Secret Weapons of World War IIby William B. Breuer
Critical Acclaim for Secret Weapons of World War II
"Breuer has produced yet another collection of rip-roaring tales. . . . A delightful addition to the niche that Breuer has so successfully carved out."
"It is Breuer's portrayal of the competition for technological superiority between the Allies and the Nazis that grabs the
Critical Acclaim for Secret Weapons of World War II
"Breuer has produced yet another collection of rip-roaring tales. . . . A delightful addition to the niche that Breuer has so successfully carved out."
"It is Breuer's portrayal of the competition for technological superiority between the Allies and the Nazis that grabs the reader and shows the significance of each wartime discovery and invention."
-State Journal-Register, Springfield, Illinois
In the fast-paced, suspenseful Secret Weapons of World War II, noted military historian William Breuer chronicles the clandestine battle that occurred between the brilliant scientists and codebreakers of the Allies and the Axis powers. Re-creating the covert missions, hoaxes, spying, conspiracies, and electronic sleuthing, Breuer deftly uncovers the spectacular feats of the fascinating men and women who determined the outcome of the war-providing an unprecedented look at the least-known operations and plots conducted by both sides.
- Turner Publishing Company
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- First Edition
- Product dimensions:
- 5.72(w) x 9.06(h) x 0.67(d)
Read an Excerpt
Triggers Global Search
War clouds were gathering over Europe in mid-1938 when Stewart Menzies, the deputy chief of MI-6, the British secret intelligence service, had been laboring seven-day weeks in his office on Broadway, a side street near Westminster Abbey in London. These were fearful times among government leaders, because the nation's conventional defenses had been allowed to grow alarmingly weak. Now it seemed certain that Adolf Hitler was about ready to launch a war to gain the Third Reich "a place in the sun."
Menzies' special responsibility was collecting information about the secret plans of the German dictator and the strength and disposition of the Wehrmacht, his armed forces. Not since the conclusion of what was then called the Great War, in 1918, had British statesmen felt such a need for in-depth intelligence from inside Germany.
Britain had successfully intercepted and decoded German military and diplomatic telegrams for many years. But in 1934, two years after the German führer seized power, he installed a new and revolutionary communications system developed by Germany's foremost scientists. Since that time, Menzies had directed hundreds of agents in an exhaustive global search to establish the nature of Germany's new modus operandi. All the efforts were in vain.
The target of the ongoing MI-6 investigation was a compact (twenty-four inches square and eighteen inches high) electronic machine enclosed in a wooden box. Until the arrival of this device, encoding anddecoding of messages had been done painstakingly for hours by human hand. Enigma (the ancient Greek word for puzzle), as the intricate machine was called, could accomplish the same thing in only two or three minutes.
Colonel Erich Fellgiebel, the Wehrmacht's chief signals officer, and his scientists had assured Hitler that Enigma would be unbreakable. It was capable of producing twenty-two billion different code combinations. If one person worked continuously day and night and tried a different grouping each minute, it would take him forty-two thousand years to exhaust all combination possibilities.
Even if an Enigma were captured by an enemy, it would be useless, Fellgiebel explained, because a foe would have to know the keying procedure, which was changed almost daily.
What Fellgiebel did not know was that agents of Department BS-4, the cryptographic (codebreaking) section of the Polish secret service, had "acquired" an Enigma. Two renowned Polish mathematicians, Henryk Zygalski and Marian Rejewski, managed to solve some of the Enigma mysteries and read intercepts. But their feat would be of minimal value in wartime, because it was mathematical and took several weeks to decipher even a short message.
In the meantime, a German in civilian clothes who claimed he was an officer in the Forschungsamt, the Third Reich's primary cryptanalytical agency, slipped into the French embassy in Berne, Switzerland. Historically neutral in European armed conflicts over the centuries, Switzerland had been a hotbed for espionage in the Great War, and spies continued to roam the mountainous country since that time.
The German told a top French diplomat that he could make a valuable contribution to the security of France against the Nazi government of his homeland. His motives, he stressed, were ideological.
