For most of the 20th Century following the end of the Second World War, military historians affirmed that the American nuclear program was far in advance of similar research undertaken anywhere else in the world, particularly by German scientists, who never came close to developing, let alone deploying an atomic weapon of their own. But the continuing release of hitherto neglected documents and eyewitness accounts from the final years of that conflict are beginning to reveal some altogether different conclusions.
It now appears certain that the Axis powers, including Italy, outstripped the Allies’ nuclear research in almost all respects. For example, Italian nuclear physicists were ahead of their foreign colleagues in the years immediately prior to World War Two. By 1936, Enrico Fermi and Franco Rosetti belonged to Europe’s foremost atomic research program. Their team, however, was divided with the anti-Semitic legislation that became law in Italy two years later, because some of the scientists, including Fermi, had Jewish wives.
They relocated to the United States, where their work led to America’s atomic bomb, which further divided their ranks, because men like Rosetti staunchly opposed the application of nuclear power for military purposes. Addressing Fermi and the others, he told them unequivocally, “you have disgraced your profession and stained your hands with blood no amount of time can cleanse”. Rosetti was so appalled by their “betrayal of humanitarian science” in building an atomic bomb, he turned his back on nuclear physics to embrace an entirely different science: paleontology.
His colleagues who remained behind in Italy, however, had no such moral misgivings. On the eve of hostilities, in 1939, scientists at the University of Milan issued the first international patent for an atomic reactor. Its potential for the creation of an explosive device without destructive parallel was immediately recognized, given the war-fever of the times, and state allocations were provided for expanding practical laboratory investigation into a potentially new arms technology. Fermi and the others who had migrated to America did not take all University results with them. They knew as much or less about creating a nuclear bomb than their colleagues back in Milan before the reactor patent was issued.
Atomic research in Italy proceeded slowly, if deliberately for months after Mussolini’s declaration of war against the Western Allies in June 1940, but virtually came to a stand-still by year’s end, due to severe shortages in essential resources requisitioned by the Esercito and Regia Marina for conventional weapons’ production. The University of Milan physicists were further compromised by that venerable institution’s inadequate facilities and out-dated equipment. Their complaints did not go unheard, however, because they found in the Duce an ardent admirer of their research. During May 1942, he transferred the lot of them to the Third Reich, where some of its superior, state-of-the-art laboratories had already been set aside for that nation’s own nuclear development.
The Italians found conditions entirely satisfactory, and enthusiastically shared their own atomic reactor information with German colleagues. Moving the physicists to the Reich proved inadvertently fortuitous after the Allied invasion of southern Italy made relocating men and material to Mussolini’s Salo Republic, in the north, increasingly difficult from mid-1944 onwards. By then, however, all nuclear research, of which the Italians were part, had come under the purview of the SS, primarily for reasons of security. Little is known about the Italian contribution at this time, although several high-ranking officers in the Duce’s new armed forces allegedly witnessed German atomic testing, suggesting they were involved in its development at the highest levels of security.
Occasionally, Mussolini himself implied the deployment of nuclear weapons in the near future. As his situation in northern Italy became more desperate, he dropped hints with greater frequency, always in an air of self-confidence. As late as 21 April 1945, he told his Chief of Staff, General Graziani, “It is necessary to resist for another month. I have enough in my hand to win the peace.”
There is no doubt he was referring specifically to the impending availability of atom bombs, because the very next day he wrote in his Political Testament, “The wonder weapons are our hope. It is laughable and senseless for us to threaten anybody at this moment without a basis in reality for these threats. The well-known mass-destruction bombs are nearly ready. In only a few days, with the utmost meticulous intelligence, Hitler will probably execute this fearful blow, because he will have full confidence. It appears that there are three bombs, and each has an astonishing operation. The construction of each unit is fearfully complex, and of a lengthy time of completion.” Conventional historians claim he had been duped by Hitler’s promises. Yet, Mussolini’s statements fit perfectly into the context of the times.
