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Merciful Lie? Convicted War Criminal May Have Saved Allied Lives

It was a meeting that may well have changed the course of the war— although not in the way historians have long assumed.

Victory seemed to be slipping away from the Germans in May 1943, when armaments minister Albert Speer was summoned to meet with Hitler. The topic was a chilling one: whether the Germans, after Stalingrad, should use poison gas on the advancing Allied armies. To answer the führer’s questions, Speer brought with him a man named Otto Ambros, a longtime Nazi who was the chief chemist at I.G. Farben, overseeing the country’s synthetic rubber and chemical warfare programs.

Ambros, according to Speer’s memoirs, first cautioned Hitler against using mustard gas on the battlefield, since the Allies could produce much more of it. Hitler, though, had something else in mind: Tabun, a secret nerve agent developed by I.G. Farben in the 1930s that killed victims in minutes. “In this,” Hitler said, “we have a monopoly in Germany.”

For decades, historians have shuddered at the thought of what might have happened if Ambros had agreed with Hitler. But luckily, he did not. “I have justified reasons to assume that Tabun, too, is known abroad,” Ambros replied. “I know that Tabun was publicized as early as 1902, that Sarin [another nerve gas] was patented, and that these substances appeared in patents.”

There was no sense in using Tabun, he seemed to be saying, since the Allies had it, too. Hitler abruptly left the meeting, and that was the end of it. For the rest of the war, the Nazis’ vast stockpiles of chemical weapons—including 7,000 tons of shells and bombs armed with Tabun—were never used.

But “what Ambros said was definitely, unequivocally wrong,” says Frank Dinan, a chemistry professor at Canisius College in New York, whose book on the subject, Flying Blind, will be published later this year. “The truth is, the Allies had no knowledge whatsoever of the existence of Tabun, and when the Red Army overran the plant in Poland where it was being produced, they were astonished.”

Dinan suggests there is strong evidence Ambros intentionally misled Hitler—even though Ambros, who would eventually serve eight years in prison for I.G. Farben’s use of slave labor during the war, can hardly be considered a man of conscience. After searching through the entire chemistry literature from 1896 to 1912, Dinan found no reference whatsoever to Tabun. Furthermore, Dinan says, although Ambros correctly told Hitler the company had patented the nerve gas before the war, he must have known, as a member of I.G. Farben’s board, that the patent was issued in secret, with details of the compound’s makeup unavailable to the public. Allied scientists, in other words, were not yet aware of Tabun, and had Hitler decided to use the gas, the Allies could not have retaliated in kind.

Dinan believes that Speer—a vehement opponent of poison gas who, as armaments minister, was Ambros’s boss—brought his chief chemist to the meeting so they could both persuade Hitler not to use Tabun.

If Dinan is right, Ambros’s lack of candor may well have changed the course of the war. It was only a little over a year later, after all, that half a million Allied troops were squeezed onto a narrow beachhead in Normandy, providing the perfect target for poison gas. “The real mystery, for years, was why didn’t they use it?” Dinan says.

Vandalism of Sunken Warship Angers Veterans

The USS destroyer sunk by a kamikaze attack in April 1945, has joined a Emmons, an American growing list of World War II wrecks to be vandalized by divers taking parts as souvenirs. The Emmons, and the 60 men who went down with it, have been lying 140 feet below the surface off the coast of Okinawa. When a local scuba diver visited the ship this summer, he noticed its builder’s plaque—the metal plate with construction and commission dates— had disappeared.

According to a law passed in 2004, sunken American ships across the world continue to be sovereign U.S. territory, and looting them is a crime. Veterans, meanwhile, are appalled at the theft of souvenirs from what they consider a war grave. “That ship is a resting place,” Harold Jay, 92, who served aboard the Emmons, told reporters. “Those men deserve our respect.”

The Emmons rested undisturbed until it was discovered in 2001 in relatively shallow water and became a popular attraction for divers. “It is the only warship that I know of that you can dive [in Okinawa],” Chuck DeSari, the diver who discovered the missing plaque, told reporters. “You go down to dive on the Emmons and you can see the battle, you can see where kamikazes hit.”

As scuba technology improves, World War II shipwrecks throughout the world have become easier to reach, and ships in shallow water off Guam and the Philippines have been thoroughly stripped. There are nearly 100 World War II wrecks in American waters near North Carolina and Virginia that have had hatches, periscopes, or antennae go missing.

In 2008, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration began conducting surveys of sunken ships along the coast of the United States. “The main goal of our project is to get a handle on what is there and how we can prevent these war graves from being disturbed any further,” Joseph Hoyt, a maritime archaeologist working on the project, told reporters.

At press time, the Emmons builder’s plaque had not been returned, and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service was considering a criminal investigation.


Originally published in the February 2011 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here