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The search for weapons of mass destruction: not a new problem.

As inspectors search for weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in Iraq, their task--uncovering hidden laboratories, reading through unending stacks of documents, and screening foreign (sometimes uncooperative) scientists--remains arduous and ongoing even after the conclusion of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM. They are compelled to continue by the possibility of what could happen. The threat, however, is not new to our generation. Catastrophic weapons had long existed in the form of incendiary bombs and chemical agents, but undeniably the atomic bomb ushered in the age of WMD. Presaged in science fiction, the idea of tapping the energy inside the nucleus of an atom had captured the imagination of early 20th century thinkers. The fiction became reality in 1983 when scientists at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin inadvertently split the uranium atom, and the race for the atomic bomb, in turn, began in earnest with the outbreak of World War II a year later.

On the side of the Allies, scientists-many of whom were exiles from the Axis--congregated in the United States to work on the Manhattan Project. The scientists who remained in Germany undertook a similar project for the European continent had ended in a German victory, which resulted in the occupation of Western Europe. Suddenly, Germany possessed a heavy-water factory in Norway; thousands of tons of high-grade uranium compounds from Belgium; a cyclotron nearing completion in France; a body of chemists, physicists, and engineers; and the greatest chemical engineering industry in the world. (1)

Germany's position in the race for the atomic bomb was impressive and alarming. The British, having the most to lose, expressed deep concerns about ambiguous intelligence reports. Through aerial reconnaissance, they obtained and scrutinized thousands of photographs of German military installations under bright lights with strong magnifying glasses. One particular set of photographs alarmed intelligence analysts: the laboratory-like buildings near the town of Peenamunde. The odd-looking ramps with rails next to elongated tubular shapes only confirmed information from previous sources that missiles were under construction. After much discussion and argument, British intelligence analysts deduced only a single purpose for such weapons: clearly, the Germans must have an ordinance so dangerous they would have to carry it in an unmanned vehicle. Such a payload, therefore, would have to be a radioactive substance for the purpose of poisoning the British population or exploding a bomb. (2)

British intelligence was also acute to German demands for uranium 235, a critical ingredient in the production of the uranium-type bomb. Credible reports had reached Britain from a theoretical physicist in Sweden that Dr. Werner Heisenberg, Germany's leading physicist, was conducting experiments with the intention of exploiting chain reactions of uranium 235. Moreover, an agent working for Norsk Hydro, the Norwegian heavy-water plant in Vemork, west of Oslo, reported that Berlin ordered a vast increase in the production of heavy water--a critical ingredient in a uranium pile.

Other sources of human intelligence also affected the British conclusion. Niels Bohr--the famous physicist from Denmark who immigrated to Britain after the Nazi occupation because of his half-Jewish ancestry--reported grave concerns about German science. Earlier, Dr. Bohr had been the mentor of Werner Heisenberg; during a visit at Bohr's home in Copenhagen, Dr. Heisenberg confided his feelings about the repercussions of using atomic energy to produce a weapon. Dr. Heisenberg's misgivings suggested that a German atomic bomb was feasible.

Reaching a peak in the summer of 1943, rumors continued to propagate about wonder weapons in Germany, such as "a new kind of bomb" so large that an aircraft could only carry one. Such rumors were often included in intelligence reports placed before the chiefs of staff in London. British intelligence had assessed the German uranium project as plausible. (3)

Without conclusive intelligence, the Roosevelt administration felt compelled to adopt a worst-case scenario as explained by Henry Stimson, the Secretary of War: "In 1941 and 1942, they [the Germans] were believed to be ahead of us, and it was vital that they should not be the first to bring atomic weapons into the field of battle." In accordance with this policy, all nonmilitary uranium research halted to enable a concentration of effort on the manufacture of an atomic bomb. (4)

The team working on this issue in the United States was more alarmed about the by-products of German atomic research: even if the Germans could not produce a bomb, a uranium reactor could produce enough radioactive material to use in the same manner as poison gas. During the spring of 1943, the Allies investigated the possibility when Major General (MG) L. R. Groves, the executive head of the United States atomic project, assigned Dr. James B. Conant, chairman of the U.S. National Defense Research Committee, to furnish a report on the feasibility of such a threat. Dr. Conant's response warned that it was "quite conceivable" that the Germans could disperse enough radioactive material over several square miles in a city such as London, "sufficient to require the evacuation of the population." (5)

Although opinions varied among intelligence experts about German progress in atomic energy, the Allies took all measures to obviate the worst of possibilities.

The Allies:

[] Restricted all publication of atomic research.

[] Allocated resources generously to the Manhattan Project.

[] Organized commando raids and aerial bombardments against German research and production facilities.

[] Assigned experts in atomic research and protection to accompany invading Allied armies.

