“I don’t believe a word of the whole thing,” declared Werner Heisenberg, the scientific head of Nazi Germany’s nuclear program, after hearing the news that the United States had dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima in August 1945.
Germany had a significant lead over the Manhattan Project, beginning its research in April 1939, with some of the best scientists, a strong industrial base, and sufficient materials. The Allies were concerned enough about the
Nazi nuclear threat that Churchill and Roosevelt agreed that it had to be stopped at any cost. Codenamed Operation Peppermint, scores of British lives were lost as undercover agents led daring raids on the heavy water plant at Vemork, in German-occupied Norway. However, as Heisenberg’s disbelief shows, the Nazis were actually far from developing the bomb. From nukes to Tiger tanks to more fantastical ray guns, even today we often think of the Nazis as having had the technological edge during World War II. However, as you’ll discover from page 30, the secret of Hitler’s so-called super weapons is that they were often motivated by panicked desperation, grounded in magical thinking (often of the most literal kind), and held up by systemic disorganisation.