Seven months before, a Luftwaffe flak rocket expert flying “from Ludwigslust (south of Luebeck), about twelve to fifteen kilometers from an atomic bomb test station … noticed a strong, bright illumination of the whole atmosphere, lasting about two seconds. The clearly visible pressure wave escaped the approaching and following cloud formed by the explosion. This wave had a diameter of about one kilometer when it became visible and the color of the cloud changed frequently … The diameter of the still-visible pressure wave was at least 9,000 meters while remaining visible for at least fifteen seconds. The combustion was lightly felt from my observation plane in the form of pulling and pushing. About one hour later, I started with an He 111 from the A/D24 at Ludwigslust and flew in an easterly direction. Shortly after the start, I passed through the almost complete overcast (between 3,000-4,000-meter altitude). A cloud shaped like a mushroom with turbulent, billowing sections (at about 7,000-meter altitude) stood, without any seeming connections, over the spot where the explosion took place.”
“Strong electrical disturbances and the impossibility to continue radio communication as by lightning, turned up. Because of the P-38s operating in the area Wittenberg-Mersburg, I had to turn to the north, but observed a better visibility at the bottom of the cloud where the explosion occurred (sic).”
Doubtless, the pilot saw the explosion of history’s first atomic bomb. Among its better known witnesses was Dr. Josef Goebbels. Immediately after the early October 1944 blast, the Reich Propaganda Minister reported in a national broadcast that he had just seen a test of Germany’s latest military technology, “the awesome power of which made me catch my breath and stopped my heartbeat.” Such “weapons of mass-destruction”, he assured his listeners, were far beyond anything imagined by the enemy, and capable of annihilation on an unprecedented scale. Historians assume he was referring exclusively to V-2 rockets then being mass-produced in Germany’s underground factories. But the ballistic missiles had already been raining on London for more than a month by the time Dr. Goebbels made his radio appearance. Moreover, it was only at this same moment that Hitler finally authorized production of an atomic bomb. Hitherto, he had been unwilling to allocate military spending on an expensive, unproven theory. But the successful Luebeck experiment changed his mind. Almost immediately after receiving the Führer’s authorization, his scientists proceeded with a second nuclear test during the night of 11 October at Ruegen, Germany’s largest island in the Baltic. This event is particularly cogent to our discussion, because the only foreigner allowed to witness it was an Italian Army officer. His attendance was all the more remarkable, in that security was so tight, only a handful of select observers from the Wehrmacht and Nazi Party was given clearance. Indeed, even any knowledge of the experiment had been restricted to just a dozen individuals outside the physicists. One of those privileged persons was Benito Mussolini.
Hitler had notified him the previous month of the upcoming test. It was then that 27-year-old Luigi Romersa was summoned to the Duce residing at his Salo headquarters. “I want to know more about these weapons,” he told the veteran Italian Army officer, now a war-correspondent for Milan’s Corriere della Sera. “I asked Hitler about them, but he was less than forthcoming.” Armed with letters of introduction to both Dr. Goebbels and the Führer himself, Mussolini’s personal envoy flew non-stop to Berlin, where he was immediately taken in charge by SS guards. The following night, they drove him for two hours through a constant downpour to the coast of northern Germany. There, they accompanied Romersa aboard a swift motorboat that took them to the shores of the Baltic island of Ruegen.
On 12 October 1944, he and a few other men–high-ranking members of the German Army, SS and Nazi Party–were conducted by several physicists to a model village of ordinary dwellings surrounded by tall trees and populated exclusively by sheep. After a cursory inspection, the guests walked about one kilometer away to a concrete bunker fitted with a few, small observation ports of very thick glass. Even so, Romersa and company were instructed to wear darkly tinted goggles for what an official described would be “a test of the disintegration bomb. It is the most powerful explosive that has yet been developed. Nothing can withstand it.” A series of warning sirens and flashing, red lights announced the imminent detonation, which occurred as “a sudden, blinding flash” followed by “a thick cloud of smoke” that “took the shape of a column, and then that of a big flower,” as a tremor went through the concrete bunker. No one was allowed to leave for several hours, until the lingering effects of the explosion had dissipated.
“The bomb gives off deathly rays of utmost toxicity,” they were told. Before being allowed to leave the bunker, scientists and guests had to don white, coarse, fibrous cloaks of asbestos with thick, glass eye-holes. Thus covered, they returned to the blast site, and were appalled at what they saw. The grass was now the color of leather, and “trees around had been turned to carbon. No leaves. Nothing alive.” The sheep were “burnt to cinders.” The sturdy houses visited just a few hours earlier “had disappeared, broken into little pebbles of debris.”
