Aliens and Atoms

At school my text-book on physics said quite firmly that the atom was the smallest particle in existence and could not be split. Our science teacher said she was pretty certain that some scientists were working on it, but when I asked her for more details she was vague about where and by whom the experiments were being done. This was in 1937! I found her answer to my other questions so unsatisfactory that I wasted a considerable amount of time trying to construct a triangle so that the angles did not add up to one hundred and eighty degrees. I never tried doing it on the surface of a sphere where, I am now reliably informed, it might work. So much for the expensive academy for young ladies where I was expected to get myself educated.

It is extraordinary that no-one ever told me that it was in Manchester that Rutherford had discovered the atomic nucleus, for it was there that I was eventually to hear about the Atom Bomb project in hushed tones of deathly secrecy. Oscar told me about it in late 1943, when we had been married for just over a year and our son, Peter, was a few months old. I wasn't clear about the details, but I knew it meant that Oscar might have to be taken away from Professor Douglas Hartree's radar research team in Manchester, where he had been working since the summer of 1941. Later I found out that some of the calculations essential to the development of the bomb were actually being carried out by a few members of that group.

The main thing about ``atoms'' at the time was that they were part of the Allied war effort, and as such were never in any circumstances to be talked about. The same rules had applied to radar. The word ``magnetron'' - that essential part of the radiolocation system - was not to be breathed except in the laboratory and even then behind closed doors. In fact I almost froze with horror when a young physicist from the Telecommunications Research Establishment in Malvern visited us and was excitedly telling a story to a group of people in our little flat. It concerned two aircraft that had crashed, killing the pilots and destroying every vital piece of equipment EXCEPT the magnetrons. The raconteur was none other than the late distinguished Sir Hermann Bondi, Master of Churchill College, Cambridge, who spent much of his life advising the British Government on sophisticated methods of defence. He loved telling stories and was not only one of the most warm-hearted, even-tempered people in the scientific community, but obviously amongst the most trustworthy.

I had grown up in Manchester, married young and was a mother before I knew what was happening to me. The question WHY one does these things will surely remain as long as the institution of marriage does. Nowadays we question the need for it and some oppose it on principle, but in those far-off days the nuptial declaration played a far more integral part in the structure of society than it does today. Without it a woman had few rights and lacked the vital cachet of status, and that mattered. A spinster was frequently an object of pity. There were those who managed to live independent and productive lives without husbands, but they were the minority. If they dared to live openly with a man, or bear a child while single, they risked not only ostracisation, but a long series of obstacles standing in the way of everything they wanted to achieve.

Looking back, I suppose it was inevitable that I would step out of line and make a rather unusual marriage. Being an attractive youngster, boiling over with energy and consumed by a passion for the theatrical, I was bound to have an odd assortment of boyfriends from even odder walks of life seeking my attentions. This was considered morally dangerous by my over-cautious parents who dangled all manner of ``suitable'' young men before me in those early days of the war. They were usually the clean-limbed scions of well-established business or professional families with impeccable pedigrees, mostly keen young volunteers, often spotty, and invariably wearing the uniform of the King's Commission. Although they took me out, sent me flowers and tempered their sexual urges with good manners, they bored me to tears. I rebelled in every way. The company I kept, the political stance I adopted, even my attitude to the war raging around us, were all anathema to my long-suffering elders. With hindsight, it is clear that by their insistence on propriety they could not have set about turning a potential rebel into a ``tearaway'' more effectively if they had made a conscious effort.

Two of my father's friends who occupied chairs in Manchester University influenced me greatly. One was Patrick Blackett. Although this handsome, thoughtful-looking man had been trained as a Naval Officer and had never taken a degree, he was an academic of the highest distinction. He was also staunchly left-wing. After the war, like so many, he became disillusioned with his early Marxist convictions and joined the Labour Party. Subsequently he won a Nobel Prize, and late in life became President of the Royal Society and an adviser to Government, was awarded the Order of Merit and a peerage. Another was the Hungarian immigrant, Michael Polanyi, a physical chemist turned political philosopher, and a great seeker after truth. His early training had been in medicine and his attitudes were so right-wing by comparison with Patrick's that their wives used to contrive to make sure that when they travelled to meetings in London it was not on the same train. I was often welcomed in the Polanyi household as a child. They had a son of about my age and we played tennis together. Although I visited the Blackett's house far less frequently I decided that Patrick's approach to politics was the one for me. Michael was always known as ``Mishi''. After the fall of France in 1940, being mean as only youngsters can be, my friends and I dubbed him ``Vichy'' after the seat of the puppet government of Maréchal Petain. Despite their ideological differences, both Patrick and Mishi detested what was going on in Germany and gave freely of their hospitality to refugee students. Oscar was among those they were concerned for.

