Did Nazi Germany possess the Atom Bomb?
Date: Wednesday, October 22 @ 00:20:38 MDT

The very threat of a German nuclear weapon was the driving force behind the Manhattan Project, which developed the bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ultimately ended the war. But how advanced was the Nazi bomb program, and how close was it to creating a usable weapon in 1945? |Read More|

Werner Heisenberg
Werner Heisenberg
In 1939, Werner Heisenberg and other leading physicists received military orders to report to the Army Weapons Bureau (Heereswaffenamt) in Berlin. They were instructed to investigate the possible military utilization of nuclear fission. Nuclear fission involves the splitting of nuclei with the release of enormous amounts of energy. This process can be controlled, leading to a heat-producing reactor that can be harnessed to the production of electricity. In other circumstances, if the reaction is uncontrolled, the energy is released extremely rapidly, producing an enormous explosion - an atomic bomb.

Within three months a secret two-part survey was sent to the Weapons Bureau regarding the prospects of the project. Until 1942 he headed a small reactor research group in Leipzig and advised a second, larger group in Berlin. With his appointment in 1942 to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics, the main reactor research group, and to the University of Berlin, Heisenberg lead the initiative in German fission research.

Heisenberg's team was ultimately unsuccessful, as there is no doubt that had they been, Hitler would have utilised this weapon without mercy or hesitation. The abilities of the German scientists working in the field of nuclear physics at that time has never been in dispute. In fact german scientists had been responsible for the discovery of nuclear fission in December 1938.

Click for larger image
Nazi bomb schematic
The reasons for the lack of success in developing a working weapon are varied, but include the possibility that Heisenberg and his team intentionally retarded the project out of fear how it would be used. Probably most significant was the successful campaign of bombing and espionage targeted specifically at destroy their efforts and reducing Germanys industry to rubble. This coupled with lack of funding and almost complete lack of support from the Nazi High Command; it would have been extraordinarily difficult for them to succeed in the timeframe that was available to them.

In my opinion, the main factor was Hitler's own insane racist policies that had driven out the very talent that would have been required to achieve success. Albert Einstein, Hans Bethe, Edward Teller, Leó Szilárd and Enrico Fermi represented the core of this loss of talent who fled Nazi oppression, and subsequently became highly significant contributors to the Allied Manhattan project.

The Manhatten project ultimately required a total of 130,000 people, the cream of the European scientific comunity and six future Nobel Prize winners, to develop the atomic bombs that exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The uranium enrichment facility alone, including its security zone, was the size of the western German city of Frankfurt. The cost of the Manhattan Project was eventually 23 billion USD (2007 dollars), needless to say a sum that the by then war-torn Germany could not have mustered even if had wished to.

experimental pile
Early experimental pile.
In 2005, German author and historian Rainer Karlsch claimed that Nazi scientists successfully tested nuclear weapons shortly before the end of World War II, one on the German island of Ruegen in the fall of 1944 and two in the eastern German state of Thuringia in March 1945. He said the last test, carried out in Thuringia on 3 March 1945, destroyed an area of about 500 sq m, killing several hundred prisoners of war and concentration camp inmates. His contents of his book is entirely unsubstantiated, and has been widely dismissed as self-promotional fiction.

There has been some debate as to whether the Germans may have been planning to utilise a so-called "dirty bomb" or radiological dispersal device (RDD). A conventional bomb would wrapped in radioactive material and airburst over a city. Though this would not cause significant injury, it would cause mass panic, terror and disruption. Additionally, decontamination of the affected area might require considerable time and expense, rendering affected areas partly unusable and causing economic damage.

Hitler’s thirst for "V" or vengeance weapons and a means to strike back at the US may have lead to the use of the V2 rocket to deliver this weapon, though it lacked sufficient range for this use.

Another possible candidate was the Me 264 Amerika. The "Amerika Bomber" programme was intended to develop a strategic bomber capable of attacking New York City from bases in Germany. One prototype was built, but production was abandoned to allow Messerschmitt to concentrate on fighter production.

At the end of the war, an Allied science intelligence unit captured Heisenberg and other nuclear scientists, along with most of their papers and equipment. At that time a non-operational atomic pile was discovered and dismantled at Haigerloch April 1945.

After interrogations, American and British authorities detained Heisenberg and nine others for six months at an English country manor Farm Hall near Cambridge, where their private conversations were secretly recorded, transcribed, and translated in part. The transcripts of their conversations, especially surrounding the news of the atomic bombing of Japan, have been declassified and published. They not only provide insights, but they also add further fuel to the controversies surrounding Heisenberg and German fission research during World War II.

1) The Difficult Years - Fission Research 1939-1945
2) How Close Was Hitler to the A-Bomb?
3) Hitler tested "small atom bomb"
4) Drawing uncovered of 'Nazi nuke'

Photo showing the dismantling the German experimental nuclear pile
at Haigerloch 50 km south west of Stuttgart in April 1945

This story was originally published on sonicbomb in July 2007

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