August 25, 2023 | Dancy Mason

Niels Bohr And History's Most Dramatic Rescue Mission

Scientists mostly sit in boring labs all day, sure. But one Autumn in 1943, physicist Niels Bohr saw enough drama to last a lifetime.

Niels Bohr was one of the most important physicists of the 20th century. So when Nazis invaded his home of Denmark, everyone worried that Bohr—whose mother was Jewish—was in grave danger, and that his demise would decimate the scientific community. The operation to save him was more dramatic than anything in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer.


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Niels Bohr Had A James Bond Moment

In late September 1943, the Allies contacted Bohr in an incredibly secret mission, offering to extract him from Denmark and take him first to Sweden and then into British territory. It went wrong from the very start. The Germans found out about the plot at the last minute and burst into Bohr’s home, forcing the 57-year-old to run out the back with the help of Danish resistance fighters. But still? Not over yet.

Niels BohrBammesk, Wikimedia Commons

Although Bohr eventually made it to Sweden’s borders via a fishing boat and then went onward to Stockholm, the Germans didn’t give up. While he was in the city, they again tried and failed at an assassination plot. Needing a hasty way out, the British sent over a De Havilland Mosquito fighter plane—a rickety plywood aircraft not especially meant for precious, human cargo—and loaded Bohr into the bomb bay. This is where it really unraveled.

Catching His Breath

While flying in incredibly high altitudes—all the better to avoid enemies—the pilot called to Bohr to put his oxygen mask on, which was inside his helmet. The only problem? Bohr didn’t hear. He later admitted that his helmet had been too small for his rather big head. Consequently, one of the greatest minds of his generation quickly passed out from lack of oxygen. He remained that way for most of the rest of the trip.

Even so, nothing seemed to faze the physicist anymore. When he landed in Scotland, safe at long last, he happily quipped that he’d had a “pleasant nap.”

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