Operation Big: The Race to Stop Hitler's A-Bomb by Colin Brown

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Operation Big: The Race to Stop Hitler's A-Bomb by Colin Brown

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Category: History
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Some fabulous elements remain of the key story in this book, but they're swamped in an unfortunate manner by the author's desire to be definitive.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 304 Date: November 2016
Publisher: Amberley Publishing
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781445664675

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What, do you think, was more feared in 1941 and 1942 than the Nazi Party? Well, a Nazi Party with nuclear arms would be pretty high on the list. It seems the stuff of pure fantasy, but I'm not so sure. A lot of the people to be at the forefront of the nuclear physics of the age were German, and the first nuclear fission was on their soil. Two things seemed to be needed for nuclear arms – uranium, which they procured by capturing Czechoslovakia, the location of one its greatest source mines; and heavy water. That so nearly fell into Nazi hands when they invaded Norway, but what seems to have been the great majority of the world's supply had only just been smuggled out. Some fiction takes great strides to suggest in a fantasy way that if Hitler hadn't concentrated on exterminating Jews, he would have had the energy to win the war – and it must only be a short step to see his imperial expansionism as having an ulterior motive in nuclear materiel. But make no mistake, this is not fiction – these are the pure facts behind the issue.

And it's facts, and it's facts, and it's facts… Almost to the extent that I can say if you have an academic interest in this topic, then buy this book, otherwise click away now. The detail here is encyclopaedic. I've never read a book that felt it necessary to mention Beria's middle name before. Some British chap gets all three middle names listed – come on, I've learnt never to trust anyone with even two. The most minor of characters can get their hair and eye colour listed, along with their military rank and nickname and what their grandmother died of. What's the point of mentioning a car number plate? It's en route to an airport and we've already been told the angles of all the three runway strips, so I was disappointed we weren't told the flight approach path on this instance.

You get the message, but what else do you get from the book? Well, I have to say that some of it was known to me, but a lot wasn't. The Telemark attacks in Norway was a story I'd come across before, and some of the morals of the Copenhagen meeting between Heisenberg and Bohr had of course crossed my path, but a lot was new to me. The core of the book is a ramshackle assault on the dregs of the Nazi nuclear programme by an American team, working very much in the way of the Monuments Men, and it's their story, with the similarity to the Hollywood-baiting heroics of their counterparts, that needs to come to the fore. When the Nazis left Paris is was deemed vital for the French that it be them and not the Yanks to be seen as liberating forces – but no, the first Allies into the city were a pair of Jeeps hastening past sniper fire and lying-in-wait tanks to get to the nuclear secrets and those who'd discovered them.

That's what I wanted from this book, alongside the secondary story that was also new to me, of the scientists living in a heavily-bugged country pile in Cambridgeshire, having been dragged there in some attempt to mimic that effort that got all the rocket scientists to the US ready for the Apollo landings. It's partly their knowledge that has placed them in world history, but also their location together when the Enola Gay dropped the first A-bomb, and they were forced to just talk as a response. But that's the other key issue I have to have with this book. It's the work of great research – the detail proves that to me in every chapter – but it's half the story. The debate still runs, including doubt over how much the Germans had worked out, and how talented (or willing) they would have been given the right resources to do what their paymasters expected of them. But this book NEVER factors in the 'other' side. Key Nazi papers were fetched out of a flipping cess pit, but we don't learn what was in them. So this isn't the story of the path to Hitler's A-Bomb, just the story told by the winners. The very definition of history, then – but a history of a brilliant story, told with a welter of forensic detail the man on the stereotypical bus just doesn't need. There's a brilliant tale to be told, but not in this fashion. And I include in that the numerous typos – it's galling to see people dishonoured with the made-up name Ravensbrook.

Just as I found flashes of brilliant interest in these pages, so the presentation is uneven. Several chapters have a very wonky time-line, as the author's journalist past tells him to start a chapter with a key, visual punch, before back-tracking into the stodge of detail from his copious notes. So three and a half stars, then – but that's not actually a lot when you consider a lot of what I enjoyed was the actual true-to-life story, and not the telling. I must still thank the publishers for my review copy.

Serving the Reich: The Struggle for the Soul of Physics under Hitler by Philip Ball is also academic, but brings to life the events concerning the Nazi protagonists in much better ways.

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