In spite of his admiration for these men of learning, my father was a strange mixture. The youngest son of a prosperous Manchester merchant, and the grandson of a German Jewish immigrant, he was enthusiastic about international affairs, the League of Nations, civil liberties and the Liberal Party. He gave much more of his time and energy to these activities than to the family cotton business which provided his income. He spoke several languages, loved music, and had a wide circle of friends and kinsmen all over Europe. Yet he observed a code of morals that would have done credit to a bible-bashing Baptist. Although he followed no religious creed he lived life by the rules. Things were either ``done'' or ``not done'', and he tended to be strict on such issues as parental control and the obedience of his children. He disapproved of most non-intellectual forms of entertainment; jazz, fashion and make-up he condemned as ugly and frivolous. He had a vast store of strange prejudices, such as men in suede shoes; women wearing perfume he put beyond the pale. Sin for him was a real issue, but there was also an element of innocence. When I was much older he once told me that never during his school-days at Rugby had he the slightest idea that homosexuality existed. Even normal sex had to be rigorously kept in its ``right'' place. Before marriage it was obviously out of the question, and so was anything that might lead to it, such as visiting boy-friends in their rooms or being escorted by any man he had not vetted and approved. I became skilled in the art of subterfuge.

My mother was an affectionate and demonstrative woman. She and my father were unusually devoted to each other and seldom disagreed. In fact my mother was indulged and spoilt by him almost as much as we were admonished and controlled. To be nicely treated was equated in the minds of his daughters with having husbands, and we placed marriage high on our list of priorities.

I have one sister almost three years my junior. She was a more amenable child than I and reacted to my unruliness by yearning for parental approval. Her bid for independence was to join the Women's Royal Naval Service, a move that was considered both patriotic and suitable. She served in Scotland, India and Ceylon, and at the age of twenty fell in love with a handsome naval lieutenant and married him in Bombay when the war was nearing its end. She had to obtain parental approval in writing as she was then still a minor. It was sent reluctantly, and would not have been sent at all but for the urgency of war and all its implications. Even from a distance my parents observed all her movements, and they were constantly checking up from friends, acquaintances and contacts whether her husband, her work and recreations were considered to be satisfactory and respectable.

I refused to join the forces. My leftist tendencies led me to declare on more than one occasion that ``I wasn't interested in Imperialist squabbles''. When the Soviet Union joined the Allies in 1941, predictably I changed my tune. It is probably fortuitous that my youth inhibited and prevented me from becoming more embroiled with extremist activities, but I remained greatly influenced by socialist principles.

My circle of friends included Communists, who exhorted me to save my energy for fighting the Fascism that was ``right under your noses, the British Government''. There were Jews who taught me about the need for a homeland and introduced me to the concept of Zionism. There were also Anarchists, who didn't teach me anything very much except that the world I had grown up in was based on a false set of values and that I should discard it. No wonder I never did very well at my studies! That I was friendly with several refugees from Germany and Austria was not surprising. My beloved grandmother - my father's mother - had instilled in me a love of all things German. Poetry, songs and mottoes were fed to me with my first taste of liver-sausage. I longed to visit ``Das Vaterland'', but Hitler came to power just when I reached the age considered ripe for ``travels abroad''. The growth of Nazism affected me deeply. The plight of our German relatives was acute. Some escaped, some perished. In that stricken country one Jewish grandparent was enough to place a person in jeopardy. I became obsessed by the emotional burden of ``there but for the grace of God go I''.

It was in the days of bombing raids and blackouts in 1942 that I married and consolidated my sympathy for the unenviable position of German refugees. The worst thing about my marriage from my parents' point of view was that, after having played the field with many boys so ``unsuitable'' that they would not have them in the house, I settled for one who was not only without money, except for his meagre salary, but about whose background they had only the sketchiest picture. Moreover, Oscar was a POLITICAL fugitive and did not carry the dignity of racial persecution. This meant that they suspected him of being a Communist, or even (despite all the close investigation) an enemy spy, which was infinitely worse. Marrying a German when we were at war with his country was typical of the intractable young woman I had become. My preference for foreigners, leftists and ``unfitting companions'' had defeated the hoped-for friendships with people of their choice that my poor father and mother had so ardently desired.

Oscar Bünemann (the umlaut and final ``n'' were shed later) was one of those refugees who had not quite completed his five years' required residence in Britain by the outbreak of war and was therefore not eligible for naturalization. He was a stocky, Nordic type with white-blond hair and a good command of English, a competent violinist and steeped in socialist ideology. He was also an exceptionally gifted mathematician whom both Douglas Hartree, Manchester's distinguished professor of mathematics, and Patrick Blackett thought promising. I suppose that had circumstances been different Oscar might have been considered as one of the more acceptable suitors. His family, like mine, was in business. They were Hanseatic entrepreneurs and lived in Hamburg, the town where my grandmother had spent a large part of her youth studying the piano with Ludwig Deppe (and just occasionally with his young friend Johannes Brahms). My father's best childhood friend had been a young ``Voluntär'' learning about the textile trade with the firm of Schütte-Bünemann in Bremen. Had it not been for the pestilence of Nazism we might conceivably have met in Germany. My father, however, did not regard these meagre details as adequate credentials for a future son-in-law, particularly when there was no chance of meeting his family and discussing a ``settlement''.

