An article on Daniel Uhr’s digital art and book, Lufwaffe Confidential, which he co-created with author Claudio Lamas de Farias, (see Inside Loupe, airscape 3) stirred a long-dormant line of interest in me. I’d long wondered how much German science moved west, and east, before the Iron Curtain came down.
Turns out – a big lot.
In my mildly obsessive Googling, I came across Scientists and Friends, a site dedicated to the German scientists who emigrated to the US after the war – and their subsequent contribution to aerospace as we know it.
I knew about Werner von Braun, of course, and that he brought a team with him – but I had no idea of the scale.
According to Scientists and Friends the number of scientists who crossed the Atlantic numbered over 3,500 and included at least 1,600 rocket scientists by 1947.
Presumably most brought their families. Almost all became American citizens.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg…
The site also hosts an October 1946 article from Harper’s magazine, called Secrets By The Thousands, by C. Lester Walker. Written in that brightly optimistic window between the end of the war and the beginning of tensions that would turn into the Cold War, Walker details the capture and publication of huge quantities of German secrets.
And if you’re wondering what counts as ‘huge’, here’s how he opens the article:
Someone wrote to Wright Field recently, saying he understood this country had got together quite a collection of enemy war secrets, that many were now on public sale, and could he, please, be sent everything on German jet engines. The Air Documents Division of the Army Air Forces answered: ‘Sorry – but that would be fifty tons.’
Remember, that fifty tons was just on jet engines. Wright field was sitting on some 1,500 tons of aeronautical information, and the total of all industrial, medical and military discoveries brought across the Atlantic totalled some 20,000 tons!
That’s a mountain of paper, and it was worth its weight in gold.
Walker recounts the incredible hunt for documents carried out across Germany from 1945 – and the incredible array of discoveries it uncovered:
Magnetic tape, FLIR, the infra-red sniper scope, the ejection seat, cold extrusion steel, synthetic fabrics, synthetic blood plasma, plastics, food preservation, and more.
High speed, low orbit transportation – 1940s style
Of course the most interesting ones for me (and, I guess, you) were the aviation and rocketry secrets.
And there were plenty of those:
The V-2 rocket which bombed London, an Army Air Force publication reports, was just a toy compared to what the Germans had up their sleeve. When the war ended, we now know, they had 138 types of guided missiles in various stages of production or development…
These included a rocket powered bomber that would be air-launched, climb to a cruise altitude of 154 miles in around 4 minutes and drop its bombs on US cities just 40 minutes later.
As a leading US General told Harpers, “The Germans were preparing rocket surprises for the whole world in general and England in particular which would have, it is believed, changed the course of the war if the invasion had been postponed for so short a time as half a year.”
‘I want copies of everything’
But the biggest surprise of all was that the US Government decreed all their captured intelligence (tens of thousands of tons, remember) should be released into the public domain as rapidly as possible.
Small wonder, then, that: The most insatiable customer is Amtorg, the Soviet Union’s foreign trade organization. One of its representatives walked into the Publication Board Office with the bibliography in hand and said, ‘I want copies of everything.’
It makes you realise that history could have been very different, and on so many counts.
Simply amazing, I promise
Unless you’re an expert on the subject already, I highly recommend reading the whole article. I’d post a PDF here but the copyright release is hazy (at best) so I’ll err on the side of caution.
Visit Scientists and Friends, and you’ll find the link to their 4,750-word transcript at the bottom of the homepage. It is simply amazing, I promise.
As a friend of mine said, there’s a movie in it at least, if not a great documentary series.
And while Scientists and Friends clearly states that it’s a non-political site, I’d still prefer to end this post by dedicating it to all who paid the ultimate, frequently horrific, price for technologies we now enjoy without a second thought.