From as early as 1939, those "in the know" in the United States worked
under the constant fear that Germany might have as much as a two-year lead
in the development of a nuclear weapon. Unless and until the United
States had positive knowledge to the contrary, we had to assume that the
most competent German scientists and engineers were working on an atomic
program with the full capacity of German industry at their disposal.
Anything less would have been derelict.
Therefore, it was critical to the United States to learn as much as she
could about Germany's progress. However, normal military
intelligence channels (G2, ONI, and OSS) seemed inadequate for the
following reason: the cloak of secrecy around the Manhattan Project was so
complete that military intelligence could not be told anything about
atomic energy and thus would not have the information required to be able
to analyze German progress.
The solution presented itself
in the fall of 1943 when General Marshall suggested that a separate
intelligence operation under the auspices of the Manhattan Engineer
District be established. The following excerpt from a memo by
General George Marshall in late 1943 formalized the plan and established
the Alsos Missions:
- "While the major portion of the enemy's secret
scientific developments is being conducted in Germany, it is very likely
that much valuable information can be obtained thereon by interviewing
prominent Italian scientists in Italy....The scope of inquiry should
cover all principal scientific military developments and the
investigations should be conducted in a manner to gain knowledge of
enemy progress without disclosing our interest in any particular field.
The personnel who undertake this work must be scientifically qualified
in every respect....It is proposed to send at
the proper time to allied occupied Italy a small group of civilian
scientists assisted by the necessary military personnel to conduct these
investigations. Scientific personnel will be selected
by Brig. Gen. Leslie R. Groves with the approval of Dr. (Vannevar) Bush
and military personnel will be assigned by the Asst. Chief of Staff,
G-2, from personnel available to him....This group would form the
nucleus for similar activity in other enemy and enemy-occupied countries
when circumstances permit."
The Alsos Missions of the
Manhattan Project were conducted in three phases: Phase I - Italy; Phase
II - France; and, Phase III - Germany. In addition there was a
headquarters mission established in London. The original detachment
forming the missions consisted of thirteen military personnel, including
interpreters and six scientists. The team members were generally
familiar with the research programs of both the United States and Great
Britain and were capable of extracting through interrogation and
observation detailed scientific information on atomic energy. From
the beginning, Alsos was commanded by Lt. Col. Boris T. Pash.
Eventually Dr. Samuel Goudsmit came aboard as chief of the scientific
MED's London Branch - In December 1943, a London
office was established to act as liaison between the Manhattan Engineer
District and various intelligence agencies operating in occupied Europe.
The office was first established by Major R. Furman and later placed under
the command of Captain Horace K. Calvert. Maj. Furman returned to
Washington to act as the point man for General Groves. In addition
to Calvert, the office was comprised of a Capt. George C. Davis, three
WAC's and two counterintelligence agents. The primary purpose of
this liaison office was to pave the road for the three Alsos Missions by
locating up to fifty German nuclear scientists and any laboratories that
they were suspected of using for atomic research.
By the time the second Alsos
mission into occupied France was organized, Horace Calvert had succeeded
in obtaining dossiers on all of the top German scientists, where they
worked and where they lived.
I - Italy - The objectives of Alsos in Italy were to
obtain advance information regarding scientific developments in enemy
research and development and to secure all important persons,
laboratories, and scientific information immediately upon their becoming
The Italian Mission was first
assembled in Algiers on December 14, 1943. In addition to Lt. Col.
Boris Pash, there was an executive officer, four interpreters, four CIC
agents and four scientists: Maj. William Allis, Lt. Cdr. Bruce S. Old, Dr.
James B. Fisk (OSRD) and Dr. John R. Johnson (also from the OSRD).
While on the ground in Italy,
the mission was unable to obtain any conclusive information about
Germany's experimentation with atomic energy, but several other
scientific-type discoveries were of significant use to the Allies.
Alsos II -
France - By the summer of 1944, the Alsos
contingents had grown to seven operations officers and thirty-three
scientists, most of whom were commissioned officers. On August 9,
1944, advance elements of the Alsos mission landed in occupied France and
entered the city of Rennes. Later in the month, Col. Pash, Captain
Calvert and two other counterintelligence agents joined the leading units
of the Twelfth Army as it advanced toward Paris. In fact, Pash's
Jeep was the second vehicle to enter Paris.
One of the primary objectives
of the Alsos II mission was the College of France in Paris where Frederic
Joliot-Curie had his laboratory. Although Joliot willingly assisted
his interrogators, many felt that he couldn't be trusted...entirely.
He did however confirm that it was his belief that the German's had "made
little progress" toward harnessing atomic energy. Perhaps the most
important information to come out of the Joliot interviews were the names
of several important German scientists who had either visited or
temporarily worked at Joliot's laboratory. Those mentioned were
Professor Erich Schumann, who once headed German research on uranium; Dr.
Kurt Diebner, a nuclear physicist; Professor Walter Bothe, an outstanding
German nuclear experimentalist; Dr. Abraham Essau, Dr. Wolfgang Gertner,
Dr. Erich Bagge, and Dr. Werner Maurer.
By early fall, Paris was firmly
in the hands of the Allies and the Alsos II mission established a
headquarters there. From this headquarters several smaller Alsos
teams worked with the advancing armies to begin the awesome task of
searching for the German scientists, capturing any nuclear related
materials such as uranium and heavy water, and locating and deciphering
any related scientific documents. The most difficult task would be
locating the German scientists and their laboratories, although Calvert's
"road map" from the London office helped immensely.
