Were They Really Ahead of Their Time?
They secretly moved through and emerged from the Ardenne forest, fanning out across the country side, racing toward the English Channel. In a little more than two weeks, they would trap the allies at Dunkirk, and about four weeks later, they would force France to surrender.
Other than the incredible evacuation at Dunkirk, the allies didn’t fair well against the new German lightening war. Norway, Denmark, and Belgium would fall. Holland would surrender in just five days.
The Germans tactics were brilliant. They would employ dive bombers close to the advancing tanks. They would parachute troops in for special missions. They would push the tanks to their limit and wait later for the troops to catch up. They adapted to changing situations by employing radio communications. The ability to coordinate in this way had never been done before. The German tanks were well designed for crew visibility and speed, but they were smaller and less armored than their French counterparts. It was all of these new tactics that allowed the Germans to prevail.
However, years later, as the allies tightened the circle, closing in on the Third Reich, Messerschmitt Me 262s jets would make a desperate attempt to stop the allied bombers in the air and allied armor on the ground. V1 flying bombs were being launched against the southern part of Great Britain followed later by V2s that could climb to nearly 70 miles in altitude before hitting their targets.
These weapons were astounding, way ahead of their time, but were they really? Reports of their use usually came from allied military personnel, citizens, and reporters that didn’t have a clue to what their own countries were working on. When the US military first learned about the V2s and were gathering components to be sent back to the states, were they aware that their own country was developing the most devastating weapon of them all? Did they also realize that these V2 components owed their origin to an American inventor? When flying bombs were falling on London and British pilots were destroying ME 262s on the ground, did they realize that the engines of these aircraft owed their origin to a British inventor?
Germany’s astounding record in developing these weapons can possibly be attributed to their own government at that time. With the Nazis in complete control, they could dictate anything that they wanted. They could use any resources available, including the horrible practice of using slave labor. Also, they were geared for one purpose, war. But with totalitarianism, there is a price, creativity.
Democracies are the opposite, where an individual can go anywhere, alone and in secret, to tinker and experiment, to create, without the government tracking their moves and looking over their shoulder.
It is not to say that the Germans completely lacked creativity. Their own industry was given some leeway from total Nazi control that allowed individuals to be creative. The V1 flying bomb is an example, that decades later, would become the modern cruise missile in the US arsenal.
The Other Flying Machine
On December 17th, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright would complete the first flight of their powered aircraft. It would be one of the most pivotal points in human history heralding the beginning of a new form of travel. Obviously the Wright brother’s powered airplane was one of the greatest inventions of all time. The success of what they did made it undeniable that this was an American invention.
Twenty three years later, another more different kind of flying machine would take flight. But this event would be more obscure in history. Concealed to the point where, years later, the Germans would get most of the credit. On March 16th, 1926, on a cold snow covered day in Auburn, Massachusetts, Robert Goddard launched the first liquid propellant rocket. Three years later, another one of his rocket launches would give him recognition, but not in a good way. The roar of the rocket was heard roughly two miles distant and disturbed his neighbors in such a way that they wanted any further tests from Robert Goddard banned.
But with the help of private funding, Dr. Goddard continued his rocket tests in New Mexico. There, he was able to accomplish the following firsts:
- Developed gyro controlled guidance (1932)
- Developed vanes in the rocket motor exhaust for guidance (1932)
- Created a pivoted rocket engine controlled by a gyro (1937)
- Broke the speed of sound in a rocket flight (1935)
Even before he left for New Mexico (Auburn, Massachusetts) he completed the following:
- Performed static testing which confirmed that liquid propellant rockets can operate in a vacuum
- Developed the first turbo pumps
- Launched a barometer and camera in a rocket (1929)
- Patented the idea of rocket staging
Practically all of these milestones occurred before Hitler even came to power in 1933. Throughout most of the 1930’s Wernher Von Braun and his mentor Hermann Oberth sometimes even contacted Robert Goddard about his research. But when it comes to the history of the liquid propellant rocket, there is discrepancy on how it was developed in Germany. Even though there was contact with Robert Goddard, some historians believe that the Germans arrived at the same conclusions or advancements on their own. It can be understood. Goddard was very secretive and private about his research. However, his personality should not negate the fact that he developed these technologies first, that he patented them, and published journal articles about them.
Finally, it should be noted that Wernher Von Braun was brought to the United States as a savior, to help the country get to the moon. He believed in the possibility of manned and unmanned space flight even when he was working on the V-2 program. In contrast, Goddard also made similar claims. Early in his career, in 1920, he published the journal article “A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes.” In the summary of the article, he stated that a large enough rocket with enough fuel could possibly reach the moon. He was ridiculed for his belief by the New York Times. They stated that he lacked understanding of basic physics. So here, one scientist was praised for his foresight with a whole nation following his dream while the true pioneer was rejected. This ridicule by a prominent paper was one of the main reasons why Robert Goddard became secretive about his work. Years later, the day after the launch of Apollo 11, the New York Times apologized to Robert Goddard, 24 years after his death.
