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Secret history of WWII German scientists locked up in Cambridge revealed

Secret recordings of German scientists who were being held prisoner in Cambridgeshire during WWII are the basis of a new play at the Cambridge Arts Theatre.

Farm Hall tells the other side of the Oppenheimer story and is inspired by the true events that took place at Farm Hall in Godmanchester, between July 1945 and January 1946.

Farm Hall. Picture: Alex Brenner
Farm Hall. Picture: Alex Brenner

Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer depicts the American quest to build an atomic bomb during the Second World War. Oppenheimer’s overriding fear was that the Germans would get there first.

But In July 1945, as Oppenheimer was preparing to test an atomic bomb in the New Mexico desert, six of Germany’s top nuclear scientists – including three Nobel Prize winners - were detained by the British Secret Service and stowed safely in Farm Hall, a stately home in the Cambridge countryside.

Playwright Katherine Moar says: “It wasn’t planned that the play should come out at the same time as the Oppenheimer film, but it’s a very nice coincidence and it is very much the other side of the story. The driving force for the Manhattan Project to build a nuclear bomb, which was the subject of the Oppenheimer film, was, to a large extent, the fear that the Germans were going to get there first.

“This play is the German story. While Oppenheimer is doing the Trinity Test in New Mexico, the Germans are sitting in a country house in Cambridge, wondering what was going on in the outside world.”

Unbeknownst to the scientists, during their stay, every inch of Farm Hall was bugged and their every action recorded. They found themselves shut off from the outside world. Their only entertainment was some redacted newspaper, a broken piano and a copy of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit. But as the months went by, their attention turned to the ongoing war and thoughts of their broken homeland.

The scientists’ tranquil summer was shattered by the inconceivable news that the Americans had succeeded where the Germans had failed. The United States had not only built an atomic bomb, but had used one against Japan.

Farm Hall. Picture: Alex Brenner
Farm Hall. Picture: Alex Brenner

Katherine says: “I first heard about the transcripts of the German scientists’ conversations when I was studying for a history degree and was doing a year out at Georgetown in Washington DC. My tutor mentioned the existence of these transcripts, recorded conversations of the scientists held in Farm Hall. And I thought they just sounded really interesting. So I went to the library read them all in an evening. And one of the first things I thought was just that they would make the most brilliant play.”

The transcripts are British Secret Service translations of the Germans’ conversations and only represent around ten percent of the entire recording - the rest have been discarded or lost.

“The intelligence service only kept the parts they thought were relevant for British security, ” explains Katherine.

“When the scientists heard about the American bomb it was completely earth shattering to them. It was totally mind blowing. Because at the time, Germany was the best at nuclear physics. So it completely warped their sense of identity and self confidence.

“They thought they would be protected to a degree after the war because the Allies would be interested in what they knew about nuclear science and nuclear weapons. But then they realised that the Allies were so much further along than they were and that suddenly they were a bit useless and what does that mean for them? They were thinking, are we now just going to be killed because we’re not useful?”

Some of the older scientists run around the garden in their underpants

There has been a suggestion that the German scientists knew how to make the bomb but were not making it for ethical reasons. However, according to Katherine the transcripts are unclear on that point.

“Historians knew for a long time that these transcripts existed, but they weren’t allowed to look at them until the 90s when they were declassified so people were able to tell their own stories before they were seen,” says Katherine, who read history at Cambridge University.

“And the German nuclear bomb project has always been shrouded in quite a lot of mystery about how far they got and whether they intentionally sabotaged the project. People thought the transcripts would clear this up, but they didn’t. The scientists are so shocked when they find out what the Americans have done it. They are saying: How is it possible? There’s just no way they could have done it; which makes you think, they must have thought it was impossible themselves.

“But then a few days later, Heisenberg, who was the leader of the German atomic bomb project, delivers a lecture to the other scientists where he explains how he thinks the Americans have built a bomb. And he gets pretty close to the mark.

“My personal opinion is when you know that something can be done, it becomes a lot easier to find the answer.

“One thing that really struck me is how ten people in a room essentially get to decide what history was because they were discussing ‘what are we going to say about our project? What we’re going to say that we did?’.

“It’s not totally explicit in the transcripts. You have to read between the lines. One of them says, ‘We weren’t trying to build a bomb anyway, we were trying to build a nuclear reactor. That was our whole project, this kind of machine that would be great for mankind rather than terrible for it’.

“And they talked about how history is going to remember that it was the Germans who tried to build a peaceful creation while the Americans built this ghastly weapon of war. So you can hear them trying to rewrite the narrative in real time.”

The play also shows the scientists trying to entertain themselves for months as they were cooped up in the house, putting on an all-male version of a Noel Coward play and holding races in the gardens.

“Some of the older scientists run around the garden in their underpants. They revert to being like little school boys. Sometimes they’re intentionally funny, and sometimes they’re kind of accidentally funny with how they fight and bicker and try and compete with each other.”

Katherine adds: “I don’t want to downplay what some of these men did and who they were, because some of them were card carrying Nazis, but I hope it’s quite a human story.

“And I think you can try and put yourself in these men’s shoes in the same way that Oppenheimer allows you to kind of see the human side of Manhattan Project story and how an individual deals with the repercussions of that kind of work.”

Farm Hall is at the Cambridge Arts Theatre September 12 to 23. Tickets start at £20. Box Office: 01223 503333 / cambridgeartstheatre.com

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