Posts tagged heavy water

December 2, 1942: The Graphite Piles Up

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“The Italian navigator has landed in the New World.”

“How were the natives?”

“Very friendly.”

With these code words, Arthur Compton, head of the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago, notified James Conant, chair of the National Defense Research Committee (overseeing the Manhattan Project), that the world’s first successful, man-made, self-sustaining chain reaction had taken place, in a squash court beneath the viewing stands at Stagg Field, University of Chicago.

Other observers were a bit more loquacious:

“Nothing very spectacular had happened.  Nothing had moved, and the pile itself had given no sound. . .. We had known that we were about to unlock a giant; still, we could not escape an eerie feeling when we knew we had actually done it.  We felt as, I presume, everyone feels who has done something that he knows will have very far-reaching consequences which he cannot foresee.”

With the earlier discovery of nuclear fission by German scientists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, as explained and named by their collaborators Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch, it was known that the possibility of creating a self-sustaining chain reaction was possible.  However, finding the right material—one that would produce more splitting neutrons than it absorbed, and the right moderating material, to control the activity of those loose neutrons, had proved difficult.

It was up to Hungarian Jewish émigré Leo Szilard, who fled Hitler in 1933, to establish at Columbia University that fission of uranium produced more neutrons than it consumed, and it was up to Enrico Fermi, another émigré fleeing persecution in Italy in 1938—his wife was Jewish—to construct the first nuclear reactor, known as Chicago Pile-1, or CP-1.  (Fermi is the “Italian navigator” mentioned in the coded message above, and CP-1 is the “pile” referred to in the above quote)

CP-1

Pile was a very appropriate descriptor, for, in the words of Fermi, his primitive reactor was “a crude pile of black bricks and wooden timbers.”  The final structure required 45 tons of uranium oxide and 5.4 tons of uranium metal, all encased in 45,000 ultra-pure graphite blocks weighing a total of 360 tons.  (Graphite was the moderator needed to control the activity of the neutrons; heavy water, the only other suitable moderator, was too difficult to obtain in large quantities).  When completed, the elliptically-shaped pile stood 20 feet high, 6 feet wide at the ends, and 25 feet across the middle.

The team that worked on CP-1. Fermi is front row, on left; Szilard is second row on right (in white trench coat)

On the fateful afternoon of December 2, 1942, CP-1 was ready.  The control rods were slowly removed, and pile went critical (self-sustaining) at 3:25 PM.  Having run for approximately 4-5 minutes, and having generated about 0.5 watts of power, it was shut down.  A scientist in the party opened a bottle of Chianti, and all toasted the event from paper cups.  It was the first demonstration that a nuclear device was now feasible, a turning point in the evolution of the Manhattan Project, with consequences we are still living with today.  As Leo Szilard observed when he at last proved fission was possible: “That night, there was very little doubt in my mind that the world was headed for grief.”

At The Lanier Library

This past Thursday I gave a lecture at The Lanier Library (where I am a proud member of the board), located in my hometown of Tryon, NC. The talk was entitled “The Heavy Water War: Stopping Hitler’s Atomic Bomb.”  It focused on the years-long struggle by the Allies to prevent the Germans from obtaining heavy water—a crucial moderator, as noted above—from the only available source, a facility in Rjukan, Norway.  After my talk ended, a library member named Betty, sitting in the front row, approached me, and shared with me that her mother had worked on CP-1 during the war years, and for her efforts, had been awarded a piece of the graphite pile used.  Here it is:

Talk about a small world!  Thanks again, Betty

Justice at Nuremberg–or not?

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“This, then, is the climax!  This is the moment you have been waiting for all these black, despairing years!  To see Justice catch up with Evil.  To see it overtake these barbaric little men who almost destroyed our world.  This, really, is the end of the long night, of the hideous nightmare.

