By Mike Rossiter
Reviewed by Kevin Rickard
It was just before dawn in the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945 when a bright flash filled the pre-dawn with a penetrating daylight. Next there was a huge shock wave as a great purplish column rose up into the sky, then there was a blast, duller than thunder. The first atomic bomb explosion had just occurred. Project Manhattan had succeeded. The atomic arms race had begun and with it the Cold War.
Among the onlookers at the Los Alamos explosion was a brilliant German mathematician and theoretical physicist, Emil Julius Klaus Fuchs, DSc(Edin), PhD(Bristol). Fuchs and his theoretical physics colleagues had calculated the exact shape and size of the assembly on top of the tower for the release of the energy in the atoms of plutonium such that a huge explosion would result.
This was all the expression of the science of nuclear physics. A science barely 50 years old and based on the pioneering work on radiation and the structure of atoms by the New Zealander, Ernest Rutherford, at the Cavendish laboratory in Cambridge, England and Madame Marie Curie in Paris, France.
Fuchs was a refugee from Nazi Germany where he had studied mathematics at the universities of Leipzig and Kiel. There he became involved in student politics and joined the German Communist Party (KPD). He eventually fled Germany, spent time in Paris, where he met his future wife, Grete Keilson, and found his way to Britain in 1933. There, as a refugee, he was treated most kindly be British Academia.
Fuchs subsequently worked on British atomic research activities and was selected to be a member of the British team in New York working on the Manhattan Project. There he began passing information about the atomic project to his handler, Harry Gold, who then passed this crucial information onto Soviet Russia. Fuchs continued with similar espionage activities on his return to Britain. Ultimately, even secrets regarding the development of the hydrogen bomb, were passed on to the Soviets. Dr. Klaus Fuchs was involved in espionage for the Soviets for more than a decade in both Britain and the U.S. He could justifiable be called ‘the spy who changed the world’.
Mike Rossiter’s book on Fuchs is a gripping story of betrayal, intrigue, security service ineptitude and a confession, which eventually led to the final conviction of Fuchs at the Old Bailey. Truth, however, is stranger than fiction and the account of Fuchs’ life and activities may be likened to a story penned by the Cold War storyteller, John le Carre.
Fuchs was born in Russelsheim in the Duchy of Hesse in December 1911, the son of a Lutheran pastor. He grew up in Germany during the turmoil of the First World War. In Britain he gained his PhD in Physics for a thesis on “Why the Resistance of a Wire Changes with Alterations in Electrical Current”. He had become involved with Matrix Algebra to explain probabilities and the behaviour of sub-atomic particles. He was also involved in studies of the theories of Quantum Mechanics and received a Doctorate in Science from the University of Edinburgh.
His application for British citizenship was dealt with in a rather unfortunate and haphazard manner but he did receive support from the British Academic Assistance Council. It was probably at this time when he really slipped through the net. He was granted British citizenship in August 1942 and signed the official Secrets Act but soon after was in contact with the Soviet Embassy in Britain.
At the university of Birmingham he worked on the “tube alloys” program, the British pseudonym for their atomic bomb research project. At Columbia University in New York, Fuchs worked on gaseous diffusion as a means of uranium enrichment for the Manhattan Project. By 1944 he was in the theoretical division at Los Alamos. Fuchs’ area of expertise was theory related to imploding the fissionable core of the plutonium bomb. The bombs that killed 80,00 people in Hiroshima and 70,000 people in Nagasaki were created by nuclear fission – or splitting the atom! With Hans Bethe, Fuchs began work on bombs caused by nuclear fusion where the nucleus of atoms of light elements like hydrogen and helium were joined together. Then it was on to the classical super bomb using deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen, – thus the hydrogen bomb. One way or another Fuchs passed most of these secrets on to the Russians through Gold in New York, who was executed in Sing Sing prison in 1953. Fuchs insisted that these atomic secrets be on the desk of the Soviet Atomic Agency “Enormoz” within a few days of the US reception. This was achieved through the help of the notorious NKGB Head, Laventry Beria.
It is not surprising that when Truman was in Berlin for the Potsdam Conference in July 1945 and told Stalin the uranium 235 fuelled “Little Boy” would be ready for use against Japan, the Russian dictator showed no particular interest. Fuchs’ treachery had forewarned him. Fuchs attitude all along was, the more useful he was to Britain, the more valuable he was to the Soviet Union.
The pursuit of Fuchs by MI5 displays much about the inertia and lassitude of the British security agencies. One agent, Michael Serpell, had produced a well-organized case against Fuchs but this report was conveniently ‘shelved’. Serpell was shunted to a colonial posting and nothing further was heard. An authority at Harwell said “the advantages gained to Harwell through the ability of Dr. Fuchs outweigh his slight security risk”!
By late 1949 Fuchs was well and truly under suspicion. The police was following him and agents of MI5 were on the case, especially ‘Jim’ Skardon who met Sir John Cockcroft at Harwell. Soon after Cockcroft advised Fuchs that he would need to leave Harwell. Fuchs toyed with Skardon and others because of their lack of facts about his clandestine activities.
It was not MI5 that finally uncovered the extent of Fuchs’ betrayal but Fuchs himself when he confessed to his lover, Emma Skinner, the wife of a colleague. Fuchs’ definitive confession took place at the War Office in Whitehall in the presence of an MI5 technical expert in January 1950. MI5 legal advisers believed there was a case to answer! Accordingly security services requested the Prime Minister, Clement Atlee, to forward the relevant documents to the Director of Public Prosecutions.
Fuchs trial was held at the Old Bailey in February 1950 presided over by a rather vindictive Lord Chief Justice, Lord Goddard. Fuchs pleaded guilty. Finally Goddard, in sentencing Fuchs, mentioned he was lucky not be fund guilty of treason which carried the death penalty. Instead Fuchs was found guilty of betrayal of political asylum, of national secrets and the work of many other scientists. Goddard passed a sentence of 14 years imprisonment on Fuchs with a non-parole period of 9 years.
Fuchs left Stafford prison in June 1959 and flew to Schonfield in East Germany. He married Greta Keilson, his lover from Paris days. But he was always under the suspicion of the Stasi. Nevertheless, he became a privileged member of the German Communist Party and eventually the Director of the East German Atomic Research Institute in Dresden. He died in Germany in 1988, aged 76 years. It is ironic that considerable information about Fuchs’ story in MI5 and FBI files relating to Fuchs still remains heavily censored. By 1955, the US had over 2000 nuclear weapons, the Soviet Union had about 200 and Britain just a few. Nations were stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. In 1955 the bespectacled boffin, Fuchs was behind bars, serving 14 years and sewing mailbags.
Rossiter’s book contains much information of both an historical and technical nature and follows one scientist’s progress along with his acts of betrayal and utter contempt for those who generously helped him. The story answers many of the questions about Fuchs, the shy, notorious man who spied for Russia. Perhaps the chronological details of the tale could have been better marshaled but the book is written in a presentable style about events which took place during the tumultuous years from the defeat of Hitler and the Nazis to the start of the Cold War.