British and American members of the Alsos Mission dismantle the experimental nuclear reactor that German scientists had built as part of the German nuclear energy project in Haigerloch
|Active||4 April 1944 – 15 October 1945|
|Country|| United States
|Engagements||World War II:|
|Disbanded||15 October 1945|
The Alsos Mission was part of the Manhattan Project, the effort during World War II by the Allies, principally Britain and the United States, to create an atomic bomb. The Manhattan Project was also charged with coordinating foreign intelligence related to enemy nuclear activity, and the Alsos Mission was created following the Allied invasion of Italy in September 1943, to investigate the German nuclear energy project. Alsos Mission personnel followed close behind the front lines, and occasionally behind enemy lines, first in Italy, and later in France and Germany. They searched for personnel, records, material, and sites to evaluate the German nuclear project, further American research, and prevent their capture by the Soviet Union.
The Alsos Mission was commanded by Colonel Boris Pash, a former Manhattan Project security officer. Samuel Goudsmit was its scientific leader. It was jointly staffed by the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI), the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), the Manhattan Project, and Army Intelligence (G-2), to investigate enemy scientific developments. It was not restricted to those involving nuclear weapons, but also investigated chemical and biological weapons, and the means to deliver them.
Alsos personnel managed to find and remove many of the German research effort's personnel, along with a substantial portion of the surviving records and equipment. The Alsos Mission took most of the senior German research personnel into custody, including Otto Hahn, Max von Laue, Werner Heisenberg and Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker.
The Manhattan Project was a research and development program during World War II, led by the United States with the United Kingdom and Canada participating, that attempted to produce the first atomic bomb. Brigadier General Leslie Groves of the US Army Corps of Engineers became its director in September 1942. The Manhattan Project operated under a tight blanket of security lest its discovery induce Axis powers, particularly Germany, to accelerate their own nuclear projects or undertake covert operations against the project.
After the Allied Invasion of Italy in September 1943, Brigadier General Wilhelm D. Styer, the Chief of Staff of Army Service Forces, approached Groves on behalf of the Chief of Staff of the Army, General George Marshall, and asked if the Manhattan Project could take over responsibility for coordination of foreign intelligence activities related to nuclear energy. Styer felt that the existing efforts were not being properly coordinated, and that the importance of items of interest might be overlooked unless those responsible were properly briefed, but at the same time he wished to minimize the number of personnel with access to such secret information. The best option therefore seemed to be to have the effort undertaken by the Manhattan Project itself.
It was believed that the Japanese atomic program was not far advanced because Japan had little access to uranium ore, the industrial effort required far exceeded what Japan was capable of, and American physicists at the University of California, Berkeley, who knew the leading Japanese physicists personally, led to the conclusion that their qualified people were too few in number. The German nuclear energy project was another matter; German scientists were considered leaders in the field, and the fear of Germany developing nuclear weapons first was one of the reasons for the establishment of the Manhattan Project in the first place. Moreover, the Chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler, frequently claimed that Germany was developing secret weapons, and it was feared that these might include nuclear weapons. Reports of German nuclear activity were taken very seriously. At the instigation of the Manhattan Project, a bombing and sabotage campaign was carried out against heavy water plants in German-occupied Norway.
Groves created a small mission that was jointly staffed by the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI), the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), the Manhattan Project, and Army Intelligence (G-2), to investigate enemy scientific developments, including nuclear weapons research. The mission was codenamed Alsos, the Greek word for "grove". Groves was not pleased with the codename, but in the end decided that changing it would only draw further unwanted attention.
The Chief of Army Intelligence, Major General George V. Strong, appointed Lieutenant Colonel Boris Pash to command the unit. Pash had been the head of the Counter Intelligence Branch of the Western Defense Command, where he had investigated suspected Soviet espionage at the Radiation Laboratory at Berkeley. Pash's command comprised his executive officer Captain Wayne B. Stanard, four Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) agents, four interpreters, and four scientists: Dr. James B. Fisk from the Bell Telephone Company, Dr. John R. Johnson from Cornell University, Commander Bruce Olds from ONI and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Major William Allis, originally from MIT although then serving on the War Department scientific staff.
