant, together with the British report and a report of a similar nature prepared by our own National Academy of Sciences, following discussions between Drs. Lawrence, Conant, and Compton, led to the famous decision on December 6, 1941, to go all out on atomic bomb investigations.

By the middle of 1942 the progress was such that it appeared feasible to initiate plans for the construction of production plants. In the meantime President Roosevelt had appointed a General Policy Group to advise him on the matter. This group consisted of Vice President Henry A. Wallace, Secretary of War Stimson, General George C. Marshall, Army Chief of Staff, Dr. Bush and Dr. Conant.

By June 1942 this group recommended a great expansion and acceleration of the work. The construction phases of the work were assigned to the Corps of Engineers, On June 19, 1942 Colonel J. C. Marshall was selected by the Chief of Engineers to form a new Engineer District and carry on the work assigned to it.

Two days later Colonel (now Brigadier General) Kenneth D. Nichols, West Point Honor Graduate of the Class of 1929, was selected as Colonel Marshall’s Deputy. On August 13, 1943, he succeeded Colonel Marshall as District Engineer, a post corresponding to that of president of a corporation.

On August 16, 1942 the Atomic Bomb Project was officially launched under the camouflaged designation: "Manhattan Engineer District." Its first headquarters were located in lower Manhattan.

By September 1942 it became evident that the project was of even greater magnitude and more difficult of accomplishment than had been anticipated But there was no turning back. At all times the project had the wholehearted backing of the President.

On September 17, 1942, Secretary Stimson placed Major General (at that time Brigadier General) Groves, one of the ablest members of the Army Corps of Engineers, in complete charge of the Manhattan Engineer District.

Five days later the President’s General Policy Group appointed a committee to plan military policy relating to the project, such planning to cover production, strategic and tactical problems, and research and development. General Groves was named to sit with this committee and act as its executive officer.

Germany invades Poland, September 1939. The Germans would kill nearly 2 million Polish people in addition to Holocaust victims.

Toward the end of 1942 the British proposed that an important section of the work should be carried on in Canada as a joint Anglo-Canadian enterprise. Accordingly a joint laboratory was established in Montreal at the beginning of 1943, under the administration of the National Research Council. Practically the whole of the Cambridge group, under Dr. Halban, was moved to Montreal.

During the spring of 1944 the Americans joined actively in that project, which now became a joint British-Canadian-American enterprise. Its scope was enlarged and later in 1944 a site was selected on the Ottawa River, near Petawawa, Ontario, for the construction of a pilot-scale pile, using heavy water supplied by the United States Government as the slowing-down medium.

To protect the Canadian uranium supply for the United Nations, the Canadian Government took over the ownership of the rich uranium mines and extraction plant near Great Bear Lake. A large part of the uranium for the atomic bomb plants came from this Canadian source.

In August 1943 a combined American-British-Canadian policy committee had been formed to assume responsibility for the broad direction of the project as between countries. Interchange of information was provided for within certain limits.

In the field of scientific research and development full interchange was maintained between those working in the same sections of the field.

In matters of design, construction, and operation of large-scale plants information was exchanged only when it would serve to hasten the completion of weapons for use in the war.

All these arrangements were subject to the approval of the Combined Policy Committee.

The funds for the project were drawn from a general non-earmarked “expediting account” provided by Congress. The funds in this account, which Congress kept replenishing to maintain it at a level of $600,000,000, were spent on certification by Under Secretary of War Robert P. Patterson, who signed and approved the Manhattan District contracts submitted to him by General Groves.

Around September 1944, when the total of these contracts was approaching the two-billion-dollar mark, the Under Secretary began to get worried. So he asked Michael J. Madigan, a New York consulting engineer and an expert on construction, who was then serving as his Special Assistant, to look things over.

Mr. Madigan, a very practical engineer, went out and talked to various people and saw some of the vast plants that were growing up. He then came back and made his report.

“Judge,” he said, “I have been all around and seen everything, and I am here to tell you that you have nothing to worry about at all—nothing to worry about. If this thing works, they won’t investigate anything. And if it doesn’t work”—he repeated slowly: “And if it doesn’t work—they won’t investigate anything else. Alongside of this,” he added, “everything else that we have done will seem a sensible procedure.”

We Have to Stop the Germans

WHEN, on the day before Pearl Harbor, the momentous decision was reached to go all out on the effort to develop an atomic bomb, the gun was fired marking the last and decisive lap in the greatest race of all time, with the outcome very much in doubt.

Since there were strong grounds for believing that the Nazi scientists were far in the lead, it was realized that the grim battle of the laboratories had to be fought on two fronts, in the laboratory and in the field.

