Spies in the Congo

America's Atomic Mission in World War II


By Susan Williams

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In the 1940s, the brightest minds of the United States and Nazi Germany raced to West Africa with a single mission: to secure the essential ingredient of the atomic bomb — and to make sure nobody saw them doing it

Albert Einstein told President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939 that the world’s only supply of uniquely high-quality uranium ore — the key ingredient for bomb — could be found in the Katanga province of the Belgian Congo at the Shinkolobwe Mine. Once the US Manhattan Project was committed to developing atomic weapons for the war against Germany and Japan, the rush to procure this uranium became a top priority — one deemed “vital to the welfare of the United States.”

But covertly exporting it from Africa posed a major risk: the ore had to travel via a spy-infested Angolan port or 1,500 miles by rail through the Congo, and then be shipped by boats or Pan Am Clippers to safety in the United States. It could be poached or smuggled at any point on the orders of Nazi Germany. To combat that threat, the US Office of Strategic Services sent in a team of intrepid spies, led by Wilbur Owings “Dock” Hogue, to be America’s eyes and ears and to protect its most precious and destructive cargo.

Packed with newly discovered details from American and British archives, this is the gripping, true story of the unsung heroism of a handful of good men — and one woman — in colonial Africa who risked their lives in the fight against fascism and helped deny Hitler his atomic bomb.





‘La prochaine guerre sera gagnée par le pays qui aura le contrôle de l’urane’.

(The next war will be won by the country which has control of uranium.)

Minister in Winston Churchill’s Cabinet to Edgar Sengier, Director of Union Minière, May 19391

On 2 August 1939, Albert Einstein, the Nobel Prize winning physicist, signed a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, warning of the potential of Hitler’s Nazi regime to develop an atomic bomb.2 Some recent research, he told Roosevelt, ‘leads me to expect that the element uranium may be turned into a new and important source of energy in the immediate future’, which would make it possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction generating vast amounts of power. This new phenomenon, he said, would lead to the construction of ‘extremely powerful bombs of a new type’. He added that Germany had stopped selling the uranium from the Czechoslovakian mines it had taken over and he recommended giving ‘particular attention to the problem of securing a supply of uranium ore for the United States’. Einstein was a pacifist, but he wanted to prevent Nazi Germany from having sole possession of this new destructive power.3

Einstein’s letter fired the starting-pistol for America to enter a kind of race that the world had never known before: the race to develop the atomic bomb before Germany.

Since it was impossible to build an atomic bomb without uranium ore, it was essential to obtain sufficient ore of high quality. The United States, Einstein told Roosevelt, ‘has only very poor ores of uranium in moderate quantities’. There was some good ore in Canada and the former Czechoslovakia but ‘the most important source of uranium’, he said, was in Africa—in the Belgian Congo (now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo). This source was the Shinkolobwe mine in Katanga, the southernmost province of the Congo, and was owned by a huge Belgian mining company called the Union Minière du Haut Katanga. Shinkolobwe, which is near the town of Jadotville (now known as Likasi) and nearly ninety miles northwest of Elisabethville (now Lubumbashi), the capital of Katanga, had been used to produce radium, a by-product of uranium. The mine was a huge, open gash about a half-mile square, with terraced sides that went down about 225 feet.4 It had been closed in 1937, fell into disrepair and became flooded. However, a large stock of mined uranium ore was still piled up there.5

The uranium from the Shinkolobwe mine was remarkable. It assayed as high as 75 per cent uranium oxide, with an average of over 65 per cent.6 This was exceptional in comparison with the other ores that were available: from the Eldorado mine in the Northwest Territory of Canada and from the Colorado Plateau, which contained 0.02 per cent uranium oxide; or from the South African uranium ores derived from gold-mine operations, which had a uranium oxide content of the order of 0.03 per cent.7 The unique richness of the Katanga ore was essential at that time for any physicist hoping to build an atomic weapon. ‘You have to have a relatively rich source of ore,’ noted Lorna Arnold, a nuclear historian, looking back from the perspective of the twenty-first century, ‘to be able to quickly amass sufficient amounts of uranium metal, from which you might either separate out the rare fissionable isotope or manufacture fissionable plutonium—and Shinkolobwe is by far the richest known source of uranium in the world.’8

