Spies in the Congo – The Race for the Ore That Built the Atomic Bomb

Susan Williams

Hurst Publishing, London, 2016.

Let’s start at the end. From what never happened: At the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima-tragedy in 2015 there was no commemoration of the victims at the site where it all started, a small mining town in Southern Congo. No one spoke for the thousands who were born and grew up in families of workers in the uranium mines, without arms, legs, heads or other serious bodily defects. No health projects were established to treat those horrible injuries that still haunt the people in the region. No politicians lamented the West’s large-scale theft of uranium.


Susan Williams: Spies in the Congo – The Race for the Ore That Built the Atomic Bomb
Hurst Publishing, London. 370 pages.

No, there was certainly no remembering the Hiroshima bomb’s first victims: the workers in the uranium mines in Congo’s Shinkolobwe.

It is the English writer Susan Williams who highlights this in her docu-crime,«Spies in the Congo – the race for the ore that built the atomic bomb.» Her previous book,«Who Killed Hammarskjold,» last year moved the UN Secretary General to resume the case of the first United Nations Secretary General’s untimely death in 1961, in Ndola, Zambia, just South of Shinkolobwe. It was also her work with the Hammarskjold book that brought Williams to the Shinkolobwe uranium mines.

Whereas a John Le Carré puts years of research into an espionage novel, historian Williams from the British«school of excellence» at London University requires examining sources of an entirely different order – and to minutely document it. She will be questioned by high and low, the suspicious as well as the curious. By those who want to forget, and those who want to hide the facts. Of the book’s 370 pages, 100 are dedicated to sources, indexes and bibliography. And another 40 pages display maps, pictures, abbreviations and introduction.

But is it possible to maintain tension and suspense and at the same time constantly and minutely documenting every fact and detail? Williams manages this with brilliance. You forget source-references that appear on close to every paragraph, unless you want to track a detail, find out«where did she got this from”, or«who has researched further along these lines?» The bibliography is an invaluable source for more knowledge. The index section is special and extremely user-friendly for chronological search. And still: The technical does not kill the thrill in the thrilling espionage world.

l-profileWilliams. Williams grew up in Zambia, just South of Katanga, Congo, not far from the uranium in Shinkolobwe. She knows where to look, where the sources are. In recent years she has gained access to archives and interviewed people who provided her with unique insight. British colonial tradition has blocked easy access to facts, archives and documents. Partly because things we never documented, partly because they are destroyed, or maybe partly for their being moved over to inaccessible,«non-archive archives,» doors closed forever. The British have a special predilection for the use of«national security» stamp also for things that are hundreds of years back. The British Empire was no more human than others, only prettier wrapped and marketed. Transparency is not a typical British specialty, but that’s another story. Williams knows her way around these obstacles, obviously.

Williams digs, triangulates, compares and juxtaposes sources and have ended up with a unique collection of trivialities and heavy stuff that together give life to an important story. Although the books are different, this reviewer’s thoughts go to Edvardo Galeano and his Latin American masterpiece«Open Veins» that no student of that continent can get past. Like Galeano, Williams draws the human part, hand in hand with the enormity and targeted bloodletting of the colonies’ resources, where the price was paid by the poorest of the poor. She draws simple and everyday situations. But does not fail to give us convincing explanations for what is happening on a higher level, the struggle against Nazism and fascism and the logic of war. Details from the intelligence- and espionage world. One’s mind unavoidably also goes to historian Adam Hochschild and his Leopold’s Ghost.

One by one Williams puts life to a broad and multifaceted group of characters. They secretly hunt uranium in this most fateful of days in the battle against Nazism:«Rud» Boulton, codenamed Nyanza;«Dock» Hogue, codenamed Ebert, located in Mozambique, and later Accra in Ghana (then Gold Coast); or project leader Donovan who was given wide economic powers.

Albert Einstein wrote a letter 2nd August 1939 to President Eisenhower and pointed to the strategic imperative of getting control of the uranium mines in the Congo. The uranium ore here is richer than anywhere else on the planet. While satisfied with a purity of 0.03% in Eldorado in Canada and Colorado in the US, the Katanga uranium offers 75% purity. Einstein reminds the president of the fact that Nazi Germany, which by then had occupied Czechoslovakia, had stopped the sale of the country’s uranium, which most likely meant that they are interested in this mineral themselves. At the Max Planck University German researchers had access to state-of-the-art US research experiments on uranium, says Einstein.