In December 1943, the Alsos Mission reached Algiers, where Pash reported to the Chief of Staff at Allied Forces Headquarters (AFHQ), Major General Walter B. Smith, and his British Chief of Intelligence, Brigadier Kenneth Strong. This was awkward as Pash's instructions were not to give the British information about the Alsos Mission, although, as it turned out, Strong was already fully aware of it. It was therefore arranged that Pash would deal with Strong's American deputy, Colonel Thomas E. Roderick. The Alsos Mission then moved on to Italy, where it was assigned to Major General Kenyon A. Joyce's Allied Control Commission. Pash met with Marshal of Italy Pietro Badoglio, the head of the Italian Provisional Military Government, who gave him a letter of introduction addressed to Italian civil and military authorities.
Alsos interviewed the Italian Minister for Communications, the Chief of Naval Ordnance, the staff of the Italian Naval Academy, and Italian scientists at the University of Naples, and examined what captured technical documents could be found. There was little information about developments in Northern Italy and Germany, but with the Anzio landings, Rome was expected to soon be captured. The Alsos Mission was attached to Colonel George Smith's S-Force. Built around a Royal Air Force ground reconnaissance squadron equipped with armored cars, this unit contained a number of American, British, French, and Italian technical specialists of various kinds who would enter Rome on the heels of the advancing Allied forces. The expectation that Rome would soon fall proved illusory, and by March 1944 most of the Alsos Mission had returned to the United States. The Alsos Mission had gathered little of value about nuclear matters, but submitted detailed reports about German rockets and guided missiles.
Rome finally fell on 4 June 1944. When the news came that its fall was imminent, Pash was ordered from London to Italy. He flew back to Italy and entered the city with S-Force on 5 June.  Pash took key scientists into custody, and arranged for sites targeted by Alsos, including the University of Rome and the Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche, to be secured. The Alsos Mission to Italy was reconstituted under the command of Pash's deputy, Major Richard C. Ham, and Johnson and Major Robert R. Furman were sent from the United States to join him. They reached Rome on 19 June, and over the next weeks interviewed scientists including Edoardo Amaldi, Gian-Carlo Wick, and Francesco Giordani. The picture that the Alsos Mission built up indicated that the German effort was not far advanced.
In December 1943, Groves sent Furman to Britain to discuss the establishment of a London Liaison Office for the Manhattan Project with the British government, and to confer over coordinating the intelligence effort. Lieutenant Commander Eric Welsh, the head of the Norwegian Section of MI6, was unimpressed with Furman's grasp of the subject matter. Groves selected the head of the Manhattan District's security activities, Captain Horace K. Calvert, as head of the London Liaison Office, with the title of Assistant Military Attaché. Working in cooperation with Eric Welsh and Michael Perrin from Tube Alloys, the London Liaison Office consisted of Calvert, Captain George C. Davis, two Women's Army Corps clerks and three CIC agents.
The Liaison Office interviewed European refugee scientists and studied German physics journals. It compiled lists of German scientists of interest and possible locations of nuclear research and industrial facilities, and the mining and stockpiling of uranium and thorium ores. As little thorium was available in Germany or German-occupied Europe, attention soon centered on the mines at Joachimsthal in Czechoslovakia. Aerial reconnaissance was carried out periodically, and production was measured by assessing the size of the piles of tailings.
Groves warned General Dwight D. Eisenhower of the possibility that the Germans might disrupt the Normandy landings with radioactive poisons, and sent Major Arthur V. Peterson to brief his chief of staff, Lieutenant General Walter B. Smith. Under the codename Operation Peppermint, special equipment was prepared and Chemical Warfare Service teams were trained in its use. The British forces made similar preparations for their beaches. The precautions were unnecessary.