In response to Einstein’s initiative, President Roosevelt in October 1939 set up a Uranium Committee as an advisory body, which was chaired by Lyman J. Briggs, director of the National Bureau of Standards. Then, when it was discovered in April 1940 that the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Physics in Berlin had started an extensive research programme involving uranium, the committee’s work took on a new urgency: it recommended the funding of significant research in the US, especially work at Columbia University in New York on nuclear chain reactions.9

In June 1940, shortly after Belgium’s defeat and occupation by Germany, the Uranium Committee encouraged Edgar Sengier, the Managing Director of Union Minière, to move its mined supplies of Congolese uranium to the US for safekeeping.10 There was serious concern at this time that the Congo might be invaded by Nazi Germany. Sengier later noted having serious reservations about security in Katanga—‘la sécurité au Katanga était mal garantie’.11 Before the war, the ore had been shipped to a Union Minière refinery in Belgium; but now that Belgium was occupied by the Nazis, it was decided to ship the ore directly from the Congo to America.12

Towards the end of 1940, 1,200 tons of the stockpiled uranium ore at Shinkolobwe—of approximately 70 per cent uranium oxide—were shipped to New York.13 A commercial arm of Union Minière was specially set up in New York to arrange for the transport of the ore. This was the African Metals Corporation, also known as Afrimet, which became the sole agent for the sale of Union Minière products in the US. During September and October 1940, the ore was shipped from the Congo and was stored on arrival on Staten Island in New York.14

Edgar Sengier, a qualified engineer, had worked for Union Minière since 1911; he was appointed director of the company in 1932.15 He later claimed that it was entirely his own idea to send the uranium to New York. ‘I did this,’ he told the writer John Gunther in the mid-1950s, ‘without telling anything to anybody.’16 This was evidently not the case, since the initiative had been taken by Roosevelt’s Uranium Committee. However, Sengier did move to New York to liaise with the US government, staying in central Manhattan. Sengier—who turned 60 towards the end of 1939—was ‘a polished man, somewhat stout, with pale skin, white hands, a fringe of white hair, and a short silver moustache’, who, according to Gunther, seemed to convey ‘a pleasant sense of benevolence and good will.’17 But he had nerves of steel—and he was presiding over a unique supply of a mineral that had the power to change history.

On 9 October 1941, two months before Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt gave the go-ahead to the atomic project. This involved the setting-up of ‘a separate secret state’, notes Richard Rhodes in The Making of the Atomic Bomb, ‘with separate sovereignty linked to the public state through the person and by the sole authority of the President.’18 The ‘Manhattan Engineering District’ was formed within the Army Corps of Engineers, to be known as the Manhattan Project. Secrecy was already the watchword of the whole enterprise and this name was chosen as a way of avoiding giving any clues about its concerns. The Project was authorised formally a few weeks after Pearl Harbor, which led to America’s entry into the Second World War.

In January 1942, Roosevelt approved the top secret development of an atomic bomb.19 The project now received full support from the army, in order to meet the emerging need for large-scale construction and design.20 In September that year, the President gave military command of the Manhattan Project to General Leslie R. Groves, a West Point graduate, who was described by Kenneth Nichols, his second-in-command, as ‘the biggest sonovabitch I’ve ever met in my life, but also one of the most capable individuals’.21 The civilian head of the Project was Henry Lewis Stimson, the Secretary of War. Groves and Stimson were responsible for what the war historian Max Hastings has described as ‘the most ambitious military project in history’, in which ‘the stakes were as high as the world has ever known’.22