And how the mighty have fallen! . . . Why, the sudden loss of power seems to have stripped them clean of the arrogance, the insolence, the truculence that was their very being in all the years I knew them.  How quickly they have become broken, miserable little men!”

Written by William L. Shirer, Tuesday, November 20, 1945, Nuremberg, Germany.

Seventy-eight years ago today, the first Nuremberg war crimes trial, also known as the International Military Tribunal, began.  Twenty-four of the most important political and military leaders of Nazi Germany were on trial for, among other things, crimes against humanity.

The United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union were making good on the promise they had made just over two years earlier, in the so-called Moscow Declaration of November 1, 1943. There, the three big Allied powers did “solemnly declare and give warning . . . as follows: At the time of granting of any armistice to any government which may be set up in Germany, those German officers and men and members of the Nazi party who have been responsible for, or have taken a consenting part in the above . . . atrocities, massacres and executions, will be sent back to the countries in which their abominable deeds were done in order that they may be judged and punished according to the laws of those liberated countries.”   Where such offenses had no geographic locale, the criminals would be punished by a joint decision of the Allies.

The Judges

The Nuremberg trials were the result.  The prosecution, led by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, wanted more than to simply win convictions against the initial 24 defendants.  They wanted the proceedings to 1) provide “irrefutable evidence” of Nazi war crimes, 2) offer a “history lesson” to the defeated German nation, and 3) delegitimize the traditional German elite.  Proceedings began on November 20, 1945, and ended on October 10, 1946. Of the 24 initially charged, 12 were sentenced to death by hanging, 7 received sentences ranging from ten years to life imprisonment, 3 were acquitted, 1 was deemed physically incapable of standing trial, and 1 died by suicide before the trial could begin.

The hangings were all carried out on October 16, 1946.  Among the 10 actually hanged (Martin Bormann had been sentenced in absentia, and Herman Göring, died by suicide the day prior to his scheduled execution), was Wilhelm Keitel, the head of the OKW (Supreme Command of Armed Forces).

November 20 also marks an anniversary of another sort with particular relevance to Keitel.  Those of you who have heard my lecture on the heavy water war/Vemork raid, have learned of the tragic fate of the 30 British demolition experts who took part in Operation Freshman (November 19/20, 1942), the attempt to destroy the Norwegian heavy water facility at Vemork.  The plan called for the sappers to land in Norway in two gliders, destroy the facility, and try and escape to neighboring Sweden.  Such an escape called for evasion over hundreds of miles of Norwegian terrain (in the middle of winter) despite the fact that the sappers could hardly speak a word of Norwegian. In other words, the odds of a successful evasion were practically nil.  By wearing British uniforms, however, the attackers could feel safe in the knowledge that, under the Geneva Convention, they would, if captured, be interned as POWs for the duration of the war.

What the sappers did not realize, however, was that Hitler had decreed that any enemy soldier caught in a commando operation was to be killed immediately, uniform or no, the Geneva Convention notwithstanding.  On November 20, 1942, those surviving British sappers in glider #2 were immediately executed pursuant to the so-called Commando Oder, which had been signed by none other than Keitel in October 1942. It is thus ironic that exactly three years after the deaths of the British commandos, Keitel would stand trial for his actions.  By signing the Commando Order, Wilhelm Keitel had sealed his own fate. Whether he realized the coincidence is unknown, although perhaps the enormity of his crimes finally sank in when his request to be shot by a firing squad was rejected by the Allies in favor of death by hanging.

The Defendants

Subsequent war trials at Nuremberg targeted a further 177 military and party leaders, leading to 142 additional convictions, and 25 death sentences. This represented a small fraction of the almost 100,000 Germans initially arrested as war criminals, and the 2,500 “major” war criminals identified by the Allies.

Although other war trials were also held in subsequent years in various venues outside of Nuremberg, the numbers convicted, and their sentences, like that of General von Falkenhorst* represent an exceedingly small price to pay for the many, many millions of innocent lives lost at the hands of the Nazis during World War II.

