Photo Chemistry – creating weapons grade uranium without a nuclear reactor
In 1945, during their incarceration at Farm Hall, a small country estate buried in rural England, the captured German nuclear scientists Gerlach, Diebner and Harteck all referred to the photo-chemistry method for obtaining fissile uranium, the explosive core of the nuclear bomb. Yet historical accounts remain utterly silent about the process to which they refer.
Photo-chemistry is a nuclear process where, in this case, mercury is vaporised, using high-voltage electrical currents, while being spun at extremely rapid rates in a vacuum chamber. To increase the transfer rate of electrons between the mercury and thorium, a catalyst, known only as ‘xerum 525’, a grey coloured metallic paste, was added to the centre of the spin unit. It dramatically increased the speed of the transfer of electrons.
No one has been able to identify exactly what this ‘xerum 525’ was, although Jacob Sporrenberg (an SS officer in charge of Glocke security) referred to the use of beryllium oxide inside the bell centrifuge. Some researchers have claimed ‘xerum 525’ was highly radioactive, but accounts of this material being hand loaded into the ‘Glocke’ and test bombs would seem to contradict this. Researchers now believe ‘xerum 525’ was also a ‘super conductor’. Super conductors allow the passage of very high electrical energy loads to pass through or across them, with almost no loss of energy. If there is no energy loss, there is no mechanical or electrical ‘friction’. Thus, the two ceramic plates in the ‘Bell’, turning in opposite directions, were able to spin at such a high rate that mercury could be turned into plasma, the flash you see in lightning - at which point the electron and neutron transfer process took place. The greater the transfer of these particles to the thorium, the more quickly it was transformed into weapons grade uranium. What it appears the Germans were attempting to achieve was fusion, or the adding of neutrons and protons to thorium 232, to transform it into uranium 233.
The production of weapons grade uranium is complex and time consuming. The American Manhattan Project spent from 1942 until August 1945 attempting to produce enough uranium to make just one bomb. Dr Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific leader of the American bomb project, stated to a Congressional hearing after the war that it would have been September 1945 before the US was in a position to produce enough uranium 235 to make their first bomb. The American enrichment process was slow and too inefficient. The arrival of the German submarine U-234 in mid-May 1945, carrying 560 kgs of uranium 233, an unknown quantity of ‘xerum 525’ and at least six bomb fuses, allowed the Americans to manufacture and deploy two bombs, by August 1945, against Japan.
Kammler held all the cards…
The most difficult part in producing a successful nuclear weapon is the fuse. The German approach to achieving a successful detonation was the ‘implosion’ method by which neutrons bombarded the uranium core of the bomb. This had been proven with the dropping of the second neutron bomb (Fat Man) over Nagasaki in August 1945. It was considerably more powerful for its size than the first bomb dropped on Hiroshima a few days earlier. The American bombs all required German fuse units, of which six had been brought out of Germany just days before the end of the war in Europe. Kammler and Dönitz were the only ones who knew where the equipment and scientists were that could produce more fuses. This was one of their most valuable bargaining chips in the immediate post war negotiations with the Allies. At the time, the Allies had no inkling about the concurrent ‘Projekt Saucer’ operation, aboard the only Junkers Ju390-01 heavy transport aircraft. Late in April 1945, disguised as a Swedish airliner, the Junkers carried a small scientific team, with plans and records, from Munich to Uruguay in South America. It was last sighted in Portuguese Guinea, where it refuelled for its trans-Atlantic flight. Dönitz was probably unaware of the Ju390 flight, but Kammler certainly knew. He had arranged it before vanishing soon after it took off. He is believed to have arrived in Uruguay by U-boat several weeks later.
With U-196 somewhere near the Sunda Straits, and carrying the only fully equipped scientific team capable of making a fuse, Kammler ordered Dönitz to direct the U-boat to the Northland area, and prepare to make a landing. The British government, deeply offended at the American refusal to share further nuclear intelligence and research, would have directed Dönitz to send the U-boat to New Zealand, which was well away from American forces, by then preparing to prevent the Russians from landing on Hokkaido, the northernmost Japanese homeland island. It is more than possible the U-196 met with a British supply ship (not the Orion as previously thought) in the Sunda Straits, to receive maps, charts and recognition signal instructions. After refuelling and re-provisioning, U-196 would have headed south.
As soon as the U-196 arrived in New Zealand, the German scientific team would have confirmed the Japanese were close to producing their own fusion bomb. The likelihood of a Russian nuclear weapon being produced soon after the capture of the Hungnam Nuclear Research plant and Japanese scientists, in Korea, became apparent as the Soviet Army prepared to invade Manchuria in June 1945.