The initial funding for the Project, which was in excess of $37 million—worth about $597 million in 2015—was channelled into a secret dummy account, so as to avoid detection by any foreign spy. An additional reason for channelling the funds in this way was to avoid the legal requirement of obtaining the approval of Congress.23 Seeking such approval would have been very awkward in the case of what became a huge disbursement, reaching $2 billion—worth about $27 billion in 2015.24 Because of Groves’s position at the head of the ‘top-secret, unlimited-budget project’, states Patrick Marnham in Snake Dance, a study of the nuclear age, he was ‘without any question from November 1942, for three years, one of the most powerful men in the world’.25

Under Groves’s leadership, the Manhattan Project developed at breakneck speed. He sent Nichols to negotiate with Edgar Sengier over the purchase of the 1,200 tons of Congolese uranium ore stored on Staten Island, and also to acquire the 1,000 tons of mined ore that was still stockpiled at Shinkolobwe. Nichols was astonished by the richness of Congolese ore, which he emphasised in an interview after the war:

Nichols: They were hand sorting this damn stuff, because it came out of Shinkolobwe to 65% U3O8 [uranium oxide]. To give you an idea of it, we think we have got a good mine out in the west if it is three-tenths of one percent.

Interviewer: My God.

Nichols: They were hand sorting it to 65% and their waste piles were 20% uranium, U3O8. They had that stored just outdoors over in Shinkolobwe. They had hand sorted this stuff, and that was the waste that went by.26

The ore stored on Staten Island was transferred immediately to the Corps of Engineers. Arrangements were also made to ship to the US the stock of ore remaining in the Congo: 950 further tons of approximately 70 per cent ore; and about 160 tons of 20 per cent ore.27 To make this possible, Union Minière ran three round-the-clock shifts at Shinkolobwe, where the miners worked in the open pit under searchlights.28

The miners sorted and packed up the uranium ore by hand and, according to estimates, they could have been exposed to a year’s worth of radiation in about two weeks.29 Some of their Belgian overseers believed that the miners did not know what they were handling.30 The mine polluted the entire area, affecting the ground and the water supply, and many of the miners’ homes were constructed from radioactive materials.31

By December 1942, about half of the ore from the Congo had arrived in the US safely. Shipments in 1942 were dispatched via the port of Lobito Bay in Angola, on the southern border of the Congo. But Angola was seething with Nazi spies: it was a colony of Portugal, which was a neutral country under the semi-fascist dictatorship of Antonio Salazar, flirting with Hitler and giving Germany economic assistance. As a result, the port of Lobito was a busy mix of Allied, German, and neutral activity—and so an unsafe place for the shipping of uranium. It was decided instead to send the uranium to the US via the port of Matadi, the Congo’s single outlet to the sea. It involved a much longer and, from a logistics point of view, far more difficult route—two journeys by train and one by barge—with repeated loading and unloading. But it was more secure than the straightforward rail journey to Lobito: shipping the ore via Matadi meant that it would never leave the Congo before sailing.

From the last week of January 1943, all uranium transported by sea went through Matadi. Now the uranium—in sealed barrels marked ‘Special Cobalt’—was sent north by train from Shinkolobwe to the railhead at Port-Francqui (now Ilebo) on the Kasai River, in the province of Kasai. From there, the barrels were loaded on to barges, which sailed downstream to where the Kasai River joins the Congo River and then onward to Léopoldville (now known as Kinshasa), the capital of the Congo; at that point they were taken by train to Matadi.32 The Manhattan Project sent skilled personnel and equipment to the Congo to improve the railroads.33

This was a journey of epic proportions, crossing about 1,500 miles. Although it was a safer route than the journey to Lobito, its length and its complexity generated other risks, as Major John Lansdale of the Manhattan Project warned General Groves. ‘There is a possibility,’ he pointed out in a memorandum, ‘that part of the shipments dispatched from the mine are not received at Matadi, since the shipments arrive at Matadi by railroad, then river boat, and again by railroad.’34

