Alan Nunn May

Home > Encyclopaedia > Biographies > Alan Nunn May

According to the 24 January 2004 issue of the London Times,

“Alan Nunn May was born in 1911 in Kings Norton, Birmingham, the son of a brass founder. He was a clever child and scholarships took him first to King Edward’s School, Birmingham, and then to Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where he was tutored in physics by the inspirational P.M.S. Blackett. He graduated with a first in physics and then went on to research for a doctorate for which Rutherford, then Cavendish Professor of Experimental Physics, was one of the examiners. Having gained his PhD, he was appointed to a lectureship at King’s College London where he continued with his research. Though he had already been radicalised by his Cambridge experience and had joined the Communist Party, he did not, as did some of his contemporaries, take up cudgels on the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War, but contented himself with the odd pilgrimage to Moscow. When war came in 1939 he worked for a short time on the new and secret radar project. But in October 1939 the King’s College physics department was evacuated to Bristol, where he continued research on elementary particles. Later he was taken from his academic post to join what was cryptically known as the Tube Alloys Project, the British effort to explore the possibility of making an atomic bomb, work for which was being done at the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge. In due course British nuclear research was moved to Canada, both for security reasons and to make co-operation with the American work on the bomb easier. Nunn May went with the British team in 1943 and at some point after that was contacted by Colonel Nikolai Zabotin who, under the guise of being the Soviet military attaché in Ottawa, was running one of the most important Soviet teams attempting to penetrate the Allied atomic bomb programme for the GRU – the military intelligence directorate. Over the next two years Nunn May’s work frequently took him to the heavy water pile at Chalk River and he also made a number of visits to the Argonne Laboratory in Chicago.”

Despite the rhetoric in the press, there was never any real danger that the Canadian spy ring revealed atom bomb research to the Soviets. In How the Cold War Began, Amy Knight suggests,

“Some of the biggest fish caught in Gouzenko’s net were never brought before the commission. The British scientist Alan Nunn May, who had worked on the Canadian side of wartime Allied defence research, was arrested in Britain, brought before the Old Bailey in London, and sentenced to ten years imprisonment. Although the press made much ado about Canadian ‘atom bomb spies,’ Nunn May was actually the only link to atomic espionage, and in his case, the link was rather tenuous. The Russians had indeed deeply penetrated the Manhattan Project that developed the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos, New Mexico, but the real atom spies were not in Canada, which was quite peripheral to the top secret project.”

Further Reading

Report of the Royal Commission to Investigate Facts Relating to and the Circumstances Surrounding the Communication, by Public Officials and Other Persons in Positions of Trust of Secret and Confidential Information to Agents of a Foreign Power. 1947.

Hyde, H. Montgomery. The Atom Bomb Spies. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1980.

Knight, Amy. How the Cold War Began: The Gouzenko Affair and the Hunt for Soviet Spies. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2005.

Lambertson, Ross. Repression and Resistance: Canadian Human Rights Activists, 1930-1960. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005.