After asking the mystery caller, who would be code-named "Source D," to return to the embassy in two weeks, the French military attaché immediately contacted "2 bis," the military cryptanalytical bureau in Paris. Secret Service officers were skeptical about Source D's true intentions. It was thought that he might be an agent provocateur sent by the German Abwehr (German intelligence agency) to infiltrate the French espionage apparatus in Switzerland.
After prolonged debate, however, 2 bis officers realized that the German could be an intelligence font of enormous magnitude. So Captain Ramon Navarre was rushed to Berne, where he questioned Source D for many hours.
Navarre's report to 2 bis was blunt: "`Source D' is a genuine German traitor acting out of a lust for money," the French captain declared. Moreover, he added, the German disclosed that Third Reich scientists had developed a coding and decoding apparatus of a completely new type. At the time, French intelligence did not know that the machine was code-named Enigma.
Although 2 bis was not completely sold on the true motivation of the German, Navarre was instructed to pay him a "modest compensation" and promise him a hefty amount of money if he were to provide 2 bis with detailed information about the communications machine.
Ten days later, Source D rendezvoused with Navarre at night in a small café on a quiet side street in Brussels, Belgium. The mystery German brought with him a monumental intelligence gold minea far richer lode than 2 bis officers had envisioned. There was a manual with the word "Secret" in large letters on the cover. The booklet contained detailed instructions on how to operate Enigma. The German also brought along a sample of a page of coded text together with its plain text match.
Navarre was both electrified and suspicious. Were these materials genuine, or a component of an elaborate Abwehr scheme to achieve some unknown objective? However, the Frenchman handed the other man a generous payment in German marks, with a promise that there would be much ore cash for the traitor if French technicians in Paris found the information to be authentic.
Source D's data were, indeed, legitimate. French scientists found the materials capable of producing a working replica of Enigma. Source D continued to send invaluable information to 2 bis through Captain Navarre, including keying changes used by the Wehrmacht to stymie any outside entity that might try to crack Enigma.
Consequently, French intelligence was able to decode secret German communications. But this gargantuan espionage coup could last only as long as Source D retained his freedom and was able to furnish the keying changes.
In early 1939, the British were convinced that it would be essential to get hold of a genuine Enigma machine if there would be any chance of breaking into its mysteries. Consequently, British agents contacted the Polish Secret Service.
Polish and British secret agents knew the location of the German factory where the Enigmas were built and the security measures in place to protect the machines. Moreover, several Poles had been planted in the facility and were using German names. It was decided to have these undercover operatives steal an Enigma machine.
Almost in days, the Polish spies in the Enigma factory smuggled one of the devices out of the building and eventually to Warsawan incredible espionage feat.
Meanwhile, Commander Alastair Denniston, who had been involved in cryptography since serving in the British Admiralty in the Great War, slipped out of London in civilian clothes and traveled to Warsaw. Denniston's reserved demeanor in no way reflected his coolness in tight situations.
A few days after his clandestine arrival, Denniston rendezvoused with Polish Secret Service agents and was handed the genuine, brand-new Enigma machine stolen from the German factory. Then he sneaked out of Poland and arrived in London.
Now Menzies and MI-6 had an Enigma machine in their possession. But leading British scientists, mathematicians, and cryptanalysts concluded that there was only one method to penetrate Enigma and produce intelligence rapidly enough to be of use in wartime: develop another machine that could imitate the performance of the German device. The envisioned machine would have to be capable of making an almost infinite series of intricate mathematical calculations within a few minutes.
To tighten the security around efforts to penetrate Enigma, Polish, British, and French intelligence agents held the first of a series of top-secret conferences on January 9, 1939, at Château Vignolle, twenty-five miles from Paris. A crucial decision was reached: because Poland and France might be overrun by the Wehrmacht in the event of war, all vital papers, machines, and personnel connected with Enigma would be concentrated in England.
