During World War II, many concerted efforts on the part of the Allies to thwart the Nazis — and some of them worked. One group, called the Jewish Avengers, took revenge on Nazis by exacting their own justice. Arguably the most successful anti-Nazi mission took place in 1943, and involved destroying a heavy water plant the Nazis were utilizing to create the ultimate weapon, an atomic bomb.
After invading Norway in 1940, the Germans gained control of a heavy water plant called Vemork. Heavy water was a crucial ingredient in the creation of nuclear weapons, and Allied forces were concerned about Hitler getting his hands on the substance. They scouted the best Norwegian military operatives and parachuted them into the middle of the wilderness on a suicide mission to bomb a seemingly impenetrable building surrounded by German soldiers. Miraculously, the mission was a success, and drastically changed the course of World War II.
After Nuclear Fission Was Discovered In 1939, The Race To Create Atomic Weapons Began
In 1939, scientists discovered nuclear fission, the atomic reaction necessary to create the atomic bomb. The discovery of nuclear fission opened the gates to the atomic era, changing warfare right on the brink of World War II. Both sides of the war were on their way to harnessing nuclear fission; Albert Einstein working with the Allies and Werner Heisenberg working in Germany. Soon, the race was on — whichever country could harness nuclear fission into an atomic bomb first would be victorious. The other side would simply be demolished.
The Germans Were One Element Away From Achieving A Nuclear Bomb
To create an atomic bomb, the ultimate nuclear weapon, you need one key ingredient: heavy water. Heavy water, which requires an immense amount of power, is used to create a nuclear reactor, which in turn is used to create plutonium, the main element of an atomic bomb. According to the Scientific American, "Today, we don’t hear much about heavy water. Modern nuclear bomb technology has taken other routes. But it was once one of the most rare and dangerous substances in the world."
Both Britain and Germany came to the realization that heavy water could be used to move toward the creation of the atomic bomb. During the race for the atomic bomb in the early years of the war, there was only one heavy water plant, Vemork, about 100 miles outside of Oslo, Norway. When Germany invaded Norway in 1940, control of the plant became part of their winning deal, and the Germans soon had access to the only heavy water plant in the world, putting them one crucial step ahead of the Allies. The Allies were unsure exactly how close Germany was to putting the heavy water to work and having a deadly nuclear weapon at their disposal, but they knew they needed to put a stop to German advancement.
Norway Was The First Country With A Heavy Water Plant
Vemork's heavy water plant, the first in the world, was the brain child of Norwegian chemistry professor Leif Tronstad. In 1933, Tronstad realized that the conditions at a Norsk Hydro plant in Rjukan were suitable for producing heavy water. Vemork sat in the middle of the Norwegian wilderness, surrounded by ice, snow, and little else. The remote fortress was only reachable by a single-lane suspension bridge, and was surrounded by a bitterly cold mountain plateau. It was practically impenetrable, protected not only by nature but by minefields, barbed wire fencing, and, once the Germans invaded, a lot of Nazi guards.
When the Allies decided to take Vemork back, they faced brutal conditions and needed inside knowledge of the plant. Tronstad, who had escaped Norway after Germany took control, was key to Vemork's destruction and subsequent prevention of a Nazi atomic bomb.
The Allies Were Stopped From Bombing The Plant By The Very Chemists Who Designed It
After the Allies caught wind that Germany was invested in producing heavy water, they knew they needed to act fast to prevent the enemy from creating a deadly atomic bomb. America's initial plan in 1942 was to bomb the plant, but they were warned against doing so by the very people who designed Vemork. Tronstad himself said that bombing Vemork would result in catastrophe, namely a ton of avoidable civilian deaths. Besides, bombing Vemork would do little good when the key parts of the plant were hidden underneath steel and stone.
The plant was designed to be indestructible, and it would take the masterminds behind its creation to eventually destroy it. Thus, the plan was to have a team of Norwegian "saboteurs," who would, with Tronstad's advice and expertise, destroy Vemork themselves.