Meanwhile, the new head of G-2, Major General Clayton L. Bissell, at Groves' and Furman's urging, decided to create a new, even larger Alsos Mission for Western Europe in March 1944. Pash assumed command of the new unit upon its official creation by the Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson, on 4 April. The military staff for the new mission were selected by Bissell on Pash's advice. Lieutenant Colonel George R. Eckman became the deputy commander. Captain Henry A. Schade was appointed as the head of the naval contingent. Groves and Vannevar Bush, the head of OSRD, selected the scientific staff, and appointed Samuel Goudsmit, a University of Michigan physicist with a good command of several Western European languages, as its head. Goudsmit had not been working on the Manhattan Project, and therefore could not reveal any of its secrets if captured. The British considered creating their own rival mission, but in the end agreed to participate as a junior partner. Three Dutch and one Norwegian officer also served with the Alsos Mission. By the end of August it had seven officers and 33 scientists.
On 5 August, Pash received a secret message from Washington, D.C., reporting that the French physicist Frédéric Joliot-Curie had been sighted at his holiday home at L'Arcouest in Brittany. Joliot-Curie was at the top of Alsos's wanted list, so Pash and CIC Special Agent Gerry Beatson set out to investigate in the wake of the advancing U.S. Third Army. They searched the University of Rennes and found some documents there on 9 August. On 11 August they reached the homes of Joliot-Curie, Francis Perrin, and Pierre Auger in the L'Arcouest area. Joliot-Curie was not home, but German snipers fired on them, and they had to wait until 12 August before they could search the house.
The rest of the advance party of the Alsos Mission moved to Normandy in August 1944, where it joined T-Force, a similar formation to S-Force, at Rambouillet, where it was preparing for the liberation of Paris. An Alsos Mission team including Pash and Calvert reached Joliot-Curie's house in the Paris suburbs on 24 August to find that he was not there, but at his laboratory at the Collège de France. The next day they reached the Porte d'Orléans where they encountered troops of the French 2e Division Blindée, who were engaged in liberating the city, and came under heavy small arms fire. The Alsos Mission replied with their M1 carbine and Tommy guns as they made their way through the back streets to the Collège, where they finally found Joliot-Curie in his office.
Goudsmit interviewed Joliot-Curie in Paris on 27 August. Accompanied by Calvert, Joliot-Curie was flown to London where he was interviewed by Perrin and Goudsmit about the activities of German scientists. Joliot-Curie recalled visits to the College, which had a cyclotron, by German scientists including Erich Schumann, who had initiated the German nuclear project, and controlled it until it had been handed over to the Reichsforschungsrat in 1942; by Abraham Esau, who had been in charge of nuclear physics under the Reichsforschungsrat; and by Walter Gerlach, who had replaced him in January 1944. Other German physicists who had used the facilities included Kurt Diebner, Walther Bothe, and Erich Bagge, all of whom were known to be associated with the German nuclear project.
Meanwhile, T-Force had moved into the Petit Palais. The main body of the Alsos Mission soon followed, and the Mission opened an office at the Place de l'Opéra. On 5 September, word was received that the British 21st Army Group was about to enter Brussels. There were two important Alsos Mission objectives in Belgium: the corporate headquarters of Union Minière du Haut Katanga, the world's largest supplier of uranium ore, in Antwerp, and its uranium processing plant in Olen, Belgium. A six-man Alsos Mission team set out to secure them, led by Pash and the Assistant Chief of Staff, G-2, at ETOUSA, Colonel G. Bryan Conrad.
On reaching Brussels, they made contact with Lieutenant Colonel David Strangeways, the commander of R Force, who provided them with an escort of Royal Air Force armored vehicles. They entered Antwerp on 7 September and found the office of Union Minière. They discovered that over 1,000 tons of refined uranium had been sent to Germany, but about 150 tons still remained at Olen. They set out for Olen, where they located 68 tons, but another 80 tons was missing, having been shipped to France in 1940 ahead of the German invasion of Belgium. The capture of Eindhoven by the U.S. 101st Airborne Division allowed early access to another high priority target: the Philips plant there. Brigadier Edgar Williams, the 21st Army Group's Chief of Intelligence, facilitated the Alsos Mission's detour to Eindhoven, where it was able to interview a number of Dutch scientists. Williams also furnished a detachment of Royal Engineers to transport and move the uranium from Olen. Groves had it shipped to England, and, ultimately, to the United States.
