Will World War II ever cease to fascinate us? I certainly hope not, nor should it for, clearly, we’re abysmally slow learners. With The Bastard Brigade, Sam Kean brings us yet another story – the Allied efforts to prevent Hitler and his Nazi scientists from developing an atomic weapon. Or, uh, ahem, at least, to keep them from developing one before we did. Germany’s Uranium Club versus the Manhattan Project of the US. Of course, this is not a new story, but, as told by Mr Kean, it is both chilling and oddly charming. I swear! Now how the hell did he pull that off? Like a man with a keen sense of the absurd who knows exactly what he’s doing, that’s how.
First of all, Mr. Kean is a scientist, and a brief course in rudimentary nuclear physics comes with the price of admission, illustrated nicely, thank you very much, in a way that an eighth grader could understand. Enriched uranium? Hey, guess what? I know what that terms mean now, and it was absolutely painless. Heavy water? Got that one, too. In 1940, the Vemork Hydroelectric Plant on an icy, desolate plateau 100 miles west of Oslo, Norway, was the only producer of heavy water in the world, and Hitler’s crew put in their order for hundreds of pounds of the heretofore seldom-sold stuff in January of that year. (My heart nearly burst with joy when Mr. Kean describes the Vemork officials as being in a state of “flabbergastation” over Germany’s order, and it is my fervent hope that’s actually a word because the Lord knows we need it, but perhaps Mr. Kean was only being tongue in cheek. He’s more than capable of that, and thank you very much, Mr. Kean.) Anyway I was “flabbergastated” to learn that it took two dangerous commando raids to remove the existing heavy water supply before the Nazis could get it. Geez, who knew? Now there’s a “knowledge knugget” for you, and we have only scratched the surface.
Oddball characters and anecdotes abound, such as Moe Berg, professional baseball player and multi-lingual Princeton man – first and most unlikely atomic espionage agent. Madame Curie’s daughter Irene and her husband Frederic Joliot. The rocky start of the OSS, forerunner of the CIA. Joseph Kennedy, Jr., eldest Kennedy son, brother of JFK. Wasn’t he shot down in WWII or his plane crashed – or something? It exploded, actually, in a bizarre mission constructed from fear of an atomic Germany. Kennedy, Jr. volunteered, and every plane after his that made the same attempt was lost as well. I must make myself stop talking about this book. Loved it, loved it, loved it, and I’m just your average grumpy ol’ she-bear. If you’re a WWII devotee, a science geek, sports fan, second hand adrenaline junkie, any sort of history buff, weaponry aficionado………..just name a niche. Cross stitch? Well, hey, OK then, even if there’s nothing for your particular niche, you’ll still love this book. Betcha.
Full Disclosure: A review copy of this book was provided to me by Little, Brown and Company via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity. All opinions expressed herein are my own.