From Matadi, the barrels of uranium were shipped to the US. The carriage of large shipments of uranium necessitated extreme care in scheduling operations and shipments, because of the risk from German submarines in the South Atlantic. After consultation with the Transportation Corps of the US Army, it was decided that the safest method of shipment was by fast motor vessels, travelling out of convoy. It was decided to ship the ore by 16-knot boats managed by the American West African Line, known as the Barber Line, which ran a service between New York and Matadi.35 Two shipments of ore were lost at sea: one late in 1942, through enemy action; and one early in 1943, through a marine accident. Approximately 200 tons of ore were lost through sinking.36

Uranium for the Manhattan Project was also transported by air on the Pan American Airways clipper service. The Brazil–West Africa air link was expanded to include a route through central Africa, ‘primarily to tap a supply of uranium from what was then the Belgian Congo’, notes a study of the trans-South Atlantic air link during the war.37 Captain Marius Lodeesen, the pilot of the Pan Am China Clipper, later recalled that he was called to the chief pilot’s office and his boss, Horace Brock, said he was to fly the China Clipper to Léopoldville ‘on a top secret flight’. When he asked why he had been chosen for this special flight, he was told it was because he was the only pilot who had been there before. ‘On the return flight,’ he was instructed, ‘stop only for fuel. No overnights. I’ll give you a double crew and Captain George Duff as co-captain.’ Howard Brush Dean, who was the Manager for Pan Am Africa, ‘will be your only passenger. No questions, no answers. Dean knows what to do.’38

To make these flights reliable, the US needed to improve landing facilities. A US Army Air Force intelligence officer reported in 1942 on the progress of work to build an aerodrome in Elisabethville, the capital of Katanga. It was ‘an excellent field,’ he said, with ‘very extensive gasoline facilities’. He added that an airport was also being built at Léopoldville:

they were also putting in a concrete landing strip that is as good as you will find anywhere on the African Continent. They are working day and night there. That was the only project in Africa in which they were working 24 hours a day.

Both airports were ready for operation by July 1942.39

General Groves set up a special office in New York called the Murray Hill Area (named after the area in which it was located, like the Manhattan Project) to locate and assess the world’s supply of uranium—and to find more. The work was done in great secrecy by the office’s mining and geology experts, who had to rely on published data for much of their findings; in the case of the Soviet Union and Germany, this task ranged from difficult to impossible. Despite these obstacles, they felt able to estimate that the Shinkolobwe ore, together with known sources of uranium on the North American continent, made up over 90 per cent of the world’s potential supply of uranium.40

With the enormous budget at Groves’s disposal and the backing of the White House, explains Tom Zoellner in Uranium, he made deals with some of the largest chemical and engineering corporations in America: Bechtel, DuPont, Raytheon, Eastman Kodak, and Union Carbide, who were hired to erect the apparatus necessary to build a bomb. ‘But,’ adds, Zoellner, ‘raw uranium was the first concern.’41

The US should ‘allow nothing to stand in the way of achieving as complete control as possible of world uranium supplies,’ insisted Groves.42 The need for control, stated an internal report written for him, ‘cannot be over-emphasised’—and this meant control of Congolese ore. It would not necessarily mean the ownership of the Belgian Congo, added the report, nor the ownership of the uranium-bearing regions or deposits in the Belgian Congo. But it would certainly mean the right to control the rate of flow of supplies from that region and the right to determine who was to receive the ores.43

In August 1943 the Manhattan Project moved from its headquarters in New York to Oak Ridge Tennessee, which became the development centre of the bomb and its headquarters for the rest of the war. Laboratory and engineering work was done at more than thirty sites all over the nation and in Canada. But, despite this massive development, it remained a secret. This was especially important to Groves, given the possibility that the Germans were developing a bomb programme. He adopted a worst-case scenario: that unless and until it was confirmed otherwise, they should assume that Germany was working on a bomb at full capacity. This position was shared by President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, who had agreed that Britain should cooperate with the US on the construction of the bomb; British scientists working on Britain’s secret atomic bomb project—Tube Alloys—were sent to the US to join the Manhattan Project.

