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The Bastard Brigade
The True Story of the Renegade Scientists and Spies Who Sabotaged the Nazi Atomic Bomb
By Sam Kean
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- Moe Berg, the major league catcher who abandoned the game for a career as a multilingual international spy; the strangest fellow to ever play professional baseball.
- Werner Heisenberg, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist credited as the discoverer of quantum mechanics; a key contributor to the Nazi's atomic bomb project and the primary target of the Alsos mission.
- Colonel Boris Pash, a high school science teacher and veteran of the Russian Revolution who fled the Soviet Union with a deep disdain for Communists and who later led the Alsos mission.
- Joe Kennedy Jr., the charismatic, thrill-seeking older brother of JFK whose need for adventure led him to volunteer for the most dangerous missions the Navy had to offer.
- Samuel Goudsmit, a washed-up physics prodigy who spent his life hunting Nazi scientists — and his parents, who had been swept into a concentration camp — across the globe.
- Irène and Frederic Joliot-Curie, a physics Nobel-Prize winning power couple who used their unassuming status as scientists to become active members of the resistance.
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Strange things may seem reasonable to men who know only enough to fear the worst.
I’m often asked, after talks or readings, why I’ve never written a book about physics. After all, I majored in physics in college, and I still think it’s the most romantic of the sciences. No other field has such incredible scope, taking as its domain everything from the structure of subatomic particles to the fate of the cosmos, not to mention all the human-sized things in between. Know physics, know the universe.
But in my previous four books, I’ve more or less ignored physics, focusing instead on chemistry, genetics, neuroscience, and the atmosphere. Why? The short answer is that I also had to be true to my second major in college—English literature. That is, what I really love doing is telling stories, and when I’m planning a book, I look for rip-roarin’ stories first and foremost. I want heroes and villains, conflict and drama, plot twists and redemption. And frankly, I just haven’t found a physics topic that captured my imagination enough to write a whole book about it.
Until now. The Bastard Brigade is just the sort of physics-adventure tale I always wanted to tell—about the epic quest to stop the Nazi atomic bomb. Science drives this story, no question, but the heart of it is the extraordinary men and women who took on this duty and who were willing to use any means necessary—espionage, sabotage, subterfuge, even murder—to achieve it. No matter what type of story we’re talking about, it’s the characters that draw us in, and there are pirates and Nobel Prize–winners here, heads of state and Hollywood starlets, people of great strength and people of contemptible weakness. Above all they’re human beings—people thrown into situations that reveal them at their best and worst.
The Bastard Brigade is also something of a departure for me, a new challenge as a writer. In all my other books, I took one central topic (the periodic table, the human brain, et cetera) and spun out a few dozen tales. As a result, the chapters were largely independent and could stand alone, like a collection of short stories. This book is more unified, more of a novel. Because while there are several threads to the plot, the book really tells one larger story overall, and the truth emerges only in the collective actions of the characters.
And because the characters are central to this adventure, I thought it might help to include a list of them as a reference, here. (I’ve tried not to spoil anything.) If you need a reminder of who’s who, you can always flip back there and peek.
Above all, I hope you enjoy the book. I love physics so much that I wanted to be careful about my first foray into it, and this story is absolutely worth the wait.
Prologue: Summer of ’44
As the soldiers darted out of the cottage, the doorframe near their skulls exploded in splinters. This wasn’t the first time someone had shot at Boris Pash that day, and it wouldn’t be the last. An hour earlier Pash and a lieutenant had crept into the booby-trapped forest surrounding this seaside cottage in northern France. Seven brave resistance fighters had already died in these woods, but Pash had a swashbuckling—some said reckless—streak and had plunged ahead anyway. His mission: to capture a local scientist. As for why he needed to capture him, Pash was keeping mum. But echoing through his mind that day were the last words he’d heard from his bosses in Washington a few weeks earlier: “Any slight delay in reaching your targets might cost us tremendous losses, or even the war.”