The Alsos Mission now attempted to recover the shipment that had been sent to France. Documentation was discovered that said that part of it had been sent to Toulouse. An Alsos Mission team under Pash's command reached Toulouse on 1 October and inspected a French Army arsenal with a Geiger counter. When the needle jumped near some barrels, they were inspected and found to be the 31 tons of uranium from Belgium. Conrad managed to get Major General Frank S. Ross to release the 3342nd Quartermaster Truck Company from the Red Ball Express to retrieve the shipment. The barrels were collected and transported to Marseilles, where they were loaded on a ship bound for the United States. During the loading process a barrel fell into the water and had to be retrieved by a Navy diver. In Marseilles, the Alsos Mission detachment also met up with the detachment that had been sent to Italy, which now rejoined them. The remainder of the original shipment to France was never found.
Information gathered in Rennes, Paris, and Eindhoven pointed to Strasbourg as a place of particular interest. Physicists Rudolf Fleischmann and Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker were known to be working at the University of Strasbourg, as was Eugen von Haagen, an expert on viruses whose work was of great concern to the Alsos Mission's Biological Warfare Section. Moreover, the Naval section was interested in the torpedo research being carried out there, and it was also known that jet engine development was being undertaken at Strasbourg's Junkers plant.
On 22 November, the Sixth United States Army Group notified the Alsos Mission that the capture of Strasbourg was imminent, and it should join T-Force in Saarburg, where it was preparing to enter the city. The Alsos Mission joined T-Force in Strasbourg on 25 November. The German nuclear laboratory was discovered on the grounds of the Strasbourg Hospital, where the physicists attempted to pass themselves off as medics. Fleischmann was taken into custody, but Weizsäcker and von Haagen had fled the city.
Documents discovered in Weizsäcker's office, Fleischmann's laboratory and the Strasbourg Hospital pointed to nuclear activities taking place at Stadtilm, Haigerloch, Hechingen, and Tailfingen. The Alsos Mission also uncovered documents in von Haagen's office, where the Alsos Mission established its headquarters, concerning secret medical experiments at Natzweiler concentration camp. Importantly, the captured documents indicated that the Germans had been unable to develop a practical process for uranium enrichment. For the first time the Alsos Mission was able to categorically report that the Germans did not have nuclear weapons, and would not have them for some time.
When the German Operation Nordwind offensive threatened Strasbourg, Pash ordered all captured documents to be removed. Papers indicating the nature of the Alsos Mission were removed or destroyed. Although Strasbourg was not abandoned by the Allies, and ultimately did not fall, the Alsos Mission departed the city on 8 January 1945. Pash even ordered an evacuation plan to be prepared for the Alsos Mission's main headquarters in Paris. The embarrassing series of intelligence failures that had led up to the Battle of the Bulge cast doubts on the Alsos Mission's own findings. A four-man team under Eckman was sent to investigate a suspiciously devastating V-2 explosion near Antwerp, and Fred Wardenburg had to confirm that it was not a small nuclear explosion. Rumours that Germany had an atomic bomb persisted as late as March 1945.
A new forward headquarters, Alsos Forward North (AFwdN), was opened at Aachen, and on 8 February the Alsos Mission reopened its forward headquarters in Strasbourg as Alsos Forward South (AFwdS). In March, the U.S. 12th Army Group launched Operation Lumberjack, an offensive to clear the Germans west of the Rhine. Pash, who was promoted to colonel on 6 March, led an Alsos Mission detachment into Cologne on 7 March, but little additional information was found.
The interrogation of German prisoners indicated that uranium and thorium were being processed in Germany, mostly at the Auergesellschaft plant at Oranienburg, so Groves arranged for the plant to be bombed on 15 March 1945. Some 612 B-17 Flying Fortresses of the Eighth Air Force dropped 1,500 tons of high explosive and 178 tons of incendiary bombs on the plant.
On 30 March, the Alsos Mission reached Heidelberg, where a number of important scientists were captured including Walter Bothe, Richard Kuhn, Philipp Lenard, and Wolfgang Gertner. Their interrogation revealed that Otto Hahn was at his laboratory in Tailfingen, while Werner Heisenberg and Max von Laue were at Heisenberg's laboratory in Hechingen, and the experimental natural uranium reactor that Heisenberg's team had built in Berlin had been moved to Haigerloch. Henceforth, the main focus of the Alsos Mission was on these nuclear facilities in the Württemberg area.
