HOW A MINER STOPED THE NAZI BOMB
by Harold Hough
It’s hard to remember but, 70 years ago, victory wasn’t assured for the Allied in World War Two. America’s first ground offensive at Guadalcanal occurred 70 years ago in August, and there were serious concerns that America might be forced to retreat from the island. Rommel still controlled North Africa, the Russians were being forced back to a city on the Volga called Stalingrad, and U-boats were still threatening to starve Britain.
However, one major victory had been won a year earlier when the Americans had managed to acquire a large stockpile of uranium ore from right under the Nazis’ noses. It helped assure America had enough uranium to end the war, while denying the Germans the chance to build their own nuclear device.
One of the great mysteries of the Second World War is why the Germans didn’t build an atomic bomb before the United States. They led the world in splitting the atom and in particle physics. They had Nobel Prize winning nuclear scientists. They had a world class industrial base with trained engineers, who designed rocket aircraft, the first practical ballistic missile, and the first combat jet fighter. Why didn’t they get any further with nuclear research?
As more of the records are declassified from the WWII era, it appears that German scientists were much more involved in developing an atomic bomb than many thought and for part of the war actually led the US in development. Although there are several reasons the US finally won the nuclear weapons race, one critical reason has a lot to do with a Belgium miner, who kept the Nazis from getting a critical stockpile of uranium ore in the early days of the war and made sure it found its way to the United States.
Edgar Sengier was born in Courtrai, Belgium in 1879. In 1903 he graduated as a mining engineer from the University of Louvain. He then joined Union Miniere, which had begun copper mining operations in the Belgium Congo. There, he was involved in the building of the Shinkolobwe Mine, which had the richest uranium ore deposits. At the time, uranium was primarily used for glazing for ceramics although the ore was also a feedstock for radium production.
As the clouds of war were gathering around Europe, the German nuclear program was reaching high gear. German scientists were beginning to design a nuclear reactor, but their calculations showed that they needed more uranium. They already had the uranium deposits at Joachimsthal, Czechoslovakia, but the reserves weren’t large enough to give them the necessary material. Since the Congo was the largest source of uranium, they sent out feelers to Union Miniere about buying ore from the Congo facility.
The man the German agents met with was Sengier, who was now the president of UM. However, Sengier was suspicious. He had supplied the Curies with radioactive materials for years and knew the potential of a nuclear explosive. He was also leery of a nation that had fought Belgium just twenty years before.
Sengier tried to find another customer. By 1939, both France and Britain were interested in uranium, although the US remained blissfully ignorant of its potential. In May, he went to London to meet with Sir Henry Tizard, the head of England’s nuclear program. The meeting was a disaster. Tizard said that the UK wouldn’t be willing to buy the Belgium stockpiles because they cost too much.
A year later, the situation had changed dramatically for the worse. Germany invaded and defeated Norway, Holland, Belgium, and France in spring of 1940. Norway, which fell first, was the largest producer of heavy water, a moderator needed for nuclear reactors. France had an extensive nuclear program under the Curies, and Belgium had the largest uranium stockpile in Europe and ownership of the richest uranium mine. Before the guns had stopped shooting in Western Europe, German agents had confiscated tons of uranium compounds from Belgium warehouses.
THE MANHATTEN PROJECT
Although the Germans had confiscated the uranium in Belgium, the fate of the Belgium Congo and its uranium mine was still up in the air as two Belgium factions fought for control of the colony. King Leopold III had quickly surrendered to the Germans without consulting the government of Prime Minister Pierlot. While the King stayed in occupied Belgium, the government fled the country and went to Britain, where it continued to fight alongside the allies. Eventually, most officials in the Congo decided to side with the government instead of the King. This made good economic sense because the Allies were buying all the mined minerals and the Congo was prosperous. However, there were still German agents and supporters of King Leopold in the Congo who would do what they could to help Hitler’s war effort.
By this time, Sengier had moved to the United States, where he continued to direct UM’s worldwide operations and support the Belgium government in exile. But the problem of the uranium remained. The mine had closed in May 1940 after Belgium’s surrender to the Nazis. However, over a thousand tons of uranium ore remained above ground, where it would be a tempting target for German agents. If he let it stay there, chances were that it would be stolen by the Nazis and secretly shipped to Germany.
Sengier’s solution was to buy the ore himself at a little over a dollar a pound and ship it somewhere where the Germans couldn’t get their hands on it. The problem was getting the uranium out of the Congo without the Germans hearing about it and trying to stop it. The route Sengier picked was through Portuguese Angola, which had a direct rail line from the Congo mines to the port of Lobito on the Atlantic Ocean. Although Portugal had maintained strict neutrality, its colonies were hotbeds of covert German activity. If the Germans learned what was happening, they would definitely try to divert the shipment.
Sengier and his workers kept the operation secret and the uranium was successfully shipped from the Congo to New York, where it was stored in a warehouse on Staten Island. He then contacted the US government to see if they wanted it. He didn’t get any response.
Unbeknownst to Sengier and most Americans, the US had begun a massive project to build a nuclear bomb, the Manhattan Project. It didn’t take long for the scientists to discover that they only had small uranium deposits in Canada and the US and that they would need a lot more uranium. Just as with the Germans, they knew that the Congo was the answer. However, with the mine closed, the Americans didn’t know how much ore they could acquire.
In 1941, Colonel Nichols visited Sengier in New York and requested as much uranium ore as they could get from the Congo, even though the request might be hard to fulfill quickly. Sengier responded, “You can have the ore right now. It is already in New York – 1,000 tons of it. I have been waiting for your visit.” A note scribbled on the spot released the uranium ore to the US. Sengier also restarted the Congo uranium operation.
1941 was to be turning point in the race for the atomic bomb. Although the Germans had begun the year in the lead thanks to its scientists, experience, and uranium, the Americans were to quickly catch up thanks to its industrial base, the scientists who had fled Hitler, and Sengier’s uranium. It was that ore that led to the first controlled nuclear reactor and the first atomic bombs. Without that shipment, the US couldn’t have processed enough uranium to produce the bombs when they did.
Fortunately, the German nuclear effort stalled. Not only did they lack sufficient stocks of uranium ore, Hitler decided to put more money and effort into other weapons. However, when the Allies captured Germany, they discovered that the Germans had progressed enough to develop a nuclear device that if built, was to be dropped on New York in 1946. The design wasn’t as sophisticated as the American bomb and may not have worked, but it would have certainly changed the complexion of the war.
In recognition of Sengier’s actions, in 1946 he became the first non-American to be awarded the Medal for Merit. The story was to remain secret for decades, but the award noted his, “wartime services in the realm of raw materials.” He was also given high awards by the British, French, and his own nation. He even had a radioactive mineral, “sengierite” found in the Congo named after him.
Sengier continued to head UM after the war and even after retiring, remained honorary chairman of the permanent committee. In addition to his wartime contributions, he was a pioneer in the industrial development of Africa and making the Congo copper mines the largest at that time. He died in 1963 at the age of 74.