On the one front the battle was to be waged with the greatest array of scientific and engineering talent, equipped with vast material resources; on the other, a specially trained corps would sabotage the Nazi atomic bomb laboratories and plants.

Consequently special intelligence groups, both civilian and military, were trained in the United States and Britain. Their mission was to find out where the Nazi atomic bomb plants and laboratories were located.

This information was used in the selection of pin-point targets for British and American bombers, or of demolition jobs for saboteurs. These were either members of the underground in the particular locality or specialty troops landed by glider or dropped by parachute.

A German ship unloads solders in Copenhagen Denmark April 1940. Denmark was occupied without a struggle.

When Norway was invaded in April 1940, British scientists at once called to the attention of the authorities the need to keep a watchful eye on the Norsk Hydro Hydrogen Electrolysis plant in Vemork, in the Norwegian province of Telemark. That plant was at the time the largest producer of heavy water, the production of which is a singularly slow business.

Since heavy water, as I have said, is the most efficient moderator for neutrons and therefore the most efficient substance for the construction of a chain-reacting atomic pile, and since even at that early date the possibility of producing plutonium for atomic bombs in such a pile had already suggested itself, it became evident that the possession of the only large heavy-water plant in the world would give the Nazis a tremendous advantage.

As early as September 1939, German scientists had publicly stated that the manufacture of heavy water might become vitally important to their war effort. In May 1940, after the fall of Norway, the British Ministry of Economic Warfare received the disturbing intelligence that Germany had ordered Norsk Hydro to increase heavy-water production to 3,000 pounds a year. In 1942 it was learned that Germany demanded a further increase to 10,000 pounds.

This demand called for immediate action, as by that time British scientists were practically certain that, given sufficient heavy water and uranium, a chain-reacting pile could be made to operate.

Norsk Hydroelectric Plant at Vemork, producer of heavy water used to slow neutrons and encourage fission. It’s location on a mountainside gave Norwegian saboteurs a challenge.

Since the Nazis had already placed an embargo on the export of uranium from Czechoslovakia, it became absolutely certain that they were building atomic piles.

The matter was referred by the Ministry of Economic Warfare to Special Forces, the Allied organization entrusted at that time with the responsibility of co-ordinating resistance in the enemy-occupied countries, which, it was hoped, would have contacts in the area.

It so happened that one of a party of Special Force Norwegians who, on March 17, 1942, had captured a Norwegian coastal steamer (the S.S. Galtesund) and brought it from Norway to Aberdeen, had considerable knowledge of the neighborhood of Vemork and had been in touch with some of the Norsk Hydro engineers.

Einar, as he may be called, was given hurried training and precise instructions and was dropped back by parachute on Telemark on March 28. To the end he remained a permanent feature of the heavy-water operations, one of the great epics of the war.

A small follow-up party was formed to be dropped on Telemark the following month, but weather conditions prevented the carrying out of the operation for some time, and diminishing hours of darkness put an end to all night flights for that season.

In July 1942, after further disturbing intelligence, the War Cabinet Offices approached Combined Operations with a request that Vemork should be attacked. They urged that the very highest priority be allotted to the project.

Combined Operations then asked Special Forces to provide a small advance party to act as local guides and collectors of intelligence for a sabotage attack against the heavy-water plant—the attack to be carried out later by Combined Operations personnel, whom it was proposed to land by glider.

“From the outset it was realized,” the official British report points out, “that the operation was exceptionally dangerous. Of all countries, Norway is the least suitable for glider operations. Its landing-grounds are few; its mountains thickly clustered, precipitous and angry. The broken countryside throws up air-pockets and atmospheric currents. Weather conditions in the autumn of 1942 were vile.”

To add to the difficulties, the Norsk plant is located on top of a high cliff overlooking the beautiful valley of the Moon River, and was inaccessible from the front, which was heavily guarded by a Nazi garrison, and from the sides.

The only possible approach was from the rear. This required landing on a high plateau, making a descent down the valley, and then climbing up the steep cliff. The landing, of course, had to be made many miles away from the valley in an isolated section in the snow-covered mountains.

Special Forces provided an advance party of two officers and two non-commissioned officers of the Royal Norwegian Army’s British-trained Linge Company, named after Captain Martin Linge, D.S.C., a Norwegian soldier killed in action after the Commando landing at Maaloy on December 27, 1941.

The party’s leader was named Jens. The others were Claus Helberg, Kjell Nielsen, a chemical engineer who had worked at Norsk, a man whose name is given only as Arne, and Einar, who joined the party later and became its wireless operator.

The Germans take Norway, June 1940. The Norwegians had battled hard for 2 months.

