Jacques Allier, banker in the ‘secret war’

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BNP Paribas Historical Collections

BNP Paribas Historical Collections

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In 1940, drawing on his business links with Norway, Jacques Allier took part in one of the most exciting episodes of the secret war in Europe: the race for heavy water.

A graduate of the Ecole Libre des Sciences Politiques, (French political science academy generally known as Sciences Po), with a doctorate in Law, Jacques Allier joined the Banque de Paris et des Pays-Bas in January 1923 and began work in the office of Louis Wibratte, head of the technical department. Some years later, having risen to become an authorised signatory of the bank he was inter alia entrusted with handling relations with the Norsk hydro-elektrisk Kvælstofaktieselskab (Norwegian Hydro-Electric Nitrogen Company, also called Norsk Hydro).

In 1939, as a French Army reserve officer, Allier was called up and promptly seconded to the office of the Armaments Minister, Raoul Dautry. He was also a member of the French military intelligence service known as the ‘Deuxième bureau’.

The battle for ‘heavy water’

Norsk Hydro, which the Banque de Paris et des Pays-Bas had helped to found in 1905 in conjunction with the Wallenberg Group, had for several years been producing deuterium oxide – generally known as ‘heavy water’ – for use by laboratories researching into cancer. In 1939, Professor Frédéric Joliot-Curie, Director of the nuclear chemistry laboratory at the Collège de France, demonstrated that heavy water could be used as a neutron-moderator in the process of unleashing atomic energy. During the following months, France and Germany became locked in a relentless struggle to get their hands on the stock of heavy water held by Norsk Hydro.

In February 1940, Raoul Dautry entrusted Jacques Allier with the task of secretly purchasing the available stock of heavy water (185kg), and transporting it to France. The Norsk Hydro General Manager, Axel Aubert, who was favourable to French interests, immediately accepted Allier’s offer. This is how the valuable product came to be shipped from Norway to France via Scotland under the noses of the German military and then, as the invasion progressed in June 1940, sent to safety in England. In December 1940, in Cambridge, two scientific colleagues of Joliot-Curie called Halban and Kowarski, who had been evacuated to England, proved for the first time that by using heavy water it is possible to obtain a nuclear fission chain reaction.

In 1948, Jacques Allier and his old comrades starred as themselves in the French-Norwegian film La bataille de l’eau lourde (‘The Battle for Heavy Water’), directed by Jean Dréville.

Strong links with Norway

At the end of the war, Jacques Allier became Deputy Director (1945-1965) of the Banque de Paris et des Pays-Bas, while at the same time acting as official representative at the French Atomic Energy Commission. He was also President of the Franco-Norwegian Chamber of Commerce from 1960 to 1967. He served as Vice Chairman of Norsk Hydro from 1959 to 1971, playing a decisive role in the signing of a contract with a French group which brought together French oil companies Elf-Aquitaine and the Compagnie Française des Pétroles to search for oil & gas in the North Sea. These connections enabled the Banque de Paris et des Pays-Bas to play a major role in the export credits granted for the development of the oilfields.

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