The commando raids on Norsk Hydro only succeeded in delaying heavy-water production. Air raids finally coerced the Germans to move all heavy-water supplies into the Reich. MG Groves doubted that the Manhattan Project could produce a bomb to deter any last act of Nazi desperation before the German surrender. Until the Allies captured the German scientists somewhere in the collapsing Reich, the Allied command would never know Germany's position in the atomic race. Both Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt understood the political problem only too well: the production of even one atomic bomb could force Britain and the United States to sue for peace. No Allied leader wanted to discover the extent of German atomic development by witnessing a deadly blast. (6)

Since the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and British Intelligence reached no conclusion, Washington decided to give the task of determining German progress in atomic research to the Army. The Pentagon assigned the project to MG Groves who already had a background in atomic security as head of the Manhattan District. (7) The mission was simple: establish a special intelligence detachment to investigate the secrets of German uranium research. MG Groves, realizing the possibility of gathering information as the U.S. Fifth Army advanced up the Italian peninsula, advised the Army Chief of Staff, with approval from the Department of the Navy, to organize a cooperative effort of the Army's G2 (intelligence), the Manhattan District, the U.S. Navy, and the Office of Scientific Research and Development.

The original detachment, consisting of thirteen military personnel (including interpreters) and six scientists, was like no other intelligence unit--a conjoining of military and civilian personnel who could extract, through interrogation, observation, and investigation, detailed information on advanced enemy research projects, including atomic energy. The Army designated the unit "Alsos," a cover word in Greek meaning "grove," a play on MG Groves' name. (General Groves never approved of the name but did not want to make an issue out of it.) MG Groves assigned Colonel (COL) Boris T. Pash, a former California high-school football coach turned counterintelligence agent, to lead the operation in Italy. (COL Pash had made a name for himself when he helped to identify Soviet espionage in the Manhattan Project.) The mission opened a field headquarters in Naples, Italy, on 17 December 1943, and searched through Taranto and Brindisi for signs of German atomic research. Although they interrogated a number of Italian scientists, none related anything of significance. Keeping only a small detachment in Italy to continue investigations in the recently captured city of Rome, COL Pash left for London in early June 1944 to join a reconstituted Alsos, which would accompany Allied forces advancing from their beachheads in Normandy. (8)

Even though the immediate results were disappointing, the endeavor in Italy was not wasted; it helped to establish the Alsos detachment's lines of authority, responsibilities, and methods of operation. It also demonstrated that while the Army possessed the technical services for intelligence in the theater to satisfy combat requirements, there were no qualified personnel to evaluate scientific information at a much higher level. Furthermore, it showed that Alsos needed more civilian specialists, especially uranium physicists, who knew what to look for in the field and what questions to ask captured Axis scientists. In light of this deficiency, the departmental research and intelligence officials recommended that the Alsos mission should enlarge to include more scientists and continue as a forward unit during the planned invasion of France.

With approval from the Secretary of War, a second phase of the Alsos mission (officially designated Alsos II) was organized to enter a new theater of operations. The cardinal task of the Alsos mission was always linked to the uranium problem, but the directive was actually much broader. The unit had orders to secure all enemy research with regard to military applications; however, due to its size and composition, investigations were, more or less, restricted to WMD-related fields such as bacteriological warfare, guided missiles, and chemical research.

While COL Pash remained as mission commander, Alsos II incorporated an additional civilian leadership position to take direct control of scientific activities. The Army recruited Dr. Samuel Goudsmit, an internationally prominent nuclear physicist. Beyond his professional background, Dr. Goudsmit was a preferred candidate for the job because he was fluent in German, French, and Dutch, and had been acquainted with several of the German physicists including Werner Heisenberg. Most important, MG Groves approved of him due to his lack of knowledge about the Manhattan Project--having spent most of his time working on radar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he could not reveal any information of vital importance about the U.S. atomic project in the event of capture. (9)

A letter from the Secretary of War cleared Alsos to operate in the western theater. The unit became an independent force, answering directly to MG Groves, going wherever necessary in the European theater, and overriding all standing orders. Its operatives began wearing a special arm patch, an alpha (for Alsos) pierced by a red lightening bolt--the symbol of atomic research. Only the highest-ranking field commanders actually knew the Alsos mission.

