McNair Paper 41, Radical Responses to Radical Regimes: Evaluating Preemptive Counter-Proliferation, May 1995

Institute for National Strategic Studies


McNair Paper Number 41, Radical Responses to Radical Regimes: Evaluating Preemptive Counter-Proliferation, May 1995

Preventing NAZI A-Bombs

At the inception of World War II, leading physicists on all sides were cognizant of the possible revolution in explosive power that might be extracted from a uranium bomb. However, each side was faced with a huge investment and scientific challenge before theoretical knowledge could be converted into an operational atomic weapon.

American and British nuclear physicists felt they started their A-bomb projects considerably behind their German counterparts and feared Hitler's forces would be the first to have use of atomic arms. This evaluation was based on a number of considerations: (Note 23)

Attacks on German nuclear installations from 1941 until the end of 1943 were not effective in doing more than harassing the German nuclear research effort. A key target was the German-controlled heavy water production plant, Norsk-Hydro, at Vemork, Norway. (Note 25) Heavy water was required to conduct nuclear fission experiments and denial of the Norwegian plant's output would cripple the German atomic bomb research effort.

British intelligence recommended destruction of Nosrk-Hydro at the earliest possible date. British paratroopers failed in their first raid in late 1942 when their gliders crashed during infiltration. In February 1943, six Norwegian saboteurs supplied and trained by the British, dynamited the heavy water facilities and disrupted production at Norsk-Hydro for two months. Upon seeing a resumption of German production at the site, the RAF and American Eighth Air Force dropped over 400 bombs on the plant on November 16, 1943, inflicting only light damage. (Note 26)

This raid, however, had positive results in that it persuaded the German authorities that Norsk-Hydro was an unsafe location for their heavy water production. Berlin decided to move every-thing back to Germany. This was a fatal mistake.

British intelligence learned of the timing and route of the German shipment of heavy water to Germany, and positioned a Norwegian saboteur, Knut Haukelid, aboard a ferry Hydro carrying all 600 kilograms of Germany's heavy water across Lake Tinnsjoe in Norway while enroute to Germany. (Note 27) The ferry Hydro sank and, with it, Germany's hopes of getting an atomic bomb before the end of World War II. (Note 28) This was the first nuclear counter-proliferation operation in history and it worked.

Uncertain of this fact, however, the allies continued to fear that Germany might achieve the bomb and snatch final victory from defeat before they could overcome the Nazi forces in the field. Allied bombers continued to pound and destroy a number of German research laboratories until the end of the war, further retarding Nazi A-bomb possibilities.

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