Book review: Spies in the Congo by Susan Williams

Espionage ensured the USA acquired uranium in the Congo for its atomic bombs and kept it from the Germans, writes Vin Arthey

Spies in the Congo

Spies in the Congo by Susan Williams | Hurst Publishers, 352pp, £25

This story about the role of espionage in the creation of the atomic bomb is even more chilling than the better known story of the USA’s failure to detect the communist spies and sympathisers who got the secrets of the bomb to the Soviet Union, and the Soviets’ success in testing their own bomb four years after the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Susan Williams reminds us that without uranium, there would have been no bomb. The United States had access to uranium ore in Canada, rock that contained 0.02 per cent usable uranium oxide, but there was a mine in the Belgian Congo that could yield ore of up to 75 per cent pure uranium. All well and good, but in 1942 intelligence had revealed that the Germans were also on the way to making an atomic bomb, and not only was Germany occupying Belgium but it was discreetly pressurising the colonial government to support the Nazi cause. The Americans needed to prevent Germany getting its hands on any uranium, and to ensure that all usable uranium from the Congolese mine could be transported to the USA.

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The task was handed to the new Office of Strategic Services, and after early failures it developed a comprehensive scheme to achieve its objectives. Small consignments of uranium were taken from the mine to different ports and airfields across West Africa and conveyed to a holding centre in New York. Then, the OSS kept watch in Africa to ensure that no others were attempting to buy or steal uranium. They did this under the cover of an operation to foil the illicit trade in industrial diamonds which were also needed in weapons manufacture.

Outlining the importance of the task and showing the big picture of the operation, Williams takes us into the lives of the tiny group of spies involved, not in hindsight, but within their own experience, awareness and knowledge at the time. The OSS was often not trusted by the US Ambassadors and embassy staff across West Africa, so the intelligence personnel had to hide what they were doing from their own government representatives. They also had to select their “cut-outs” (the agents recruited to do “the watching”) with great care, because political control in the Belgian Congo was balanced amongst civil administrators, industrialists, the security service and the church. The OSS spies had to contend with disease, too, particularly malaria. One survived a bomb attempt on his life and later, like James Bond at his most resourceful, wounded an undercover German officer in a shootout.

Spies in the Congo is an espionage classic. Scrupulously researched, it illuminates a barely-known aspect of arguably the most significant event of the 20th century, giving fresh perspectives. Seeing the work of the OSS outside the European theatre of war is an important contribution to knowledge about intelligence strategies. The explanation of complex operations is supported by photographs, maps, a glossary of codewords and a useful “cast of characters”. The “Congo story” takes on new importance, the horrors of the Belgian colonial era merging into the exploitation of the land’s stupendous mineral wealth and then on to the catastrophe that followed independence, and the now failed state. The deaths in Hiroshima and Nagasaki are seen in the context of the short lives of the Congolese workers who mined and handled the uranium, and the guilt that the Congolese now feel about their role in making the weapon that killed so many.

An unspoken question remains, however. What if the Germans had acquired uranium from the Congo mine and perfected an atomic bomb which could have been delivered by V1 and V2 rockets?