Nikolaus von Falkenhorst, the Supreme Commander of German forces in Norway, was also sentenced to death in 1946 for his role in the death of the British commandos in Operation Freshman.  His sentence was later commuted to 20 years imprisonment.  In 1953, having served only seven years of his sentence, he was released “for reasons of health.”  He lived for another 15 years, dying in 1968.

The Vemork Raid: February 27/28, 1943

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Odd Nansen’s Diary, March 6, 1943:

“The news was excellent—but still with no essential points.  There has been sabotage in Vemork.  The heavy-water works are destroyed.  Four Norwegian-speaking men in English uniform got away. . . .   Yes, there are a few things going on—that one must admit.”

Seventy-nine years ago tonight, eleven British-trained Norwegian saboteurs descended upon the heavily guarded Vemork hydroelectric plant.  Their mission: to destroy all extant stocks of heavy water, as well as the accompanying electrolysis machinery used in heavy water production.

Vemork Hydroelectric Plant

Did the members of Operation Gunnerside understand the importance of their mission?  Probably not.  To do so would have required an advanced degree in nuclear physics.  They were simply told that their mission was critical to the war, and, if successful, would be written about long afterward.

The Vemork hydroelectric plant—the world’s largest when it came on line in 1911, was originally dedicated to the production of fertilizer.  Only years later was it discovered that Vemork’s abundance of both water and electric power could be employed in the production of “heavy-water,” so-called due to the presence of an additional neutron in the H2O molecule.

Even then, heavy water was something of a mystery: what was it any good for?  No one really knew.  It was only when nuclear physicists discovered that heavy water made an excellent “moderator,” controlling the process of nuclear fission—and thus enabling the construction of a nuclear reactor and, ultimately, an atomic bomb, that the true value of Vemork’s unique heavy water plant was recognized.

With their invasion of Norway on April 9, 1940, control of Vemork passed into German hands.  Soon, it was apparent that German demands for ever increasing amounts of heavy water from Vemork signaled that they were pursuing their own research on an atomic bomb.  To the Allied Powers this possibility was unacceptable.

The first British Special Operation Executive (SOE) attempt to sabotage Vemork (Operation Freshman), which took place on November 19, 1942, was a total  failure, resulting in the loss of 41 men.  Equally concerning, Operation Freshman alerted the Nazi occupiers of the Allies’ intentions, leading to increased security at the plant: additional guards, searchlights, mine fields, etc.

Nevertheless, faced with such daunting obstacles, the Gunnerside team successfully scaled down a sheer, 660 ft. ravine, crossed a narrow river, and scaled back up the opposite side, to reach the remote ledge where the plant was located.  Entering the plant without detection, the demolition squad set delay fuses to allow time for escape.  All told, over 1,000lbs of heavy water, as well as associated equipment, were destroyed.  There were no casualties.

Recreation of the heavy water sabotage

Despite a search effort involving 3,000 German soldiers, none of the Norwegian saboteurs were caught, even though five members skied—in uniform—200 miles to safety in Sweden (two escaped to Oslo and four remained in the area for additional resistance work).

The SOE later considered Operation Gunnerside the most successful act of sabotage in WWII, and the German military commander of Norway, General von Falkenhorst, called it “The finest coup I have seen in this war.”

Joachim Rønneberg, the last surviving member of the Gunnerside operation, passed away on October 12, 2018, age 99.  I have previously written about Rønneberg here.  With Norway’s medal performance in the Winter Olympics still fresh in our minds, it is worth noting how Rønneberg described his 200-mile ski escape to Sweden: “The best skiing weekend I ever had.”

Operation Gunnerside members being congratulated by King Haakon VII. Rønneberg is on the far left.

