The intelligence war for German scientists

Michael S Goodman reveals how Britain beat the Soviet Union to the services of some of Germany's most brilliant minds at the end of the Second World War

German scientists Dr Carl Eisenmann, Dr Mersch, Dr Trabat and Dr Stocklin. (Express/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the February 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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On a cold, wet November day in 1945, amid the rubble of Berlin, sat three men. All shivered in the cold but none of them were concerned.

In a room next door lay the key to their future.

“Could you please come in,” requested a captain of the Royal Navy. Sitting at a table was a naval commander. “So,” he began, “you’ve been contacted by the Russians?”

One of the men, an electrical scientist, replied on behalf of the other two:

“We have been approached by Russian intelligence, requesting that we go to the Soviet Union and work for the communists. We knew that if we refused to work we would be deprived of our liberty, so we did not refuse.

But we have seized the first opportunity to approach the British to warn you what is afoot.”

He continued: “The Russians are offering enormous amounts of money, houses and food on a luxurious scale to any German scientist prepared to work for them. By utilising German brains, the Russians will rapidly approach industrial parity with America. If you want, we would prefer to come and work for you, but you have to promise us all the resources you can muster.”

The two British naval officers thanked the Germans. Quite what happened to them is not known.

Many historians have labelled the Second World War as the physicists’ war. While science had always played a role in warfare, from 1939 to 1945 it had often been the decisive factor. It’s no surprise then that the major victorious powers – Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union – wasted no time in rushing to capture the best scientists, technicians, and equipment that Germany had to offer.

For the cream of German scientists, the incentives on offer were considerable. The Soviet Union, for instance, promised that if the scientists agreed to work for them for three years they would have their family and furniture transported to Russia. If they agreed to five years’ employment, they would be allowed to take their servants with them too.

The final prize

As Allied forces swept through Europe at the climax of the Second World War, heading towards the final prize of Berlin, a small army of scientists and intelligence officers trailed slowly in their wake. Their ultimate objective were the brains behind the German atomic bomb programme. British intelligence knew that this had not progressed far, certainly in comparison to the Allied project, but they still thought it crucial to capture the elite group of German scientists – the so-called ‘Uranium Club’.

There were three principal British missions: the first, the ‘Combined Intelligence Objectives Sub-Committee’ (CIOS), or ‘chaos’ as some of those involved pronounced it, was part of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF), the military outfit under General Eisenhower which commanded the Allied war effort for north-west Europe.

With the defeat of Germany, SHAEF was dissolved, and so CIOS was replaced by a purely British venture: the British Intelligence Objectives Sub-Committee. This was complemented by the Anglo-American Alsos mission, named after General Leslie Groves (‘Alsos’ being Greek for ‘grove’), the head of the wartime atomic bomb programme.

All of these endeavours had a common goal: to assess German technical progress and capture material and personnel involved with their scientific war effort.

As the Anglo-American Alsos mission approached Germany, in the wake of the liberating Allied armies, they followed leads as to where the scientists and their booty were hidden. At the same time, a party of Russians descended in the same direction from the east. In the end the honours were shared: the Alsos team got the best scientists, while the Russians found the best raw material.

The race for the German nuclear bounty was replicated in the hunt for those involved in the chemical and biological weapons field, the aeronautical sphere and, perhaps above all, the ballistic missile arena.

All sides went to great lengths to find and recruit the best scientific brains. At the beginning, it seems that those doing the recruiting offered incentives and refrained from employing strongarm tactics. However, this softly-softly policy could not last long.

The three German electrical scientists interviewed on that cold, wet day were quick to convince their British counterparts that unless they could match the Russian search teams, Britain would face losing the best talent to the communists. The sentiments obviously struck a chord, not least because a subsequent report by Naval Intelligence stated that by December 1945 the Russians had already removed thousands of engineers and scientists.

For British intelligence there were several worrying aspects to this. The best brains were needed for Britain’s own postwar military efforts but of equal, if not greater, importance was the realisation that the Soviet Union, the new enemy, needed to be deprived of such talent.

More concerning yet were fresh intelligence reports, received in early 1946, which confirmed that the Russians were not only removing Germans from their own zones of occupation, but from the British zone too – and that where incentives failed they were not adverse to using kidnap as a last resort.

These reports left the British in no doubt that something had to be done to arrest the brain drain to Russia. That ‘something’ arrived in the form of three operations – named Dragon, Kidney and Matchbox. These aimed, among other things, to remove German scientists and technicians from Russian employment or control; provide facilities in the western zones to induce the scientists to transfer to the west; and persuade scientists who had been evacuated to Russia to provide scientific and technical intelligence on the Soviet Union.

Meanwhile, those technicians and scientists who had already been captured by the British – or indeed contacted by the Russians – were interviewed at a British interrogation centre, codenamed Dustbin. One such was Dr Albert Joos, who was described as “one of Germany’s most brilliant scientists”. He had been “contacted” by the Russians and was described as “ready to return” to them.

The British also spoke to Dr Gerhard Schrader, the inventor of the nasty nerve and chemical warfare agents tabun and sarin, and Professor Heinrich Kliewe, a biological warfare expert, who had had access to intelligence files on Japan’s extensive wartime programme. Yet the Russians got to some first. Dr Nikolaus Riehl, an atomic scientist, later wrote an autobiography (with Frederick Sietz) entitled Stalin’s Captive about his time in the Soviet Union.

It is difficult to judge the successes of the postwar race for German scientists. Certainly the best talent ended up in America, and it would be no exaggeration to say that without German help, American efforts to reach the moon would have taken substantially longer.

Although the names of those who  joined the British are less well known, they were just as important to Britain’s postwar military programmes.

Indeed, postwar British rocketry and aeronautics owe a huge debt of thanks to German scientists and technicians.

No less impressive was the effort to thwart Russian endeavours to snatch scientists. Operation Matchbox had over 18,000 people on its lists, and more than 3,000 operations were conducted to stop the Russians. Within a few months, over 1,500 German scientists had been removed from the British zone alone, largely to ensure they did not fall into Russian hands.

Such efforts meant that – though the British intelligence community feared that “the transfer of German technicians on a fairly large scale would very materially strengthen Russia’s industrial potential” – the impact of such transfers was significantly retarded.

Perhaps more significant still was the interrogation of German scientists who had returned1 west in the 1950s after spending the immediate postwar years working in the Soviet Union. From these, the intelligence agencies were able to painstakingly build up a picture of Soviet military advances. In fact, they were so successful that one intelligence report concluded: “We are satisfied that we have received a very large amount of information on Russian developments which could not have been obtained without the facilities afforded by these operations.” Glowing praise indeed.

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Michael S Goodman is a senior lecturer in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London