This wasn’t an exaggeration. Pash led a team of scientific commandos called the Alsos Unit, who roamed around Europe collecting secrets about the most dreadful threat they could imagine: the Nazi atomic bomb project. Because Alsos (“all-soss”) worked independently, unattached to any larger military group, people called it the Bastard Unit. But the nickname was equally apt for Pash himself, a hard-charging World War I veteran whose unruliness behind enemy lines gave his minders back in Washington gastric ulcers.
At the same time, the desk jockeys needed a bastard like Pash: he took on missions no one else could or would. Like hunting down a scientist in a seaside village in France that was still under Nazi control. The man in question was a Nobel Prize–winning physicist rumored to be collaborating with the Germans on nuclear research. His capture could therefore disrupt the entire Nazi bomb project and keep atomic weapons out of Adolf Hitler’s hands.
But after slinking past all the pressure mines and tripwires in the forest, Pash and his sidekick had arrived at the cottage to find something sickening: nothing. The door was ajar and the cottage abandoned, stripped bare and full of debris. They searched everywhere, but there were no documents, no equipment, and certainly no nuclear scientist. Washington had feared that even a “slight delay” in finding the target could cost the Allies the war. Now the target had vanished. A dejected Pash and his lieutenant made ready to leave. At which point bullets splintered the doorframe near their heads. Then came the machine-gun fire.
Both men dived to the dirt outside and began belly-crawling into the cover of the woods. Given the secret nature of his mission, Pash had told very few people what they were up to that day. He therefore had no idea who was firing at them or why—Nazis, Americans, French renegades of dubious loyalty. Whoever it was had one clear objective: to make Pash and his sidekick the eighth and ninth casualties in the hunt for the French nuclear physicist.
Meanwhile, as Boris Pash was dodging gunfire, the Bastard Unit’s new scientific chief was weathering a calamity of his own. Samuel Goudsmit, a soft and somewhat dandyish nuclear physicist, had arrived in London shortly after D-Day, just in time to see the first V-1 rockets smash down. In the dead of night, people in the city would hear a buzzing noise in the dark above them, until the rocket’s motor cut and it began to plunge. Several seconds of dreadful silence followed; many held their breaths until the boom. Afterward, there might be another second or two of silence, until the screams began—at which point there would be no more silence that night.
The next morning, Goudsmit (“Gowd-schmidt”) had the uncomfortable job of inspecting the V-1 craters with a Geiger counter. Military officials would drag him from disaster to disaster, all but pushing him down the smoldering slopes to listen for the telltale clicks of radioactivity. The Nazi high command was furious about the D-Day invasion, and the Allies feared that they’d retaliate by lobbing nuclear weapons across the English Channel. The V-rockets seemed an ideal delivery vehicle, and it fell to Goudsmit to scour the pits they left behind.
Although he didn’t detect any radioactivity, that didn’t mean Goudsmit could relax. To the contrary, he soon received orders that were far more hazardous—to invade the dragon’s lair of the Reich and hunt for nukes in mainland Europe. Even the checklist to help him pack for the mission looked menacing. It recommended finding a wool stocking hat “for use with helmet.” Who would be shooting at him? And good Lord, a gas mask? Most ominous of all, the checklist recommended he update his will and pay up his life insurance. He might as well call his wife right now and tell her he was a goner. It turned out that no American insurance firm would cover a member of the Bastard Unit anyway. Let’s get this straight. You’re going to infiltrate Nazi territory to hunt down an atomic superweapon, and you want life insurance? We’ll pass. Whereas Boris Pash saw the nuclear commando work as an adventure, Goudsmit foresaw only danger and the certainty of his own death.
Indeed, Goudsmit likely would have skipped the war and stayed home in comfort if greater forces hadn’t compelled him. As a European Jew, born in Holland, he was determined to fight back against Hitler. His status as one of the few Allied nuclear scientists not working on the Manhattan Project put him in a unique position as well: he had the general knowledge to interrogate Nazi scientists about fission research, but not enough specific knowledge of bombs to give away any secrets if he was (gulp) captured and tortured. Moreover, he spoke several European languages, and counted many top German physicists as friends.