Two attempts to drop the group in September failed because of heavy clouds. The party, operating under the code name of "Swallow," finally made a parachute landing on a mountainside east of Fjarefit in the Songadal, with equipment in containers and packages, at 11.30 p.m. on the night of October 1, 1942.

It took them two days to collect the equipment and put it in order. Half the food supply and equipment not immediately needed was hidden at a base depot, to which it was planned that Swallow should retreat when the operation had been carried out.

The weather was fine during these days, with patches of snow scattered lightly over the mountainside. But on October 21 a tremendous snowstorm burst in great violence, and within a matter of hours Swallow saw the arrival of full winter and fair skiing weather. Swallow advanced to the operational area.

The report of Swallow’s leader takes up the story:

October 21, 1942:
"Claus and I skied with full packs into Haugedal, where I knew there was a hut. We failed to find it before nightfall, and heard later that it had been moved. Heavy march back, in the dark and mist.

"The other two tried in vain to make radio contact with London. We had no paraffin for our Primus stoves and therefore had to ignore mountain routes where there was no wood to be found; so I decided to advance through the Songadal, where there were birch woods, and huts in which we could spend the night."

October 22:
"We set out on our heavy march. I hoped that our food, with the strictest rationing, would be sufficient for 30 days. We had been told to make no outside contacts except in the gravest emergency.

"At high altitudes and in bitter cold, no man can be expected to carry a load weighing more than 30 kilos [66 pounds]. Our equipment consisted of eight such loads. This meant that, in our party of four, each man must make three journeys every day over the same stretch.

"The ground was bad and rugged, the snow heavy and deep. Men who left the ski-tracks sank up to their knees. It was mild weather, and clumps of snow stuck to the bottom of our skis. The little bit of ski-way that we had we wished to keep for the retreat.

"The lakes, marshes, and rivers were not properly covered with ice, and could only be walked on here and there. There was surface-water on the ice, and we had our feet soaked all the time.

"So our day’s marches were sorrowfully short. We often advanced only a few kilometers a day. On the very first day I broke a ski-pole. It was a month before I got a new one."

October 24:
"We reached a deserted farmhouse at Barunuten, where we found meat and flour. We ate our fill for the first time since our arrival. We also found a ski-toboggan."

October 30:
"We reached Reinar. Now we are getting near inhabited places. We were very tired. I had a throbbing boil on my left hand and bad to have my arm in a sling. We had kept ourselves in good shape during the waiting period in England, but the hard toil on short rations had sapped our strength. A day’s ration consisted of a quarter-slab of pemmican, one handful of groats, one handful of flour, four biscuits, a little butter, cheese, sugar, and chocolate."

Claus was sent back to the empty farmhouse at Barunuten to steal all the food he could carry. Arne and the leader went forward to reconnoiter the line of advance. The W/T operator stayed to make a further attempt to contact London. A rendezvous was arranged for November 3. The leader continues:

"Claus traveled to Barunuten and back—a distance of 50 miles —under terrible going conditions. He proved the old saying: ’A man who is a man goes on till he can do no more and then goes twice as far.’

"Arne and I did not do many kilometers. I fell through the ice while crossing a river. This was the second time. Next day we tried to cross another river, but found no ice and returned, tired out, to Reinar, where the wireless operator told us that, just at the moment when he had succeeded in making contact with London, his accumulator had run out.

"Our plans had to be altered. The fulfillment of our job depended on our being able to find a new accumulator."

November 6:
"We reached our operational base at Sandvatn, completely exhausted but glad to have arrived at our destination. The march had taken 15 days. Claus had procured an accumulator from the keeper of a local dam at Msvatn.

"The first thing we had to do was to get into wireless contact with England. We felt that they must be anxious about us. Antenna masts of a good size were put up. But we failed again—this time because the W/T set was damp."

November 9:
"We made contact with England at last. After this the wireless service went well. We prepared for the reception of the gliders."

Officers at Special Force Headquarters, London, breathed a sigh of relief when Swallow came on the air—even though the intelligence received lent to their relief a slight foreboding. The Germans, who had a strong garrison in the area, had set wire barricades around the factory and alongside the penstock lines that carried water down the mountainside to the factory’s dynamos.

The glider parties stood by. “Mock-up” models of the machinery to be attacked, based on Swallow’s intelligence, were built at a training school in England. Selected air-borne troops were trained for the specific demolitions required.

Swallow, working in constant difficulty at an altitude of four thousand feet in a temperature continually below zero, daily transmitted weather reports and further intelligence with accuracy and punctuality.

Belgium is attacked, May 1940. Germany occupied Belgium before the end of the month.

