During the final weeks of World War II in Europe, as Allied armies swept across a battle torn Germany, two teams of the world’s leading nuclear scientists were desperately at work. One team in the New Mexico desert hastening to assemble the atomic bombs that would be used later in the summer; the other team, a group of Nazi-sponsored physicists and technicians in southern Germany struggled to build a critical, self-sustaining nuclear reactor.
The Race for the Bomb
Nuclear fission was discovered in Germany in 1938. By the beginning of World War II, the international scientific community was well aware of the early German lead in this area of nuclear physics. History confirms that the German nuclear project was about two years ahead of Britain, France, and the United States.
The Alsos MissionAs the work of the Manhattan Project scientists, under J. Robert Oppenheimer, progressed, it became reasonable to assume that Germany was on the same path. Years earlier, Albert Einstein had cautioned President Roosevelt that this would happen.
The Director of the Manhattan Project, Gen. Leslie R. Groves, developed the idea for a covert mission to find the German scientific team before they could provide Hitler with atomic power. The mission was to acquire all available German research and materials (including uranium), capture any scientists involved with the German project, and destroy any reactor facilities if possible.
It was called the “Alsos Mission” and was under the control of Manhattan Project personnel. “Alsos” is a Greek word ironically translated as “groves.” The Alsos Team in the field was co-directed by two men, Col. Boris T. Pash and Dr. Samuel A. Goudsmit. The mission staff included seven military officers and 33 scientists. Boris Pash was a highly effective military intelligence officer who was the head of security for the Manhattan Project and was the chief military leader of the mission. Samuel Goudsmit was a well known Dutch-American physicist and archaeologist and was the leader of the mission’s scientific team.
Information and documents captured at Strasbourg University in 1943 indicated that the remaining German center for research into the production of an atomic bomb was located at the small town of Hechingen, a few miles outside of Stuttgart.
In April of 1945, the covert task force of scientists, soldiers, and secret agents were sent into Germany to follow in the wake of the U.S. Army’s advance. The plan was for the Alsos team to accompany General Brooks’ VI Corps in its drive to cut the roads south of Stuttgart. Afterwards the team would make a dash for Hechingen, escorted by infantry detached from the Corps.
Secret Mission in Bavaria
General Alexander Patch, Commander of the U.S. 7th Army, with one armored division and three infantry divisions was attacking toward Stuttgart. The drive was supposed to be coordinated with General de Lattre’s First French Army coming up to attack through the Black Forest. Once Stuttgart was taken, it would be administered by the U.S. Military Government, as the city would be part of the American Zone of Occupation. But urged on by Charles de Gaulle, de Lattre was driving all out for Stuttgart. French prestige demanded that the major German city of the area should be taken by a French Army.
Unknowingly, the French were endangering the highly secret American effort to find the German nuclear scientists - the Alsos Mission, whose job it was to capture German scientists and material relating to German nuclear fission.
The thought of the French obtaining the key nuclear fission information and capturing the chief scientists sent a shiver down the backs of Eisenhower and George Marshall. General Groves, who was in charge of the U.S. atomic research project, distrusted the French nuclear scientists intensely. There were open Communist sympathizers throughout France and Madame Joliot-Curie, the leading French scientist, was thought to be a Communist. The Americans thought that she would simply hand over the captured German material to the Russians on a silver platter.
American Gen. Jacob Devers, 6th Army Group commander and technically the superior officer for de Lattre, threatened to cut off supplies to de Lattre if he did not relinquish Stuttgart. Eisenhower tried to cool the situation by writing de Gaulle and deploring de Lattre’s ongoing defiance of Dever’s orders, but assuring him that supplies would not be impeded. Even though most of the ranking military figures knew nothing about the Alsos mission, they were told that the American occupation of Stuttgart was considered an extreme high priority.
Behind the scenes there was near panic at Supreme Headquarters. Secretary of War Stimson and General of the Army Marshall planned a campaign which would authorize a reinforced U.S. Army corps to cut right through the French zone of operations to take and hold Hechingen, whether the French liked it or not. Cooler heads prevailed, however.
The French Connection
Under the command of Pash, the team, reinforced by an escort of combat troops from the Seventh Army, set off to cross French territory, without French permission, to reach the German scientists at Hechingen. Pash, a bold and imaginative soldier, bluffed his way across the first bridge in his path which was guarded by de Lattre’s soldiers. He made a long, long speech to the officer in charge about how proud General Devers was that the French had captured this particular bridge and how Devers was sure that they would hold it against all odds. Then while his interpreter very slowly translated the speech into French, Pash quietly led the rest of his column across the bridge. Before the French realized the fact that they had been tricked, the Alsos team and its escorts had vanished down the road.
A little later, Pash was caught up to by a French officer in a vehicle. He thought that the Americans were heading for Sigmaringen, where Marshal Petain and the rest of the German-aligned Vichy Government had fled the previous year. Pash assured the Frenchman eloquently that he was not about to butt into their affairs. The capture of Petain and his traitors was strictly a matter for the French. Pash was allowed to continue. The miles passed as the column moved down the dusty spring roads which had yet to see an Allied soldier. Within sight of Hechingen, Pash stopped for a while and then signaled to the nearest French Headquarters that the French should stay out of the area for a few hours, “because it is soon to be subjected to a heavy bombardment by American artillery.”
On the morning of April 24th, while the French hesitated, Col. Pash and his men moved into Hechingen. There was a small arms fight which lasted about an hour and then the town was American. Hastily, the Alsos team started to search for the precious research documents and, more importantly, the German research scientists. They didn’t have to search for long.
Pash’s Seventh Army troops seized the atomic physics laboratory and took Hahn, von Weizacker, von Laue, and others prisoner in their offices and at their homes. Pash and Goudsmit interrogated the scientists himselves. The Germans were only too eager to change sides. Just like Wernher von Braun, the scientist whose rockets had killed 16,000 Londoners that winter, they were attracted by the land of Uncle Sam.
The soldiers were ordered to blow up the cellar. Then the parish priest took Col. Pash into the baroque church directly above the cellar and explained that the destruction of the cellar would also mean the destruction of the church. Knowing this, the Americans confined themselves to limited demolition operations in the cellar.
The German nuclear scientists were spirited out of Hechingen from underneath French noses, and were on their way to England within the month. They were taken to the secret Farm Hall facility where they were kept under guard. But, unknown to them, their conversations were recorded. The German scientists discussed the events at Hiroshima and their own failed program. Some clearly disliked Hitler’s National Socialist cause they were forced to serve, while others still claimed loyalty to it.
Why, after their spectacular early successes, did German nuclear research efforts fail so miserably? Heisenberg believed that the NAZI project suffered from a lack of focus in the early stages. They never clearly theorized a practical explosive device. Alsos science leader, Samuel Goudsmit, thought that sloppy mathematics by Heisenberg had miscalculated the design of the reactor. Others thought that Germany just lacked the motivation to build the bomb. Whatever the reason, the war had finally ended with success for the Allies.
(An interesting side note to history is that Werner Heisenberg, the physicist and leader of the German nuclear team, was a good friend of both Heinrich Himmler, Reichsfuhrer of the SS and Gestapo, and J. Robert Oppenheimer, the chief physicist of the Manhattan Project.)