The British government reacts
On August 29, 1945, the British nuclear weapon research programme began after a small, highly secret cabinet committee, GEN163, led by Prime Minister Atlee and six ministers, instructed William G Penny, a highly experienced nuclear scientist, to commence a research programme for the production of a free fall nuclear bomb, based on the American ‘Fat Man’ bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Penny had flown as an observer on the Nagasaki raid and later visited the city to survey the damage. Penny had also witnessed the American Bikini Atoll test, ‘Operation Crossroads’, in 1946, and upon his return to England prepared a report - Plutonium Weapon – General Description. It came to the conclusion that as at October 1946, the British could not produce a nuclear weapon without United States assistance. From Penny’s preliminary reports, it was clear the British had managed to gain some understanding of the wartime German bomb research and manufacturing processes, but they lacked the crucial fuse and initiator components. The British government immediately solicited the help of Australia (thorium, uranium and bomb test ranges), South Africa (uranium and various metals) Canada (enriched uranium) New Zealand (thorium and bomb fuse design and testing) for what was to become known as ‘The Empire Bomb Project’. I suspect both the French and German governments were silent partners in this project, as was the Kammler organisation, after re-establishing itself in Argentina and Uruguay.
The project began by developing a bomb based on the wartime 14,000-pound ‘Tallboy’ bomb, which proved to be so large and heavy it required the introduction of the ‘V Bomber’ force to carry them. As a ‘free fall’ weapon they proved too dangerous for the crews of the Vulcan and Victor to use. It was not until the arrival of the German nuclear weapons specialists from the late 1940s that real progress was made in designing smaller, more reliable weapons. The first operationally successful nuclear weapon, code named ‘Red Beard’, used a warhead with a unique means of implosion, which allowed the overall size of the weapon to be reduced. The 15 kilotonne yield bomb weighed only 1750 pounds, (760 kgs), which at the time was a major breakthrough for a nuclear bomb. It was first tested on September 27,1956 at Maralinga in Australia. The mushroom cloud rose to a height of 11,430 metres (47,663 feet).
The advent of the jet age in the last months of World War Two dramatically altered the world strategic balance. Suddenly, the world was faced with tactical rather than strategic nuclear weapons, carried by a revolutionary, unarmed, light-weight jet bomber. Now, the post-war British Empire possessed a weapon that could not be ignored by potential military rivals.
In 1956, the RNZAF began taking delivery of 12 ‘on loan’ Canberra B1(12), jet bombers, while we awaited the delivery of our B2 variants (which we substituted for US A4 Skyhawks). These B1(12) were deployed for a ‘toss bombing’ delivery using the Low Altitude Bombing System (LABS), utilizing the Blue Silk Doppler radar system to ensure highly accurate radar altimeter settings for the bomb fuses. Forty-eight bombs were stored at RAF Tengah, in Singapore. British, Australian and New Zealand Canberras regularly deployed to Tengah during the late 1950s, presumably to familiarise crews in the use of ‘Red Beard’. The bombs were never intended for use during the Malaysian emergency, but clearly threatened southern China after the Korean War. All the German scientists brought into Australia after 1945 had the expertise required for the development of this weapon.
The bomb fuse supposedly developed by the U-196 scientific detachment at Army Bay Whangaparaoa, using ‘xerum 525’, was a key factor in the early development of tactical nuclear weapons following the Americans' rupture of nuclear cooperation after August 1945. Somewhere between Tikipunga in Whangarei, where there are numerous deep mine shafts, and Army Bay, Whangaparaoa, there must have been several ‘Bells’ in operation producing ‘xerum 525’ and enriched uranium 233. We believe the Australians were duplicating the same programme in Melbourne from the beginning on 1946, using the similar ‘Tokomak’ system.
Naming Names: The Scientists With A Past
The following list of German scientists demonstrates the British Empire shared a common interest in pursuing the development of nuclear weapons. It’s a mistake to assume that all those who were recruited by the Anglo-Australian nuclear project have been identified in this ‘Age’ article. Their arrival dates into Australia is suspect as well. Why? The fracture in the Allied nuclear arrangement occurred in August 1945, soon after the dropping of the second bomb on Nagasaki. Britain’s new Prime Minister, Clement Atlee, elected in July 1945, demanded Britain pursue a nuclear weapons programme as soon as possible, to counter the Russian capture of Japanese and German nuclear scientists, which he knew must result in a Russian weapon. Accordingly, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa and Britain embarked on their own nuclear programme based in Australia and their Pacific territories. In 1946, the Australian, Peter Thonemann, and Sir George Thomson, from Britain, pioneered studies of plasma magnetic confinement in a toroidal configuration at Oxford University. Peter Thonemann was closely identified with the landmark ‘toroidal pinch’ experiment in the ZETA unit, a nuclear project that explored electro magnetic field containment of extremely high voltages, for the manufacture of weapons grade uranium and plutonium. While it attracted a great deal of press attention in the 1960s, little real relevant information was disclosed.