On November 19 two aircraft, each towing air-borne troops in a glider, took off from Scotland. One aircraft and both gliders crashed on the southwest coast of Norway about one hundred miles from the target.

Jens, the Swallow leader, continues:

November 20:
"London’s radio message about the glider disaster was a hard blow. It was sad and bitter, especially as the weather in our part of the country improved during the following days. But we were happy to hear that another attempt would be made in the next moon period."

This second attempt was mounted and manned by Special Force personnel only. Six volunteers from the Linge Company were selected to form the assault party and given intensive special training.

The difficulties of attack had been multiplied. German interrogation of the air-borne troop survivors had enabled them to guess our operational objective. The Rjukan garrison was again increased, the area combed for saboteurs, and many loyal and innocent Norwegians were arrested. The German Reichskommissar, Josef Terboven, and General von Falkenhorst inspected the Vemork defenses in person.

Special Forces were fortunate in having the services of the late Major Leif Tronsted, formerly professor of industrial chemistry at Trondheim University. His knowledge of heavy water and of the Vemork plant was unique.

Swallow waited patiently, continued their watch, and sent their signals, working in snow and ice, short of food, and with failing power in their W/T set.

The leader says:

December 18:
"To make matters worse everybody except myself became sick with fever and pains in the stomach. We were short of food and were obliged to begin eating reindeer moss. The W/T operator found a Krag rifle and some cartridges. I went out every day after reindeer, but the weather was bad and I could find none. Our supply of dry wood came to an end."

December 19:
"The W/T operator went to Langsj to steal food from a hut. He came back the next day with fish preserved in earth.

December 23:
"The weather cleared and at last I shot a reindeer We celebrated a happy Christmas."

The same patience had to be exercised, and even greater nervous strain suffered, by the party mobilized in England. Although their training had been completed and they were ready to leave, the weather prevented their departure.

On the night of January 23, 1943 they actually flew over Norway, but after crossing over Telemark for two hours, were forced to turn back, as mist obscured the dropping-point and the lights that Swallow had laid out ready for their reception.

On February 10, 1943 Swallow signaled the exact position of all sentries and guards at Vemork. At midnight on February 16 the six Norwegian soldiers from Special Forces, operating under the code name Gunnerside, dropped by parachute on the frozen surface of Lake Skryken, thirty miles northwest of Swallow.

A radio message from London informed Swallow of Gunnerside’s arrival. But contact had still to be made, and a journey of thirty miles in the Norwegian winter can take as long as three hundred miles in warmer, flatter lands.

The Gunnerside leader’s report takes up the story:

February 16, 1943:
"At midnight precisely my party of six landed safely on Norwegian soil. The jump was made from 1,000 feet. One package (containing 4 rucksacks) landed and was dragged by a wind-filled parachute for some 2 kms. [1.2 miles] before coming to rest in an open ice-crack, from which it was salvaged. One sleeping-bag and two rucksacks were damaged. Otherwise all our gear landed safely."

February 17:
"Our equipment was unpacked. Items required for the advance were repacked, and the remainder hidden to form a depot. The necessary stakes were placed as landmarks in the snow and their bearings taken. We finished our work at 4 a.m., by which time driving snow had already hidden every trace of the landing and the digging. We slept at an uninhabited hunting-lodge.

"By 5 p.m. on the same day all was prepared for the first stretch of our advance. There was strong wind-driven snow and a moon. Our packs weighed 30 kgs. [66 pounds], and our two toboggans 50 kgs. [110 pounds] each.

"After an hour’s heavy going, the drifting snow became so thick that it was impossible to find our way. I gave the order for a return to the huntinglodge, which we reached at 8 p.m. It was then very cold, with a full westerly snowstorm."

February 18:
"A snowstorm of great violence burst upon us. It was impossible to go out of doors. All hands felt ill owing to change of
climate. Two had bad colds."

February 19:
"Clear skies; but still the same storm, still the same driving snow. We made an attempt to reach the depot to fetch more food, but had to give up for fear of losing our way. During the night the chimney-pot blew off the hunting-lodge."

February 20:
"Clear skies, less wind; but still the driving snow. We made another attempt to fetch food, but the snowstorm had so changed the landscape that even our stakes were hidden. After three hours the attempt was abandoned. We made a final try the same afternoon and at length found one container. The position of the depot was re-marked."

February 21:
"The snowstorm raged with renewed power. Visibility zero. All hands were filled with a great weariness and lassitude, and the two men who had been suffering from colds were now seriously ill."

February 22:
"Today the storm blew itself, finally, to a standstill. The weathcr turned fine, and I gave the order to prepare for departure at noon."

