Scientific research and experimentation conducted throughout the early decades of the twentieth century built the foundational understanding of atoms. Fission fully revealed itself in 1938, and after that, the race to control it quickly accelerated.
But could it even be controlled?
Some, thought not.
Deuterium (D2O), so called heavywater, is a pivotal component in controlling the propagation of high energy neutrons from fission.
The German scientists knew its importance, and their only source was a single hydroelectric dam facility in Vemork, Norway. Conveniently, the invasion of Norway by Germany in 1940, passed complete control of the dam and electrolysis-facility producing deuterium, to the Nazis.
The Allies understood heavywater, and committed themselves to destroying any, and all, German access to deuterium.
In November 1942, they launched a high-risk raid: two large, engineless gliders, each with fifteen soldiers and two pilots, were towed by two Halifax bombers from the UK to Norway. Once over the rendezvous point the gliders were to be released, and would land in a large snowfield where the commandos would coordinate with Norwegian resistance fighters on the ground.
But they got lost. Both gliders crashed as did one of the towing Halifax bombers. The commandos not killed in the crashes were rounded up by the Nazis and shot. Worse still, the Germans discovered maps, explosives, and plans: they knew that the Allies were after the facility at Vemork.
Undaunted — and knowing the Germans were expecting them — the Allies launched another raid, which culminated in the successful destruction of the production facility at Vemork in February, 1943. The successful raiders then went on a 250 mile cross country trek to escape over the border to safety in neutral Sweden. This amazing story is one of perseverance and courage in the face of steep odds, and is detailed in the book, Heroes of Telelmark: Sabotaging Hitler’s Atomic Bomb. Norway 1942-1944, by David Greentree.