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Operation Paperclip, America's Deal with the Devil to Obtain German Aer

“In summary, we have here [in the Soviet Union] a political force committed fanatically to the belief that with [the] U.S. there can be no permanent modus vivendi, that it is desirable and necessary that the internal harmony of our society be disrupted, our traditional way of life be destroyed, the international authority of our state be broken, if Soviet power is to be secure.”

–U.S. diplomat and political analyst George Kennan, February 1946

During World War II in Europe, Nazi Germany was the enemy, and its defeat was the mutual goal of the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union. The first signs of divorce in this marriage of convenience between the ideological foes of the two Western democracies and communist Soviet Union appeared during the Yalta Conference in February 1945, where President Franklin Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet Union Premier Josef Stalin met at the Crimean resort city to plan not only the war’s end, but the foundation for the postwar world.

In the final days of World War II, a small group of individuals presciently recognized that in the case of the Soviet Union, the axiom “today’s ally is tomorrow’s enemy” was a rapidly approaching reality. The political differences between the Soviet Union on the one hand and the United States and Great Britain on the other were too severe to be reconciled. Sooner or later, there would be a falling out with enormous consequences. That falling out would come to be called the Cold War. In its early days, before it got its name, when Germany was collapsing in defeat, an opportunity unlike any other occurred. It was also an opportunity not without moral cost, a “deal with the devil.” But with national security at issue, a special operations mission was authorized. It was called “Paperclip.”

Operation Paperclip, named after the use of the ordinary paperclip attached to the personnel files of select German scientists, was a special operation of breathtaking scope. Instead of highly trained teams tasked for important combat missions, these teams were hunters and gatherers sifting and searching through the wreckage and ruin of a devastated Germany. Theirs was a high-stakes race against the clock contest against an equally determined Russia and other less malevolent former allies. German scientists and technologies were the pawns, and the prize was nothing less than national security and preeminence as a world power. When it was concluded, hundreds of German scientists and their families, tons of documents, hardware, weapon systems, and technologies would be transferred from Germany to the United States.

As 1945 opened, the shooting war was clearly being won by the Allies. But just as clearly to those capable of looking past national pride, German science was dominating the technological war. Allied blockades and advances shut off one after another the pipelines of essential minerals, chemical, and petroleum products to Germany. And around-the-clock bombing of industrial centers was crippling the enemy’s war-making infrastructure. At least, that’s what the public was told, and, also, what many in the military believed.

Though the Allied juggernaut was so strong as to be irresistible, there were important technological gaps and weaknesses that did not go unnoticed by the high command. Amazingly, frighteningly, and defiantly, Germany fielded a wide array of new and technologically advanced weapons and weapon systems. These included the first operational combat jet, rocket-powered aircraft, air-to-air missiles, superior anti-tank weapons, tanks and tank armor, and other weapon systems both simple and sophisticated. Synthetic products of all kinds were created as well, ranging from the much-maligned ersatz coffee to synthetic fuels and lubricants.

Major General Hugh Knerr, deputy commander for administration, U.S. Strategic Air Forces Europe, acknowledged to his boss, General Carl “Tooey” Spaatz, “Occupation of German scientific and industrial establishments has revealed the fact that we have been alarmingly backward in many fields of research.” He then went on to state, “If we do not take the opportunity to seize the apparatus and the brains that developed it and put the combination back to work promptly, we will remain several years behind while we attempt to cover a field already exploited.”

General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, the Air Force Chief of Staff, threw down the post-war gauntlet when he wrote to the secretary of war that in the next war, “The United States must be the world’s first power in military aviation.” What prompted Arnold was a damning incident in the dying days of World War II over Germany. A group of B-17 Flying Fortresses on a mission to Berlin were attacked by six Me-262 jet fighter-bombers, each armed with 60 R4/M missiles. Within a few minutes, 14 B-17s had been shot down. While this isolated victory itself was too little, too late to save Germany from defeat, its technological importance was not lost on Arnold. The R4/M had been used eighteen months earlier against Air Force bombers in the catastrophic Schweinfurt raid. Since then, the Allies had not put into production a similar weapon.