February 23:
"Nearing Kallung we were alarmed to see two bearded civilian skiers in apparently first-class physical condition. I ordered one of my men to put on his camouflage ski-smock and a civilian ski-cap. He set out to make contact with the strangers. If questioned, he would say he was a reindeer-keeper on his rounds. The rest of us went into cover."

For a little, there was silence among the Gunnerside party as its members waited and wondered what would be the outcome of the meeting. Each man’s hand hung near his holster. Then suddenly, above the noise of the wind, sounded what Joachim, the Gunnerside leader, described as “three wild yells of pleasure.” Gunnerside was in touch with Swallow.

Rotterdam, Netherlands is bombed by the Germans, May 1940. The Dutch gave up their country after 4 days of battle.

Swallow and Gunnerside reviewed the situation and jointly evolved an operational order, of which the following are extracts:


Fifteen Germans in the hut-barracks between the machine-room and the electrolysis plant. Change of guard at 1800, 2000 hours [6.00 p.m., 8.00 p.m.], etc.

Normally two Germans on the bridge. During an alarm: three patrols inside the factory area and floodlighting on the road between Vemork and Vaaer.

Normally only two Norwegian guards inside the factory area at night, plus one at the main gates and one at the penstocks. All doors into the electrolysis factory locked except one that opens into the yard.


From the advance position at the power-line cutting, the following will be brought up: arms, explosives, a little food. No camouflage suits to be worn over uniforms. Claus to lead the way down to the river and up to the railway track.

Advance to the position of attack some 500 meters [546 yards] from the fence. The covering party, led by the second in command, to advance along the track, followed close behind by the demolition party, which the Gunnerside leader will lead himself.

The position for attack will be occupied before midnight in order to be able to see when the relieved guards return to the barracks.

According to information received from sketches and photographs, we have chosen the gate by a store-shed, some 10 meters [11 yards] lower than the railway gates, as being best suited for the withdrawal and as providing best cover for the advance.

The attack will start at 0030 hours [12.30 a.m.]


Duty: to cut an opening in the fence. To get into position so that any interference by German guards, in the event of an alarm, is totally suppressed. If all remains quiet, to stay in position until the explosion is heard or until other orders are received from the demolition-party leader.

The commander of the covering party to use his own judgment if necessary. If the alarm is sounded during the advance into the factory grounds, the covering party to attack the guard immediately.

When the explosion is heard, it may be assumed that the demolition party is already outside the factory grounds, and the order is to be given for withdrawal; the password is: “Piccadilly? Leicester Square!”


Duty: to destroy the high-concentration plant in the cellar of the electrolysis factory. At the exact moment when the covering party either take up their position or go into action, the demolition party will advance to the cellar door.

One man, armed with a tommy-gun, takes up a position covering the main entrance. Those carrying out the actual demolition are covered by one man with a tommy-gun and one man with a .45 pistol.

An attempt will first be made to force the cellar door; failing that, the door to the ground floor. As a last resort, the cable tunnel is to be used.

If fighting starts before the H.C. plant is reached, the covering party will, if necessary, take over the placing of the explosives. If anything should happen to the leader, or anything upset the plans, all are to act on their own initiative in order to carry out the operation.

Any workmen or guards found will be treated in a determined manner, as the situation may demand. If possible, no reserve charges will be left behind in the factory.

It is forbidden for the members of either party to use torches or other lights during the advance or withdrawal. Arms are to be carried ready for use but are not to be loaded until necessary, so that no accidental shot raises the alarm.

If any man is about to be taken prisoner, he undertakes to end his own life.

The Germans also occupied Luxembourg beginning May 1940.

The Gunnerside leader continues:

February 27
"The weather was overcast, mild with much wind. We left our advance base, a hut in Fjösbudalen, about 8 p.m. We started on skis, but were later forced to continue on foot down to the Mösvatn road. Along the telephone line it was very difficult, steep country; and we sank in it up to our waists.

"At Vaaer Bridge we had to take cover, as two busses were coming up the road with the night shift from Rjukan. We followed the road to the power-line cutting. It was thawing hard now and the road was covered with ice.

"Skis and sacks were hidden close to the power-line cutting, from which we began a steep and slippery descent to the river at 10 p.m. On the river, the ice was about to break up. There was only one practicable snow-bridge, with three inches of water over it.

"From the river we clambered up sheer rock face for about 150 meters [164 yards] to the Vemork railway line. We advanced to within about 500 meters [546 yards] of the factory’s railway gate. Carried on a strong westerly wind came the faint humming note of the factory’s machinery. We had a fine view of the road and the factory itself."

February 28
"Here we waited till 12.30 a.m. and watched the relief guard coming up from the bridge. We ate some food we had in our pockets, and once more I checked up to make sure that every man was certain about his part in the operation and understood his orders.

