Dead Men's Secrets: Hitler's Nuclear Arsenal
(History Channel, 2003)

This is one untold story of World War II that should no longer remain obscure, yet most history books seemingly continue to ignore it. Fortunately, Dead Men's Secrets: Hitler's Nuclear Arsenal lays bare the scope and breadth of the Nazi nuclear program and reveals just how close the Allies -- and America in particular -- came to unprecedented disaster. Dec. 7, 1941, the day that will forever live in infamy, could have been greatly overshadowed if not forgotten in comparison to Aug. 17, 1945, the Axis target date for a nuclear attack on San Francisco. The implications of this closest of calls for America are great indeed, granting even further justification for the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

This is a wholly fascinating documentary. Given the superiority of German scientific research and technology, one cannot help but wonder why the Nazis failed to produce a viable nuclear weapon before the Allies succeeded in doing so. As this documentary reveals, it wasn't for a lack of trying. The Germans got off to a significant head start, obtaining a great supply of uranium from Belgium and hundreds of tons of heavy water from a Norwegian plant in 1940. Bad luck, great intelligence work and typical Hitler blunders squandered that early advantage. With the war going so well at the time, Hitler chose not to commit too much time and money on special weapons, even as the British and Americans began to invest heavily in the Manhattan Project.

By early 1943, thanks to a brilliant sabotage operation and targeted bombing, the German supply of heavy water was also all but cut off. Still, the Nazis' advanced rockets program would give them the means of delivering a nuclear payload of some sort to the shores of Britain if not America. Even if they no longer possessed the means for producing a full-fledged nuclear bomb, they certainly had radioactive materials at their disposal that could be delivered as a "dirty bomb" -- such a weapon of mass destruction could turn around a war they knew they were losing by late 1943 -- and the V2 rocket program could buy them enough time to do it. Most fortunately indeed, the Normandy invasion was launched in the nick of time, with the destruction of prized missile launch sites in northern France taking place soon thereafter.

As this documentary goes on to show, the threat of nuclear attack did not even end with Hitler's suicide and Germany's capitulation. In March 1945, a Nazi sub carrying a deadly cargo of uranium oxide had left German waters and begun the long journey to Japan. On the other end, two giant Japanese submarines awaited that secret cargo's delivery. The plan was to deliver that nuclear cargo, in the form of dirty bombs launched by seaplanes from the subs themselves, onto the city of San Francisco. Fortunately, American forces captured the Nazi sub en route to Japan and learned of this desperate, last-ditch Axis war plan. This information may in fact have furthered the Americans' determination to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki in hopes of bringing the Pacific war to a swift end.

I don't know about you, but I had never heard most of the story of Hitler's Nuclear Arsenal before. As the documentary makes abundantly clear, this was a very close call in the history of America and World War II. One can only imagine the devastating consequences of a successful nuclear attack on the American West Coast. But for the short-sightedness of Hitler in 1940 and 1941, it's not hard to imagine a very different outcome to the entire war. This is a fascinating story that needs to be told, and this documentary does a great job of doing just that. I highly recommend this for history and military buffs.

Hitler's Nuclear Arsenal was made for the History Channel as part of a Dead Men's Secrets series of documentaries.

review by
Daniel Jolley

21 August 2010

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