Did the Axis powers know about the Manhatten project?

Any of them, I know it was supposed to be top secret, but after the developmental stages, during the test phase, it seems it would have been pretty difficult to keep quiet. Is there any clear evidence the Axis(and especially Japan) had any foreknowledge of US atomic capabilities? Did they know and just refuse to believe the US would use them? This seems unlikely after years of allied air raids over Germany and the Tokyo firebombings. What’s the SD? No conspiracies please :slight_smile:

Security and the Manhattan Project

I just read a very good book on the subject called:

The Making of the Atomic Bomb

by Richard Rhodes

In short:

The Americans, British, Germans, Japanese and Russians all were trying to build an atomic bomb and all assumed that the others were doing the same (The Brits and Americans collaborated of course).

…but only the Americans were able to convert their country into a factory in order to get it built.

Note to robo99: the Soviet Union also built nuclear weapons, their program just didn’t get there as quickly as the US. But significant resources were being allocated to their program during WWII. They also had the advantage of Klaus Fuchs working at Los Alamos, which saved a lot of time and money on basic R&D.

As to the others:

The Japanese program pretty much withered away due to the idea being considered impractical.

The Germans squandered their effort for many reasons, including loss of top Scientists, poor design, bad assumptions, etc. Some even think that a few top Physicists even deliberately undermined the program.

In terms of converting a country into a war factory, the Germans were tops, which of Russia or Japan was 2nd can be argued, then comes the US after them.

So, you’re of the opinion that Germany could have created something like the Manhattan Project. I have serious doubts about that.

I think there is no question the Germans could have developed atomic weapons. Unencumbered by the nuisance of a war which was coming closer and closer to the fatherland, they would have gotten there faster than the Russians, based on the quality of their scientific talent.

Well the Germans like other nations were trying to make an atomic bomb and for a long time were ahead. It was just a matter of time and resources, the US based upon the size of its effort got there first, but if not the US someone else was going to build the first bomb. The theory was understood, and sadly the bomb was an idea for which the time had come.

One of the reasons that the Russians were in such a hurry to reach Berlin before the allied troops at the end of WWII in Europe was that they did want to get their hands on some German research facility in the city. Stalin even set up two of his generals (I think Zhukov and someone else whose name escapes me) in a race of sorts to reach the city. Thousands of lives, which could have been spared through a more methodical approach, were lost because of this.

This implies that the German were ahead or at least level with the Russian in the race for nuclear weapons. If the German-born scientist in the American program had worked for Germany instead, they would probably have been the first with nuclear weapons.

In the case of the German leadership, essentially no. They had relatively few possible sources of information and none of these provided anything clear.
The issue of how much the German physicists working on the reactor projects even understood whether a bomb was possible is a controversy that’s approaching its seventh decade. However, everybody agrees that the usual reaction of the scientists in discussing the possibilities of anyone developing a superbomb during the war with the Nazi leadership was to dismiss the possibility.

Any signals arriving via intelligence channels were hardly clearer. Possibly the strongest warning they should have paid more attention to were the repeated attempts, ultimately successful, by the British and the Norwegian resistance to cripple heavy water production from the Norsk-Hydro plant. This did produce some reaction. Along with very vague reports from agents in the US about heavy paraffin production, it’s cited by Walther Gerlach in a report alerting Goring in May 1944. This led to a few committee meeting and a bit of rummaging in freely available American magazines, which turned up nothing of any significance. But that’s about the extent to which the Germans reacted to Allied interest in heavy water as evidence of what they might be up to themselves.
The existence of the German project meant there was a certain small amount of interest in Allied nuclear research expressed in the directions given to German agents abroad. But this doesn’t seem to be because they saw it as a threat; it was the German project fishing for hints that might help them. As a result, the requests were directed towards reactors rather than bombs. Such requests led nowhere, not least because most German agents had been successfullly “turned” by Allied intelligence and were feeding back misinformation.
There is one possible fairly substantial tipoff about the Manhatten Project that they may have received. Unfortunately, the only reference I know to it is in David Irving’s The Virus House (William Kimber, 1967, p135-6). In 1942 William Ohnesorge, the Reichsminister of Posts, had petitioned Himmler to be allowed to see Hitler about information that the Americans were collecting their physicists and chemists into a special project. Irving claims that, in interview, Prof. Manfred von Ardenne, who was working for Ohnesorge, thought this project was atomic in nature and the information had come via Sweden. But he also suggests it may have derived from messages over the trans-Atlantic radiotelephone link, which Ohnesorge’s ministry had cracked and was reading in this period. He doesn’t say whether the request to Himmler got anywhere. Thomas Powers (p96-7) sort of collaborates this story, but - as always with Irving - buyer beware.