"Cautiously we advanced to some store-sheds about 100 meters [109 yards] from the gates. Here one man was sent forward with a pair of armorer’s shears to open the gates, with the rest of the covering party in support. The demolition party stood by to follow up immediately.

"The factory gates, secured with a padlock and chain, were easily opened. Once inside, the covering party took up temporary positions while the demolition party opened a second gate 10 meters [11 yards] below the first with another pair of shears.

"I stopped and listened. Everything was still quiet. The blackout of the factory was poor and there was a good light from the moon.

"At a given sign the covering party advanced toward the German guard-hut. At the same moment the demolition party
moved toward the door of the factory cellar, through which it was hoped to gain entry.

"The cellar door was locked. We were unable to force it, nor did we have any success with the door of the floor above. Through a window of the high-concentration plant, where our target lay, a man could be seen.

"During our search for the cable tunnel, which was our only remaining method of entry, we became separated from one another.

"Finally I found the opening and, followed by only one of my men, crept in over a maze of tangled pipes and leads. Through an opening under the tunnel’s ceiling we could see our target.

Every minute was now valuable. As there was no sign of the other two demolition-party members, we two decided to carry out the demolition alone.

"We entered a room adjacent to the target, found the door into the high-concentration plant open, went in, and took the guard completely by surprise. We locked the double doors between the heavy-water storage tanks and the adjacent room, so that we could work in peace.

"My colleague kept watch over the guard, who seemed frightened but was otherwise quiet and obedient.

"I began to place the charges. This went quickly and easily. The models on which we had practiced in England were exact duplicates of the real plant.

"I had placed half the charges in position when there was a crash of broken glass behind me. I looked up. Some one had smashed the window opening on to the back yard. A man’s head stood framed in the broken glass. It was one of my two colleagues, who, having failed to find the cable tunnel, had decided to act on their own initiative.

"One climbed through the window, helped me place the remaining charges, and checked them twice while I coupled the fuses. We checked the entire charge once more, before ignition. There was still no sign of alarm from the yard.

"We lit both fuses. I ordered the captive Norwegian guard to run for safety to the floor above. We left the room.
Twenty yards outside the cellar door, we heard the explosion.

"The sentry at the main entrance was recalled from his post. We passed through the gate and climbed up to the railway track.

"For a moment I looked back down the line and listened. Except for the faint hum of machinery that we had heard when we arrived, everything in the factory was quiet."

It is calculated that 3,000 pounds of heavy water were destroyed, together with the most important parts of the high-concentration plant.

Five of the Gunnerside party crossed the border into safety after a 250-mile journey on skis and in battle-dress, under conditions of almost unendurable hardship and in the vilest weather. They were flown back to England shortly afterward.

The sixth of their number, Knut, remained behind in Norway for other work. The Swallow party also remained to report results, and then gradually dispersed, leaving only the original Einar, now an exceptionally efficient W/T operator, and Claus.

The Germans advance through the Ardennes Forrest into France, May 1940. By the end of June, France surrendered.

From them London learned that General von Falkenhorst, Germany’s Supreme Military Commander in Norway, visited Vemork immediately after the disaster. He described the operation as “the best coup I have ever seen.”

Across the Special Force report on the activities of Gunnerside and Swallow, Prime Minister Churchill wrote: “What is being done for these brave men in the way of decorations?” Eight British and nine Norwegian military decorations were awarded.

Von Falkenhorst reacted energetically. The German guards were removed and punished. Once again the Gestapo combed Rjukan and once again arrested many innocent Norwegians. Mountain troops patrolled the area, some of whom fired nervously at one another. German reconnaissance aircraft hovered in the neighborhood, and one crashed. Mountain huts were broken into and burnt.

Later, the allies conducted aerial bombardment of the Vemork Hydroelectric Plant.

Claus was the only one of the party who came into contact with the enemy, and his adventure is worth mentioning.

On the high Hardangervidda Plateau he was suddenly confronted, on March 25, 1943, by three Germans, who
appeared round a hill 100 meters [109 yards] ahead, and started firing. He turned and went off on his skis, but after two hours found that one of the enemy would inevitably outdistance him.

The story is best told, in a shortened form, in his own words:

"I therefore turned round, drew my pistol, and fired one shot from my Colt .32. I saw to my joy that the German only had a Luger, and I realized that the man who emptied his magazine first would lose, so I did not fire any more, but stood there as a target at 50 meters’ [55 yards’] range.

"The German emptied his magazine at me, turned, and started back. I sent a bullet after him; he began to stagger and finally stopped, hanging over his ski-poles.