Or at least he used to. After years of war, he’d come to hate some of them. He’d been particularly close with the legendary quantum physicist Werner Heisenberg, even letting Heisenberg stay at his home on occasion. But Goudsmit’s affection had crumbled into ash after Heisenberg joined the German nuclear bomb program. Goudsmit felt betrayed, and it pushed his mind to sinister places. At one point he suggested, in complete seriousness, deploying a black-ops team into Germany to kidnap his erstwhile friend. And as rumors about the Germans intensified, Goudsmit found himself participating in even darker deeds—including a plot to send a former Major League Baseball player into Switzerland with a gun and a cyanide pill, to assassinate Heisenberg at a scientific meeting.
But more than anything else, beyond even his obsession with Heisenberg, Samuel Goudsmit was joining the war in Europe on a personal mission. Hitler’s machinations had trapped his family in Holland, and his elderly mother and father had been rounded up and arrested. The last letter he’d received from them was postmarked from a concentration camp, and he’d been sick with worry ever since. Goudsmit was joining the Bastard Unit to fight Hitler, certainly, and to stop the Nazi atomic bomb. He also needed to find his parents.
The V-1 craters that Samuel Goudsmit inspected in London were terrifying enough, but scientific spies across Europe had already heard rumors of even deadlier V-weapons to come—the V-2s and mysterious V-3s, missiles that promised greater range, greater speed, greater destruction. All of which was fine with Joe Kennedy. The greater the danger, the greater the glory for him.
In August 1944, Joseph Kennedy Jr. was stationed in England, and he whiled away his days writing letters home to his little brother John, future president of the United States. Like every pilot—he flew for the navy—Joe wrote salacious things about girls in the letters and complained of boredom and hardship in the countryside. In reality, his status as a Kennedy gave him privileges that most grunts could only dream about—fresh eggs, white silk scarves, a Victrola, a humidor, a bicycle to pedal to church. He could even commandeer planes to London sometimes to pick up cases of scotch and Pabst Blue Ribbon. All in all, Joe had things pretty swell.
But beneath the easy patter in his letters, there were undercurrents of envy. At one point Joe congratulated Jack on a medal Jack had won for valor in the South Pacific; among other deeds, JFK had saved the life of a badly burned sailor named Patrick McMahon. This had earned Jack fame as a war hero—as well as his brother’s enmity. In a barbed compliment, Joe mentioned that he’d seen yet another magazine story about Jack, then added, “McMahon must be awful sick of talking about you.” Born just two years apart, the brothers had grown up competing for everything—grades, girls, their father’s affection. Joe almost always won, and it infuriated him to see his little brother beat him out for war glory, the most important competition of their young lives.
Joe had hopes of settling the score, however, and soon. Because in between Sunday Mass and Saturday boozing, he was training for a top-secret mission. Over the past year, Germany had erected several mysterious missile bunkers along the northern coast of France, just across the English Channel. If Hitler really did want to rain down atomic fury on London, these seemed like the perfect launch sites, and after the V-1 barrage started, Allied leaders were anxious to wipe the bunkers out.
The problem was, the bunkers were so large and so well reinforced that conventional bombs dropped from airplanes did no good. So officials had to get creative, and what they decided to do was turn the planes themselves into bombs. That is, they would fill them with explosives and fly them across the Channel as unmanned drones. Using crude remote control, they’d then ram the planes into the bunkers kamikaze style. The only hitch was that the planes couldn’t take off on their own; someone had to rumble down the runway in these flying bombs to get them aloft, then arm them in midair before they exploded. Joe had volunteered to be one of those someones.
In the letters home to his brother, Joe of course couldn’t reveal any details of the mission, but his excitement breaks through here and there. At one point, he brags that he’s all but assured of winning a medal of his own. Still, knowing that his parents might read the letter, Joe hastened to reassure everyone that he was safe. “I am not intending to risk my fine neck… in any crazy venture,” he said. It was a bald-faced lie. By the time he’d put pen to paper, several of Joe’s fellow pilots had already suffered gruesome injuries: one had an arm ripped off while parachuting out, and another had plummeted to his death. Truth was, this was one of the craziest ventures of the war.
