Tales of the Flying Tigers

How German technology came to the U.S.

American Raiders
American Raiders: The Race to Capture the Luftwaffe's Secrets
(Wolfgang Samuel) In April 1945, Boeing was ready to build a prototype B-47, hoping to snag the contract for America's first turbojet bomber. A Boeing aerodynamicist, George Schairer, happened to be in Europe that month, helping the U.S. military understand German technology before the Japanese could deploy it in the Pacific. Germany had not yet surrendered, and everyone expected the Japanese to fight on for years.

When the Hermann Goering institute in Voelkenrode was captured by U.S. troops, Schairer was able to quiz the staff about an unusual aspect of their latest aircraft: the wings were angled to the rear. Why was that? The Germans explained that sweep-back slowed the apparent airflow, enabling an airplane to gain an extra 50 or 75 mph before it ran into transonic turbulence. Schairer wrote home: hold everything!

Boeing redrew its B-47, not only creating the quintessential jet bomber of the 1950s, but also the basic design of its 707 transport and all the heavy metal that followed. Even the newest Boeing airliner--and the super-jumbo from Airbus too--owes a little something to that impromptu seminar at Voelkenrode.

Wolfgang Samuel is uniquely qualified to write the story of how German technology came to the New World. The son of a Luftwaffe pilot, he immigrated in 1951 and became a colonel in the U.S. Air Force. Like many American and British writers, he has a tendency to glorify imports like the Messerschmitt 262 jet fighter. To be sure, Nazi Germany had the better engineers-fat lot of good they did it! A bludgeon, not a scalpel, was the war-winning technology in 1945. Indeed, it can be argued that Germany's fascination with far-out designs contributed to its defeat, frittering away resources that should have been devoted to more mundane weapons.

In any event, the war in the Pacific ended before either side could exploit the German technology. Far more important was the brains behind that technology: the U.S. imported hundreds of scientists, too. They became founding members of the American aerospace industry: Wernher von Braun, father of the ballistic missile; Hans von Ohain, builder of the world's first operational turbojet; and Alexander Lippisch, designer of tailless, swept-wing aircraft.

In 1945, as Mr. Samuel explains, Russia too was scouring Germany for knowledge to exploit. If those men had gone east instead of west, the Cold War would have been waged on terms much less favorable to the United States.

[In somewhat different form, this review first appeared in Air & Space / Smithsonian, March 2005]

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