The first five Allied vehicles to enter Paris on its day of liberation from Nazi occupation on August 25, 1944, were tanks of the Free French forces. The sixth was an American jeep. Dodging sniper fire, it cut through back streets and finally pulled up at France’s famed Radium Institute on rue Pierre Curie.
The Americans were on a top-secret intelligence mission codenamed Alsos. Its chief scientist was Samuel Goudsmit, a Dutch-American theoretical physicist. Goudsmit had been told by the committee that interviewed him for the job in the fall of 1943 that his assignment would be to follow the American troops as they advanced across the Continent and gather evidence on German scientific work. He was astonished when a man he would subsequently refer to jocularly as “the mysterious major” took him aside afterward and said, “You understand, of course, that what you are really going to do is look into the atomic bomb development.”
Goudsmit had been picked because he knew the languages and the leading European physicists. He later discovered, less flatteringly, that his other chief asset was that he was considered expendable if captured: not being part of the American atom bomb program himself, he had no vital secrets to give away.
There was plenty of reason to worry about a German bomb. Their physicists had been the first to discover the principle of the nuclear chain reaction; they were known to have begun research on uranium two years before the Americans; they had quickly rebuilt a Norwegian plant that produced heavy water—a crucial ingredient for a uranium reactor—after it was damaged by an Allied commando and bomber raid.
In France and later Holland, Goudsmit found a thin trail of clues that pointed to the university at Strasbourg, right by the German border in western France, as a key target of interest. The Nazis had installed a number of leading German scientists on the faculty and had ordered new equipment for nuclear research. As soon as Patton’s troops entered the city in November 1944, the Alsos team was there.
Taken into custody, the German scientists weren’t talking. But Goudsmit found a large trove of interesting papers, including correspondence with Werner Heisenberg, Germany’s leading nuclear scientist. He and a colleague took the papers back to his tent, downed a quick supper of K-rations, and got to work.
“It was a rough evening,” Goudsmit recalled. “The Germans were shelling the city from across the river; our guns were answering. Air raids and air battles raged overhead. We had no light but a few candles and a compressed gas lamp. Fred and I sat in a corner and began to scan the German files.
“We both let out a yell at the same moment, for we had both found papers that suddenly lifted the curtain of secrecy. The conclusions were unmistakable. Germany had no atom bomb and was not likely to have one in any reasonable time.” The files made clear that the Germans had not even begun to separate U-235, the fissile isotope of uranium. They had started to build a uranium reactor but had never achieved a chain reaction. What struck Goudsmit was the “pitiful smallness of the whole enterprise.” The Germans were about where America had been in 1940.
For years afterward, Goudsmit was irked by what he called “the legend of German scientific superiority.” It was not a lack of materials or commitment that caused the German bomb effort to falter, he pointed out; it was German arrogance, totalitarian ideology, and some astonishing errors made by Heisenberg himself, who despite his legendary reputation had never fully grasped the physics of the bomb.
In Berlin, Goudsmit found the nowempty bunker where the Germans had attempted, and failed, to build a successful reactor. “I stood there alone for a while,” he later wrote, “and in the dim light thanked God for the great privilege to see with my own eyes, and in a language I could understand, the physicist’s symbol of the defeat of Nazism.”
A few months earlier, Goudsmit had wandered through another war-ruined building, the house in The Hague where his parents had lived until being sent to a concentration camp. “The world has always admired the Germans so much for their orderliness,” he acidly observed. “They are so systematic; they have such a sense of correctness.” That was why Goudsmit was later able to find precise German records showing exactly when his father and mother had been gassed. It had been his father’s seventieth birthday.
Originally published in the October 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.