Friday, 7 May 2010

Birmingham and the Atomic Bomb

Rudolf Peierls

In 1937 Rudolf Peierls took up a position at the University of Birmingham as Head of Applied Mathematics. Two years later he was joined by Otto Robert Frisch (Otto to his American friends, Robert to the rest). They were both keen to help the war effort but their German nationality barred them from joining their Birmingham colleagues in advancing radar, the department's main concern. It was then with grim irony that their minds turned to contemplate the most destructive weapon the world had yet to see.

Otto Robert Frisch

Walking the blacked-out streets of the city in early 1940, the pair realised how the theoretical possibility of an atomic bomb could become a practical reality. The perceived wisdom of the time gauged that the amount of uranium needed for its construction would far exceed the means of transporting such a device, and the time needed for its construction would outlast the war. But Frisch and  Peierls's calculation concluded that only one kilogram of uranium 235 isotope would be enough to create temperature equivalent of the interior of the sun and pressure that of the Earth's core.

The Nuffield building at the University of Birmingham

The possibility of the allies constructing a bomb implied the possibility of Nazi Germany also constructing one. You can watch Rudolf Peierls talking about their realisation in this fascinating documentary at 9 minutes 14 seconds: 

Although many of Germany's nuclear scientists had fled the country, Werner Heisenberg had remained and was leading the research there. It was uncertain how far his programme had reached, and it was not known that Heisenberg was deliberately working on a go-slow basis to forestall the Nazis getting there first. The uncertainty was further compounded by a dysfunctional meeting between Niels Bohr and Heisenberg, his former pupil, in 1941. In fear of the Gestapo, Heisenberg could not state explicitly that the Nazi atomic programme was doomed, therefore Bohr could not definitively draw such a conclusion. Their conversation later became the subject of a play by Michael Frayn.  

In March 1940, Frisch and Peierls typed the Frisch-Peierls Memorandum in the Nuffield building of the university. The 3-page document outlining their findings, has to be the most important text to have been written in Birmingham. 

The memorandum was taken by Mark Oliphant, a pioneer in radar and the Poynting Professor of Physics to Henry Tizard who headed the government committee overseeing the military applications of scientific work. This led to the setting up of the MAUD Committee, and later, the Tube Alloys project - the codename of the British atomic programme.

By this time Frisch had moved on to Liverpool, while Peierls continued to work in Birmingham. In 1941, to help him with his Tube Alloys research into isotope separation, Peierls was seeking a suitable assistant, and so in May a politically-motivated German exile came to Birmingham from Edinburgh. His name was Klaus Fuchs and he was a Soviet agent.

Fuchs had been interned at the outbreak of war and, as he was not Jewish, was held with hardened Nazis which, as a Communist, he deeply resented. Embittered by his treatment, and convinced that the Soviet Union was the only real chance of defeating Germany, he contacted Jurgen Kuczynski, a member of the German Communist Party exiled in London, who put him in touch with a fellow GRU agent known as Alexander (a.k.a Simon Davidovitch Kremer) to whom Fuchs passed technical information of his work in Birmingham.
"Fuchs became a lodger in our house, and he was a pleasant person to have around. He was courteous and even-tempered. He was rather silent, unless one asked him a question, when he would give a full and articulate answer; for this Genia called him "Penny-in-the-slot". There were a few brief periods when he felt unwell. He did not go to work, stayed in bed or on a deck chair in the garden, and showed no interest in food. But this passed in a day or so. We realised the significance of these attacks only much later."

Rudolf Peierls,'Bird of Passage'

38 Calthorpe Road (above) was rented by Peierls for five years from 1937. Fuchs lodged there in Otto Frisch's old room from May 1941 until the end of 1942 when Rudolf and Genia moved to a flat at 19 York Road, around the corner from Rudi Peierls's old friend Fania Pascal [see my earlier blog post Wittgenstein in Birmingham] whom he had known since his Berlin student days. It took a lot of explaining by Genia to Fuchs that he could not move with them into the smaller residence. Instead he took a room in a nearby boarding house.
Ruth Kuczynski, 'Sonya'
By the autumn of 1942 Kremer had passed Fuchs on to a new controller Sonya, a.k.a. Ruth Kuczynski (Jurgen's sister), Ruth Werner, Ruth Ursula Hamburger, Ruth Beurton, Ursula Beurton or Mrs Brewer, who lived in Kidlington, Oxfordshire. Usually Fuchs would meet Sonya down a country road near Banbury, and walk together along a river. It meant he need not travel all the way to London to meet Alexander.

Kardomah Café, Colmore Row, after air raid

However there was one exception to their established method of contact when Sonya travelled to Birmingham to meet Fuchs in a café opposite Snow Hill Station. This intriguing departure from routine suggests a possible crisis in Fuchs's life as a spy. Certainly it was important enough for Sonya to risk the suspicious glances of the public at two Germans meeting in a crowded café in wartime Birmingham. The café in question was probably the Colmore Row branch of the Kardomah shown in the photograph above after it received bomb damage in an air raid in 1940. 


On 3rd December 1943, Rudolf and Genia Peierls, Klaus Fuchs and other scientists from Britain landed in New York to take up their positions with the Manhattan Project. Fuchs continued to pass information to the Soviets throughout World War II and into the start of the Cold War when he worked at Harwell, Britain's nuclear research facility. He was finally confronted at the end of 1949 and confessed his spying career to William 'Jim' Skardon of MI5 in January 1950.

William 'Jim' Skardon
Klaus Fuchs was sentenced to the maximum 14 years imprisonment. After 9 years as a model prisoner, he was released from HMP Wakefield and settled in East Germany where he obtained the position of Deputy Director of the Institute for Nuclear Research at Rossendorf.

1 comment:

  1. Well, Klaus Fuchs and Ruth Kucynski both made the Observer's list of Ten Real Life Spies yesterday so it was a pleasant surprise to stumble upon this excellent blog today- great photos too.
    I've recently been listening to C P Snow's Strangers and Brothers on Radio4 Extra and was reminded about the atomic research carried on in the Midlands.
    Whenever I read about Klaus Fuchs, I always think of him as a very honourable spy ( and if Wikipedia is correct about Beria's role in this affair) and a prime example of how intellectual ideals and thuggery stop real progress....
    Best wishes