Rosbaud: Midwife to Fission

Educated, cultured, sophisticated, the scientist Paul Rosbaud was a leading figure in Nazi society. But operating as “The Griffin,” he was also Britain s most valuable agent-in-place, relaying reports on arms and technology to the Allies. He authored the “Oslo Report,” which documented Ger man rocket work at Peenemünde—a warning that went unheeded until it was too late. In his book The Griffin (Houghton Muffin Co., 1986), Arnold Kramish reports for the first ti

By | December 15, 1986

Educated, cultured, sophisticated, the scientist Paul Rosbaud was a leading figure in Nazi society. But operating as “The Griffin,” he was also Britain s most valuable agent-in-place, relaying reports on arms and technology to the Allies. He authored the “Oslo Report,” which documented Ger man rocket work at Peenemünde—a warning that went unheeded until it was too late. In his book The Griffin (Houghton Muffin Co., 1986), Arnold Kramish reports for the first time the role Rosbaud played in undermining the Nazi war effort. In this adaptation from the book, he describes how Rosbaud used his position to break the news of the birth of fission to the rest of the Western world.

Date: December 15, 1986

On the night of December 22, 1938, five months after they had conspired to save [Jewish physicist] Lise Meitner from arrest by the Gestapo, Professor Otto Hahn, of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Chemistry in Berlin-Dahlem, and Dr. Paul Rosbaud, scientific adviser to Springer Verlag, both prominent citizens of Hitler's Reich, joined to transform the course of human events.

That evening, Hahn phoned Paul Rosbaud with the news that he had just finished writing a paper describing the experiments that he and Fritz Strassmann had performed. These experiments verified beyond a doubt that new elements were created when a slow neutron struck a uranium atom.

Paul was electrified. In the world of physics, this was headline news. He went to fetch the paper and immediately called Fritz Süffert, the editor of the Springer publication Naturwissenschaften, and got him to pull one of the articles already being typeset for the next issue in order to make room for the Hahn and Strassmann paper.

The astonishing thing was that Hahn had not realized that he had split the atom. He had explored the long path to the great secret and then failed to see what lay before his eyes. But Lise Meitner saw what Hahn had not seen. In discussing Hahn's paper, Meitner and [Otto Robert] Frisch suddenly understood that Hahn and Strassmann had split the atom. They made a quick calculation showing that Hahn's experiments had released more energy than any other process in history. The power inherent in the nucleus of an atom had been revealed.

As it happened, Niels Bohr was about to leave for the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and then attend a conference in Washington, D.C., so Frisch hurried back to home base in Copenhagen to share the news with the Danish Nobel laureate. Bohr enthusiastically carried the word abroad. The conference, sponsored by the Carnegie Institution of Washington and George Washington University, was on the physics of low temperatures, at that time a field considered unrelated to nuclear energy. But in attendance were Enrico Fermi, Eugene Wigner, Edward Teller, and others very much interested in what happened when a neutron encountered a uranium atom. After Bohr announced the discovery of Hahn and Strassmann to the conference, a number of physicists left to try to repeat the experiments in their own laboratories. They did, and a new age began.

Rosbaud, of course, was playing a strategic game in all this. Probably earlier than any of the scientists, he realized the vast destructive potential of what Hahn, Strassmann, and Meitner had discovered, and he was acutely conscious that the fundamental research had been done in Germany. He wanted the rest of the world to know of the significance of the work at least as soon as Nazi planners did. By rushing into print with Hahn's manuscript, he was able to alert the world community of physicists.

A Crucial Lunch

At the moment when fission was discovered, Britain's Secret Intelligence Service had no scientific officer and was not the least bit interested in such esoteric subjects as atomic energy. But a number of British scientists were. One of those eminent scientists was John Douglas Cockcroft of Cambridge's Mond Laboratory. Cockcroft's claim to fame was the high-voltage accelerating machine, which he built with Ernest Walton in 1931. It was the first atom-smashing machine in the world. Consequently, Cockcroft had a proprietary interest in the new work on smashing the heaviest element known— uranium. He entered into correspondence with Lise Meitner soon after she and Otto Frisch published the correct interpretation of Otto Hahn's results. In a letter to Cockcroft, dated February 13, 1939, Meitner gave a detailed account of the interpretations to date, but Cockcroft wanted to know more, especially about what was happening in Ger many. And Otto Hahn wanted him to know more. Rosbaud was a willing courier, and quite possibly, Otto Hahn had sensed his deeper purposes.

The men met for lunch at the Athenaeum at twelve-thirty on Friday, March 10, 1939. Rosbaud's masterly summary of the experimental results on nuclear fission in the Reich impressed Cockcroft. Along with Hahn's yet-unpublished findings, Paul relayed accounts of the more practical experimentation of such scientists as Siegfried Flugge at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Physics in Dahlem, aimed at determining whether atomic energy was practical. The experiments of Willibald Jentschke and Friedrich Prankl at the Institute for Radioactivity in Vienna were beginning to demonstrate how the energy of the split atom might be harnessed. Fascinated, Cockcroft asked Rosbaud to report frequently. Of course, Paul agreed, knowing well that the atomic bomb was the one weapon that had to be denied to Hitler.

On April 29, 1939, at the urging of physicists who saw a “well-nigh irretrievable advantage” to the first country to harness nuclear energy for weaponry, the government called a closed-door conference at which it was recommended that secrecy be imposed on atomic research and that all uranium stocks in Germany be secured. Present at that conference was Josef Mattauch, who had taken Lise Meitner's place in Hahn's laboratory. On August 5, 1945, the day before the Hiroshima bomb was dropped and before very many in the world were privy to the secret, Rosbaud recalled that “I do not deny that I was somehow alarmed when Mattauch who was present at this meeting told me the next day everything about it.”

The Germans Forge Ahead

Whether it was for deferments from military service, for research money, for the excitement of the research, or for the quest for the “irretrievable advantage” for the Reich, those involved in the German atomic program, backed by two ministries, forged ahead. Through Rosbaud, the British knew everything they wanted to know about the German atomic program—from its inception and throughout the war—except during a year and a half hiatus in his reporting from the end of 1939.

Rosbaud was in England several more times before the outbreak of war. In his memoirs, R.S. Hutton, a professor of metallurgy at Cambridge who relayed Rosbaud's information on the meeting to Cockcroft, recalled that “Apparently Hitler had considered the possibility of an atomic bomb as his secret weapon number 1, but this had to be put aside, because the only German physicists who could have given effective help re fused to cooperate. In this and many other ways Rosbaud was of great service to the Allies.”

Hutton's memory was faulty, reflecting the postwar myths about the German atomic effort. At that moment in time, the German program was officially endorsed, well organized, and well ahead of programs here. It was only in August, four months after Harteck's letter to the War Ministry, that Albert Einstein, prodded by Leo Szilard and another Hungarian physicist, Eugene Wigner, wrote his famous letter to President Roosevelt. Roosevelt did not read the letter until October, a month after the war in Europe had begun, and the American nuclear research effort did not get started until the day before Pearl Harbor, over two years later. Even then, it came about only because of persistent urging by the British.        

Kramish is a consultant physicist. His address is 2065 Wethersfield Court, Reston, VA 22091.
Copyright © 1986 by Arnold Kramish. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Houghton Muffin Co.

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