At a rendezvous in the Pyry forest near Warsaw, Polish intelligence officers handed over to British agents everything in their possession regarding Enigma. These precious documents were taken under heavy guard to London on July 24, 1939.
Five weeks later, Adolf Hitler unleashed his mighty Wehrmacht against Poland, whose armed forces were undermanned and ill-equipped. Despite heroic resistance by the Poles, the German Army conquered the nation in only six weeks.
With the capture of Warsaw, the invaders quickly collected all the intelligence documents they could locate. They most certainly would have learned that the two Poles, Henryk Zygalski and Marian Rejewski, had mathematically penetrated Enigma if British agents, a day earlier, had not sneaked the two men across the border into Romania. They were then escorted to Château Vignolle to work with the French on the Enigma-penetration project.
In the meantime, a team of Great Britain's foremost scientists and mathematicians, led by Alan Turing and Alfred Knox, began to develop the theoretical machine that, hopefully, would mechanically decipher Enigma in only minutes. They set up shop in a large, stone Victorian mansion forty miles north of London and just outside the serene little town of Bletchley Park.
Turing and Knox were as eccentric as they were brilliant. Fifty-six-year-old "Dilly" Knox, who seemed to be in a perpetual state of abstraction, was regarded as an exceptional mathematical logician. He was the son of the bishop of Manchester and had belonged to the Admiralty's cryptanalytical bureau in World War I. His first main success then had been solving a complicated German code while taking a bath.
After that war, the tall, gangling Knox spent eight years translating the seven hundred verses of Herodas, a third-century poet, working from the original papyri. It was an enormous cryptanalytical feat, and it gained him a wide reputation in the intellectual circles of Europe.
Turing, the younger of the two men, was also a mathematical genius. In the 1930s he attended the Institute for Advanced Studies at elite Princeton University in the United States, where his professor was a refugee from Nazi Germany, Albert Einstein.
Despite his recognized braininess, Turing had a childlike aspect to his personality. Each night at Bletchley Park, he listened avidly to Toytown, a children's series about Larry the Lamb on BBC radio. He kept the long-distance telephone line open to his mother so they could discuss each aspect of Toytown as the story unfolded.
When war threatened to erupt, Turing converted his money into silver ingots, buried them, then forgot where the precious bars were secreted. And, once, although there was no threat of gas warfare, he was arrested by a constable who found him strolling along a country lane near Bletchley Park at night while wearing a gas mask.
Periodically, Turing would be summoned to a conference in London. Instead of taking the automobile that was made available to him, he often ran the forty miles from Bletchley Park in a worn old flannel outfit with a large alarm clock tied with a rope around his waist.
Utilizing their own and Polish and French research information and the Polish-supplied Enigma machine, the intellectuals at Bletchley Park labored month after month, never knowing if the job could be done. Eventually they began to despair. Then, on the eve of Great Britain going to war against Nazi Germany on September 3, 1939, they hit the jackpot.
The Bomb, as its creators called their amazing creation, was able to match the electrical circuits of Enigma, permitting the device to imitate the daily change in keying procedures by the Germans. Information obtained by the system was code-named Ultra.
Development of the Bomb would prove to be a technological achievement and an intelligence bonanza of unprecedented magnitude. From this point onward (not all the bugs would be eliminated until April 1940), the British (and later the Americans) would know the precise strength and location of German units and be advised in advance of enemy moves and intentions.
Stealing America's Radar Secrets
At Café Hindenburg in the German-American section called Yorkville in New York City, a raucous celebration was ushering in New Year 1939. As the night wore on and as copious amounts of schnapps, cognac, beer, and wine were consumed, the din grew deafening.
At one table, Karl Schlueter, a steward on the German luxury ocean liner Europa, then docked in the Hudson River, was host to a group of friends and vying for the honor of being the drunkest and the loudest. Between hefty belts of schnapps, Schlueter pawed amorously at his attractive girlfriend, twenty-seven-year-old Johanna "Jenni" Hofman, a hairdresser on the ship.
Actually, Schlueter was a spy, the Orstgruppenführer (Nazi party official) who had total control of Europa under the cover of being a lowly steward. Jenni Hofman was his courier.