Joachim Ronneberg (1919–2018)

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Joachim Ronneberg

Joachim Ronneberg, the last surviving member of Operation Gunnerside, the daring raid to destroy the heavy water facility at Vemork, Norway, died on Sunday, October 21.  Ronneberg was 99.  Obituaries from the New York Times and the BBC, respectively, are here and here.

Norwegian World War II hero Joachim Ronneberg, 93, attends a wreath-laying ceremony in his honor at the SOE agents monument in central London on April 25, 2013, for leading the SOE operation Gunnerside where Norwegian soldiers destroyed the German occupied Heavy Water Plant in Vemork, Norway.  (ANDREW COWIE/AFP/Getty Images)

In 2016 I was asked by The Norwegian American to review The Winter Fortress, the latest in a string of books detailing Operation Gunnerside, written by Neal Bascomb.  The complete review is here.

It is worth quoting at length the final two paragraphs of my review:

“The members of Operations Grouse, Freshman, Swallow, and Gunnerside and the team that sunk the ferry on Lake Tinnsjø never really knew why destroying heavy water was so important; they only knew that it had to be destroyed. Moreover, the secrecy surrounding the Allies’ own atomic program meant that their feats could not be widely publicized during the war. The members were simply promised: “[Y]our actions will live in history for a hundred years to come.”

It’s a good bet that that promise will be fulfilled. After all, it is now almost 75 years [this was written in 2016] since the Grouse team first landed on the Vidda. They and their compatriots endured ferocious winter weather, near starvation, the constant threat of discovery, and even death, and yet their patriotism, courage, and fortitude in the face of all this still inspires worthy books such as The Winter Fortress. As the official historian of the SOE [Special Operations Executive], M.R.D. Foot, later observed: “If SOE had never done anything else, ‘Gunnerside’ would have given it claim enough on the gratitude of humanity.”

Humanity is indeed grateful, Joachim Ronneberg.  You have fought the good fight, you have finished the race, you have kept the faith.

 

The Holy Trinity: A Bomb Story

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No, not that bomb story.  This doesn’t involve the Trinity test site near Alamogordo, New Mexico, where the first atomic bomb was successfully exploded (although there is, as we shall see, a tie-in to that matter as well).

No, this story involves the twentieth Earl of Suffolk, otherwise known as Charles Henry George Howard, or Charles Howard for short.  Most everyone, however, knew him as Mad Jack or Wild Jack.

Charles Howard

Charles quit college at 17 and ran away to sea, sailing around the world and earning tattoos on both arms.  [In today’s self-expressive age that doesn’t rate as much, but there were not many members of the peerage in the 1920s sporting such adornments.]  Upon his return to Great Britain he was commissioned in the Scots Guards but was soon asked to leave because of his “wild ways.”  For a while he tried his hand as a jackaroo on a sheep ranch in Australia, before returning to Great Britain again and earning a degree in chemistry and pharmacology from Edinburgh University.

World War II found the Earl of Suffolk serving as Liaison Officer to the French Ministry of Armaments, posted in Paris.  With the imminent fall of France in June 1940, the British were eager to spirit out of the country various assets important to the Allied cause, including important research scientists, diamonds, and most importantly, heavy water in the possession of France’s nuclear scientists.

Heavy water was initially considered crucial in the production of a nuclear chain reaction, and the French scientists’ precious supply had itself been previously spirited out of Norway (the only producer of heavy water) under the Gestapo’s very noses.  Possession of the world’s then entire supply of heavy water would allow the Allies to continue their experiments with uranium fission; its loss to the Germans would conversely have sped up their own research program.

And here’s where Mad Jack comes in.  He arrived in Bordeaux ahead of the Germans and was given the assignment of safely conveying the heavy water, scientists, and diamonds intact to England.  As Richard Ketchum describes it in his book The Borrowed Years 1938-1941: America on the Way to War:

“After a series of misadventures, [Hans] Halban, [Lew] Kowarski, and other colleagues from the Collège de France arrived with their families and the heavy water at Bordeaux, where they boarded the little British coaler SS Broompark and encountered a crew that might have emerged from Central Casting.  The man in charge—who knew exactly who the scientists were and what they had brought with them—was the twentieth Earl of Suffolk, a swashbuckling character with a thick mustache . . . wearing hunting boots and swinging a loaded hunting crop.  At his side, lighting his cigarettes, was his secretary, Miss Morden; hovering nearby was his chauffer, Fred Hards.”