Arnold’s assessment was seconded by his counterparts in the British Air Ministry and the Royal Air Force. An Air Ministry intelligence summary dated January 26, 1945, acknowledged, “Owing to high speed, the enemy has been able to use his jet fighters in a fighter-bomber role successfully and with comparative immunity from Allied fighters. The Me-262 is equally excellent as an interceptor.” Another memo to Churchill acknowledged, “The United States and Britain are outstripped technologically by the Germans.” British Air Marshal Charles Portal ominously wrote on January 26, 1945, “If Germany has not been beaten before July 1945, she will have dominance in the air war over Germany and above the armies during the period of good flying weather.”

Meanwhile in the field, astonishing reports from more than 200 OSS secret agents already in Germany were pouring in telling of the locations of caches of scientific and technology secrets; of hidden test sites, underground factories. Combined Intelligence Objectives Subcommittee (CIOS) teams tasked with seeking out and assessing such locations found themselves overwhelmed with the staggering scope of sites and materials.

An example of the extent of the treasure trove being uncovered occurred in early April 1945, when elements of the U.S. First Army captured a large complex at Volkenrode in northern Germany. The complex contained workshops, laboratories, parts of airplanes, engines, and wind tunnels larger than anything existing in Great Britain or the United States. Normal Army G-2 and specialized Consolidated Advance Field Teams (CAFT) quickly investigated the find. But it was not until early May when Col. Donald Putt, leader of the Air Force’s “Operation Lusty” which was tasked with capturing and evaluating German aeronautical technology, arrived that the American find was fully comprehended. The complex was the Hermann Goering Aeronautical Research Institute, the most sophisticated and advanced of its kind in the world. It was established in 1935, operational when the war started, and was totally unknown to the Allies.

Putt’s discovery proved mind-boggling. In the aerodynamic section alone, there were low-speed, subsonic, supersonic, and transonic wind tunnels. There was a camera designed to record jet engine performance that could take many pictures a second. The center had a section that could simulate altitude conditions up to 50,000 feet. In the armament area, there were two firing tunnels, 400 meters long, built to analyze the effect of crosswinds as strong as 500 miles per hour on missiles in flight. One of Putt’s most important finds was German scientist Adolph Busemann, the inventor of the swept wing, who eagerly recounted the work done at the center.

But Volkenrode was not the only place where sophisticated wind tunnels existed. Dr. Fritz Zwicky of the California Institute of Technology was at the same time exploring a wind tunnel complex at Kochel near Munich. He reported that the Germans were “many years ahead of all other countries.”

And along with the material, American troops and agents were finding the men. The list included Wernher von Braun and Walter Dornberger, scientists and technicians who worked for the top German aviation corporations, for the I.G. Farben chemical giant, for the steel maker Krupp, and others. Almost all were tainted with Nazi party association. Determining whether the motives of these scientists and technicians were guided by genuine conviction, calculated opportunism, or political extortion would take time.

Following Germany’s surrender in May 1945, with the national security of the United States at stake, time was a prohibitive luxury. While the U.S. government officially wrestled with the issues of what to do with the scientists and technicians living in the section of Germany administered by the Americans, the Soviet Union was moving fast and offering powerful monetary and career inducements to lure scientists to its side, no questions asked. France was also turning a blind eye to scientists with tainted pasts. The dilemma wracked the government and offered no safe and easy answer. If the United States adhered to its stated anti-Nazi policy, it risked losing the services of every noteworthy German scientist and technician available.

This possibility was noted by a Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) memorandum that stated, “Unless the migration of important German scientists and technicians into the Soviet zone is immediately stopped, we believe that the Soviet Union with a relatively short time may equal the United States developments in the fields of atomic research and guided missiles and may be ahead of U.S. development in other fields of great military importance, including infra red, television and jet propulsion. In the field of atomic research, for example, we estimate that German assistance already has cut substantially, probably by several years, the time needed for the USSR to achieve practical results.”