The final source of possible alert was from the general rumours that circulated that superbombs were in the offing. Civilians in the Reich were exchanging wild stories that bombs could be produced that could destroy entire cities. This was just a mix of wartime chatter and science fiction run riot - with possible encouragement from Goebbels - but it occasionally filtered through to the Nazi leadership. Though, as noted above, when they asked their nuclear scientists about whether there was any truth to these rumours they were usually reassured that it was all nonsense. Hans Frank and Himmler appear to have got wind of the idea in this sort of fashion.
This may also account for the report from the German Embassy in Lisbon in July 1944 that the Americans were threatening to drop an atomic bomb on Dresden. That was checked out by asking Heisenberg, who dismissed the idea and that was the end of it.

The most detailed discussion of these issues that I’m aware of is by Thomas Powers in Heisenberg’s War (Knopf, 1993, esp. p344-9). I don’t accept his overall thesis - and how one interprets those dismissals by Heisenberg is coloured by one’s attitude to it - but he’s reliable in his accounts of the intelligence efforts generally.

While Stalin did have Zhukov and Koniev competing to take Berlin as fast as possible, this seems unlikely as any significant motivation for the haste. The issue isn’t raised at all in David Holloway’s standard Stalin and the Bomb (Yale, 1994) and there were plenty of other strategic - and propaganda - reasons for seizing Berlin quickly.
Furthermore, the Soviet efforts to exploit German nuclear research in the aftermath were relatively lowkey. A party of commissars and scientists did travel to Berlin in May 1945 to see what could be rounded up, but this was without the support of Kurchatov, the scientific leader of the Soviet project. He argued that using German resources would be an insult to Soviet science. The mission did round up some talented people - including, to follow on from my post above, Manfred von Ardenne. (See Holloway, p108-10.)

Even if true, it would only show that Stalin thought that German resources might be of some use to the Soviet project. In hindsight, it’s pretty obvious that the Soviets were already motoring past the German project.

Even absent any other evidence, how could it have escaped the notice of the Axis powers that every single physicist in America was being pulled into secret military research? Even if they didn’t know what we were working on, they had to know that we were working on something big.

There’s also the story of how the Allies found out about a shipment of many barrels of heavy water from Norway to Germany. They got permission from the exiled king of Norway to incur civilian casualties, and put a sausage of plastiqe in the bottom of the ferry being used to go over a fjord.

It all went down in hundreds of feet of very cold water, and that was that.

That’s part of the Norsk-Hydro story I was refering to, Cardinal.

There are several different difficulties with this argument.

The most obvious point is that the Germans naturally realised that many scientists and engineers would be working on military research projects of some sort. But there was no shortage of those. Radar alone would have helped to mask the Manhatten Project were German intelligence actively investigating. They knew that that technology must be being developed somewhere. Had they noticed physicists disappearing from view, it would have been a reasonable guess that this was what they were working on. (Indeed, offhand, I suspect more physicists were working on radar than the bomb. The Rad Lab was an assembly of talents comparable to Los Alamos.) There were plenty of other projects soaking up good scientists. None of this made it easy to recognise that some of them were entering the Manhatten Project.
The Allies did worry that particular groups of people not publishing in Phys.Rev. might tip the Germans off. In fact, part of the response to Gerlach’s memo actually was someone going through copies of it to see what the Americans were publishing on nuclear physics. But that was looking for exactly the wrong signal; the suspicious thing they should have noticed was not that there was interest, it was that there was silence. Allied physicists had deliberately stopped publishing on nuclear physics early in the war. The Germans explicitly missed that. (In fairness, the supply of journals was interrupted by the war, so it wasn’t necessarily the better German physicists who had a chance to read Phys.Rev. in those years.)

Secondly, German intelligence wasn’t particularly focused on physics and physicists. While physics had been merely useful in WWI, chemical research had been central to the German war effort (Haber, etc.). In terms of snooping on research, their main target was thus the chemical industry. To your average German spy, a physicist was that funny Jew with the unkempt hair.
Which in turn is another reason why the Nazi leadership generally largely didn’t care about what American physicists might or might not be doing. The notion of Deutsche Physik lingered amongst them, with the consequence that any physics was to be regarded with suspicion. This is where we shade back into the controversy surrounding Heisenberg, but much of the time he was labouring to convince the Party that physics was a respectable field. The idea that Allied physicists might be much of a threat was that bit more difficult for them to grasp.
The one physicist whose activities German intelligence would no doubt have been interested in was Bohr. But that was because of his political significance in Denmark. To my knowledge, once he left Sweden, they knew nothing of his whereabouts. (Other than anything that was made public. I’ve a niggling memory that we did have him make a couple of radio broadcasts as cover; sort of, he’s in Britain, it’s no big deal.)