"I turned back to get clear away, as the other two might come at any time. Half an hour later it was completely dark. After another two hours I went over a cliff, falling 40 meters [44 yards], damaging my right shoulder and breaking my right arm.

The following day Claus encountered another large German patrol, but his plausible story deceived them and they detailed an escort to take him to a German doctor. The doctor attended to him and dispatched him in an ambulance to the Bardkeli Tourist Hostel, where he was given a room.

But as night fell, Terboven, the Reichskommissar of Norway, and his staff arrived and demanded accommodation. Claus was left undisturbed, and Terboven occupied the next room to him. Claus had actually dropped his pistol in the snow before he encountered the second German patrol that morning.

Next morning all the guests at the hostel, including Claus, were bundled into a bus and sent off to Grim Concentration Camp, as one of the women guests had refused to entertain Terboven during the night. Using a certain amount of guile and aided by the lady, Claus distracted the attention of the armed guard and managed to change his seat from the back of the bus to alongside the driver and the door.

Toward dusk he seized his opportunity, flung open the door, and jumped out. Picking himself up, he staggered across a field toward a wood, followed by the explosion of two grenades thrown by the guard, and pistol-shots fired by the motorcycle orderly who had preceded the bus. He escaped, and after other adventures succeeded in returning to Great Britain.

Germans occupy Yugoslavia, beginning April 1941.

The Final Clean-Up.

The directors of Norsk Hydro tried to persuade the Germans to halve the manufacture of heavy water, but were overruled. In England the Combined Chiefs of Staff recommended a more powerful type of persuasion. Accordingly, on November 16, 1943, strong formations of the 8th U. S. Bomber Command attacked the Vemork power station and electrolysis plant. A further 120 pounds of heavy-water stock were lost.

The directors of Norsk Hydro restated their plea, and this time the Germans, a shade abjectly, granted it. On November 31, 1943 Swallow (the constant Einar) reported that all heavy-water installations at Vemork were to be dismantled and sent to Germany.

On February 7, 1944 Einar added that the transport of existing stocks to Germany would take place in about a week’s time.

This information was passed to the War Cabinet Offices in London, who that same day issued top-priority instructions that everything possible should be done to destroy the stocks in transit. By evening, approval had been obtained from the Norwegian Defense Minister in London to attack the stocks despite danger of local reprisals on innocent Norwegians.

Immediate information to this effect was sent to Swallow, and to knut, the one remaining member of Gunnerside, who was then fifty miles to the west. Knut was instructed to join up with Einar, and to ensure that the remaining stocks of heavy water did not reach Germany.

At the same time a message was sent to another of the Special Forces parties in Vestfeld to proceed to Skien and prevent any special cargo from Rjukan being loaded at the port.

On February 10 Knut was given permission to carry out a plan he proposed for sinking the Lake Tinnsjö ferryboat ’Hydro,’ on which the remaining heavy-water containers would be loaded for the second stage of their long journey to Hamburg. A jubilant reply from Swallow contained a complete list of heavy-water stocks ready for shipment.

The enemy was on his toes. Special S.S. troops were drafted into the Rjukan valley. Two aircraft patrolled the mountains each day, and new guards were stationed on the railway line from Vemork to the ferry quay; but, by some freak of folly, not a single German guard had been posted on the Hydro herself.

Norwegian ferry ’Hydro.’

Knut, the demolition-party leader, says:

"At 1 a.m. on the morning of Sunday, February 20, 1944, I myself with three colleagues left Rjukan in a car that had been procured for the purpose. I went on board the Hydra with two men, while the third stood by the car on shore.

"Almost the entire ship’s crew was gathered below, around a 4 long table—playing poker, rather noisily. Only the engineer and the stoker were working. They were in the engine-room, so there was no question of going in there.

"We therefore went down to the passenger-cabin, but were discovered by a Norwegian guard. Thank God, he was a good Norwegian. We told him that we were on the run from the Gestapo, and he let us stay.

"Leaving one in the cabin to cover us, the other and I wriggled through a hole in the floor and crept along the keel up to the bows. I laid my charges in the bilge, hoping that the hole in the bows would lift the stern of the ferry and render it immediately unnavigable.

"I coupled the charges to two separate time-delay mechanisms tied to the stringers on each side. These time-delays I had had specially constructed out of alarm clocks. I reckoned that the charge was big enough to sink the ferry in about four or five minutes.

"I set the time-delay for 10.45 a.m. the same morning. This was the time (as I discovered on a previous reconnaissance trip aboard the Hydra) that would bring the ship to the best place for sinking.

"By 4 a.m. the job was finished, so we left. The car took us to Jondal, and we were in Oslo the same Sunday evening.