During the latter months of
1944, as the Alsos mission advanced toward Germany, progress was
temporarily halted by the German counter-offensive (Battle of the Bulge).
The mission used this time to analyze the thousands of pieces of
information that had come into their possession. Persistent
references to a small German community of Hechingen gave rise to the
belief that some type of nuclear research may be centered there...however,
the whereabouts of three of the most prominent of the German physicists,
Werner Heisenberg, Otto Hahn and Carl von Weizacker, were still unknown.
Alsos III -
Germany - The Alsos III mission entered
Germany on February 24, 1945. However, now an additional urgency
occupied much of their time. None of Germany's nuclear materials and
absolutely none of the German scientists must be allowed to fall into
Russia's hands. This new element was the source of much intrigue as
the Allies advanced toward Berlin. For instance, one key German
facility lay square within the planned Russian zone. There was no
way that the Americans could reach the facility first so General Groves
made a request to General Marshall to have it destroyed. On March
15th, 612 Flying Fortresses of the 8th Air Force dropped close to 2,000
tons of high explosives on the Auergesellschaft Works in Oranienburg just
to the north of Berlin. The plant was totally destroyed.
Further intrigue ensued with a
little known tactical Alsos mission labeled Operation Harborage.
After France fell to the Allies, it was decided to give the French a "zone
of occupation" in Germany when they finally surrendered. The zone
given to the French was originally designated as an American zone. A
few suspected nuclear research facilities, including the research center
reputed to be in the Hechingen area was in the planned French zone.
General Groves states: " As I saw it, there could be no question but that
American troops must be the first to arrive at this vital installation,
for it was of the utmost importance to the United States that we control
the entire area that contained the German atomic energy activities...I was
forced to initiate some drastic measures to accomplish our purpose."
The strategy behind Operation
Harborage was to have a sizeable force, perhaps at the Corps level, cut
diagonally across in front of the advancing French army and seize the area
long enough to capture the people we wanted, seize and remove all
available records, and destroy any remaining facilities. The
operation was initiated in April 1945 and Hechingen was captured on April
24th. Col. Pash seized a large atomic physics laboratory and took
into custody several sought-after scientists including Otto Hahn, Carl von
Weizacker, and Max von Laue. It was learned that Heisenberg, Gerlach,
and a few others had left Hechingen two weeks prior and were possibly in
Munich or at Urfeld in the Bavarian Alps. On the 27th, the German
scientists were transferred to Heidelberg for further questioning, where
information on the whereabouts of German atomic research records were
revealed by von Weizacker. They were sealed in a metal drum which
was stored in a cesspool in back of von Weizacker's house.
At about the time that
Operation Harborage was under way, the continuing investigations at the
Alsos Forward Headquarters at Heidelberg were bearing fruit. It was
becoming apparent that there were two groups in Germany working on the
uranium pile, the first under Kurt Diebner at Frankfurt and the second
under Werner Heisenberg. On April 12th, Diebner's laboratory was
seized in Frankfurt. On May 1, 1945, Gerlach was captured and
Diebner was picked up on the 3rd. Simultaneously, an operation led
by Pash at Urfeld, captured Heisenberg and quickly removed him along with
confiscated records to Heidelberg.
One other major accomplishment
of Alsos III was an operation headed up by Lansdale into an area near
Stassfurt, Germany. After seizing a salt mine known as the WIFO
plant, Lansdale and his men discovered an inventory of close to 1100 tons
of uranium ore. This discovery prompted the following memo from
General Groves, head of the Manhattan Engineer District, to General George
Marshall, Chief of Staff: "In 1940 the German army in Belgium
confiscated and removed to Germany about 1200 tons of uranium ore.
So long as this material remained hidden under the control of the enemy,
we could not be sure but that he might be preparing to use atomic weapons.
Yesterday I was notified by cable that personnel of my office had located
this material near Stassfurt, Germany, and that it was now being removed
to a safe place outside Germany where it would be under the complete
control of American and British authorities.
The capture of this material, which was the bulk of uranium supplies
available in Europe, would seem to remove definitely any possibility of
the Germans making any use of an atomic bomb in this war."
The three Alsos missions into
occupied Europe were a little known yet eminently successful operation of
the Manhattan Engineer District. At the end of the war in Europe
there were 114 men and women with Alsos comprised of 28 officers, 43
enlisted men, 19 scientists, 5 civilian employees and 19 CIC agents.
The mission was officially disbanded on October 15, 1945.
Furthermore, all of the key
German scientists captured and interrogated by Alsos were relocated to
Farm Hall, a country estate in England where their every word was
surreptitiously recorded by the British. One interesting dialogue
Diebner: "I wonder whether there are microphones
Heisenberg: "Microphones installed? (Laughter)
Oh, no, they're not as cute as all that. I don't think they know the
real Gestapo methods; they're a bit old-fashioned in that respect."
Web Master's Note: Much of the factual information above
and the selected quotations were taken from the book "Now It Can Be
Told", by General Leslie M. Groves - Harper, 1962. Groves
devotes several chapters to the Alsos Missions and we recommend this book
highly to anyone wishing to learn more about this fascinating story as
well as those desiring to gain a broad insight into the workings of the
Manhattan Project. "Click" here if you wish to purchase this book