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THE ATOM-BOMB DROP-OUT History Today magazine August 2010

In  early 1941 the course of Hyman Frankel’s life changed overnight when the Cambridge undergraduate and Young Communist was hand-picked to join a  team of scientists working on a secret British nuclear project, codenamed Tube Alloys [correct], at the university’s Cavendish Laboratory.  Frankel, who will be 92 on May 21, is believed to be the last-surviving member of the team whose work led to the development by America of the atom bombs that ended the Second World War at such a devastating human cost.
  The Cavendish operation had been set up to produce a British atom bomb, with the team’s attempts later immortalised in C.P.Snow’s 1954 novel The New Men.  A chance family friendship led to the recruitment of Hyman Frankel to their ranks. His elder brother William, a barrister who was later to become a long-serving and radical editor of The Jewish Chronicle, was friendly with Henry Lipson, a professor of physics at Cambridge. Lipson had been asked by Hans Von Halban, a French-Jewish refugee physicist working on the Tube Alloys project, to find a young scientist to ‘do an important job measuring neutron cross-sections’ (the size of the neutron that would capture other particles and thus start a chain reaction that would trigger an explosion). Hyman was considered to be an ideal candidate for what he now describes as ‘a routine but vital job’.  Frankel also  became the Cavendish shop steward for the Association Of Scientific Workers union  and managed to sign up nearly every Tube Alloys team-member, many of whom were left-wingers.
  At the time of being recruited, the 22-year old Frankel was halfway through a physics degree at Cambridge’s Trinity College while on detachment from Smiths Components in Cricklewood, North London, where he had been working as a progress-chaser. But he put his studies on hold and signed the Official Secrets Act in order to join Tube Alloys. As he explains, ‘I saw it as the ultimate deterrent that would stop the rampage of Fascism across Europe. ‘ Frankel had been born in Stepney, East London, in 1918 to a synagogue shammas (beadle) called Isaac Frankel and his wife Anna,  Hasidic Jewish emigres from Galicia (the Polish part of Austro-Hungary) with a strong family tradition of community service.  When Hyman left school in 1936, his experiences of the British Fascist leader Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirt marches through the Jewish areas of the East End persuaded him to join the British Communist Party because of ‘its strong stance against Fascism’.
The Tube Alloys project was headed up by Lew Kowarski [correct], who had worked  in France under Frederic Joliot, the scientist son-in-law of Marie Curie. Joliot, who was head of the French Atomic Energy Authority as well as being President of the French Communist Party,  worked with the British Secret Service on a successful plan to smuggle over to England the ‘heavy water’  ( two atoms of deuterium and one oxygen atom) essential to a nuclear reaction  before the advancing Germans could appropriate it for their own nuclear programme. ‘If  the Germans had captured the heavy water, they could have won the war,’ points out Frankel. 
 When the decision was taken to move the Cavendish team to Los Alamos, New Mexico, in 1942 to join the covert American nuclear operation code-named the Manhattan Project, Frankel had worked at Cavendish for 15 months. ‘The reason for the whole outfit being carted over to the States was that nothing was felt to be safe in the UK after the German invasion of France in 1940,’ he explains. And there was another, more mercenary reason, too, according to Frankel:. ‘Bright people had also realised that after the war the peaceful application of nuclear energy would reap enormous profits for whoever was controlling it – and the American company DuPont [correct] subsequently won the battle with Britain’s ICI.’
  But when it came to the point of departure, the course of Frankel’s life changed overnight again when he refused to join the rest of the team in America.  Frankel’s parents had been evacuated from the East End during bombing raids on London, and the young man did not want to leave his family behind. ‘Not only did I feel it was unpatriotic to leave Britain, but America was not very friendly towards Communists at the time,’ he explains.  ‘Kowarski tried and failed to change my mind - he was very disappointed I wouldn’t go.  Although Von Halban  was in charge of my section of the team, Kowarski often sought me out as the active Communist among them, even though he wasn’t actually a Party member himself. He told me that he had plans for me, but that never came to anything after he went to America. ‘
As Frankel recalls, the sudden death of President Roosevelt in 1945 led to the bomb built by the Manhattan Project team being used for purposes that most scientists, most notably Einstein, opposed.   ‘We never contemplated the possibility of a military puppet like Roosevelt’s successor, Truman, agreeing to drop the bomb on people. A letter signed by Einstein had been sent to Roosevelt saying that the bomb should be dropped as a deterrent over the mid-Atlantic to show the Japanese what could happen to them if they refused to surrender, but Truman had taken over by then and ignored it,’ he says.  The consequences, as all the world knows,  was that hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians were burned to death by the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, followed by Nagasaki three days later on August 9.
  Hyman Frankel never resumed his career in physics.  When he left  the Cavendish Laboratory in 1942, he continued his war work by going down the mines for a year.  ’I had been rejected by the army because of weak legs, but not rejected by the Coal Board. I lasted a year before I got fibrositis,’ says Frankel, who was also involved in two strikes down the mines. ‘The first one came about because a group of colliers’ bonuses had been cut for sending up too much rubble – and the second was called when a young collier was killed by falling stones, so everyone stopped work in sympathy,’ he recalls.
  He then enrolled on a teachers’ training course and taught General Studies for a while before taking a Masters degree in the History of Philosophy of Science at Birkbeck University College and  teaching Maths for ten years at Kingsway College. Subsequently he became a full-time trade-union organiser, although his continuing interest in physics eventually led to the publication in 2003 of his book: Out Of This World: An Examination Of Modern Physics And Cosmology (Cardiff Academic Press). ‘The crisis in physics was to do with the capitalist mode of thought in which everything is reduced to quantity, such as goods and money, with quality deemed unimportant,’ he says. ‘I believe all intellectuals have been moulded by this way of thinking, and physics is the ideal quantitative subject. But this leaves out the qualitative side of nature and makes it a mystical side. It even happened with Einstein, the greatest of modern physicists.’ As Frankel pointed out in his book, ‘mechanical materialism…unwittingly leaves a space for God’ and ‘opened the doors to irrationality and mysticism…that implicitly denies the human capacity to change the world.’
  As politically engaged as ever, Frankel was, until recently, travelling once a week to the British Library to research a book on socialism that is awaiting publication.  Looking back on his Cavendish days, he admits to mixed feelings about his decision not to go to America.  ‘I’ve never been quite sure whether I was right to turn down the chance to go. If I had gone, it would have made my name as a physicist. So in that sense I do regret not going; but if I had gone, I would not have then met my wife,’ says Frankel, who married his late wife Nan in 1948 after meeting her at Communist Party meeting-rooms above Whitechapel station when Nan, a farmer’s daughter from the West Country, had come to London as a nurse volunteer. ‘I saw this girl and fell immediately in love with her because she was so stunningly beautiful,’ says Frankel. They were happily married for 52 years until Nan’s death in 2000 and produced three children: Mark, Dora and Anna. 
   ‘But not going to America was a lucky escape in a way,’ he adds, ‘because it would have troubled me greatly to have worked on the bomb after seeing how the authorities so misused it. As soon as the two bombs were dropped, the vast majority of the team on the Manhattan Project decided they would never work on a nuclear military project again. And I felt the same, too.’

Shortly before his death earlier this year, Hyman Frankel, the last-surviving member of the team whose work led to the development of the atom bomb, talked to Maureen Paton about why he decided not to join the Manhattan Project.