Spies in the Congo

The Race for the Ore that Built the Atomic Bomb

May 2018 9781849049528 400pp


Spies in the Congo is the untold story of one of the most tightly-guarded secrets of the Second World War: America’s desperate struggle to secure enough uranium to build its atomic bomb.

The Shinkolobwe mine in the Belgian Congo was the most important deposit of uranium yet discovered anywhere on earth, vital to the success of the Manhattan Project. Given that Germany was also working on an atomic bomb, it was an urgent priority for the US to prevent uranium from the Congo being diverted to the enemy — a task entrusted to Washington’s elite secret intelligence agents. Sent undercover to colonial Africa to track the ore and to hunt Nazi collaborators, their assignment was made even tougher by the complex political reality and by tensions with Belgian and British officials.

A gripping spy-thriller, Spies in the Congo is the true story of unsung heroism, of the handful of good men — and one woman — in Africa who were determined to deny Hitler his bomb.

Table of contents

Letter from Albert Einstein to President Roosevelt, 2 August 1939 

1. Introduction: The Manhattan Project and Shinkolobwe




5. Chief of Station, Congo

6. ‘Attention! Bloc Radioactif!’


8. ‘Born Secret’

9. The Mission

10. The British Opposites


12. The Cutout


14. ‘Hotbed of Spies’

15. Framed

16. Collaborating with the Nazis

17. A Dead Shot

18. Stehli the Detective

19. ‘One Minute to Midnight’

20. Hiroshima

21. Atomic Spies

22. Conclusion: The Missing Link


‘To have found in the history of the Second World War a million square miles of unfamiliar territory— the Congo— is an achievement in itself. On top of that, her story is thrilling. Even the mundane details are delightful.’ — The Sunday Telegraph

‘Williams pieces together her history in forensic fashion. The result is a gripping work that uncovers a world long cast in shadow … A little-known story, but one with a terribly familiar ring—and ultimately devastating consequences.’ — The Economist

‘Williams lays out in fascinating detail how several score US spies went about monitoring whether the Germans were gathering Congolese uranium and preparing to scupper them if so. … Her account is nuanced but gripping and does a sterling job of delineating a complicated plot while at the same time giving a clear sense of the characters of the major players.’ — The Spectator 

‘[Williams’s] new, meticulously researched book has shades of Graham Greene, a hint of Conrad, even echoes of Indiana Jones … truly a thriller, in which Williams paints clear and sympathetic pictures of characters thrust into a totally unfamiliar territory.’ — The Guardian

Spies in the Congo is an espionage classic. Scrupulously researched, it illuminates a barely-known aspect of arguably the most significant event of the 20th century, giving fresh perspectives … The “Congo story” takes on new importance, the horrors of the Belgian colonial era merging into the exploitation of the land’s stupendous mineral wealth and then on to the catastrophe that followed independence, and the now failed state.’ — The Scotsman

‘The US was determined first to ensure that the Shinkolobwe mine in particular wouldn’t be able to supply Germany with uranium, and then to take control of its whole production. This is the theme of Spies in the Congo. It’s a clever book, because it’s based on almost no explicit evidence … [Williams] analyses what little evidence there is, much of it only recently released, with great skill.’ — London Review of Books

‘Good to see another chapter in the DRC’s tortured history probed … An intriguing, beautifully documented tale.’ — Michela Wrong, The Spectator (Best Books of 2016)

‘Spies in the Congo… unveils for the first time the detailed story of the deep cover race between the Americans and the Nazis to get their hands on the deadliest metal on earth… meticulously-researched and masterfully written… A real-life thriller.’ — The Huffington Post

‘A highly informative and valuable historical record.’ — Morning Star

‘Williams has pieced together the details of a story so enormous it seems incredible that most people will have heard nothing about it before … a thrilling tale … sometimes comical, sometimes tragic, but always riveting.’ — History of War Magazine 

‘Painstakingly researched and beautifully written … a thrilling story.’ — The Chartist

‘Where Williams is best is in comparing Belgium’s suffering under occupation and how it treated its colonies during the war. This is the real untold story, and she is the author to tell it.’ — The Lady

‘It is not widely known that Congo was the source of the uranium in the bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II. Using recently declassified material, Susan Williams reveals the startling story of the small and colourful band of secret agents who jealously guarded this ore in a game of cat and mouse that may well have been the key to Allied victory.’ — Anjan Sundaram, author of Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo

‘This is an extraordinary and fascinating story, revealed here with all the detail and pace of a well crafted thriller.’ — Alexander McCall Smith

‘Williams has greatly advanced our knowledge of the Allied strategic and atomic effort in the Congo as well the unique role of OSS in Africa. She has also provided excellent background as to why so much of the cold war played out in the Congo. Spies in the Congo is an excellent contribution to the history of intelligence, Africa, World War Two and Atomic Power.’ — The Cipher Brief

‘The first book to tackle this important and overlooked subject.’— Studies in Intelligence

‘Truly remarkable.’ — Africa Briefing

‘A very well-written book . . . a deep discussion about World War II geopolitics [which brings] these individuals, too many of whom died at a young age, to life.’ — International Policy Digest

‘Susan Williams has written a masterpiece, a Second World War spy-thriller grounded in outstanding scholarly research and analysis. The book raises serious questions about the consequences of the US monopoly on the remarkably potent uranium at Shinkolobwe (Upper Katanga) for the political, economic and social rights of the Congolese people.’ — Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, Professor of African Studies, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

‘Williams reveals, with painstaking research and delightful prose, the conspiracies that transformed the Congo into a chessboard for superpower politics. This may seem like a far-gone era, but the repercussions of Shinkolobwe and Hiroshima are alive in the imaginations and politics of the Congo today. An important history, and a superbly crafted story.’— Jason Stearns, author of Dancing in the Glory of Monsters

‘With wit, insight, and a fabulous story-telling ability, Susan Williams has taken a crucial but little known piece of nuclear history and turned it into a remarkable tale of espionage, intrigue, romance, and murder that will keep readers riveted from start to finish. A magnificent achievement.’ — Peter Kuznick, Professor of History and Director, Nuclear Studies Institute, American University, Washington, D.C.

‘Williams offers a dense and engaging work on a key aspect of the Manhattan Project. … The author’s work is chock-full of spies and their fanciful code names as well as insightful accounts of the jealousies between the American and British. A fine complement to other accounts of wartime efforts to keep atomic weapons from the Germans.’ — Kirkus reviews


Dr Susan Williams is a senior research fellow in the School of Advanced Study, University of London. Her pathbreaking books include Who Killed Hammarskjöld?, which in 2015 triggered a new, ongoing UN investigation into the death of the UN Secretary-General; Spies in the Congo, which spotlights the link between US espionage in the Congo and the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945; Colour Bar, the story of Botswana’s founding president, which was made into the major 2016 film A United Kingdom; and The People’s King, which presents an original perspective on the abdication of Edward VIII and his marriage to Wallis Simpson.

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