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The Atomic Bomb

17 August 1942

The British bomb German targets during the night hoping to reduce their fatalities. Despite this, air crews have a 50/50 chance of returning from each mission. It's an almost unsustainable loss rate and almost tactically pointless as targets are rarely destroyed.

So the Americans try a bold new tactic: High altitude precision bombing during the day. The 3000-7000m height gives them more protection from 88mm anti aircraft shells fired from the ground. But as the planes are depressurised, crews need oxygen supplies, and frostbite and altitude sickness is common. British spitfires provide aerial protection as pilot Paul Tibbets leads twelve B17 bombers, or flying fortresses, to their target, Germany's biggest rail-road yard in Northern France.

The B17 is built to bomb. It has four, not the usual two engines, so that it can carry nearly 2000 kilos of bombs on over 3000km missions. And, if the Luftwaffe gets past the Spitfires, there are eight 50 cal machine guns. And as the plane leaves vapour trails like lines leading to the target, they need them. But they also have the new Norden bombsight, an early computer, which when wind speed and altitude are entered, indicates when to release the bombs. Target is sighted. More than 16,700 kilos of bombs hit more than 50% of the railway yard. In 1942, this is precision bombing.

But the fatality rate remains high. In 1943, two thirds of US air crews never come home. But for every B17 shot down, American workers produce two more. Three years later, Paul Tibbets becomes famous for another bombing run.

Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds
Robert Oppenheimer

16 July 1945, 5:27am

In three minutes, Robert Oppenheimer's technology will change the world forever. He leads the Manhattan Project, the American attempt to build the first atomic bomb. He will be America's saviour in the Pacific but the FBI watches his every move, worried he's a communist. They are so effective at maintaining secrecy that their enemies only learn of the project when it's too late. (Unfortunately, their secrets are stolen, and it is by their ally, communist Russia.)

$2,000,000,000 has been allocated to achieving this moment. It requires around 90,000 workmen to build Hanford and Oak Ridge. In these two places, plutonium and other materials will be made into the bomb. The resource demands are unprecedented. At one stage, more copper is requested than is in the whole of the US.

At 5:30am there is white flash and temperatures are generated 10,000 times greater than the surface of the sun. Desert sand turns to glass.

6 August 1945 08:58

His creation explodes in Hiroshima. Three days later, Nagasaki is next. An estimated 120,000 die instantly. Radiation slowly kills another 80,000. A day after Nagasaki, the Japanese surrender. America's greatest generation returns to one of the few warring countries whose infrastructure is untouched.

Before the war, America was in depression.

It's now a superpower.