Will The Real Inventor of the Jet Engine Please Stand Up
Only days before the beginning of World War II on August 27, 1939, the first operational jet aircraft took flight in Germany. It was the Heinkel He 178, its jet engine developed by Hans von Ohain. Nearly five years later, the Me 262 started its run, downing a total of 542 Allied aircraft up until the end of the war. Even the P-51 Mustang could not counter the capabilities of the Me 262.
With such an advanced aircraft the obvious questions come to mind. What if the Germans had developed this aircraft earlier? What if they could have held out longer, keeping the Russians at bay in the east and curtailing the Allied bombing from above?
Many believed it would have been devastating to the Allies, where Germany would have dictated the terms of surrender instead of how history actually unfolded. Yet, to this day, this same view is believed to be true. History continues to perpetuate this myth.
Again, it all comes down to perception. How could this belief be dispelled against the testimonies of bomber crews who witnessed the capabilities of the Me 262. But similar to when the allies first looked at the captured V-2 rockets, the bomber crews were most likely completely unaware that there own side was also working on jet aircraft. And they were probably also unaware that the true inventor of the jet engine was not German (Hans von Ohain). It was the British inventor Frank Whittle.
Without going into much detail, Frank Whittle’s attempt to get his invention developed was met with, not only lack of funding, but disinterest initially by the British government. If he could have kept par with the same timetable that Hans von Ohain had in Germany, Whittle and the British would have definitely been the first to fly a jet aircraft. Still, only two years later, after the Heinkel He 178 flight, the British prototype aircraft, the Gloster E.28/39, took flight. And two years after the Gloster flight, the first British fighter aircraft, the Gloster Meteor had flown. Only a year later in 1944, the Meteor became operational. Even though the British wouldn’t allow the Meteor to fly over mainland Europe, it still was the first jet aircraft to shoot down another jet aircraft. It accomplished this with 14 V-1 flying bomb kills.
The Me 262 was a faster aircraft than the Meteor but it had its flaws that overcame this advantage. The operational life of the engine was only 20 hours. To prevent over heating of the engines and cracking of the compressor blades, the pilots were urged to avoid rapid acceleration and deceleration during take off and landing. This made the Me 262 vulnerable, and this is when most of the German jets were shot down by the Allies.
The Germans Were Surprised Too
In 1941, they caught the Soviets by surprise. The Germans launched one of the largest invasions in history. A total of 153 divisions divided into three army groups raced into Soviet territory. The Germans seemed unstoppable, encircling helpless enemy troops in large numbers. They had employed their trademark lightening war. The Soviets seemed unequipped and unprepared but the Germans would soon encounter a few signs that would indicate that they would not succeed this time as they had done in the west. Soon the Russian troops would regroup and begin to resist, but the Germans were in for another surprise, the new T-34 Battle Tank. For the first time they would come face to face with another armored vehicle superior to their own. And it came more of a surprise when they found the shells from their anti tank guns and tanks bouncing off the front of the T-34. The Soviet tank had an exceptional mix of speed, firepower, and protection, especially its front sloped armor that directed the incoming shells toward the sky in front of the stunned Germans.
Then there was another weapon that so impressed the Germans that they copied it. It was the US invented anti armor weapon, the bazooka. Ultimately the German version of the bazooka was the superior weapon but the concept came from a familiar American inventor, Robert Goddard.
There were other inventions by the allies that put the Germans at a disadvantage. Yes, the StG-44 was considered the first assault rifle but it came very late in the war and not many were produced. Instead, the Germans had their bolt action rifles and had to go up against the allies with their semi-automatic rifle, the M1 Garand. Then there was the variable time proximity fuze on artillery shells that allowed the shells to explode above ground. It proved devastating to the Germans especially in the Battle of the Bulge. Or the Katyusha rocket launcher fielded by the Soviets. Not the most accurate weapon but used in large numbers they were deadly both physically and psychologically.
When it came to tactics, the allies learned quickly to adapt the precision that the Germans demonstrated early in the war. Integrating radar into their well coordinated air defense, the British were able to defeat the Germans in the Battle of Britain.
Finally, the race for the atomic bomb had an interesting twist that gave us the edge in development. When it came to a sustained nuclear reaction in a reactor both sides knew that the first step involved constructing a reactor using graphite. However, initial attempts failed. In the United States physicist Leo Szilard and nuclear engineer Robert McPherson figured out that the graphite was being manufactured with boron impurities, a known neutron inhibitor. Once the graphite was produced without the boron the first sustained nuclear reaction occurred at the University of Chicago in December of 1942. The Germans never made this leap so they desperately tried to construct a reactor using heavy water. The thought that comes to mind is the freedom that we enjoyed compared to fascism in Germany. Did this allow us the creativity to make this leap? Was the German culture, under the Nazis, too rigid that they were unable to have this insight about the boron impurity? We can only speculate.
The Germans had some impressive weapons, but getting them on the battlefield earlier in the war would not have helped them win the war. It could have only prolonged it. Many of the German weapons were not even invented by them. It was our freedom that gave us the edge. Freedom that put creativity on our side.
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Gene W Strasser (author) from Lake Orion, Michigan on January 24, 2019:
Thank you very much for the great comment.
Rodric Anthony from Surprise, Arizona on January 20, 2019:
This a very informative article and enjoyable to read.