A Brief History
On June 23, 1942, Oberleutnant Armin Faber of the German Luftwaffe made an historic blunder when he landed his state of the art Focke-Wulf 190 fighter plane at an Welsh airfield at RAF Pembrey, handing the British Germany’s latest and best fighter aircraft complete and in flyable condition. Faber apparently mistook the Bristol Channel for the English Channel which caused his navigational error. So eager were the British to capture an example of the FW-190 they actually considered mounting a commando raid in order to steal one of the high performance fighters. Lucky for the British, Armin Faber saved them the trouble, just one example of many military blunders that gave critical technology to the enemy.
Question for Students (and others): What other example of one country foolishly losing technology to another country can you think of? Let us know in the comments section below this article.
1. Germans gift intact FW-190 to Britain, 1942.
The air war in Europe was a battle of technology and performance, with each side striving to improve the planes they had or to come up with better designs to gain or regain an edge over the enemy. When the Germans introduced the FW-190 to the fray in 1941, the British were stunned and had to come up with something to counter the new threat. The FW-190 ran rings around the Spitfire Mark V, the latest Spitfire variant. But first, the new threat had to be evaluated and understood, and the inadvertent gift of an intact “Butcher Bird” by Oberleutnant Faber was just the ticket. British evaluators were able to get the captured fighter into the air for evaluation and testing, allowing the British to develop tactics and countermeasures to the new threat posed by the high performance FW-190. Faber had just taken part in a dogfight over Britain in which he shot down an RAF Spitfire. Thinking he was over France, he spotted an airfield and landed to the shock of the British on the ground. When Faber stopped his landing roll, a British soldier jumped on his wing and took the abashed German prisoner, holding him at “gunpoint” with a flare gun. A despondent Faber realized the enormity of his blunder and attempted suicide but failed. He was sent to Canada to ride out the war in a POW camp, from which he unsuccessfully attempted to escape.
2. British give state of the art Rolls Royce jet engine to the Soviets, 1947.
Whoever in Britain thought selling the best performing jet engines in the world to the Soviets must not have been thinking clearly, for the Soviets, masters of reverse engineering that they were, quickly copied the Rolls Royce Nene jet engine and promptly plopped it into their new MiG-15 swept wing jet fighter, instantly making the MiG-15 the highest performance fighter plane in the world. Seriously, by late 1946 when the decision to sell the engines to the USSR was made, the specter of a Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Bloc had to already be apparent. The Nene engine produced about 5000 pounds of thrust, or around double that of other jet engines built in the US or USSR, or by the surviving German jet engineers. While the immediate impact of providing the Soviets with a highly capable jet engine are fairly easy to understand, the aspect of how much the gifted technology enabled future development of Soviet jet engines is harder to evaluate. The catastrophic choice to provide the Soviets with the Nene jet engine may have been much worse than merely giving the MiG-15 a huge boost in performance.
3. American Military Spurns Christie tank tracks, Soviets step up to buy the system, 1929.
American engineer and inventor J. Walter Christie had a concept for armored vehicles that included modest weight and high speed with excellent over ground mobility. He believed armored forces should be used to move rapidly about the battlefield and exploit breakthroughs rather than slowly churn up the mud like a barely mobile fortress. To this end, he invented the “Christie” suspension system and a way to make armored vehicles convertible from tracked to wheeled drive and back. He had previously dabbled in auto racing, taxi cab design, and even the design of fire engines. With World War I came the opportunity for inventors to design new weapons exploiting the motor driven drive lines of vehicles, and Christie offered a design to the US Army, but failed to win a contract due in part to his own refusal to bend to Army wishes. Christie designed an amphibious tank for the US Marine Corps in 1924, and was again denied a contract despite a successful test. Christie’s breakthrough design came in 1928 with his signature suspension, and even the skeptical US Army bought several examples for testing. In spite of enthusiasm for the Christie design by then Lt. Col. George Patton, the US Army passed on the opportunity to mass produce the Christie tank due to high acquisition costs. Christie was not happy and sough a buyer or buyers for his design. In spite of US laws against selling military equipment to the Soviet Union, Christie and the Soviets managed to circumvent those laws by selling a couple copies of his tank to the USSR through the ruse of labeling the tanks “agricultural equipment.” The Christie tank became the template for the Soviet tanks that ruled the battlefield during World War II, incorporating the Christie suspension concept with another Christie design, that of sloped armor. The Soviets stuck with the Christie type of tank and armored vehicle suspension for most of their armor designs for the next few decades. Christie sold his design to the British, who also incorporated his ideas in tank design, but the US continued to refuse his designs during World War II. Christie died in 1944, virtually broke after being perhaps the most influential designer involved in the development of the modern tank.
