American Raiders: The race to capture the Luftwaffe’s secrets

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By Wolfgang W.E. Samuel, ‘American Raiders: The race to capture the Luftwaffe’s secrets’ runs to 493 pages including the index, and is essential reading for World War Two aviation historians as well as those interested in post-war aviation developments in the US.

More particularly, the book explains how the German’s advanced technology and top military and civilian scientists like Wernher von Braun were used to accelerate US developments in aeronautics and rocketry from the mid 1940s and arguably through until men landed on the moon in 1969. Von Braun was a civilian rocket scientist central to the German’s V-2 program who later moved to the USA and became a major figure in the American space program, leading the design of the giant Saturn V rocket that took men to the moon in the late 1960s and early 70s.

American Raiders

This book is, as Michael Palin might say, a ripping yarn. It begins with the combat debut of German jet fighters in the latter stages of the war and the encounters with allied aircraft that followed. It was immediately and patently clear that the Germans has a clear technological advantage, but, fortunately for the allies, aircraft like the Messerschmitt Me-262 had arrived too late to change the outcome of the conflict.

Von Braun, Dornberger, Olbricht and Brandt at Peeneünde, Germany.
Von Braun, Dornberger, Olbricht and Brandt at Peeneünde, Germany.

Operation Eclipse

When the war in Europe was finally over the immediate task was the disarmament of the Nazis and the Luftwaffe. This was implemented as Operation Eclipse, and had the goal of the permanent military neutralisation of Nazi Germany.

With that Operation underway there was a near-simultaneous mad scramble to scoop up every airframe, component, engine, blueprint and even manufacturing jigs before the Russians could get their hands on them.

The Americans uncovered jet engines, transonic and supersonic research, intercontinental ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, surface-to-air missiles and flying wing aircraft. This was all years ahead of anything that they or their allies had under their collective belts.

Operation Lusty

This program of exploitation was conceived as Operation Lusty. The Eclipse and Lusty teams worked hand-in-glove to both disarm and exploit the German war machine and it’s assets. Because of this collaborative approach their programs of ‘dismemberment and discovery’ achieved their goals effectively and well beyond expectation.

American Raiders by Wolfgang W.E.SamuelThe Americans triumphed in the race for German technological treasure, even concealing some of their prizes from allied nations before spiriting them back to the US, initially in railway carriages.

The secrets that the Americans had scooped up would jump-start and rejuvenate their own military-industrial complex, and give them a technological advantage of such magnitude that it arguably led to the demise of the Soviet Union some fifty years later through the Americans’ superiority in IBCMs and strategic bombers.

It also meant that when MiG-15 jet fighters were first encountered in the Korean War, the Americans were not left behind. Indeed they countered with their own North American Aviation F-86 Sabre, which had many design elements based on the Me-262 jet fighter.

In many cases the advancing Soviets found only scraps remaining, especially in the area of rockets and rocket engines. With the securing of physical items achieved, what remained was the securing of Germany’s intellectual property, in the form of their scientists and aerodynamicists – the Wissenschaftler.

By late 1945 there were 96 freight cars at Wright Field (now Wright-Patterson US Air Force base) that were laden with “everything from air to ground guided anti-ship missiles, such as the Hs 293 and the Fritz X, to V-2 ballistic missiles, and a plethora of parts, pieces and documentation…”.

Like the final scene in the movie ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, although there were ‘top men’ working on them, it transpired that many of the items were “never to be looked at again.”

Project Overcast

Forcing the scientists into the back of a rail car along with all the spare parts and then shipping them stateside was clearly not an option, so a more nuanced program of inducements and cajoling was necessary. The plan to encourage German scientists to relocate to the United States was known as Project Overcast.

The Me 262 was a shock to allied pilots that encountered it. Many Me 262s were acquired and studied by the Americans, and many German pilots and mechanics willingly offered their assistance.
The first German scientists arrived at Wright Field in September 1945, but lingering animosity verging on outright hostility from some of the hosts was an ongoing problem, and it was clear that integration into the Wright Field community was going to be a more challenging task than first thought.

Not only that, but there were growing questions among the Germans about housing, pay, diet, family reunification programs and citizenship status that all fed into festering morale problems. These all were coming to a head at around the same time that the Germans’ initial contracts were drawing to a close in late 1946.

Project Paperclip

With Project Overcast faltering, the War Department conceived a new plan to improve conditions and give certainty to the German scientists. It was known as Project Paperclip and was approved by President Truman in September 1946.

Under Project Paperclip the dependants of the scientists were brought to the US, their annual salaries were increased to $10,000, the total number of scientists brought to the US was increased from 350 to 1,000, and long term contracts were offered.

Visa arrangements were expedited and it was indicated that American citizenship was on the horizon provided that ‘personal conduct and political background’ were satisfactory.

This Komet was captured in May 1945 by the advancing allied army, probably at Schleswig-Holstein in Germany, and was shipped to Australia in 1946.
This Komet was captured in May 1945 by the advancing allied army, probably at Schleswig-Holstein in Germany, and was shipped to Australia in 1946.

Chapters

There are thirty chapters in ‘American Raiders’. They are:

  1. The way things were – 1945
  2. The German Jets
  3. Jet Encounters
  4. The Defiant Few
  5. Colonel Harold E. Watson
  6. The First Tactical Air Force (Provisional)
  7. Organizing to Disarm the Luftwaffe
  8. Operation Lusty
  9. Solving the Japanese Riddle
  10. A Mother Lode of Aviation Technology
  11. The Secrets of Völkenrode and Kochel
  12. The Feudin’ 54th
  13. Watson picks his team
  14. Lager Lechfield
  15. P-47 Jug Pilots
  16. Watson’s Whizzers
  17. The Merseburg Fan Club
  18. Project Seahorse
  19. Melun-Villaroche
  20. Roast Duck at Aalborg
  21. The Arado 234 Caper
  22. So Far, So Good
  23. The Conquering Hero
  24. The Focke-Wulf Tragedy
  25. Air Shows and Air Races
  26. The Birth of Project Overcast
  27. Project Overcast and one man’s experience
  28. From Overcast to Paperclip
  29. How Captain Wenzel made American Citizens out of enemy aliens
  30. The Way Things Changed

Summing up

As I said earlier, American raiders is a ripping yarn and I found it fascinating from start to finish. It is very-well researched but written in a lively and fluid fashion by Samuel. There is a lot of detail, but the anecdotes and first-hand accounts wrap around the details in such a way as to create a book that could just as easily have been a well-written work of fiction.

Apollo 11 mission officials relax in the Launch Control Center following the successful Apollo 11 liftoff on July 16, 1969. From left to right are: Charles W. Mathews, Deputy Associate Administrator for Manned Space Flight; Dr. Wernher von Braun, Director of the Marshall Space Flight Center; George Mueller, Associate Administrator for the Office of Manned Space Flight; Lt. Gen. Samuel C. Phillips, Director of the Apollo Program
But this isn’t fiction. American Raiders is real history, told superlatively. I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

More Book Reviews

You can learn more about the history of the Luftwaffe at the Bundeswehr Museum of Military History in Berlin, or visit their website here. And you can read more of my aviation book reviews here.

The Book

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