This story about the role of espionage in the creation of the atomic bomb is even more chilling than the better known story of the USA’s failure to detect the communist spies and sympathisers who got the secrets of the bomb to the Soviet Union, and the Soviets’ success in testing their own bomb four years after the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Susan Williams reminds us that without uranium, there would have been no bomb. The United States had access to uranium ore in Canada, rock that contained 0.02 per cent usable uranium oxide, but there was a mine in the Belgian Congo that could yield ore of up to 75 per cent pure uranium.
All well and good, but in 1942 intelligence had revealed that the Germans were also on the way to making an atomic bomb, and not only was Germany occupying Belgium but it was discreetly pressurising the colonial government to support the Nazi cause. The Americans needed to prevent Germany getting its hands on any uranium, and to ensure that all usable uranium from the Congolese mine could be transported to the USA.
The task was handed to the new Office of Strategic Services, and after early failures it developed a comprehensive scheme to achieve its objectives. Small consignments of uranium were taken from the mine to different ports and airfields across West Africa and conveyed to a holding centre in New York.
Then, the OSS kept watch in Africa to ensure that no others were attempting to buy or steal uranium. They did this under the cover of an operation to foil the illicit trade in industrial diamonds which were also needed in weapons manufacture.
Outlining the importance of the task and showing the big picture of the operation, Williams takes us into the lives of the tiny group of spies involved, not in hindsight, but within their own experience, awareness and knowledge at the time. Spies in the Congo is an espionage classic. Scrupulously researched, it illuminates a barely-known aspect of arguably the most significant event of the 20th century.