Oscar's parents, unlike some of their clan, held beliefs that were aimed at reforming society. Unrelenting pacifists, socialists, vegetarians, esperantists and admirers of George Bernard Shaw, they too had international connections. They were bitterly opposed to Hitler and everything he and his Partei represented, and made a brave stand against him. They sent their son out of Germany after he had served a term of imprisonment for left-wing activities in 1933 and 1934, and it was arranged that he should continue his studies in Manchester.

In 1940, shortly after completing his PhD thesis on aerodynamics, Oscar was interned for some months. When the German invasion of England seemed imminent, the British Government in panic rounded up most of the refugees. It was said to be partly for their own protection, but the measure was obviously taken to make sure that amongst their number there were no Nazis in disguise able to help the enemy. Oscar was sent to a camp on the Isle of Man and subsequently to one in Canada. Some of these hastily formed, and ill-equipped places of isolation - and they were even set up in Australia - became, in spite of revolting conditions, excellent breeding grounds for budding scientists, and there were many distinguished academics who owed their initial inspiration to the tuition and discussion arranged to break the tedium and hardship of their enforced detention. Hermann Bondi was one. For Oscar this period was particularly difficult. There were so few non-Jewish refugees that there was a strong probability that the authorities would not understand his position and would treat him as a Nazi sympathiser, and as such a prisoner of war. (A few such people, unable to get home at the beginning of the war, had already been interned.) He applied successfully to be admitted to an enclosure reserved for orthodox Jews, and the fact that he obviously wasn't a member of that fraternity escaped the notice of the camp officers. The official bungling has since been excused by a story that the papers explaining the nature of the shiploads of human cargo (and some actually did travel in the hold), were lost when a ship called the Andorra Star was torpedoed together with some of the unfortunate individuals concerned.

Oscar was one of a small number of refugees from Germany to pay two visits to North America during the war, once as His Majesty's detainee, and shortly afterwards as a member of a very special government assignment.

Naturally, my parents thought that Oscar's internment was the answer to their prayers. I would forget all about him and maybe settle for one of the nice British boys who took me out. But I renewed the relationship after government policy was revised and he was released. As I was approaching my twenty-first birthday and would then go my own way, there was nothing much they could do. They did not consider Oscar's salary adequate, but at least did not have to subsidize us completely after our marriage. Douglas Hartree was glad to be able to offer one of his most promising students a job. It was not highly paid, but we were able to rent a modest flat, and live within the princely salary of £400 a year. Money for inessentials was frequently forthcoming from my father. I had a job with the Ministry of Information and could contribute to our joint expenses, but I soon had to give it up when I became pregnant.

The issue that really seemed ridiculous was that for a time I lost my British nationality and became German too. This meant that I was classified as a potential ``enemy alien''. For those such as Oscar who had been scrutinized by tribunals after the outbreak of war and during internment, this designation was changed to that of ``friendly alien''. By joining their ranks without benefit of having been given such clearance, I was technically forbidden to keep my camera, ride my bicycle, or make any journey beyond five miles from my home until release from suspicion had been obtained. Thanks to my father's acquaintance with the Chief Constable of Manchester, these restrictions were lifted almost as soon as they were imposed, but I was still obliged to carry an identity card proclaiming my citizenship of the Third Reich. Later, to my everlasting regret, I was not allowed to keep this evidence of bureaucratic ineptitude.

The Home Office at that time had no mechanism with which to enable women who had British citizenship at birth to keep it after marrying boys who didn't have it. Most European countries then expected a woman to take her husband's nationality. Many soldiers from countries that had been over-run by the Germans - French, Belgian, Polish, Czech and others - were serving their countries over here. Hundreds of them married British girls who accepted their flags with alacrity. These optimistic young men hoped to take their wives back to their homes as soon as their lands were liberated. But a German refugee who had suffered at the hands of the Nazis, and had indicated his intention of making a new life in Britain, felt differently. The situation was paradoxical. For example, a friend of mine had married a Jewish dentist from Berlin a year before the war started. Her husband had felt that, in view of the atrocities committed by his fellow-countrymen, he could not with honour expect any girl to marry one of their number. He had therefore gone to enormous trouble to renounce his nationality at the nearest consulate, only to have it re-imposed on him by the Home Office immediately after all German representation in Britain was withdrawn.

