The Hunt for Nazi Scientists

The Terrifying Weapons

When the Germans formally surrendered to the Allies on May 8, 1945, their reign of terror ended, but the terrifying weapons created by Nazi scientists lived on and would eventually shape both the Cold War and the space age.

The V-2

A V2 Rocket LaunchOn April 11, 1945, American agents discovered the secret underground factory in Germany where thousands of V-2 missiles had been built. Because the region was in part of Germany that was to become Russian territory after the war, American forces removed what they could: hundreds of trainloads of V-2s and their parts, which were then shipped off to the United States along with Germany’s chief rocket scientist, Wernher von Braun, and more than one hundred of his engineers. The V-2s were used in rocket tests in the States; meanwhile, von Braun and his colleagues set about to design a new breed of missile. Over the next few decades, their efforts, building on the design of the V-2, produced the Redstone, Jupiter, Jupiter-C, Pershing, and Saturn rockets (which launched the Apollo spacecraft and Skylab into orbit)

The Russians, however, also got their hands on both V-2 technology and members of von Braun’s German rocket design team. It almost cost the United States the space race. The V-2 design was copied for Russia’s first missile, the R-1. On October 4, 1957, a later version of the rocket, the R-7, launched Sputnik — the world’s first artificial satellite — into orbit.

Rocket Planes and Jet Fighters

Concentration camp prisoners working as slave labor in the secret, German underground factory, MittelwerkThe British intelligence unit, 30 AU, captured radical aircraft designer Helmut Walter a few days before the end of the war. Walter soon gave up the location of the German airfields that housed the Messerschmitt 163 — the Nazi’s “flying bomb.” The revolutionary tailless aircraft, powered by an explosive combination of rocket fuels, was acquired by the Americans, British, and Russians. Each country planned to use the technology in the development of their own new aircraft. It was another of Walter’s designs, the Messerschmitt 262, which shaped the course of future Cold War conflicts.

The sleek Me-262, a successor to the Me-163, was the world’s first operational jet-powered fighter plane. First flown in July 1942, the Me-262 could accelerate to 540 miles an hour — more than 100 miles an hour faster than the best Allied craft — and could sustain 60 to 90 minutes of flight (the Me-163, in contrast, sputtered out after just 8 minutes). The impressive machine became the model for the American F-86 Sabre jet fighter and the Russian MiG-15.

The Bomb

Beginning in 1938, when German scientists first discovered fission — the basic process that makes nuclear weapons possible — the Allies worried that Germany would soon develop an atomic bomb. Those fears were dispelled just weeks before the end of the war, when the crack agents of the American Alsos team discovered a Nazi nuclear reactor under construction in a cave beneath a castle in Haigerloch, Germany. (The German nuclear scientists, American bomb designers soon realized, were no farther along in producing the bomb than the Americans had been back in 1942.) Days later, buried in a nearby field, the agents uncovered more than two tons of radioactive uranium. That uranium, along with thousands of pounds of uranium from other sites in Germany, was shipped to Manhattan Project scientists for use in the American bomb effort.