During the boisterous merrymaking at Café Hindenburg, Schlueter engaged in periodic conversation with a guest at his table whom he called Theo. A medium-sized man with black hair brushed straight back, Theo was the code name for Günther Gustav Rumrich, one of the slickest and most productive Nazi spies in the United States.
Rumrich was born in Chicago, where his father, Alphonse, had been secretary of the Austro-Hungarian consulate. When Günther was two years old, his father was transferred to a post in Bremen, Germany, and the boy grew up in a Europe ravaged by the Great War. At age eighteen he learned that because of his birth in Chicago, he was an American citizen. So on September 28, 1929, he arrived by ship in New York City to seek his fortune.
A curious mixture of shiftlessness, arrogance, cunning, and brilliance, Rumrich drifted from job to job around the country, including a hitch in the peacetime U.S. Army. Discharged from the service in 1936, he came to New York City and was recruited as an agent by the Abwehr, the German intelligence agency. Finally Rumrich had found his calling: he could live by his brains without having to exert much energy.
When Adolf Hitler had begun rearming Germany in the mid-1930s, he concluded that the United States, with its gigantic industrial potential, would be the "decisive factor" in any future war. So his secret intelligence service in the years ahead clandestinely established in America the most massive espionage penetration of a major power that history had known.
In the late 1930s, the United States was a spy's paradise. No single federal agency was charged with fighting subversive activities, so spies roamed at will. Security at military installations was almost nonexistent. When one U.S. general commanding a large post in the East was asked what steps he had taken to guard against espionage, he said with a snort, "Don't you think I'd know it if there was a Nazi spy running around here?"
Now, amid the hubbub of the New Year's festivities at Café Hindenburg, Orstgruppenführer Schlueter took Günther Rumrich into a side room and handed him his new assignment: he was to obtain detailed intelligence about secret research that scientists with the Signal Corps were conducting at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. Reputedly, these experiments involved techniques for detecting aircraft at night, in fog, and through thick cloudsa process that later would be known as radar.
Neither Schlueter nor Rumrich knew that German scientists in Berlin had secretly been making great progress in developing radar, so any information on the topic extracted from the American camp would be of enormous benefit. Already the international scientific coterie had become convinced that radar would play a decisive role in any future war.
A few days later, Rumrich crossed the Hudson River and drove up to the main gate at Fort Monmouth, where supposedly top-secret experiments were being conducted. A bored sentry simply waved the Nazi spy through the entrance and went back to reading a comic book.
Rumrich, a friendly, engaging fellow, meandered around the post unchallenged, striking up conversations with army officers and scientists alike. He had no trouble locating the site of the secret experiments: he had merely asked a captain where the radar tests were taking place.
Rumrich continued his sleuthing at Fort Monmouth in the days ahead, and he was able to collect an enormous amount of intelligence on radar research and experiments. Moreover, he obtained information on other secret tests: infrared detection, and an antiaircraft detector for searchlight control and automatic gun sighting.
When Karl Schlueter returned to New York City on Europa a month later, Rumrich handed him a thick packet of scientific intelligence he had collected at Fort Monmouth. Schlueter was delighted and handed over a present from the spymasters in Germany: a one-hundred-dollar bill, more money than Rumrich had made in an entire year as a soldier in the U.S. Army.
History's Most Important Letter
Thirty-seven-year-old Enrico Fermi, a professor of theoretical physics at the University of Rome, and his family were euphoric: he had just been notified of his selection to receive the Nobel Prize in physics for his work on nuclear processes. Established by a Swedish chemist, Alfred Nobel, who had invented dynamite, the prestigious awards go annually to persons who have made valuable contributions to "the good of humanity in their fields." It was December 1938.
A week later, Fermi; his wife, Laura; and the couple's two children arrived in Stockholm for the Nobel award presentation. Using his prize money, the renowned physicist was able to sail with his family to New York City, arriving there on January 2, 1939. America would be the Fermi family's adopted land.