We all know how World War II ended, with two black mushroom clouds rising over the scorched remains of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But most people don’t realize how easily things could have gone the other way—how easily the war could have ended not with an American atomic bomb but a German one, obliterating not a Japanese city but London or Paris or even New York.
Many scientists on the Manhattan Project, in fact, were convinced that Germany had the inside track on the Bomb. After all, German chemists and physicists had discovered nuclear fission in the first place, and the Third Reich had founded its Manhattan Project (called the Uranium Club) in 1939, giving it a two-year head start. Germany had the world’s best industrial firms as well, fully capable of processing the vast amount of raw material a nuclear bomb requires. No other country on earth could match its genius and industrial might—not to mention its diabolical urge to wage war.
This realization had two effects. First, it pushed American scientists to work maniacally hard on atomic bombs. Second, it convinced the Allies to sponsor a series of desperate missions to sabotage the Nazi bomb project. Spies, soldiers, physicists, politicians—all had roles to play. As one historian said, “Never, perhaps, have scientists and statesmen played for higher stakes, or has the sense of breathless urgency driven men to more extraordinary exertions.”
The Bastard Brigade recounts these heroic, chaotic, and often deadly efforts—involving not only the likes of Boris Pash and Joe Kennedy, but courageous female scientists like Irène Joliot-Curie and Lise Meitner. Science had certainly contributed to warfare before 1939, but in World War II, the Allies gave scientists guns and helmets and dispatched them into combat zones for the first time. This shadow war paralleled the visible one in many ways, but the men and women involved more or less ignored the movements of troops, tanks, and airplanes, and instead stalked ideas—vast, world-changing scientific ideas.
Still, the Allies weren’t above playing dirty when the mission called for it. The subject of the first chapter—the country’s first atomic spy, an enigmatic baseball catcher named Moe Berg—stole his friends’ mail, lied repeatedly to superiors, and went AWOL with alarming frequency. For him and others, no tactics were too extreme—air strikes, commando raids, Molotov cocktails, kidnappings—as long as they kept the Bomb out of Hitler’s hands.
Unlike other histories of the Nazi atomic bomb, this story focuses on the Allies—putting us directly into the minds of the men and women confronted with, perhaps, the ultimate mission. Much of what follows comes from previously unpublished or overlooked sources, which provide new insight into some of the war’s most fascinating yet unheralded characters. All the missions were top-secret, naturally, and those who volunteered for them often had dark motivations for doing so; in some cases they spent as much energy fighting each other as they did the enemy. But if they couldn’t shake their personal demons, they never flinched when facing down the Nazi threat.
The Bastard Brigade starts in that “low dishonest decade” of the 1930s, with the birth of nuclear fission, and it continues through the epic manhunts of the very last days of the war. The Allies had sacrificed millions of lives conquering North Africa and Italy, not to mention gaining footholds in France and Germany. But with just a few pounds of uranium, they feared, Hitler could reverse the entire D-Day operation and drive the Allies off the continent forever.
So if the story that follows seems frantic, reckless, or even mad at times, there’s good reason for that. Scientists and soldiers alike were convinced that a madman would soon acquire the superhuman power locked inside the atomic nucleus. And to prevent that, no price was too high to pay.
Prewar, to 1939
America’s first atomic spy very nearly wasn’t American at all. After fleeing pogroms in Ukraine in the 1890s, Moe Berg’s father Bernard booked passage from London to the United States on a crowded, dirty steamer that reeked of bologna and unwashed bodies. And when he arrived in New York, the ghettoes and tenements there made steerage class seem luxurious. After hearing that foreigners who fought in the Boer War would get automatic British citizenship, he hopped the next boat back to London—only to find that the offer had expired. With great reluctance, he spent his last ten dollars returning to New York, resigned to becoming an American.