The reasoning behind this question of nominal allegiance arose from an ancient statute in German law which stated categorically that women marrying the sons of the Vaterland should become its daughters-in-law as well. It had been overlooked that, had my marriage taken place in Germany, it would have been automatically void because of my Jewish ancestry. My friend's husband had been deprived of the nationality of his birth under the Nuremberg laws which decreed Jews to be disqualified from German citizenship. Yet it was this very non-citizenship he had asked the consulate to rescind. It is hard to believe that it was ideological punctiliousness that made the British Government fail to enforce the Nazi law. Couldn't they see that anyone ``racially tainted'' as I was would be forbidden to mingle her blood with that of the Herrenvolk, and was therefore ineligible for German citizenship? They didn't realize that they were trying to have it both ways. Despite my birth, Britain was forcing me to take the citizenship of a country that wouldn't have had me at any price. How much simpler it would have been had they interpreted current law rather than referring back to that of the Weimar Republic, or even of the Kaiser.

Eventually someone in Whitehall fought his way through the tangle of red tape and produced a form for the likes of me - and there weren't many of us - to fill up and swear to in the presence of a magistrate. It cost me half-a-crown in the currency of the time. To the best of my belief my case helped to establish a much-needed precedent.

While all this wrangling was going on Oscar and I made our home in a small flat within a mile of my parents' house. This was a minute step indeed in my endeavour to disengage myself from the family influences. Even when, less than ten months later, I gave birth to Peter - ``just decent'', as my mother and her friends said - I was still a daughter first, a wife and mother second. It was not until shortly before Peter's first birthday that the real break came.

Professor (later Sir Marcus) Oliphant was recruiting scientists with Oscar's qualification and expertise to join the highly secret work of developing the atomic bomb to which I have already referred. This was when I was let into the secret that Britain and the United States were working together on a hideously powerful weapon which, when put to use, would finish off the war speedily. When and where, no-one knew.

At first it was thought that we might have to move to Birmingham where Oliphant had his Chair. This prospect I viewed with modified rapture, but when it became more and more obvious that our destination was to be the United States I was dizzy with excitement. It was certainly unusual for persons engaged in wartime activities to be allowed to take their wives and families overseas with them. There was no such concession for men in the Services. Moreover, Oscar was to be accorded British nationality instantly. As Margaret Gowing wrote in the first volume of Britain and Atomic Energy: ``The refugee scientist had to be naturalized and then exempted from military service; they had never before seen so many administrative hurdles surmounted so quickly.'' How richly rewarded I was for being headstrong, foolish and unconventional, and what righteous indignation I aroused among many of my friends. Those who had husbands in the armed forces had to stay at home coping with wartime conditions, loneliness and the anxiety that their men might never return. Those in the refugee community were struggling with the dreary jobs they had managed to find, or were in the Pioneer Corps, the only part of the Services that would recruit them at the time.

There was one couple we knew who had married at about the same time and were disapproving. He was an overt Communist who had been brutally tortured by the Nazis and narrowly escaped with his life. His wife was Jewish, possessed of nothing but the clothes she had run away in. They were not even going to think of applying for British citizenship. Together they decided that when the war came to an end they would return home to build up the Socialist Germany of their dreams. Later they were among the elite of East Berlin. After paying them a visit some thirty years later we said good-bye at Check-Point Charlie. Crossing that aggressively barricaded street put much more distance between us than if one of us had embarked on a plane for Australia. But that is a leap ahead in time, and Europe was a different place at the beginning of 1944.

Under the Official Secrets Act we were not at liberty to disclose the reason for the sudden appearance of a stiff, white document that declared Oscar to be indubitably British, and only our very close circle knew just how imminent was our departure. Patrick Blackett wrote from London: ``I have spoken to Oliphant and know something of the set-up.'' Most others were left to guess, but the prevailing discipline of war taught us all not to ask unnecessary questions. ``Careless talk costs lives'' was the slogan placarded on every hoarding.

We were to cross the Atlantic by sea, as was normal for those allowed to travel at that time. (Only very senior civilian personnel ever went by air.) When it turned out that we were to embark at Greenock it was obvious that it would be on either the newly-launched liner, the Queen Elizabeth, which started her career as a troopship, or the older sister-ship, the Queen Mary, which had been conveying passengers in varying degrees of luxury for some years. My sister happened to be stationed in Scotland before being drafted overseas, and she was able to convey on the telephone a garbled tale about ``two ladies, an old one and a young one'', and intimated to my father that we were to meet the former. The whereabouts of any large transport was never openly discussed.

This was the beginning of one of the many adventures of my life. With my husband, ten-month-old Peter, and a mountain of luggage that was considered a sine qua non for long-distance travel in those days, we set off for America in circumstances so strange as to seem well nigh impossible.

peter 2011-07-25