When Roosevelt met Churchill for talks on 19 June 1942 in Hyde Park, New York—where the atom bomb was ‘the most complex and, as it proved, overwhelmingly most important subject’ on the agenda—they speculated on German progress. ‘We both,’ wrote Churchill in his memoirs, ‘felt painfully the dangers of doing nothing. We knew what efforts the Germans were making to procure supplies of “heavy water”—a sinister term, eerie, unnatural, which began to creep into our secret papers.’ What, he exclaimed in horror,

if the enemy should get an atomic bomb before we did! However sceptical one might feel about the assertions of scientists, much disputed among themselves and expressed in jargon incomprehensible to laymen, we could not run the moral risk of being outstripped in this awful sphere.44

In the summer of 1943, Roosevelt told James Byrnes, then Director of the Office of War Mobilization, about the Manhattan Project, asserting that the Germans were ahead of the US in the atomic race. The President’s belief, wrote Byrnes years later, stimulated the ‘extraordinary efforts put forth on the Manhattan Project’, which at its peak claimed the labour of 125,000 men.45

The safeguarding of information was secured by a strict ‘need to know’ policy: not one of the laboratories, universities, plants or contractors was given any information about the overall structure of the Project. ‘The majority of workers did not know what the Project was doing, or what other plants at their own site were doing, or what the other departments in their own plant were doing,’ records an institutional history of the Counter-Intelligence Corps, an intelligence organisation within the American military that was given responsibility for the Project’s security. ‘All the sites, materials and special items of equipment were given code names. So were many of the scientists. And since the top scientists were the few people who did know what the Project was about, they were given bodyguards from a special group of CIC agents—who were really spying on them.’46

‘Only about six men in the U. S. Army,’ commented the physicist Arthur Compton, a Nobel Prize-winner who was involved in the Manhattan Project, ‘are permitted to know what is going on, including Secretary of War Stimson!’47 James Byrnes described the resounding silence on the topic in the corridors of power:

After the first discussion, neither the President nor I mentioned the atomic project to each other for many months. In fact, no one ever talked about it unless it was absolutely necessary. I remember once mentioning it to Secretary of War Stimson who, from its very inception, personally supervised the Manhattan Project. His reaction indicated surprise that I knew about it.

Even by April 1945, adds Byrnes, only four members of Congress had been given any concrete information about the Project.48 Harry Truman was not informed of the Project before assuming the presidency after Roosevelt’s death in April 1945.

This secrecy extended firmly to everything related to Congolese uranium and the Shinkolobwe mine. The Belgian uranium deals were ‘one of the most tightly kept secrets’ of the war, notes Jonathan Helmreich in a detailed study of America’s relations with Belgium and the Congo between 1940 and 1960.49 ‘The most important deposit of uranium yet discovered in the world,’ stated a top secret American intelligence report in November 1943, ‘is in the Shinkolobwe Mine in the Belgian Congo.’50 The Congo’s ‘known resources of uranium, which are the world’s largest,’ added the report, ‘are vital to the welfare of the United States … Definite steps should be taken to insure access to the resources for the United States.’51

It was a matter of great urgency to the US to persuade Sengier and Union Minière to reopen the Shinkolobwe mine as soon as possible, in order to acquire all its uranium ore. Negotiations were held with Union Minière, Belgium and Britain; meanwhile, careful plans were drawn up regarding logistics, methods and costs.52

The only major deposit under Nazi Germany’s control was at Joachimsthal, in Czechoslovakia. But the production of the Joachimsthal deposits was small, when compared to that of the Belgian Congo, or even to that of Canada and the United States.53 Groves was assured by his intelligence and security aides that Germany was not getting any uranium from the Congo. ‘There is no evidence,’ he was told, ‘that any concentrates or ores are reaching destinations other than the US.’54

But Groves was not willing to take any chances—he was determined at all costs to stop Hitler’s forces from obtaining Congolese uranium ore. It was possible, though difficult, to try to ensure that Germany did not obtain the ore through legitimate channels. Much more challenging was the threat of smuggling: there were already well established smuggling routes from the Belgian Congo to Germany, which could be used to transport the ore.