Bernard soon married a seamstress from Romania named Rose, with whom he had three children, and they opened a launderette on the Lower East Side. It was not a success. A chronic reader, Bernard often got so absorbed in his books while ironing that he burned holes in people’s garments. Eventually he admitted his shortcomings and opened a pharmacy in Newark instead, installing his young family in the apartment above. (Because he worked so much—fifteen hours a day—he interacted with them by hollering through a tube that ran upstairs.) As the first Jewish family in their neighborhood, the Bergs suffered occasional discrimination (children would holler, “Hey, Christ-killer!”), but the pharmacy eventually became a social hub in the neighborhood. Bernard was especially renowned for his “Berg cocktails”—laxatives of castor oil and root beer. Before mixing one, he’d ask Mrs. So-and-So how far away she lived. Four blocks, she’d say. He’d then measure out a four-block cocktail and have her chug it. Go straight home, he’d warn her, and don’t dally to talk. People learned the hard way that he wasn’t joking.
Bernard and Rose’s youngest child, twelve-pound Moe, arrived in 1902. With Bernard working all the time, the boy had complete freedom to pursue his passion, baseball. He’d toss around balls, apples, oranges, anything vaguely spheroid, at any hour, and even as a child, he was the best catcher in Newark. He’d squat behind manhole covers, holding a glove that looked as big as a pillow in his tiny hands, and let local cops fire heaters at him. “Harder!” Berg would cry. “Harder!” Finally one cop wound up and really smoked a pitch. Berg staggered back and almost toppled. But he held on—no adult could get one past him. Hearing of this prodigy, a local church all-star team scooped him up. They insisted he use a Christian pseudonym, Runt Wolfe, but Runt quickly became the squad’s star.
The only person not impressed by Moe’s baseball prowess was his father. A reluctant U.S. citizen, he never could embrace this most American of sports. He looked down on ballplayers as clods and contrasted them with his real heroes, scholars. But the thing was, Moe was pretty sharp in the classroom, too, graduating from high school at sixteen and winning admission to Princeton University. There, following one of his father’s passions, he majored in Romance languages, taking six courses some semesters; he dabbled in Sanskrit and Greek to boot. When Berg later became famous, no quirk of his would attract more attention than his faculty for languages. Some admirers claimed he spoke six, all fluently; some said eight; others a dozen.
To his father’s distress, Berg also played baseball for Princeton’s Tigers. Ivy League games often drew huge crowds back then, up to twenty thousand people, and Berg blossomed into the team’s star shortstop. It helped that he stood six foot one, and had huge mitts: “shaking hands with him was like shaking hands with a tree,” an acquaintance remembered. In Berg’s junior year the Tigers almost beat the world champion New York Giants in an exhibition game at the Polo Grounds, losing 3–2. He then led the Tigers to a 21–4 record his senior year—including an 18-game winning streak—and hit .337, including .611 against rivals Harvard and Yale. He and the team’s second baseman that year, another linguaphile, would discuss on-field defensive strategies in Latin to prevent the other team from catching on.
Now, you might think that a tall, well-built, all-American shortstop at Princeton with a flair for Romance languages would be a popular guy, and people did admire Berg. But mostly from afar; he had few real friends at school. In part, this was Princeton’s fault. Most Princeton boys (it was an all-male university then) had attended fancy prep schools, and some showed up for classes in chauffeured cars. Berg, meanwhile, toiled to afford the $650 tuition, working as a camp counselor in New Hampshire each summer and delivering Christmas packages over winter break. The expensive habits he affected—smoking jackets, scented hair oil—didn’t fool anyone. Being Jewish didn’t help, either. His senior year the Princeton baseball nine elected someone a little more suitable (read: WASPy) as team captain, which stung. And when it came time to join an eating club (the Princeton version of a fraternity), he got voted into one—on the condition that he not get pushy and advocate for other Jews. Humiliated, Berg refused to join.
But the isolation wasn’t all Princeton’s fault. Berg’s essential trait, the one that defined the whole course of his life, was his furtiveness. He was handsome and witty. Men admired his erudition and athletic skill. Women cooed when he whispered in French and Italian. But he never attended parties, never asked anyone to dinner, never let anyone get close to him. He was an incorrigible loner, constantly pushing people away, and he cultivated an air of inscrutability.