In August 1944, Alsos operatives, entering Paris with the French Army, followed so closely that their jeeps drew fire. In the city, COL Pash found the first important target, Dr. Frederic Joliot-Currie, a Nobel-prize winning physicist who resided at the College de France, the location of the cyclotron particle accelerator. After talking over K rations and beakers of vintage champagne, the French scientist revealed that the Germans had used the cyclotron but he, being part of the French Resistance, did not cooperate in any weapons research. Later, in further questioning, Dr. Goudsmit was able to determine that a number of German physicists were working at the University of Strasbourg; however, he obtained no significant information beyond rumors. Since the Allies could not take Strasbourg until November, the basis of the appraisals was more on speculation than fact. Knowing that the Germans were using the cyclotron--an essential element in atomic research--and hearing of Adolf Hitler's latest boast of "secret weapons," Dr. Goudsmit and his colleagues continued to assume the worst. (10)

Alsos moved quickly with the Allied advance, investigating targets at Brussels, Antwerp, Marseilles, Eupen, and Einhoven. Operatives interviewed Gaston Andre, the Director for Uranium of Union Miniere in Brussels, who confirmed that German chemical companies such as Auer and Roges GmbH had purchased more than one thousand tons of uranium from crude ore to refined alloy. Sixty-eight tons of uranium oxide remained, which the Alsos team had packed into wooden barrels and disguised as a whiskey shipment to the United States. Meanwhile, Dr. Goudsmit continued to follow leads in Paris. With information from the OSS, his investigation led him to an abandoned building previously occupied by a German technical spy ring disguised as a chemical company. From an examination of the contents in wastepaper baskets and sample bottles, he found that the Abwere, German Military Intelligence, had been collecting information from the research of French physicists. The evidence, so far, suggested that Germany was a contender in the atomic race. (11)

COL Pash remained anxious to find more substantial evidence. Following the Allied advance through Holland (Operation MARKET GARDEN), Major Robert Blake, an Alsos agent, was to obtain a sample of water from the Rhine River to use in determining if the Germans were using its water as a coolant in plutonium production. Blake struggled to reach the middle of the famous "bridge too far" during the German counteroffensive; soldiers on both sides must have been bewildered to see a soldier amid heavy fire lowering a rope and bucket into the river below.

The entry of General George Patton's Second Armored Division into Strasbourg at least partially allayed Allied anxieties. Alsos teams entered the city on 25 November 1944 in an uncertain military situation and with shells still falling. COL Pash quickly secured the target sites and apprehended seven German physicists in what turned out to be the most fruitful Alsos operation. Dr. Goudsmit proceeded to examine the papers, diaries, and letters in the home of Carl-Friedrich von Weizsacker, a prominent physicist who had long since escaped into the Reich. As he read by candlelight, he discovered a letter that revealed that the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, where the Germans were conducting the bulk of their research, had recently moved from Berlin to the small village of Hechingen in the Black Forest. Another letter addressed to Dr. Heisenberg described exactly what problems the Strasbourg group was trying to solve with regard to uranium research. Moreover, other correspondences indicated that from large-scale experiments, the German physicists were unsuccessful in their attempts to separate Uranium 235. To Dr. Goudsmit's relief, the Germans had no real atomic program; they had not even achieved a self-sustaining chain reaction, a feat the Allies had accomplished in Chicago by December 1942. (12)

Regardless of this significant find, the Allied leadership still needed Alsos to secure what remained of all German research into WMD. Dr. Goudsmit admitted that he could not be absolutely certain of anything, and as long as Germany had scientists of Dr. Heisenberg's stature, the possibility of producing one bomb in desperation still existed. In addition, other forms of WMD required further investigation. The Alsos team also found the clinical research of Professor Eugene Haagen, a ranking virus expert in bacteriological warfare; therefore, a "dirty bomb" with biohazardous or radioactive material mounted on a missile (V-1 or V-2) remained as an imminent threat. Furthermore, it was not in the interest of the United States or Britain to allow any German weapons research to fall into the hands of the Soviets or the French who, according to agreement, were to have a zone of occupation. (13) Thus the mission (officially designated Alsos III) extended and reorganized to operate with the Allied advance through Germany.

The German counteroffensive in December 1944 delayed the Allied offensive until February 1945. When the Allies finally penetrated the interior of the Reich, Alsos operatives went to investigate the university cities of Aachen, Cologne, and Bonn along with the huge I. G. Farben Industries plant. More important objectives included the German research centers in Heidelberg and Hechingen where scattered fragments of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute continued to conduct uranium experiments. (14)

Upon receiving word that the battle for Heidelberg had begun, COL Pash, in keeping with his reputed audacity, decided to make an unescorted dash into the town. From there, the Alsos team moved to Stadtilm where they secured one of the two uranium piles remaining in the collapsing Reich. The larger of the two piles, the one at Hechingen, where Werner Heisenberg was reportedly operating, was in territory designated for French occupation. Keeping the material and equipment out of French hands became MG Groves' priority. To secure the scientists, documents, and equipment, Alsos had to occupy the town and evacuate scientists and equipment ahead of the advancing French units. With an engineer company at their disposal in a mission codenamed Operation HARBORAGE, COL Pash and Dr. Goudsmit hastily entered the town, finding most of the scientists at a local inn. They secured a nearby cave containing a secret laboratory and the last uranium pile, and absconded with all critical evidence of atomic research as the unsuspecting French units moved through. To Dr. Goudsmit's alarm, however, Werner Heisenberg was not among the scientists; the Alsos team could not allow him, of all the physicists, to fall into Soviet hands. Fortunately, COL Pash was able to reach Dr. Heisenberg's residence, where he had been hiding from SS patrols and marauding Wehrmacht deserters amid the chaos of collapse. (15)

The Alsos mission was a success. COL Pash and his team satisfied the Allied command's demand for intelligence on German atomic research as it became available. Most of Germany's prominent scientists, research documents, uranium, and heavy water were secure in British or U.S. territory. The threat of WMD would have to wait for another day.