Americans include the British in their team. They allocate huge sums of money to the project and start a breath taking race that leaves tracks across half the planet – an enormously risky project.

Uranium. The search for – and extraction of – uranium will have to be carried out in total secret. The shipments take place in secret and must not make the Germans suspicious, let alone interested. The dangerous route went zig-zagging through Angola back to Congo, Ghana, over to Brazil, Trinidad to New York and further to the Manhattan project in Tennessee. The heavy water action at Vemork, Norway, had shown that sabotage was possible in the narrow Telemark valley, so attacks along this route would have to be reckoned with.

The agents were chosen from different places and travelled camouflaged as tourists, wildlife photographers, gold hunters, diamond smugglers or oil agents. Agent Armand Denis is a«covert» smuggler of gorillas. A joke those days was that the best way to smuggle uranium was to hide it under a load of narcotics. And agents must be able to speak local languages and master cultural codes, both in local life, in business and in diplomatic circles. Manual workers to the mines had to be recruited, and one had to establish proper shipping routes that did not attract unwanted attention. No one should know the real endpoint for these operations, the Manhattan Project and the creation of the nuclear bomb. Most of the engaged personnel only knew a small part of the long chain leading from the Shinkolobwe mines to the American desert town where the hell-bombs were to be produced. The thriller novel is about this network of spies and soldiers leading from the Second World War into the Cold War, a journey I will not reveal to the reader here and now. But it is around this secret and dangerous game that Williams draws a canvas of a continent and a world that today seems so long ago.

Opposing forces were not only«unreliable African culture and workers,» or the demanding weather gods, logistical challenges and dangerous tropical conditions, but also infiltrating Nazi forces and interests and other superpower competition.

Africa. Williams takes us on a tour-de-force in imperialist arrogance and systemic racism and abuse. It is the West’s needs and interests that are guiding all action. Local workers are taken, often by force, as low paid hands, and raw punishment is more«motivating» than decent wages. In a typical Belgian King Leopold tradition there is corporal punishment, imprisonment and death threats that drive workers into the mines – without decent protection and with minimal mechanical assistance. Williams paints a rich and vibrant image of Africa and links the events to contemporary ones in Europe: The African synagogue in Elisabeth Ville is attacked when Belgium introduces the yellow badge injunction in 1942 in Europe. Anti-Semitism knew no boundaries.

Williams leans on other writers who have worked in this field. The American writer John Günther once described the large stones of«brilliant, hideous ore» exhibited in the headquarters of Belgian Union Minièrs.«Don’t you guys know that these stones can make you sterile?» The engineers played this down, saying they already had enough children. However, on his next visit, Günther saw that the stones had disappeared. Eventually, also drinking water from the wells in the area was abandoned – among whites.

There is a strong undertone of anti-racism in Williams approach. She displays the general contempt for African concerns and interests, and the burden the people of Southern Congo have had to carry for this part of colonialism. By comparison, she mentions that in the area surrounding the landfills from the Congo uranium in the United States today, the Americans have put up an annual 5-million-dollar health project. In Congo, the same mining authorities have not even made any effort to investigate the consequences of radiation on the population. But it is there for anyone to see, never the less: the deformed bodies and suffering societies. Newly born babies without heads, hands or legs, deformations and cancer in all shapes and sizes. Equally bad: Coming generations will suffer the consequences through the thousands of poor who still today go searching for something of value in what is left there in the unsecured, toxic and radiating mines.

The Hiroshima bomb’s first victims in Shinkolobwe are totally ignored when the victim of the first atomic bomb are honoured. But the shadow from the big mushroom cloud rests perhaps heavier over Katanga than anywhere else today. As playwright Herold Pinter bitterly stated in his far too rarely read (and not BBC transmitted) Nobel acceptance speech of 2005:«But you would not know it. It never happened, nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it was not happening. It did not matter. It was of no interest«.

Susan Williams has made a docu-crime in the spirit of Pinter, le Carré and Galeano. This must be of interest, she says. Once more she has dug out important parts from our recent history, and convinced us that it cannot be ignored any longer. It does matter.

Modern Times Review