In 2018 I read some outstanding nonfiction, including Neal Bascomb’s 2010 book Hunting Eichmann: How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World’s Most Notorious Nazi. Not only did it make my Favorite Nonfiction list for the year, but was also the subject of a Nonfiction November post in which I praised it as a fine example of nonfiction that reads like fiction. After thoroughly enjoying Hunting Eichmann I eagerly kept my eyes open for follow-up book, happy to read anything by Bascomb. Then, a year later during one of my weekend visits to the public library I discovered his 2016 book The Winter Fortress: The Epic Mission to Sabotage Hitler’s Atomic Bomb. Even though I didn’t borrow a copy, nevertheless I made a mental note to do so down the road. Late last week in need of something representing Norway for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I borrowed an ebook copy for my Kindle. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy The Winter Fortress as much as I did his early Hunting Eichmann. But thanks to Bascomb’s top-notch research and attention to detail it’s still a heck of book.
I mistakenly approached The Winter Fortress expecting it was the story of a bold yet singular attack on a heavy water production facility in occupied Norway in hopes of derailing Nazi Germany’s nuclear weapons program. In reality, once the British, and later Americans learned the Germans were trying to weaponize the destructive forces of nuclear fission, thus creating a bomb powerful enough to pulverize an entire city the race was on to stop them at all costs. (As well as launching the Manhattan Project in hopes of building one before they did.) British forces, aided by both the Norwegian Army in Exile and the nation’s anti-German underground made not one but several attempts to wreck production at the Vemork hydroelectric power plant. In addition, the Americans launched a massive bombing raid on the facility. In response the Germans also stopped at nothing to prevent the Allies from hindering their efforts to produce enough heavy water needed for their nuclear weapons program. The result was a blood back and forth battle between those wanting to smash heavy water production and those striving to maintain it. And the civilian population, caught in the middle, frequently suffered.
This is a sweeping wartime saga involving an abundance of actors both major and minor with all of them playing consequential roles. In telling this story, Bascomb includes a ton of detail. But at the same time I’m left wondering if there’s so much detail it slows down the pace of the narrative. Maybe that’s why I preferred his earlier book Hunting Eichmann, to this one. Hard to say, but in the end I learned a hell of a lot about the fight to keep Nazi Germany from building an atomic bomb.