From the archive
One of the unheralded heroes of the end of the Cold War was General Y.P. Maksimov, the commander in chief of the Soviet strategic rocket forces during the hardliners’ coup against Gorbachev in August 1991. He made a pact with the heads of the navy and air force to disobey any order by the coup plotters to launch nuclear weapons. There was extreme concern in the West that the coup leader, Gennady Yanayev, had stolen Gorbachev’s Cheget (the case containing the nuclear button) and the launch codes, and that the coup leaders might initiate a nuclear exchange. Maksimov ordered his mobile SS-25 ICBMs to be withdrawn from their forest emplacements and shut up in their sheds – knowing that American satellites would relay this information immediately to Washington. In the event, the NSA let President Bush know that the rockets were being stored away in real time. In trying to understand how we got to the fantastical position where lorries trundling around in Siberian forests could be so nervously followed from space, a good place to start is Jim Baggott’s Atomic…
A key part of the Nazis’ nuclear programme was the heavy water production facility at the Norsk Hydro fertiliser plant near Rjukan in the wilds of Norway. The British did their utmost to destroy it. The first recourse was to get Norwegian Resistance sympathisers at the plant to sabotage it by pouring castor oil and cod liver oil into the electrolyte. The Special Operations Executive, however, had not told the several saboteurs of one another’s existence, with the result that they overdid it. The whole plant had to be shut down in April 1942 and the Germans discovered the sabotage, which made it harder to do again.
By this time Churchill and Roosevelt had designated the Norsk Hydro a top priority target. The Resistance strongly counselled against a bombing raid because it would lead to major civilian casualties. But a commando raid would be difficult: in winter it would be prohibitively cold and in summer there wouldn’t be enough hours of darkness. In November 1942, two British bombers towed in a 34-strong commando force in gliders. They were to be met by a Resistance group and would then attempt to demolish the plant. It was a complete disaster. One plane and both gliders crash-landed, with many casualties. The survivors were all caught, interrogated and executed by the Gestapo: some were shot; others were throttled with straps and had their chests crushed before being killed by having air injected into their bloodstreams.
In February 1943 a smaller team of specially trained Norwegian commandos was parachuted onto the desolate Hardanger Plateau in temperatures of -30 oC. The Hydro plant had to be approached across a suspension bridge over an unclimbably steep ravine. If they attempted to storm the bridge the shoot-out with the guards would raise the alert. The answer, it was decided, was to climb the unclimbable — down into the ravine and up the other side — then set explosives all round the plant and escape via the same impossible route. The operation worked and they all got away safely. The German commander, surveying the damage, said it was ‘the finest coup I have seen in this war’. But the plant limped back into production a few months later.
General Leslie Groves, directing the Allied bomb effort at Los Alamos, insisted on a bombing raid. In November 1943, 300 bombers attacked Hydro, scoring only two hits but killing 22 civilians. It was just as the Resistance had feared. But the Germans got the point: the Allies would keep targeting the plant until it was destroyed. So they shut it down and arranged to move its functions to Germany – a move which cost precious time. By this stage the Nazi leadership had lost confidence in the atomic bomb project (Heisenberg himself was always uncertain about whether it would ultimately be successful) and had decided instead to give top priority to the new V-weapons and jet fighters.