What the Italian family kept to itself was that the entire tripfrom Rome to Stockholm to New York Cityhad been carefully orchestrated to avoid trouble along the way, because the family was fleeing from Italy's newly decreed anti-Semitic laws. These oppressive regulations were regarded as a serious threat to Laura, who was Jewish, and to the couple's two children, who were half Jewish. Fermi himself was "pure" Italian.
In the United States, Fermi joined a distinguished coterie of physicists, all of whom were refugees from brutal dictatorships in Europe. They included Albert Einstein, who had fled Germany after Adolf Hitler came to power when the Nazi regime confiscated his property and ousted him as director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics because he was Jewish. In the United States, the famous physicist had accepted an appointment to head Princeton's new Institute for Advanced Study.
Other brilliant Jewish scientists who had immigrated to the United States were the Hungarians Leo Szilard, Edward Teller, and Eugene Wigner, and the Austrian Victor Weisskopfall of whom had had personal experience with the barbarous conduct of nations headed by dictators.
At about the same time that Enrico Fermi had been in Stockholm to accept his Nobel Prize, two renowned German physicists, Fritz Strassman and Otto Hahn, who were considered to be far ahead of anyone else in the world in theoretical research into nuclear energy, split the atom when they bombarded uranium with neutrons. They called this process fission.
Neither Hahn nor Strassman, nor any other scientist, realized at the time that the two Germans were on a course toward developing the most powerful weapon that history has known. Fortunately for the free world, Adolf Hitler, who was drawing up plans to go to war in the fall of 1939, did not grasp the significance of nuclear energy as an ultimate weapon. So he raised no objection to Strassman and Hahn publishing their startling findings in scientific journals distributed around the world.
The electrifying news from Nazi Germany deeply worried the band of émigré scientists in the United States. They were haunted by the specter of the Germans developing an atomic bomb for which there would be no defense, a weapon that would give Adolf Hitler control of the world.
Consequently, these émigrés began an informal yet fervent campaign to encourage scientists in the Western democracies to cease publishing developments in nuclear physics that might assist Germany and Italy toward atomic explosives.
One leading American-born physicist, Harvard's Percy W. Bridgman, announced in Science, the publication of the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science), that from that point onward he would no longer publicize or discuss his experiments with the citizens of any totalitarian state.
"A citizen of such a state is no longer a free individual, and he may be compelled in any activity including [building atomic explosives] to advance the purposes of the state," Bridgman explained.
Bridgman's announcement brought a shower of condemnation on him from other American scientists, and from several in Europe, including Niels Bohr, a Danish physicist who was a sort of guru and confessor to the international scientific community. Bridgman, his critics charged, was guilty of betraying the basic principle of free inquiry for the benefit of all humankind.
Enrico Fermi and the others in the group of émigré physicists were also appalled and frustrated by the apathy toward and ignorance of the potential danger from the Hahn/Strassman experiments by leaders of America's armed forces. So Fermi obtained a letter of introduction from George Pegram, a noted physics professor and graduate dean at Columbia University, to Rear Admiral S. C. Hooper in the office of the chief of naval operations.
On March 17, 1939, Fermi entered the navy headquarters in Washington to sound the alarm to Admiral Hooper. But instead of an interview with this high-ranking officer, Fermi was ushered into a small room to tell his tale to two young lieutenant commanders. They listened politely as Fermi, handicapped by often faulty English, struggled to impress on the U.S. Navy the enormous significance of the new nuclear energy discoveries.
After the Italian émigré departed, it was later reported that one of the navy officers said to the other, "That Wop is crazy as hell!"
Whether or not that story was accurate, it reflected the officers' evident attitude toward the nuclear energy "nonsense." For his part, Fermi left the building fuming, feeling that he, a scientist of world renown who had been trying to alert his adopted country, had been personally insulted. He pledged never again to communicate with American military officers.
