Friday, November 11, 2005


The latest installment of the PBS Nova program, "Hitler's Sunken Secret," tells the story of a team of underwater archaeologists who retrieve barrels of deuterium, or heavy water, that were on a boat (the Hydro) sunk by the Norwegian resistance during WWII. It's a fascinating story, which ends up solving the mystery of whether it was a dummy shipment or not.. Heavy water is a vital component of a nuclear reactor, though harmless itself.

They make some (not so) subtle parallels to modern situations from the war on terror. I'm usually tough on PBS about liberal bias, and indeed I see much here. At the same time, they throw in some statements that sound very hawkish, which is unusual for Nova, and PBS. After reading the transcript, I think they've just gotten slicker at crafting their anti-war message. I thought I'd just publish the transcript of last few minutes below (the first paragraph is an excerpt from earlier in the show).

I wonder if this was filmed before or after the actual London train bombings, but one thing is certain: the producers had to know that comparing the heroic Norwegian operation to a terrorist attack would be inflammatory (if not defamatory), and could have removed the quote. The second obvious reference to the modern war on terror is the fruitless search for WMD in Germany, which turned up one non-functioning nuclear reactor. Of course, as is the case today, bad intel was to blame. This, and more, is worth further analysis, but read on, and analyze it for yourself. I recommend seeing the show, or reading the
entire transcript.

NARRATOR: Eventually, in 1944, members of the resistance learned that the entire production plant and 15 tons of partially purified heavy water were to be shipped to Germany. They passed the information on to London asking what they were to do

PER DAHL: The Germans would have needed a total of about five tons of heavy water to get a heavy water reactor, nuclear reactor, running. The list here informs us, essentially, that about half a ton of heavy water was being transported to Germany.

NARRATOR: The Hydro was carrying far too little heavy water for even one reactor, let alone the 10 or more that would have been needed to make enough plutonium for a nuclear weapon. So, were the Allies right in their belief that the heavy water was destined for a bomb project? Did the Germans in fact want it for some other purpose?
Within a few months of the sinking of the Hydro in 1944, Allied armies were advancing across Europe. Following closely behind the frontline troops was a secret operation, code named Alsos. Its mission was to find the Nazi nuclear weapons program the Allies were sure must exist.
For months, Alsos scoured newly-liberated Europe and found nothing. Then, just days before the final German surrender, they came to Haigerloch, a small town in Bavaria. Beneath a church there was a cave, and inside they found the intended destination of the Norwegian heavy water: a makeshift laboratory with a single experimental reactor that German scientists still had not gotten to work.
The Nazi nuclear bomb, which had inspired so much fear, turned out to be a mirage. There was no German equivalent of the vast Manhattan Project.
The reason, believes historian Mark Walker, can be found in a decision made in early 1942, just at the time when the Allies were also deciding whether to embark on the Manhattan Project.

MARK WALKER: In early 1942, precisely when the Allies are getting concerned about Norwegian heavy water, American officials and German officials make crucial decisions about their nuclear weapons projects. Interestingly, scientists in both countries said the same thing; the scientific results were essentially the same. Scientists in both countries said, it'll take a couple of years, but nuclear weapons are possible. Now, in America it was assumed that the war was going to take a long time: "These weapons will be done before the end of the war, therefore we have to try to make them." In Germany it was assumed that: "If we don't win the war quickly, we will lose; these weapons might be interesting for the future, but they're no help to us now. It would be a waste of energy, money, and time to try to make them."

NARRATOR: So German nuclear research was transferred to civilian control. The Hydro shipment was destined for an experimental reactor project. It was of no military significance, which is why it was only lightly guarded. So it seems that the doubts the Norwegian resistance expressed about the value of sinking the Hydro were justified. Had Allied intelligence known what we know today, they might well have agreed that the shipment was not worth stopping.

PER F. DAHL: I would say that the Allies were not paranoid, as such. Rather, they were surprisingly uninformed about what was going on in Germany in nuclear physics.

DAVE WARK: The German program was very leaky. They were telling journalists in cafes what they were up to, and yet, the Allies don't seem to have made much of an effort to really penetrate this program and learn more about it. I would call that a critical intelligence failure.

NARRATOR: None of this, of course, takes away from the heroism of Knut Lier Hansen and his comrades. They chose to take up arms against a brutal invader at great risk to themselves. They knew their actions would lead to the death of innocent civilians; but the bitter truth is that World War II, like most modern wars, claimed mainly the lives of the innocent.

DAVE WARK: They asked London. London said immediately, "Sink it." And they did what they were told. It would be like asking me to blow up the 8:45 train to London. I'd be absolutely certain there'd be friends, maybe even relatives of mine on that train, but if there's any chance that Hitler's going to get an atomic bomb, what else can you do?

BRETT PHANEUF: I think you have to look at it and get it all straight for once and for all, for everybody, for the history books, and not worry about who might be offended, because it's not about that. It's not about criticizing what they did. I would have done it if I had been given the orders. I like to think that I'd follow the orders.

DAVE WARK: I don't think I would have had the guts to do what they did.

BRETT PHANEUF: No. They were special guys though.

NARRATOR: The sinking of the Hydro was just one part of a daring Norwegian resistance effort. Hear more of the story on NOVA's Web site. Hitler's Sunken Secret: find it on

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