How the Allied powers won the nuclear arms race against Hitler’s Germany

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How the Allied powers won the nuclear arms race against Hitler’s Germany

The Bastard Brigade: The True Story of the Renegade Scientists and… by Sam Kean, Little, Brown and Company, US $30.00, Pp 464, July 2019, ISBN 978-0316381680

World War II came to an end when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But things could have gone the other way — Germany dropping bombs on one or more Allied countries to end the war. In The Bastard Brigade, Sam Kean says that German chemists and physicists had discovered the nuclear fission and the Third Reich had found its own Manhattan Project — known as the Uranium Club — in 1939, giving it a two-year head start. Sam Kean argues that this realization had two effects. First, it pushed American scientists to work maniacally hard on atomic bombs. Second, it convinced the Allies to sponsor a series of desperate missions to sabotage the Nazi bomb project. Spies, soldiers, physicists, politicians — all had roles to play. The Bastard Brigade is the story of these heroic, chaotic, and often deadly efforts — involving not only the likes of Boris Pash and Joe Kennedy but courageous female scientists like Irene Joliot-Curie and Lise Meitner. It starts with the 1030s with the birth of nuclear fission, and it continues through the epic manhunt s of the very last days of the war.

Sam Kean says that science had certainly contributed to warfare before 1939, but in World War II, the Allies gave scientists guns and helmets and dispatched them into combat zones for the first time. This shadow war paralleled the visible one in many ways, but the men and women involved in war more or less ignored the movements of troops, tanks, and airplanes, and instead stalked ideas — vast, world-changing scientific ideas. Many scientists on the Manhattan Project were convinced that Germany had gained the know-how of building an atomic bomb. Germany was a highly industrialized country and it was capable of processing the vast amount of raw material nuclear bomb requires. At that time, no other country on earth could match its genius and industrial might — not to mention its diabolical urge to wage war.

Still, the Allies were not above playing dirty when the mission called for it. Sam Kean says that the country’s first atomic spy, an enigmatic baseball catcher named Moeberg stole his friend’s mail, lied repeatedly to his superiors, and went AWOL with alarming frequency. For him and others, no tactics were too extreme — airstrikes, commando raids, Molotov cocktails, kidnappings — as long as they kept the Bomb out of Hitler’s hands. Unlike other authors, Sam Kean focuses on the Allies and puts us directly into the minds of the men and women confronted with, perhaps, the ultimate mission. Much of the material in his book comes from previously unpublished or overlooked sources, which provide new insight into some of the war’s most fascinating yet unheralded characters. All the missions were top-secret, and those who volunteered for them often had dark motivations for doing so. In some cases, they spent as much energy fighting each other as they did the enemy. If they could not shake their personal demons, they never flinched when facing down the Nazi threat.

The Bastard Brigade is the amazing story of how the Allied powers thwarted Hitler’s plans to make the nuclear bomb while they were still working on the bomb. With the help of new sources and material, Sam Kean sheds a light on little explored aspects of how the Allied won the nuclear arms race against Hitler’s Germany. Packed with new knowledge, The Bastard Brigade is a scholarly book on a scholarly subject written in a very readable style. Scholars will learn a lot from Sam Kean’s research while lay readers will enjoy it more than they enjoy spy thrillers. Sam has done a really commendable job.

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