To deal with this threat, Groves turned to the Office of Strategic Services, a wartime intelligence service which had been newly set up by President Roosevelt. In late 1943, OSS sent a top agent to Africa to tackle the problem of smuggling; this was Wilbur Owings Hogue, a sombre and very clever civil engineer with a self-deprecating sense of humour, who became OSS chief of station in the Belgian Congo. Hogue, who went by the name of ‘Dock’ because he disliked ‘Wilbur’ so much, nursed a dream of becoming a full-time author—but, like so many of the men and women who served in the Second World War, had to put his ambitions on hold. He was joined in 1944 by Henry Stehli, a sophisticated but easygoing and gentle man who worked in peacetime in the family business—the famous Stehli Silks Corporation. The OSS station office in Léopoldville was managed by Shirley Chidsey, a petite woman whose size belied her adventurous spirit and lively nature.

Other OSS agents stationed in West Africa—Douglas Bonner, Adolph Schmidt, Duane Luther, Lanier Violett, Huntington Harris, and John Kirkland—also participated in the mission in significant and covert ways. From Washington, this network of agents was directed by the Africa Section of OSS Secret Intelligence; its chief was Rudyerd Boulton, an ornithologist in peacetime, whose commitment to his new post led him at times to be tough, even ruthless. His task was made all the more difficult by the obstacles in the field, such as poor channels of communication, erratic means of travel, lack of adequate information, and frequent severe illness.

For over seventy years, this mission has been unknown to the world, and not one of the men—and one woman—who carried it out has received due recognition. Their service was concealed by the total secrecy that blanketed everything to do with the Manhattan Project—and especially its reliance on the uranium ore from the Shinkolobwe mine in the Congo. But now, thanks in large part to recent releases of OSS and other records, it has been possible to uncover this extraordinary story. The courage of OSS agents in the Belgian Congo, and their singular contribution to the war against fascism, are the subject of this book.



On 7 November 1943, Dock Hogue flew into Léopoldville, the capital of the Belgian Congo. He was on a mission for the Secret Intelligence Branch of the Office of Strategic Services, with the cover of ‘Special Assistant’ to the American Consul stationed in the Belgian colony. Just short of six feet three, Dock Hogue was thirty-four years old and a qualified civil engineer.1 He was well-built and athletic—a boxer and high diver in college—and strikingly good-looking, with a narrow moustache. His brown eyes were intense: ‘the most piercing eyes,’ observed a US Army officer who met him in the Congo, ‘I had ever encountered. When I was introduced to him, I felt he was reading my mind.’ His face sometimes seemed to close down into an unrevealing ‘sphinx cast’, which was emphasised by the premature balding of his dark hair.2

The heat was baking when Hogue arrived in the Congo: up to 30 degrees Celsius, with the highest humidity of the year, when the air ‘pressed down like a smothering blanket’, in Hogue’s own words.3


On Sale
Aug 9, 2016
Page Count
432 pages

Susan Williams

About the Author

Dr. Susan Williams is a senior research fellow in the School of Advanced Study, University of London. Her pathbreaking books include Who Killed Hammarskjöld?, which in 2015 triggered a new, ongoing UN investigation into the death of the UN Secretary General. Spies in the Congo spotlights the link between US espionage in the Congo and the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945. Colour Bar, the story of Botswana’s founding President, was made into the major 2016 film A United Kingdom. A People’s King presents an original perspective on the abdication of Edward VIII and his marriage to Wallis Simpson. 
Susan Williams lives in London.

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