In This Review

The Winter Fortress: The Epic Mission to Sabotage Hitler’s Atomic Bomb
The Winter Fortress: The Epic Mission to Sabotage Hitler’s Atomic Bomb
By Neal Bascomb
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016, 400 pp.

At the heart of this book is the story of the heroic and successful efforts of a small group of Norwegian patriots who sabotaged a German-controlled hydroelectric plant in Vemork, Norway, in February 1943. At the time, the plant was the world’s only source of heavy water, a component of the uranium enrichment process. This was not the first or last attempt to deny Germany access to heavy water. In this authoritative account, Bascomb also describes how a few months before, there had been a calamitous mission undertaken by British commandos, which failed when their gliders crash-landed far from their target; the Germans later executed the surviving soldiers. In November 1943, nine months after the Norwegians’ successful mission, it became apparent that the Germans had started up production again, so the U.S. Army Air Forces bombed the plant. Finally, in 1944, there was a terminal act of sabotage, when two Norwegians sank a ferry carrying the last remaining containers of heavy water to Germany. Germany’s equivalent to the Manhattan Project might well have failed on its own, without these efforts, but it would have been too risky to assume as much. Bascomb offers a vivid and gripping narrative that conveys the heroism and dedication of the anti-Nazi operatives, especially in the face of severe weather conditions, and also delves into the ethics of resistance, which sometimes involves implicating or even killing innocent people.