The Bastard Brigade: Sabotaging Hitler’s atomic bomb program

The Bastard Brigade: The True Story of the Renegade Scientists and Spies Who Sabotaged the Nazi Atomic Bomb by Sam KeanThe Bastard Brigade: The True Story of the Renegade Scientists and Spies Who Sabotaged the Nazi Atomic Bomb by Sam KeanThe Bastard Brigade: The True Story of the Renegade Scientists and Spies Who Sabotaged the Nazi Atomic Bomb by Sam Kean

Sam Kean, who wrote the delightfully informative Caesar’s Last Breath in 2017 about the topic of gases, including a section on nuclear bombs, delves more deeply into the history of the atomic bomb in The Bastard Brigade (2019). Though the subtitle might lead one to presume that it focuses solely on the Allies’ Alsos mission, the group charged with thwarting Nazi Germany’s development of the atomic bomb, this book is much more wide-ranging in its topics. The Bastard Brigade is a sweeping account of the development of nuclear physics prior to and during WWII, the race to develop a working atomic bomb, and finally the Alsos mission itself.

Part I, set during the prewar years to 1939, introduces readers to the various personalities who will be significant to this slice of history, along with some of the physics discoveries of the time. In particular, we meet Moe Berg, a Jewish major league baseball player from Newark who found he had a taste for international intrigue; the French wife-husband scientist team of Irène (daughter of Marie and Pierre Curie) and Frederic Joliot-Curie; and Boris Pash (originally Pashkovsky), a refugee from the Russian Revolution who became a high school P.E. and science teacher and, eventually, the leader of the Alsos mission. There are many more scientists, including Werner Heisenberg, Enrico Fermi, and Samuel Goudsmit (who later becomes part of Alsos). And, I suspect just because his name and story are so recognizable, there’s also Joe Kennedy Jr., JFK’s older brother who was (according to Kean) obsessed with proving himself a war hero and outshining his younger brother.

With Part II we launch into the WWII years, with a focus on the groundbreaking physics discoveries of many different scientists around the world. The Germans got off to a substantial head start in nuclear weapons research and development, enough to deeply alarm the Allies, who soon threw tremendous resources into their own nuclear programs. At the same time America was working on developing the atomic bomb, it was also assembling a group of scientists, soldiers and spies and sending them on missions in Nazi territory aimed at scuttling Germany’s nuclear program, whether by stealing uranium, sabotaging manufacturing facilities, trying to convince German scientists to defect, or other efforts.

The Alsos mission wasn’t created until late 1943. This part of the story begins at the end of Part IV, on page 253, more than halfway through the book, although there are several prior missions against Germany’s nuclear bomb program. The most intriguing of these are the British and Norwegian operations in 1942 and 1943 aimed at sabotaging a Nazi-held heavy water plant in Vemork, Norway ― a deadly mission for many men.

Kean relates these and other events in an informal, accessible way, focusing on the most interesting events and the personalities of the various players. Though there’s a detailed index and list of sources, this is not a scholarly text. I did sometimes wonder about Kean’s blithe recreation of long-ago conversations and his conclusions about personal motivations, like Joe Kennedy Jr.’s supposed obsession with outdoing his younger brother’s heroics. Though The Bastard Brigade’s subtitle suggests (a) that this book is all about Alsos, and (b) that Alsos actually did sabotage Germany’s atomic bomb, the book’s scope is far broader than that, and the actual degree of success of the sabotage efforts (and their significance with respect to the end result of the German nuclear program) is much more nuanced. The subtitle is a bit misleading, is what I guess I’m saying.

The Bastard Brigade is more in the nature of a traditional historical book than Kean’s previously-published popular science books. Personally I didn’t find it quite as appealing as Caesar’s Last Breath, but it was informative and kept my attention. I’d give this book a strong thumbs up for readers who are interested in learning more about the development of nuclear physics and bomb technology, and about Germany’s WWII atomic bomb program and the Allied efforts to sabotage it.

Published in July 2019. From New York Times bestselling author Sam Kean comes the gripping, untold story of a renegade group of scientists and spies determined to keep Adolf Hitler from obtaining the ultimate prize: a nuclear bomb. Scientists have always kept secrets. But rarely have the secrets been as vital as they were during World War II. In the middle of building an atomic bomb, the leaders of the Manhattan Project were alarmed to learn that Nazi Germany was far outpacing the Allies in nuclear weapons research. Hitler, with just a few pounds of uranium, would have the capability to reverse the entire D-Day operation and conquer Europe. So they assembled a rough and motley crew of geniuses – dubbed the Alsos Mission – and sent them careening into Axis territory to spy on, sabotage, and even assassinate members of Nazi Germany’s feared Uranium Club. The details of the mission rival the finest spy thriller, but what makes this story sing is the incredible cast of characters-both heroes and rogues alike-including: Moe Berg the major league catcher who abandoned the game for a career as a multilingual international spy; the strangest fellow to ever play professional baseball. Werner Heisenberg the Nobel Prize-winning physicist credited as the discoverer of quantum mechanics; a key contributor to the Nazi’s atomic bomb project and the primary target of the Alsos mission. Colonel Boris Pash a high school science teacher and veteran of the Russian Revolution who fled the Sovit Union with a deep disdain for Communists and who later led the Alsos mission. Joe Kennedy Jr. the charismatic, thrill-seeking older brother of JFK whose need for adventure led him to volunteer for the most dangerous missions the Navy had to offer. Samuel Goudsmit a washed-up physics prodigy who spent his life huntinh Nazi scientist-and his parents, who had been swept into a concentration camp-across the globe. Irène and Frederic Joliot-Curie a physics Nobel-Prize winning power couple who used their unassuming status as scientists to become active members of the resistance. Thrust into the dark world of international espionage, these scientists and soldiers played a vital and largely untold role in turning back one of the darkest tides in human history.

Sam Kean Official bio: Sam Kean spent years collecting mercury from broken thermometers as a kid, and now he’s a writer in Washington, D.C. His new book is The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons. His first two books, The Disappearing Spoon and The Violinist’s Thumb, were national bestsellers, and both were named Amazon “Top 5” science books of the year. The Disappearing Spoon was nominated by the Royal Society for one of the top science books of 2010, while The Violinist’s Thumb was a finalist for PEN’s literary science writing award. His work has also been featured on “Radiolab” and NPR’s “All Things Considered,” among other shows. You can follow him via Twitter @sam_kean, and read excerpts at http://www.samkean.com.

(un)Official bio: Sam Kean gets called Sean at least once a month. He grew up in South Dakota, which means more to him than it probably should. He’s a fast reader but a very slow eater. He went to college in Minnesota and studied physics and English. At night, he sometimes comes down with something called “sleep paralysis,” which is the opposite of sleepwalking. Right now, he lives in Washington, D.C., where he earned a master’s degree in library science that he will probably never use. He feels very strongly that open-faced sandwiches are superior to regular ones.


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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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