Two ball clubs, the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Robins (later the Dodgers), tried to sign Berg out of Princeton in 1923—in part because attendance was sagging, and they figured a Jewish star would provide a boost. But Berg hesitated; he’d set his heart on attending graduate school at the Sorbonne in Paris that year. He did finally sign, however, figuring that he could attend the Sorbonne during the off-season. (You know, like most ballplayers.) Of the two clubs, the Robins had the worse record, which meant that Berg could play immediately. So to his father’s further shame, he signed a $5,000 contract ($71,000 today) that summer. A few days later in Philadelphia, in his first at-bat, he singled and drove in a run.
It was probably the highlight of his rookie season. Although a graceful fielder, with a blistering arm, he was young and skittish and made too many errors to play full-time. Worse, he struggled to adjust to Major League pitching. Although he rarely struck out, he didn’t hit for power and was far too slow to leg out hits; a manager once cracked that Berg looked like he was running the bases in snowshoes. He batted just .186 in 49 games, and a scout that summer summed up Berg’s prospects in four words: “Good field, no hit.”
Instead of working on his hitting, Berg skipped town for the Sorbonne that winter. Tuition was cheap ($1.95 per course, $28 today), so he gorged himself on classes, sitting in on twenty-two. Topics included French, Italian, Latin of the Middle Ages, and “The Comic in Drama.” Berg was particularly interested in tracing the “bastardization” of Latin as it spread through Europe. (“The farther Caesar’s legions trekked from Rome,” he later explained, “the more the pure Latin become diluted with the words and idioms of the people they were trying to subjugate.”) He was a feisty student, too. Before one European history course—which covered the fraught decades leading up to the Great War—he declared, “If it becomes too one-sided, I’ll tell the professor to stick the course up his—.” But overall the classes more than fulfilled his expectations. In a letter home he declared that he would have paid five dollars to hear some of the individual lectures, they were that good: “For what I am getting out of it, I ought to endow a chair in the Sorbonne.”
- NPR Science Friday's Best Science Book of 2019
- "A thrilling tale of wartime derring-do meets a richly researched story of postwar intellectual exploitation . . . . Perfect as a first foray into this period, and I defy any reader not to be drawn into the world of unlikely spies and Nazi Nobel Prize winners that Kean paints so vividly and infuses with such energy."—Science
- "Thrilleresque science history."—Nature
- "An exciting read for fans of World War II history, espionage tales, and the development of nuclear weapons."—Library Journal, starred review
- "Bastard Brigadeis as entertaining as it is fascinating. Kean's colloquial expressions and metaphors provide levity to the gritty history of a world at war, with the survival of freedom, and possibly humanity, hanging in the balance. He never lets the reader forget what was at stake. . .Kean's page-turner about a still too-little-understood chapter in history deserves a prominent place in WWII collections."—Booklist, starred review
- "An exciting history of the battle for atomic supremacy during World War II. . . Throughout, Kean eschews erudite fastidiousness for consistent action and brio. Beginning with the title, the narrative is an engrossing cinematic drama. . . Vivid derring-do moves swiftly through a carefully constructed espionage thriller."— Kirkus
- Praise for Sam Kean:
- "Riveting.... Kean has a knack for distilling chemistry to its essential elements, using stories and humor.... this is a dose of fresh air.—Library Journal
- "Richly informative.... Once again, Kean proves his mettle as one of science literature's most gifted practitioners."—Booklist
- "Entertaining... with sly wit and boyish wonder"—Discover Magazine
- "Compelling stuff, written with verve and in a style that veers between simple lightheartedness and open jocularity.... Eminently accessible and enjoyable."—Robin McKie, The Guardian
- A "lively tome"—New York Post
- "Science is made fun whenever best-selling author Kean...is narrating."—Susannah Cahalan, New York Post
- "Kean's real knack is for digging up strange details most textbooks leave out....More than an assortment of trivia, the book is an engaging history."—Allison Bohac, Science News
- "A science journalist with a flair for words...[Kean's] language is fluid and accessible, even for the science-challenged."—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
- "Kean is one of America's smartest and most charming science writers, and his new book could be perfect for summer readers who prefer some substance with their fun."—Michael Schaub, National Public Radio
- On Sale
- Jul 21, 2020
- Page Count
- 464 pages
- Back Bay Books