As the Allied armies advanced into Germany in April 1945, Alsos Mission teams searched Stadtilm, where they found documentation concerning the German nuclear program, components of a nuclear reactor, and eight tons of uranium oxide. A number of scientists were captured at Goettingen and Katlenburg-Lindau, including Werner Osenberg, the chief of the planning board of the Reichsforschungsrat (National Research Council), and Fritz Houtermans, who provided information about the Soviet atomic bomb project. At Celle, the Alsos Mission uncovered an experimental centrifuge for separating uranium isotopes, the result of work undertaken at the University of Hamburg by a team under Paul Harteck.
The problem with the targets in the Württemberg area was that they not only lay in the path of the French First Army's advance, but were also in the occupation zone allocated to France. Groves attempted to get the occupation boundaries changed, but the State Department wanted to know why first, and Groves refused to provide this information. Groves, Marshall, and Stimson then decided that the area would have to be secured by American troops that would carry off what they could and destroy everything else. Pash was sent to ask General Jacob Devers, the commander of the U.S. 6th Army Group, if the zones of the French 1st Army and the U.S. Seventh Army could be swapped around. He was informed that the matter would have to be taken up with Eisenhower.
Groves despatched Lieutenant Colonel John Lansdale, Jr., to Europe, where he participated in a meeting with Lieutenant General Bedell Smith and Major General Harold Bull of SHAEF; Major General Eldridge G. Chapman, the commander of the 13th Airborne Division; Pash, Furman, and Goudsmit of Alsos; and Brigadier General Reuben E. Jenkins from the 6th Army Group. The plan, codenamed Operation Effective, called for the 13th Airborne Division to occupy the area to prevent its capture by the French, and seize an airfield that could be used to fly in an Alsos Mission team, and later to fly it out, along with captured German scientists. Operation Effective was scheduled for 22 April. Meanwhile, Devers took steps to delay the French advance.
The Alsos Mission had learned that the uranium ores that had been taken from Belgium in 1944 had been shipped to the Wirtschaftliche Forschungsgesellschaft (WiFO) plant in Stassfurt. This was captured by the 83rd Infantry Division on 15 April. As it was in the occupation zone allocated to the Soviet Union at the Yalta Conference, the Alsos Mission, led by Pash and accompanied by Lansdale, Perrin and Air Commodore Sir Charles Hambro, arrived on 17 April to remove anything of interest. Over the following ten days, 260 truckloads of uranium ore, sodium uranate and ferro-uranium weighing about 1,000 tons were taken away by an African-American truck company. The uranium was taken to Hildesheim and most of it was flown to the United Kingdom by the Royal Air Force; the rest had to be moved to Antwerp by train and loaded onto a ship to England.
On 20 April, the French First Army captured an intact bridge over the Neckar River at Horb and established a bridgehead. It was decided to send in a force on the ground instead of Operation Effective, which was cancelled on 19 April. This time, instead of following or accompanying the front line troops, the Alsos Mission would operate behind enemy lines. The Alsos Mission had taken delivery of two armored cars, four jeeps with machine gun mounts, and two .50 caliber machine guns. The other two jeeps would carry captured German machine guns. They would be accompanied by three unarmed jeeps. For the operation, codenamed Operation Big, Pash would command a special force called Task Force A, built around his Alsos Misson team and the 1269th Engineer Combat Battalion, less its Company B, which would be commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Wilbur White. Sir Charles Hambro decided to accompany the Alsos Mission with a British group that included Michael Perrin, David Gattiker, Eric Welch, and Rupert Cecil. Lansdale accompanied Task Force A as Groves' representative, and Brigadier General Eugene L. Harrison, the G-2 from 6th Army Group, as Devers' representative.