As an example of the difficulties, turn the issue around. Allied intelligence spent the war trying to establish who was working on nuclear research in Germany. They could guess at plausible names, but, for the most part, that was about all. They couldn’t even be sure about Heisenberg. And that was with far superior intelligence networks and resources than the subverted and crippled ones the Germans had.

Or put it this way. Surely they must also have noticed the strange British requirement for mathematicians, linguists and chess players. And them all disappearing into the Midlands …

A couple of weeks back I caught a documentary on The History Channel which claimed that shortly before the fall of Nazi Germany, the government there sent a great deal of research material regarding nuclear weapon development to Japan. Scientists at a university in Osaka, in turn, were able build on this research and, combining it with research that was already ongoing, were able to develop what I suppose might be called a “dirty bomb”. That is, they developed a nuclear weapon which did not have tremendous explosive power, but which would put out an enormous amount of radioactivity, and could thereby kill millions of people over a period of days or weeks.

It was further said that Japan had scheduled a bomber flight to drop one such weapon on San Francisco. The plan had been to make the bomber raid only a few days after the date when Japan instead surrendered.

I am aware that information on The History Channel should not necessarily be accepted as Gospel. While the documentary seemed insistent and detailed in its facts, I found it surprising that I never heard a whisper of any of this back in my school days. It seems to me that Americans are awfully prone to kicking themselves over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but it still seemed to me that if historians were at all sure about this hair-raising stuff, it would be basic material in history classes starting in grade school.

Can any Dopers shed light on these claims that the Japanese actually developed a nuclear weapon, but were narrowly prevented from using it on The United States?

By 1944 Germany’s foreign intelligence service was virtually blind. What agents they thought they had working abroad were almost universally double agents. The German intelligence network was infested with moles. One of the lesser told stories of WWII is the absolute domination the Allies and Soviets exerted in the field of intelligence, in almost every aspect of it - espionage, cryptography, and electronic warfare.

Frankly, it is extremely unlikely that Germany had any idea whatsoever of anything that was going on in North America, much less the most secret scheme of them all. They couldn’t even divine accurate intelligence of armies literally right next door.

So while some German analysts likely BELIEVED the USA was working on atomic weaponry, they almost certainly KNEW nothing about it.

Is this accurate? I thought that although that was the popular impression, in fact after the war it was discovered that German industries hadn’t been put on a war footing equivalent to the U.K.'s until quite late, ~1943-44. (I think I came across that in Speer’s book, but I’m not sure.)

A number of statements in this post are questionable or flat out wrong.

The first part is exactly right, but I’m with robo99 in questioning the second part. The enormous industrial complexes that General Groves built from scratch to produce the fissionable material needed for the bombs–including the K-25 gaseous diffusion plant, at 42.5 acres the largest building under one roof at the time–were equivalent to the entire U.S. automotive industry of the day. And together all these plants made only enough enriched uranium and plutonium by mid-1945 for the Trinity test and the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, at a cost of $2 billion (back in the 1940s, when a billion dollars was really worth something).

There’s no way that Germany, fighting a war on two fronts, could ever have mustered enough resources to duplicate that effort. Although, of course, we didn’t know that at the time.

Not their scientific talent after they started persecuting Jews. A large number of the most talented physicists in Germany were Jewish and fled that persecution, leaving only a handful of top guys: basically Heisenberg and Wiesacker.

Germany was ahead of the world in basic physics research in the 1930s, but AFAIK, they were never ahead in bomb development. By the end of the war they had not even built a reactor capable of a self-sustaining reaction, a feat accomplished by Fermi in Chicago on Dec. 2, 1942.

The answer to the OP is that the Germans never had a clue about the progress of the Allied nuclear program. This is evidenced by the unconcerned attitude that Albert Speer, Hitler’s Minister of Armament, took towards atomic research once Heisenberg told him in Spring 1942 that it would take years to produce enough fissile material for a bomb. He was also no doubt influenced by Hitler’s lack of comprehension of the potential of nuclear weapons, and the disdain for “Jewish physics” prevalent in German scientific circles. If Speer had had any sense that the Allies were working on a bomb, he certainly would have been more supportive of Heisenberg’s work. After all, it was the fear of a German bomb that was the primary motivation for even the pacifist scientists on our side.