Hedging his bets, Mad Jack, who stood 6’4”, built a raft which carried the heavy water and diamonds.  Were the ship to be attacked and sunk (and another vessel leaving Bordeaux at the same time was in fact sunk), the raft could be cut loose and its precious cargo saved.  In any event, the ship, which set sail on June 19, 1940, soon reached Falmouth in one piece.  Later that year Halban and Kowarski, with the help of the heavy water, proved a self-sustaining nuclear reaction was possible.  Mad Jack was commended in the House of Commons for “a considerable service . . . rendered to the Allied cause.”

SS Broompark, June 1940

[Note to my Norwegian friends: the skipper of the Broompark was Olaf Paulsen, born in Oslo (then Christiana) in 1878.  Broompark was torpedoed three months later (September 21, 1940) by German U-48, but Paulsen’s efforts saved the ship, for which he was awarded the OBE (Order of the British Empire) by the British Government.  Broompark (under a different skipper) was again attacked on July 25, 1942, and this time sunk, by U-552.  Note to my American friends: U-552 was the same submarine that sunk the USS Reuben James, the first U.S. Navy ship lost in World War II (October 31, 1941).]

But Charles was just getting started.

A Bomb Disposal Squad At Work

Drawing on his scientific training, he now joined a bomb disposal squad, along with secretary Morden and chauffer Hards—the group now dubbed “the Holy Trinity.”  With what Winston Churchill would later describe in his magisterial memoir of the Second World War as “urbane and smiling efficiency,” the Holy Trinity proved their prowess, successfully defusing thirty-four unexploded bombs.  Mad Jack would closely examine each bomb, dictating notes all the while to Morden, with Hards standing by to assist, under the theory that others would learn from any mistake he might make, and not repeat it again.

Seventy-seven years ago today (May 12, 1941), on his thirty-fifth try, Charles’s luck ran out.

He had been asked to work on a 500-pound unexploded bomb which contained two separate fuses, a Type 17 and a Type 50.  Since intact fuses of these types were needed for instructional purposes for other bomb disposal units, and as these types were in short supply, he began his work on the 12th of May with Morden and Hards standing by.

In the cat-and-mouse game between Allied and Axis forces, the Germans began to booby-trap their own bombs, adding yet another detonator, hidden out of sight behind the fuse, which would set-off the bomb once the first fuse was withdrawn.  It is believed that the bomb in question held just such a booby-trap (most of the evidence having been destroyed).  All three members of the Holy Trinity were killed in the resulting explosion, as were eleven others standing nearby.

The twentieth Earl of Suffolk was 35 years-old.  He was survived by his Chicago-born ballet dancer wife, Mimi Forde-Pigott, and three sons.

In 1947 a stained-glass window was dedicated in Charles’s honor at the church of St. John the Baptist, Charlton, Wiltshire, where his remains had been buried.  On one panel is a poem, written by John Masefield, the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, commemorating his death:

“He loved the bright ship with the lifting wing;

He felt the anguish in the hunted thing;

He dared the dangers which beset the guides;

Who lead men to the knowledge nature hides;

Probing and playing with the lightning thus;

He and his faithful friends met their death for us;

The beauty of a splendid man abides.”

Stained Glass Memorial, Charlton

Upcoming Events

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Book Signings

  • January 23, 2024: Hamden Public Library, Hamden, CT *
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  • February 11, 2024: Shalom Club, Monroe, NJ
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  • June 2, 2024: Yiddish Club, Monroe, NJ
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