The Bastard Brigade: The True Story of the Renegade Scientists and Spies Who Sabotaged the Nazi Atomic Bomb

Written by Sam Kean
Review by Edward James

In 1938, German scientists achieved nuclear fission and the world became aware that nuclear weapons were a theoretical possibility, although most scientists doubted that they were practicable.  Nevertheless, in 1939 the German government convened a group of 20 nuclear scientists, which they called the Uranium Club (uranverein), and commissioned them to develop a nuclear bomb, two years before the Manhattan Project.

Britain, France and the Soviet Union followed suit.  France was overrun, and Britain and the Soviet Union had to put aside the work in favour of more urgent considerations, but not before Britain had passed the baton to America. Yet the very progress made in America raised fears about what Germany might already have achieved.  It seemed vital to sabotage the German scientific effort.

The Bastard Brigade is the story of a unit set up by the Americans for this purpose, so-called because it was an independent team with no parent organisation. It is an exciting tale of covert operations, kidnaps and attempted assassination. However, it ranges much more widely, with instructive pages on the physics of nuclear fission and a thrilling retelling of the Anglo-Norwegian attacks on the heavy water facility at Vemork.  Yet there are large gaps, such as the early scientific work in Britain (no mention of Frisch and Peierls) while the Russian scientific effort and attempts to thwart Germany are completely ignored.

Even so this is a very revealing book, highlighting a secret undercurrent to WWII, as each party groped for the invincible weapon.  Nobody had an operational nuclear bomb by VE Day, but America’s bomb was ready to test and the Germans had achieved a chain reaction in March 1945, just weeks before the laboratory was overrun.  The race was over, and the Nuclear Age was about to begin.