Another sign that Germans were clueless is the conversations among the captured German physicists in Farm Hall, in England, when they were told that an atomic bomb had destroyed Hiroshima. At first, Heisenberg flatly refused to believe that it had anything to do with fission or uranium. As it became clear that we may actually have done it, Heisenberg, Wiesacker, and the others marvelled that we had been so far in advance of them theoretically and practically.

See Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Leslie Groves’ Now It Can Be Told, and Samuel Goudsmit’s Alsos.

More information from the History Channel(oh how I love thee but the wife doesn’t). A show I was watching yesterday, Secret Weapons of the Axis or something similar claimed that Speer and others believed the war would be over before a bomb could be produced so it was not worth the resources. Based on German estimates of winning against the Soviets and the expectation that England would make peace once Russia fell, I think that claim makes sense. Once the war had turned against them and they realized the bomb would be useful, the German’s had to concentrate resources on keeping their cities from being destroyed and stopping the Russians so it would have been too late.

I’ve been trying to avoid the temptation to comment on issues tangential to the question in the OP, but I should make an exception here since I’ve changed my mind about U-234 since last commenting on it on the Board.

The kernel of this story is obviously the voyage of the U-234 at the end of the war. That has been the subject of this TV documentary, which has apparently run on The History Channel. However the version of it that ran on Channel Four in the UK earlier this year was rather sensible and so this may not be the same programme. As a first correction, what’s attracted attention to U-234 is not that it was carrying research results from the German nuclear programme, it’s that it was carrying uranium to Japan.
For a long time vague stories about this mission had circulated, but without any solid research being done on it. I’ve even suspected in the past that the story might be an elaborate hoax; after all, it smacks of those mythical U-boats smuggling Hitler out of Germany to South America, etc. Several things eventually convinced me that the core of the U-234 story is correct. It helped that I got my hands on Hirschfeld (1996; Cassell, 2000), the memoir by one of the crew. The documentary mentioned above managed to locate and interview six other crew members. Reseachers had also found some of the Americans who handled the boat and its contents after surrender. Joseph Scalia’s book Germany’s Last Mission to Japan has also been published and appears to provide a thorough account (haven’t read it - waiting for a paperback). That the boat was carrying uranium, along with various goodies from other programmes, now seems settled.
It appears that the Japanese nuclear programmes had put out feelers to the Germans earlier in the war, but particularly for help with ore supplies. While that got nowhere at the time, my guess is that someone remembered this in the closing days of the fighting in Europe and thought that the Japanese might as well have this particular batch of stuff. If so, the U-234 would actually tell us nothing about the actual status of the Japanese research in 1945.

Of course, all this is already at odds with the story slipster’s asking about. For a start, the U-234 didn’t make it to Japan.
The purported use the uranium was meant to be put to also sounds garbled. There’s not a vast amount of material in English on Japanese wartime nuclear research - the literature is tiny compared to the stuff on Germany - but the outlines are well enough known. As in Germany, the very large scale resources necessary for a really serious project were never extracted from the political/military leadership. In summary, they knew what they were doing, but the circumstances they were working in meant they didn’t get very far.
The major difference between the Axis appoaches was that the Japanese recognised that the strategic goal to aim for was a bomb, not just a reactor. By contrast, the “reactor as dirty bomb” idea here derives from a garbled version of the controversy around Heisenberg. One theory there is that he envisaged developing a “nuclear bomb” that would, in fact, be no more than a runaway reactor. Even if this were the case, the Germans still weren’t anywhere near achieving even this by the time the U-234 sailed. Had it got through, there was no way the Japanese could have picked up the idea and done anything with it by August. Allied conventional bombing had managed to completely halt their own programme in April. Nothing about the alleged scenario makes sense in the known context of the Japanese research. I suspect, had the idea been suggested, they’d even have dismissed it as a terrible waste of valuable uranium.
Versions of the story on the web are no better. (For instance, Tomonaga happens to be the member of the Osaka school with a particularly easily establishable wartime career. He was working on waveguides - and QED - not nuclear physics.)

Others may be better placed to comment on the proposed delivery mechanism. A Japanese bomber flying to the US West Coast in August 1945 seems pretty improbable to me. Never mind with a nuclear reactor on board.