During the next few months, the coterie of refugee scientists watched helplessly as one clue after another indicated that Germany's leading chemists and physicists were being concentrated in the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics in Berlin, where they were involved with uranium, a key ingredient in the possible creation of a gargantuan explosive. Nazi officials were trying desperately to import the element from the Belgian Congo, the principal source of uranium.
In the summer of 1939, the Hungarians Leo Szilard and Eugene Wigner drove in a dilapidated automobile to a secluded cottage on the Long Island shore where Albert Einstein was taking a brief vacation. They were convinced that Einstein was the only physicist in the United States who had the prestige and the popularity to gain a sympathetic hearing from leading government officials. The two Hungarians persuaded the pacifist Einstein to agree to write, or to sign, a letter that might open a top-level door in Washington.
A few days after obtaining Einstein's pledge, Szilard was discussing the apathy toward the nuclear energy threat by the Roosevelt administration with Alexander Sachs, a Russian-born economist. Szilard had been introduced to Sachs by Gustav Stolper, a former member of the German Reichstag who had fled from Nazi Germany. Sachs always kept a close watch on scientific developments in Europe, Stolper had told Szilard, and was said to have access to the White House.
In his conversation with Szilard, Sachs immediately grasped the potential danger if Adolf Hitler got his hands on an ultimate weapon resulting from the taming of nuclear energy. Moreover, the Russian émigré said that President Roosevelt should be informed at once.
Sachs told Szilard that if he, Sachs, were given a letter signed by Albert Einstein, he would make sure that it personally reached Roosevelt. Consequently, Einstein agreed with Szilard that Sachs was the ideal person to deliver a written message to the president.
Dated August 2, 1939, the clumsily composed letter signed by Einstein said in part:
In the course of the last four months it has been made probably ... to set up nuclear chain reactions in a large mass of uranium, by which large amounts of power and large quantities of new radium-like elements could be achieved in the immediate future.
This new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs and it is conceivable ... that a single bomb ... might very well destroy [an entire city] and some of the surrounding territory.
In view of this situation, you may wish to speed up the experimental work, which is at present being carried out on limited budgets in university laboratories, by providing funds.
No one could know it at the time, but it would prove to be history's most important letter.
Now Alexander Sachs had the letter in his hand, but he was soon confronted by Washington stonewalling. He contacted Major General Edwin M. "Pa" Watson, Roosevelt's congenial military aide and confidant, and urgently asked for an appointment with the president, emphasizing that the secret information he wished to give him was of extreme significance.
However, Roosevelt was at the family estate at Hyde Park, overlooking the broad Hudson River north of New York City, and his time was fully occupied with signing or vetoing the blizzard of bills ramrodded through Congress during the final few days of the session recently concluded. Therefore, Pa Watson explained, the president could not work in an appointment with Sachs to discuss some vague subject referred to as nuclear energy and chain reactions.
Ten days passed. Leo Szilard and Eugene Wigner grew steadily more anxious and frustrated. Why hadn't their emissary given the Einstein letter to Roosevelt by now? Sachs counseled patience.
Then the two Hungarian refugees' patience was again put to the test. Sachs informed them that the president had boarded his private yacht and left for a vacation cruise.
Meanwhile, war had broken out in Europe on September 1, 1939, when Adolf Hitler sent his powerful Wehrmacht plunging into neighboring Poland. As a result, Szilard and Wigner grew even more restless. On October 3, 1939, Szilard wrote to Albert Einstein saying that "there is a distinct possibility that Sachs will be of no use to us," adding that he and Wigner had decided to "accord Sachs ten days' grace."
Curiously, on October 11, near the end of the "grace period," Alexander Sachs was finally granted an interview with Franklin Roosevelt, and he was ushered into the Oval Office by Pa Watson. Roosevelt, always "onstage," greeted the guest warmly. "Alex!" he called out as though Sachs's appearance was a pleasant surprise, "What are you up to?"
It was a meeting of two highly loquacious men. The forty-six-year-old Sachs asked for permission to read aloud three documents he had brought along to hand over to the president. No doubt Sachs knew that Roosevelt often liked to listen to verbal accounts as opposed to reading all of them. The chief executive nodded his approval.