The Alsos Mission set out on 20 April and rendezvoused with the 1269th Engineer Combat Battalion at Freudenstadt. The intact bridge over the Neckar River at Horb was crossed and Haigerloch was occupied without opposition on 22 April, and the main body of Task Force A arrived on 23 April. In a laboratory in a cellar they found a German experimental nuclear reactor shaped like a cylinder and made of graphite blocks, but the uranium and heavy water were missing. The scientists immediately began dismantling it. Pash left Hambro in charge, while he led troops of Task Force A to Bisingen, and then on to Hechingen, where 25 scientists were captured, including von Weizsäcker, von Laue, Karl Wirtz, Horst Korsching and Erich Bagge. At Tailfingen they took Otto Hahn and nine members of his staff into custody. At Haigerloch, a sealed drum of documents was retrieved from a cesspool, and three drums of heavy water and 1.5 tons of uranium ingots were found buried in a field. The uranium and heavy water were loaded onto trucks. The apertures in the cellar were blown up with minor explosions to prevent their capture by the French. The cellar itself was not blown up, because this would have meant the destruction of the Church and Castle located above the cellar.
Werner Heisenberg remained at large, having left Hechingen on 19 April. On 1 May, Pash set out in pursuit of Heisenberg with ten men in the two armored cars and two jeeps. They teamed up with the 36th Reconnaissance Troop of the 36th Infantry Division and entered Urfeld on 2 May, where Pash found Heisenberg at his home. The Americans became involved in firefights with German troops attempting to enter the town, and the 36th Reconnaissance Troop had to head off on another mission, leaving Pash with just seven men. Fortunately, the German force, which numbered about 700, offered to surrender. Pash returned on 3 May with the 3rd Battalion, 142nd Infantry, which took them prisoner, while Pash and his Alsos Mission team finally took Heisenberg into custody.
Plans for the invasion of Japan incorporated an Alsos Mission. Japanese fire balloon attacks on the United States had aroused fears that the technique might be used in combination with biological agents, which the Japanese were known to be experimenting with. In March 1945, the physicist and seismologist L. Don Leet was appointed as head of the scientific section of the Alsos Mission to Japan. Leet had previously worked with the Manhattan Project on the Trinity nuclear test. Plans were drawn up to prepare and equip a T-Force along the lines of the one in Europe, but made up of personnel already in the Pacific. The mission differed from its European counterpart in that there was no Allied representation, or representation of other American intelligence agencies. Moreover, responsibility for nuclear matters was subsequently handled by a separate Manhattan Project organized by Groves.
Leet's group reached Manila in July 1945, where they met with the intelligence staff of General of the Army Douglas MacArthur's Army Forces, Pacific. Following the surrender of Japan the mission traveled to Japan and visited various research establishments including Tokyo Imperial University, Waseda University, Tokyo Institute of Technology, the Institute of Physical and Chemical Research, the Institute for Materials Research, Tokyo Shibaura Denki (Toshiba), the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, the National Research Council, and the Board of Technology. The mission, which included Karl Compton, interviewed over 300 Japanese scientists and produced reports on Japanese research into radar, rockets, and other developments, including chemical and biological warfare. The Manhattan Project Intelligence Group, under the command of Philip Morrison, arrived in Japan in September 1945 and examined Japan's wartime nuclear weapons program. The group concluded that lack of uranium ore and low priority had doomed the Japanese effort. However, they reported that contrary to the popular belief, Japan's nuclear physicists were every bit as good as those of other nations.
After seeing the German project at Haigerloch, Goudsmit wrote that:
It was so obvious the whole German uranium set up was on a ludicrously small scale. Here was the central group of laboratories, and all it amounted to was a little underground cave, a wing of a small textile factory, a few rooms in an old brewery. To be sure, the laboratories were well-equipped, but compared to what we were doing in the United States it was still small-time stuff. Sometimes we wondered if our government had not spent more money on our intelligence mission than the Germans had spent on their whole project.
In the end, the Alsos Mission contributed little to the Allied defeat of Nazi Germany, because the German nuclear and biological weapons programs that it had been formed to investigate turned out to be smaller and less threatening than had originally been feared. In the field of nuclear weapons development at least, the underfunded and disorganized German program lagged behind the Allies' own efforts. However, in its appropriation of the accomplishments of European science, the Alsos Mission played a small part in the wartime and subsequent scientific and technological developments that characterized and transformed the postwar world.
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