The JIC made three recommendations: that German scientists and technicians should be prevented from falling into the hands of the Soviet Union or being interrogated by that nation; that the American army in Germany should give the scientists and their families all the provisions they needed; and that the American military governor in Germany immediately compile a list of 1,000 scientists and technicians qualified in the fields of aerospace and other strategically important fields useful for the United States.

Putt, who worked on both Paperclip and its predecessor, Overcast, urged swift action in getting the scientists to the United States. In a letter to the Pentagon, he wrote, “The American zone is literally crawling with French and Russian agents whose work has become rather fruitful and facilitated by the sorry fact that German scientists have received no clear-cut, positive offers from this country.” Offers from French and Russian agents guaranteed the scientists generous financial and professional inducements as well as the care and comfort of their families.

Assessment of important scientists was easy for JOIA member Colonel Ernest Gruhn. They should include Nobel Prize-winners or candidates, the thirty top-level chemists and physicists, and the leading experts on missiles, fuels, atomic energy, military and chemical gases, electronics, and biological warfare. In a further memorandum, he stated that the list should also include “scientists of outstanding prominence or ability in any field, persons who possess distinguished or unusual intellectual attainments of a scientific or technical nature.”

On September 3, 1946, a new top-secret directive on Paperclip, approved by President Harry Truman, authorized that 1,000 scientists could be brought to the United States by the military. Their families would follow. Salaries would be comparable to equivalent American positions, approximately $10,000 per year. Security restrictions, though relaxed, would remain in place. If background checks discovered unacceptable histories about individuals, they would be deported to Germany. But even with this order, progress in processing scientists moved at a snail’s pace. Then, a Russian action changed everything.

Colonel General I.A. Serov, the Russian commandant of East Berlin, initiated “Operation Osvakim,” the wholesale kidnapping of 15,000 German scientists and technicians. It began at 4:00 a.m. on October 22, 1946. Battalions of Russian soldiers sealed off neighborhoods in East Berlin. Hundreds of arrest squads systematically combed apartment complexes, smashing down doors and ordering husbands and sons into waiting trucks where they were taken to railway stations. From there they would be transported to Russia where they would be “employed” for five years.

This brutal action had the consequence of forcing the American military to resort to new, expedient measures to make sure that the Russians did not get any more scientists and technicians.

Officially, Operation Paperclip concluded on September 30, 1947. In a public statement, the Army announced that the operation had brought into the United States 457 scientists and 453 dependents. But a closed-door decision was made to allow Operation Paperclip to continue, this time as a top-secret program. To justify the continuation, the Air Force stated that the 209 German scientists working for it had substantially advanced the development of weapons systems and the scientists were “superlative specialists … the best available in the world today.” They were saving the Air Force millions of dollars and an estimated ten years in cost and development. The Navy added its praise, stating that German mathematicians, aerodynamicists, and experts in heat transfer had proven that “their professional education and training [were] superior to that of any U.S. personnel available.”

Separately, Colonel H.M. McCoy wrote to Air Force Intelligence in Washington, “The German personnel now engaged are a necessary, vital and irreplaceable factor in the Air Force research and development program. . . . It is also an incontestable fact that there is a crippling shortage of scientific and technical personnel within the U.S. and more particularly within government agencies.”

Further proof was demonstrated at Fort Bliss, where German scientists and technicians were pioneering work on Hermes II, a rocket with a ramjet-powered payload in its upper stage, capable of flying at an altitude of twelve miles, at a speed of Mach 3.3, and with a range of 400 miles. Work would continue on future generations of rockets.

Estimates vary with respect to how much time German scientists and technicians saved the United States as a result of Paperclip and other similar operations. Most say the operation cut from two to ten years of time off strategic programs. What is irrefutable is that, thanks to the efforts of Wernher Von Braun and his team of rocket scientists from Germany, the United States achieved one of mankind’s greatest dreams, the landing of a man on the moon on July 20, 1969.

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Mindy Lawrence
Mindy Lawrence

Von Braun is one of three famous people being portrayed at the 2023 Chautauqua in Bonne Terre, MO in July.

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