Spying made easy

M.F. Perutz

  • Klaus Fuchs: The man who stole the atom bomb by Norman Moss
    Grafton, 216 pp, £12.95, April 1987, ISBN 0 246 13158 6

On 10 September 1949 Michael Perrin, one of the heads of the British Atomic Energy Programme, was woken up by an urgent telephone call asking him to come to the communications room at the US Embassy in London. There his opposite number in the Pentagon asked that an RAF plane be sent to the upper atmosphere to check radioactivity detected by the US Air Force that appeared to signal a Soviet atomic explosion. The public confirmation of this momentous event stunned us. We had believed that Stalin first heard about the American atomic bomb from President Truman at the Potsdam Conference in August 1945, and we could not understand how the Russians had been able to overcome the formidable scientific and technical hurdles involved in the construction of the bomb in no more time than that taken by the cream of European and American physicists who started in early 1941 and exploded the first bomb in July 1945.

A few weeks before that telephone call Michael Perrin had received another disturbing piece of news. A coded message sent to Moscow by the Soviet Mission in New York during the war and only just deciphered by the US Signal Corps indicated that one Klaus Fuchs, a German-born member of the British team, had given them information on the atomic bomb project. Fuchs was arrested in London in February 1950, convicted of treason and sentenced to 14 years’ imprisonment. What he told the Russians was never revealed and is still classified information here (lest the Russians get to know of it?), but the British told the Americans and Norman Moss found full details in their FBI files.

Klaus Fuchs was born in 1911, the son of a German pastor with left-wing sympathies who taught his children the Lutheran precept of acting according to their own consciences rather than obeying established authority. Fuchs became a student at the time when German universities had turned into battle-grounds between the extremes of right and left. At first he sided with the Social Democrats, but when their weak opposition to the Nazis disappointed him, he joined the Communist Party. For this he was once beaten up and thrown into a river by Nazi thugs. When Hitler came to power in March 1933 Fuchs feared for his life and went into hiding until the Communist Party dispatched him to an anti-Fascist meeting in Paris. From Paris he went to England, where he became a research student in Nevill Mott’s great school of theoretical physics at Bristol; after this he worked at Edinburgh with the German physicist Max Born, who was one of the founders of wave mechanics. In the spring of 1940 Fuchs was arrested, interned and later deported to Canada together with hundreds of other German and Austrian refugees, including myself. We were taken back to England and released in January 1941.

The atomic bomb project was set in motion in 1940 by two refugee physicists in Birmingham, the German-born Rudolf Peierls and the Austrian-born Otto Robert Frisch, when they found that the critical mass of the fissile uranium isotope 235 needed for an explosion was no more than a few kilograms. In the summer of 1941 Peierls engaged Fuchs to help him with theoretical work on the project. Nine years later Fuchs confessed: ‘When I learned the purpose of the work, I decided to inform Russia and established contact through another member of the Communist Party.’ He made this high-handed decision despite the fact that he had freely signed the Official Secrets Act – which pledged him not to disclose anything he learned in the course of his work to an unauthorised person – and had applied for naturalisation as a British subject. That he would have to ‘swear by Almighty God that on becoming a British subject I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to his Majesty King George VI, his heirs and successors according to law’ seemed not to be a problem.

Fuchs is a brilliant mathematician and physicist; he also has an accurate memory and a remarkable ability to explain difficult concepts lucidly. I had some experience of this when he taught me theoretical physics during our internment at Quebec in the summer of 1940. These talents and the information accessible to him enabled him to provide the Russians with extensive instructions for the manufacture of fissile material and the construction of atomic bombs.

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