My brush with the Atom Bomb

One day about the time that Mr. Churchill was having his Triumph in Tripoli, my unit in Cairo received two visitors. One was my chief and the other a Squadron Leader, who, it appeared had been appointed to the Captured Enemy Aircraft Unit. As my unit had been studying, and sending back to the UK. reports on, a new Identification Friend or Foe system he had decided to pay us a visit. After being given a tour round the unit he was quite content to let us continue as before, but asked that any reports be sent to the UK. via his own office in Cairo This seemed a perfect excuse for me to be able to visit GHQ, where his office was, and promised to be worthwhile as he seemed to be a “clued up” sort of bloke.

On one of these visit I mentioned to him that the professor of physics at the Hebrew University, like most of us, was getting very excited about the atom bomb we were hearing about, and that he had expressed some doubts as to whether it would go BANG or just fizzle out like a damp squib. The Squadron Leader assured me that he knew quite a bit about it and that it would, most certainly go off with quite a big BANG!

Sometime later I was attending an RAF. party for a chap being posted back to the UK. It was the usual type of RAF. bash, the gin flowed like water, mainly being consumed by rather stocky WRAF females with apparently hollow legs and little reaction to large quantities of alcohol. I found my friend in a corner somewhat worse for wear. We talked and he assured me that he had indeed worked at Oakridge, USA, for two years and he began to tell me more of the atom bomb. The more he told me of it’s enormous size and capability the more I tended to disbelieve him. This, of course, egged him on to further revelations. One thing that I had not known was that an atomic pile of one ton only yields enough special material to cover a five pence piece, and you need some ten kilos to produce a bomb. On all their production sites the Americans spent some 2000 billion dollars. I knew that it was quite unusual for a Britisher to be “on site” as the Americans had got rid of the British Liaison Officer very early in the project, and that it was now “all American”, excepts for a few very high grade Jewish-German scientists. They were still hoping to keep the bomb an American monopoly. One has to wonder how the Squadron Leader had come to be accepted, but at the time I was just pleased to have a “bomb expert” on hand.

Next to our camp was the housed the smallest unit in the Middle Eastern Forces. It consisted of a Medical Major, a CQMS laboratory assistant and a corporal driver responsible for a mobile laboratory. Their job was to follow the army and to test the wells in the desert for purity. I knew of our neighbours but had never met them. One evening I was working late the orderly room serpent put his head round my office door and said that the Major from the camp next door would like to see me. The Major was duly shown in, carrying a large cardboard box which he deposited on my desk. “I think this is more in your line” he said “Sorry can’t stop, I found them in the desert” with which he fled from the office. I unpacked the box and found two beautiful pieces of German equipment, complete with spares and instruction books. The equipment was for measuring high levels of radioactivity, no simple Geiger counter this, but based on the gold leaf electroscope.

I was puzzled as to what they were doing in the desert and who might be interested in them, I was also wishing I could keep them, or at least one of them, myself, real precision instruments these. After a little thought I decided to phone the Squadron Leader and ask him if I could pay him a visit to show him something that would surprise him. I repacked the box and called for my driver. On arriving at GHQ I repeated the performance of the medical Major with startling results. “God help us”, said the Squadron Leader, “either they’re about to start on us, or we are on them. These are important I’d better get them off to the UK. immediately”.

I later learned that they did go off to the UK that very night transported in a relay of Spitfires and arrived in the UK some twelve hours later. Such a feat must have taken some very high level orders, not only in Cairo but also in the UK. and it is very possible that Air Marshal Tedder himself was involved.

The big question is, what were these sophisticated pieces of equipment doing in the desert? At that time atom bombs were to be used on areas of vast population, I don’t think anyone had considered using them against armies in the field. How far advanced the Germans were is difficult to say, they could have had two years start on the Americans. After the war Speers, of Germany, claimed that the scientists working for the German war machine had convinced Hitler that an atom bomb would take many more years of development before it was ready for production, he also said that they had not really tried in their development work. However an atomic pile was uncovered in the Black Forest after the war, indeed they had some 1200 tons of uranium, the basic starting material, captured from the Belgians, who were mining it in the Congo at the start of the war.

The Germans were not lacking in the brains department and one of their scientist Hahn, had been among the first to spot the necessary reactions required to bring about an atomic explosion. Towards the end of the war lots of development work was carried out underground, out of the way of conventional bombing, so perhaps there is still some hidden works that are waiting to be found.

There is still another fact to be considered, although the yield of the special metal require to produce a bomb is very low per ton of raw material, it also produces a high quantity of very nasty radio-active waste. Perhaps their idea was to spread this, by means of conventional explosion, and thus disable the Eighth Army with radiation sickness. The fighting  in Tunisia was controlled by the surrounding terrain and mountains and use of radio-active material in the narrow corridors of advance would have been devastating.

Whatever it was that I stumbled on it was important, the RAF always claimed the monopoly on bombs and rockets, Jones their head of intelligence was high up in Churchills favour. I think that, maybe, my friendly Squadron Leader was Jones’ man in the Middle East. I suppose that somewhere there is an official record of the find and what followed, but I never heard another thing about it, but I had had my moment of glory and my Brush With the Atom Bomb.

Eric Vast (M1CYF) Circa 1990.

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