Romersa returned at once to Italy, where he briefed Mussolini on his experience. The Duce reacted, not with joy, but dark concern, saying nothing more than sternly warning the Milan journalist to regard his visit to Ruegen as a state secret of the utmost priority. True to this command, he said nothing of the October 1944 nuclear test until two years after the war, in a newspaper article. But when “everyone said I was mad”, Romersa published a fuller account in Oggi magazine, during the 1950s.
What Romersa left out of his account was nonetheless obvious enough; namely, that he was one of the very few observers allowed to witness the Ruegen exercise only because Italian physicists were an integral part of atomic research. Had they not been vital to the supremely classified Axis program, the SS would have never cleared a foreign newspaper correspondent (of all people!), no matter how politically impressive the source of his credentials, to Germany’s most clandestine weapon, especially so late in the war, when the Third Reich’s options for victory were rapidly diminishing. Romersa’s chief task was to report on progress made by the Italo-German scientific team and to inform Mussolini that he could expect an operational nuclear device by spring the following year. This only explains the Duce’s statements in late April 1945, regarding the imminent availability of a ‘disintegration bomb’ and the need ‘to resist for another month’.
Like Mussolini, Hitler initially evinced a similar lack of enthusiasm for atomic weaponry. As far back as 1941, when Carl von Weizsäcker, one of the leaders of Germany’s nuclear research team, filed a draft patent application for a plutonium bomb, the Führer expressed his skepticism in a private conversation with Otto Skorzeny. He was the same SS commando-leader who, two years later, would rescue the Duce from Gran Sasso. “This device, if their description of it proves to be correct,” Hitler concluded, “will have very little tactical value, because rarely are enemy concentrations large and dense enough, either on land or at sea, to be effectively targeted in a 1.5 kilometer blast-radius, except for industrial cities, which conventional air-strikes are presently quite capable of destroying, as this war has already shown.
“Their atomic bomb is actually a strategic weapon designed to kill large numbers of civilian populations confined in urban centers, thereby brow-beating a people into surrender. As such, it has less military utility than propaganda value as an instrument of terror. By the very nature of its destructiveness, it has an automatic, built-in circuit-breaker: If we were to cause a plutonium explosion over London, it would only be a matter of time before the British did the same thing to Berlin.
“Identical reasoning has prevented the use by all sides, even the Soviets, of poison gas in this conflict. Everyone knows the consequences. Von Weizsäcker and his colleagues should nevertheless continue their research. How wonderful if they could come up with an atomic-powered U-boat or transport-plane! Those I would gladly fund. But they will not get many Reichsmarks from me for a weapon whose only efficacy, so far, is the propagandistically detrimental, militarily useless incineration of non-combatants.”
While his armies were victorious on every front, Hitler could afford such views. But as hundreds of thousands of German civilians were being consumed in the flames of Anglo-American carpet-bombing, he reversed his original disdain for an atomic bomb, especially after the Allied landings at Normandy, in June 1944. The paired nuclear test five months later, although successful, was a relatively small affair, and a final experiment with a substantially larger discharge was necessary before military application could take place.
This occurred at the troop parade ground and barracks at Orhdruf, in south-central Thuringia, when two uranium devices were detonated on 4 March 1945. Both were observed by Soviet spies, who radioed the Kremlin that the Orhdruf explosions produced a “highly radioactive effect.” As part of their experiment, the SS officers, who supervised the dual test, confined captured Red Army commissars from the nearby Buchenwald concentration camp to barracks at the center of the blast.
“In many cases, their bodies were completely destroyed,” according to the spies, who added that such a weapon could “slow down our offensive”. Kremlin officials deemed their report so important, Josef Stalin himself received one of the four copies stamped ‘Urgent Priority’. But if he was alarmed, Hitler was overjoyed. On 9 March, Dr. Goebbels told a large audience at Goerlitz, “Just the day before yesterday [three days after Thuringia’s two nuclear bombs were successfully detonated], he told me, ‘I believe so firmly that we will master this crisis, and I believe so firmly that when we throw our armies into the new offensive, we will beat the enemy and drive him back, and I believe so firmly that we will someday add victory to our banners, as firmly as I have ever believed anything in my life’.”
The Führer’s late-hour elation was remarkably similar in tone to Mussolini’s April 21st statement that he had enough in his hand “to win the peace”, because both leaders hoped that Hitler’s Siegeswaffe would be ready to turn the tables on the Allies “one minute before midnight”. But by the time the SS completed final nuclear testing at Orhdruf, the military situation had surpassed even the power of an atomic bomb to reverse.