A careful interrogation of the scientists and an exhaustive examination of their documents later revealed a clear decline in development of the German atomic weapons program after 1940. It came to nothing for a number of reasons. The Nazi regime failed to employ the talents of Jewish physicists (many emigrated to work for the Allied nations), or even to recognize their discoveries such as Albert Einstein's theory of relativity. Research programs were often redundant with as many as a dozen agencies, working toward the same goal, competing to win Adolf Hitler's favor. Although the Germans had managed to separate uranium 235 by centrifuge, they did nothing on a large scale.

In contrast to the Allied approach, the Nazi leadership never developed a partnership between civilian science, industry, and military. With only a small uranium pile by 1944, the German physicists, unaware of the difficulties that lay ahead in producing a chain reaction, could not hope to succeed before the end of the war. According to MG Groves, "their work was seriously deficient in over-all direction, unity of purpose, and coordination between participating agencies." (16) Dr. Goudsmit remembered a leading German physicist's comments in confiscated papers on the lack of central leadership:
 "We have lost the war of the laboratories despite all the good
 initial conditions, particularly the great talent of the German
 people for physics and research ... the principle reason ties in
 the lack of a clear organization and in the erroneous selection
 of organizers according to political instead of objective points
 of view." (17)

Yet before the Allied invasion of Western Europe, intelligence agencies could provide no confirmation of this condition. The potential to make a bomb certainly existed: Germany, after taking Western Europe in 1940, had the materials, industry, and talent. The motivation also existed since the Third Reich followed an unbounded and aggressive policy of expansion. Analysts and policy makers easily misinterpreted circumstantial evidence--the comments of Niels Bohr after his conversation with Werner Heisenberg, Adolf Hitler's boast of super weapons, the development of the V missiles, shipments of heavy water and later uranium to Germany, and rumors of German uranium experiments. In the end, the Allies decided to err on the side of caution by pressing forward with their own atomic project and the Alsos missions.


(1.) Irving, David, The German Atomic Bomb: The History of Nuclear Research in Nazi Germany (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1967), page 72.

(2.) MacPherson, Malcolm C., Time Bomb: Fermi, Heisenberg, and the Race for the Atomic Bomb (New York, NY: E.P. Dutton, 1986), page 181.

(3.) Irving, pages 102, 179, and 185; MacPherson, pages 160-1.

(4.) Ibid., page 101.

(5.) Ibid., pages 182-3.

(6.) After the war, Dr. Goudsmit found that the Germans had managed to collect enough heavy water from Norsk Hydro to continue their experiments. Goudsmit, Samuel, Alsos (New York, NY: Henry Schuman, Inc., 1947), page 9.

(7.) The Manhattan District, as part of the Manhattan Project, was the physical area, the personnel, and the equipment that supported construction of the atomic bomb. Because research, resource, and production facilities for the Manhattan Project were spread across the United States and Canada, the Army Corps of Engineers decided to create a district without boundaries and named it the Manhattan District.

(8.) Groves, Leslie R., Now It Can be Told: The Story of the Manhattan Project (New York, NY: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1962), pages 185, and 191-192; and Pash, Boris T., The Alsos Mission (New York, NY: Award House, 1969), pages 11, and 32-34.

(9.) Goudsmit, page 15; and Pash, pages 34, 36, 38, and 39.

(10.) Groves, pages 212-213; Pash, page 59.

(11.) Groves, pages 218-219.

(12.) Goldsmit, pages 70-71.

(13.) Pash, pages 157-9.

(14.) Ibid., page 169.

(15.) Goldsmit, pages 95, and 112; Groves, page 243; Pash, pages 179 and 217; MacPherson, page 280.

(16.) Groves, page 244.

(17.) Ibid., page 244; and Thiesmeyer, Lincoln R. and Burchard, John E., Combat Scientists (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, and Company, 1947), page 181.

Thomas Hauser is currently Staff Historian at the Headquarters, U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM) History Office. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in History from the University of Virginia and a Master of Arts degree in History from James Madison University. Readers may contact the author via E-mail at and telephonically at (703) 706-2630.
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Author:Hauser, Thomas N.
Publication:Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Jul 1, 2004
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