A copy of the Quisling newspaper ’Friti Folk’ was in Einar’s hands early on Monday morning. Banner headlines announced the mysterious sinking of the ferry steamer ’Hydro’ at approximately 11 a.m. on February 20. An explosion had been heard.

The ship’s forepeak had filled with water. Propeller and rudder were lifted clear, and certain railway trucks had trundled forward the full length of the deck, to fall irretrievably into the deep waters of Lake Tinnsjö.

Swallow came on the air later with a report to close the story. This said that 3,600 gallons of heavy-water stock had been sunk with the ship

Later the long-stop party at Skien complained bitterly that they were waiting, had marked down the ship that was to take the special cargo by sea to Hamburg, had made their plans to destroy her, and had all their preparations ready, but no special cargo had come.

After the Italian army had difficulties taking Greece, the Germans enter the Battle in April 1941. The Greeks surrendered by the end of the month.

“So it was,” the official report concludes, “that the manufacture of heavy water ceased in Norway; and so it was that all stocks available to German scientists from that source were lost.”

This was only one episode out of many in the epic “battle of the laboratories.” Others cannot as yet be fully told, but the one related will serve as a striking example.

So effective did the joint British-American counterintelligence become in the last year of the European war, and particularly after D-day, that the German scientists were forced to keep moving their laboratories from one place to another; but they might as well have worked in a goldfish bowl.

When we finally entered Germany we were so well informed that we even knew the street and number of the laboratory in any given city.

Upon approaching a town, an advance party of our P.I. (Positive Intelligence Group), headed by Major Francis J. Smith, would frequently get through the lines and head for the proper address, much to the amazement of the German scientists working there. On such occasions they would confiscate records and equipment, take the scientists back through the lines, and wait until the town was entered to complete the job.

Major Horace K. Calvert, Oklahoma City lawyer, was head of operations in the European Theater of the Positive Intelligence Group, with headquarters in London. Around December 1944 his group turned over to the War Department complete proof that the Germans were far behind us in the race for atomic energy. We were then absolutely certain that they did not have an atomic bomb.

After V-E day our P.I. men, some of whom were physicists, interrogated the leading German scientists at length and obtained a complete picture of the German effort to create atomic energy. What they found was reported by one of them, Professor S. A. Goudsmit, of the University of Michigan, Dutch-born physicist, before the Senate Special Committee on Atomic Energy.

Dr. Goudsmit was the scientific chief of the mission that was sent overseas to find out what German progress had been made on the atomic bomb. The progress made by German scientists toward the construction of an atomic bomb was “negligibly small,” Dr. Goudsmit found. He summarized the state of affairs in German nuclear research as follows:

- 1. German scientists had abandoned hope of making a bomb for this war.
- 2. They concentrated their efforts on production of atomic energy rather than an explosive.
- 3. They had not yet succeeded in constructing a pile, or self-supporting chain reaction.
- 4. The total effort expended on the atomic-energy project was small, even though it had the highest priority.
- 5. German scientists had no knowledge of our work.
- 6. They believed that they were ahead of our developments in atomic energy.

In Professor Goudsmit’s opinion, based on a careful study of German documents, there were six principal causes for “the complete German failure in this field”:

- 1. German scientists lacked the vision that the Allied scientists possess.
- 2. The Nazi Party and the German military placed incompetent scientists in key military positions.
- 3. Lack of co-ordination caused competition instead of cooperation among the various groups.
- 4. German scientists put into this field scarcely more effort than they would have into a peacetime research project, because they felt certain of their superiority.
- 5. German pure science had no support from nor contact with the military.
- 6. Allied bombing interfered with German progress.

When President Truman revealed to the world that we had perfected an atomic bomb, many of the leading German scientists, including Dr. Hahn, and Dr. Werner (“Uncertainty Principle”) Heisenberg, were in Allied custody. When they heard the news, they flatly refused to believe it. “Propaganda!” they scoffed.

When doubt was no longer possible, the effect on them was so devastating that at least two, Dr. Hahn and another, attempted suicide. Dr. Hahn gave as the reason for his act a keen sense of guilt, as the discoverer of uranium fission, for having unloosed this terrible weapon on the world. The other frankly admitted that he made his attempt out of chagrin and self-accusation for having failed the Vaterland.

When their first shock was over, Professor Heisenberg, who headed one of the main divisions of the German atomic-energy project, rose and delivered a lecture to his colleagues on how the Americans made the atomic bomb. Allied scientists present on that occasion smiled. The Herr Professor was ‘way off the mark.

In the summer of 1941 Germany invaded the Soviet Union.
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