The documents were Einstein's letter, a memo from Leo Szilard, and a letter from Sachs himself. Slowly, deliberately, emphasizing key points, Sachs read the materials aloud. In conclusion, Sachs quoted a remark from a lecture by the British physicist Francis Aston:
"Personally, I think there is no doubt that atomic energy is available all around us, and that one day man will release and control its almost infinite power. We cannot prevent him from doing so and can only hope he will not use it exclusively for blowing up his next-door neighbor."
These haunting words apparently echoed in Roosevelt's mind. After several moments of silence he said, "What you are after, Alex, is to see to it that the Nazis don't blow us up!"
"Precisely!" Sachs replied.
Roosevelt then summoned General Watson and handed over the Einstein letter and the two other documents. "Pa," the president said solemnly, "this requires action!"
Genial Pa Watson could be excused if the nuclear energy field eluded his mental capacity. Few others in or outside government could comprehend it either. And with Roosevelt swamped by countless other major problems, the "required action" evolved into a few tiny steps toward organizing an effective working relationship between the U.S. government and the scientific community.
Out of the Sachs presentation of Einstein's letter to Roosevelt there was established a presidential Advisory Committee on Uranium within the National Bureau of Standards.
When the eager physicistsLeo Szilard, Edward Teller, and Eugene Wignermet with the panel for the first time on October 21, they were appalled to discover that the sense of extreme urgency, of potential fatal danger that they had tried desperately to instill in the federal government was absent.
The chairman of the advisory committee was the elderly director of the Bureau of Standards, Lyman J. Briggs, who had been in government service for more than forty years, usually in administrative posts. Although a physicist by training, his specialty had been soil physicsand it had been three decades since he had done research in that field. Established by an act of Congress in 1901, the bureau is the nation's physics laboratory, charged with applying science and technology in the national interest.
It was soon clear to Szilard, Teller, and Wigner that they were dealing with not a fellow physicist, but a long-entrenched bureaucrat who garbed himself in the protective coloration of not making decisive decisions.
Also on the Uranium committee were an army ordnance expert, Lieutenant Colonel Keith F. Adamson, and a navy weapons specialist, Commander Gilbert C. Hoover. These officers would prove to be especially offensive to the three Hungarians because of the crude manner in which they expressed their doubts.
Leo Szilard led off the discussion by stressing the possibility of a chain reaction in a uranium-graphite system. A large-scale experiment might be needed. He estimated the destructive power of a uranium bomb to be about twenty thousand tons of high-explosive equivalent.
Colonel Adamson loudly interrupted the speaker. "In Aberdeen we have a goat tethered to a stick with a ten-foot rope, and we have promised a big prize to anyone who can kill the goat with a death ray. Nobody has claimed the prize yet." (Aberdeen Proving Ground is a facility in Maryland where the U.S. Army tested new weapons and equipment.)
Referring to the twenty thousand tons of dynamite, Adamson declared contemptuously that he had once been standing outside an ordnance depot when it blew up and the blast hadn't even knocked him down.
Restraining their anger, Edward Teller and Eugene Wigner, both handicapped by language difficulties, did their best to support Szilard's arguments, but each was interrupted numerous times by barbs from Adamson and Hoover.
Despite the sluggishness and skepticism of the advisory committee, Chairman Briggs made a written report to President Roosevelt on November 1. Surprisingly, the document had a positive tone. It recommended the funding of research into the possibility of using a controlled chain reaction to power submarines, and that if the reaction resulted in being "explosive in character" it might "provide a possible source of bombs with a destructiveness far greater than anything known."
Albert Einstein's letter had finally paid off.
Meet the Author
WILLIAM B. BREUER is a military historian and author of more than twenty-six books, ten of which have been main selections of the Military Book Club. They include Undercover Tales of World War II, Unexplained Mysteries of World War II, The Great Raid on Cabanatuan, Feuding Allies, and MacArthur's Undercover War, all published by Wiley.
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