The Age – Melbourne, Australia - Tuesday August 17, 1999
ALBRECHT, Dr Fritz. Meteorologist (expert on atmospheric radiation). Born 23/9/1896 in Guben. Member Nazi Party 1933-45. Deputy head of Meteorological Observatory, Potsdam. War work included thermal imaging project code-named ``Potsdam". Arrived 4/7/1949. Employed by Melbourne University.
ALTER, Mrs Edith Hertha Regina. Metallographer. Born 8/9/1907. Member Nazi Party 1937-45 (party number 3,934,051). Worked 1937-41 as chief metallographer at Deutsche Versuchsanstalt fur Luftfahrt. Metallographer at Siemens-Halske 1941-43. Arrived August 1949. Nazi Party membership undiscovered until after starting with Defence Research Laboratories, Adelaide.
BAUER, Dr Rudolf Erich. Design engineer (electronics specialist). Born 5/4/1905 in Berlin. Member Nazi Party. Employed by Siemens and Halske, Berlin, 1933-45. Arrived 19/9/1949. Employed at Defence Research Laboratories, Melbourne (later cleared for secret work).
BILLING, Dr Heinz Eduard. Physicist (specialist in electronic computing devices). Born 7/4/1914 in Salzwedel (Magdeburg). Member of Nazi Party 1937-45. Worked for Luftwaffe meteorological service 1939-40. Head of acoustic section of Aerodynamische Versuchsanstalt Gottingen 1941-45, developing acoustic targeting device for enemy aircraft. Arrived 25/9/1949. Employed Council for Scientific and Industrial Research division of electrotechnology. Returned to Germany at the end of contract.
FEUERRIEGEL, Theodor. Design and development engineer (specialist in optical equipment). Born 17/2/1906 in Grone near Gottingen. Member DAF (NSBO) 1939-45, NSV 1939-45, Reichsluftschutzbund 1939-45. Employed by G Heyde K G, Dresden 1938-45, developing military telescopes and optical devices for aircraft. Arrived 29/3/48. Employed at Australian Optical Company, Melbourne. March, 1952, moved to Defence Research Laboratories, Melbourne.
HOFFMANN, Dr Robert Morton Friedrich. Born 26/9/1900 in Berlin. Industrial chemist (expert in surface treatment of metals). Member DAF (NSBO), NSV, NS-Bund Deutscher Technik, NS-Reichsbund Fur Leibesubungen, Reichsluftschutzbund. Chief chemist, Siemens-Halske plant, Berlin. First scientist to be brought to Australia under scheme exclusively for use of private industry. Arrived 29/2/1948. Employed Electricity Meter and Allied Industries Ltd (Email), Sydney.
KAMPHAUSEN, Heinz August. Glass technician (specialist in making glass apparatus for analysis). Born 18/8/1907 at Wuppertal. Member DAF (NSBO) 1938-45, NSV 1938-40, NS Rechsbund Fur Leibesubungen. Manufactured glass apparatus for analysis in benzine synthesis for Mineral Oil Mining Company in Berlin 1940-45. After war employed by I G Farbenindustrie, Elberfeld. Arrived 15/8/1948. Employed at University of Melbourne.
MULLER, Dr Walter. Atomic physicist (co-inventor of Geiger counter). Born 6/9/1905. Member Nazi Party 1937-45 (party number 4,780,623). Employed Siemens, specialising in X-ray tubes and electron optics, 1929-39. Research physicist at factories of Pintch in Berlin, 1939-40. Research physicist at firm of Rontgenmuller 1940-45. Recommended for employment with Defence Research Laboratories, Adelaide, but DRL concerned because he had been described as an ``active Nazi". Eventually employed by Division of Industrial Development, Melbourne. Arrived 10/4/51.
RITTER, Dr Helmuth. Physicist (expert in optical and geodetic instruments). Born 17/4/1902, Landstuhl (Palatinate). Member Nazi Party 1938-45. Member of Provincial Council 1941-46. Arrived 29/2/48. Employed in Council for Scientific and Industrial Research's division of meterology, Sydney.
RUCKERT, Hans. Electrical engineer (expert in ceramic condensors). Born 30/5/1914 at Posen. Member SA (stormtroopers) 1933-38. Employed as manager of HF Laboratory at Luftwaffe's technical academy in Berlin in 1942. Seconded to Rosenthal-Insulator works in Selb to manage HF laboratories in 1944. Arrived in Australia 17/7/1951. Employed by Ducon Condensers Ltd, Sydney.
SCHMIDT, Werner. Engineer (machine tool expert). Born 7/11/1902 at Cologne. Member Nazi Party and DAF (NSBO). Employed by Herbert Lindner Tool Makers, Berlin, 1937-38. In Tokyo 1939-47 as representative of Schutte Engineering. Arrived 10/6/1951. Employed by W A Deutsher Pty Ltd, Melbourne.
SCHWIETZKE, Dr Werner. Nuclear physicist. Born 2/3/1910, Berlin. Member Nazi Party since 1933. Joined German Army in 1941, where he carried out research at Physics Institute in Berlin University into atomic and nuclear physics. Arrived 19/1/1949. Employed by Defence Research Laboratories, Melbourne (later cleared for secret work).
TETTWEILLER, Dr Karl Freidrich. Micro chemist (one of foremost micro analysts in Germany). Born 29/9/1906 at Elberfeld. Member DAF (NSBO) 1936-45, NSV 1938-45, NS-Lehrerbund 1934-36. Employed by I G Farben, Elberfeld, 1936-44. Arrived 16/8/1947. Employed at Melbourne University. Returned to Germany 1948.
WAGNER, Kurt Max. Organic research chemist. Born 15/10/1908 at Zwickau. Member Nazi Party. Employed 1936-41 at Langbein-Pfanhauser Werke, Leipzig and Vierjahresplaninstitut Fur Elektrochemie 1941-45. Arrived 12/6/1951. Employed by Division of Industrial Development, Melbourne.
WOLTERSDORFF (WOLTERSDORF), Dr Friedrich Wilhelm. Physicist. Born 24/4/09, Bernburg, Saale. Member DAF (NSBO) 1936-45. Development engineer with Siemens-Halske, researching better searchlights/carbon arc lamps. Arrived 16/7/48. Employed Defence Research Laboratories, Melbourne (cleared for secret work). In 1954 moved to DRL in South Australia where he became principal scientific officer of the Jet Propulsion Division, Weapons Research Establishment.
A final word from the author…
I would ask readers to remember that much of the official information relating to nuclear research projects was deliberately misleading, or withheld critical information. This was done principally to misdirect Soviet intelligence during the ‘Cold War’. The Chernobyl disaster was in part, a consequence of this policy. Unfortunately, most of the people involved in this early work were not in a position to speak about it before the material was declassified.
German nuclear research led the world in 1945
While the main thrust of the German research during the war was aimed at producing nuclear weapons, a second and parallel programme was directed towards developing anti-gravity systems and time displacement. The system was called ‘Latemontrager’ (Lantern bearer) or ‘Chronos’. Anti-gravity technology had existed from about 1925, the ‘Coanda effect’ being the main line of research. But the Coanda system was based on conventional jet engine and rocket technology. Kammler and the SS scientists appear to have been developing an electromagnetic Coanda effect from as early as 1942. This team was far advanced in its thinking about quantum physics - all because of the way in which the Thule Society trained its members to solve problems.
Seeing is believing…
The first optical effect observed during ‘Glocke’ operations was ‘magnetic lensing’, whereby a light source ‘bends’ as it passes through any magnetic field. This effect is now commonly used in astronomical observations. Because of this, the Germans immediately realised time was not a constant. It exhibited ‘local variations’ according to the environment in it was measured. But it was soon discovered such experiments involved highly dangerous levels of x-ray radiation that living tissue couldn’t survive. Death usually occurred 8-12 hours after exposure. Some electro-magnetic effects could not be shielded against – and the only solution was to site the ‘Glocke’ deep underground, or in disused mineshafts.
Throughout this series, I have referred to ‘Projekt Saucer’, developed in parallel with the ‘Glocke’ spinhutte technology, which was truly revolutionary. If there is enough reader interest in the Projekt Saucer subject, I shall begin a new series that hopefully explores one of the most fascinating technological breakthroughs in human history. Is there a local New Zealand dimension to this event? I’ll let the reader decide that for themselves, after they have read the new series….
U-196 parts 1-5 are available on ww.elocal.co.nz