4. Japanese Zero fighter captured intact by Americans on Akutan Island, 1942.
Petty Officer First Class Tadayoshi Koga was a pilot of the latest and greatest Japanese fighter plane, the Mitsubishi A6M Zero during the Aleutian Islands campaign, a diversionary attack on the Alaskan islands during June of 1942, while the main Japanese force attacked the US island of Midway. Koga and his flight of Zeros shot down a US Navy patrol plane, and then strafed the survivors floating on the sea with machine gun and cannon fire. Koga’s Zero was damaged by small arms fire during the strafing (a war crime), though the returning Zero pilots reported his plane had been damaged while attacking patrol aircraft that were in a harbor, a false claim to deflect attention from the war crime of strafing survivors in the water. (Note: George HW Bush was also accused of engaging in that very same war crime during World War II, without confirmation. For some reason, Americans seem to think such action is just a regular part of war and not a crime when we do it, but an atrocity when someone else does it to our guys!) The exact nature of the small arms fire that took down Koga’s plane is unknown, as both .50 caliber and .30 holes were found in the captured plane. The engine oil line had been severed on the Zero, causing Koga to make a forced landing on Akutan Island on a muddy and grassy field. Koga made the mistake of lowering his landing gear instead of making a much safer belly landing. The landing gear of the Zero caught in the mud and flipped the Zero upside down, killing Koga instantly from a broken neck. The flight of Japanese fighters watched the crash landing take place, but the other pilots decided not to strafe the downed plane to deny it to the Americans as they thought Koga might still be alive in the intact, though upside down aircraft. A Japanese rescue submarine failed to find the wreckage of Koga’s plane, leaving it for the Americans to find a month later. Ecstatic American intelligence personnel recovered the downed Zero and quickly restored it to flying condition, completely studying the design and flight characteristics of their #1 aerial foe in the Pacific. Information gleaned from inspecting and testing the Zero allowed the US to develop better tactics for fighting the formidable, though flawed Zero, and that information was used in the design of the F6F Hellcat that became the primary US Navy aircraft carrier fighter plane of World War II, a design that destroyed more Japanese planes than any other American fighter and resulted in a won/loss ratio of 19 enemy planes downed for every Hellcat lost in aerial combat! (Based on kills claimed, not kills confirmed.)
5. Soviets reverse engineer impounded us B-29 Bomber, 1944.
In July of 1944, the US was conducting bombing raids over Japan and occupied China using the newest, largest and most technically advanced large bombers in the world, the Boeing B-29 Superfortress. Equipped with a pressurized cabin for crew comfort at high altitudes, a top speed superior to almost all Japanese fighter planes (357 mph), and a heavy armament of .50 caliber machine guns in remote control turrets aimed by early computer gunsights, the B-29 had the range (3250 miles) and payload (up to 20,000 pounds of bombs) to take the war to the Japanese homeland. It was a B-29 adapted especially for the purpose of delivering nuclear bombs that dropped the first atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, virtually ending World War II. Unfortunately for the crew of “Ramp Tramp,” A US Army Air Force B-29, their mission over Manchuria resulted in electrical problems that necessitated an emergency landing. The captain chose the Soviet site of Vladivostok as his emergency landing field, thinking that the Soviets, then Allies of the United States against Germany, would allow him to make repairs and fly on to a US air base. He was wrong. International agreements dictated that the Soviets, not at war with Japan in 1944, would intern any American or British aircraft or personnel that ended up in Soviet control to avoid initiating hostilities with Japan. The USSR was eager to avoid going to war with Japan until after Germany was defeated. Thus, the Soviets kept the 3 B-29’s that had landed at Soviet bases, and after a while repatriated the American crews back to US authorities with he understanding that those crewmen would not be allowed to fight against Japan in the future to avoid the Soviets being known to have violated their neutrality with Japan. Soviet dictator Josef Stalin ordered Ramp Tramp to be disassembled, carefully blueprinted, and then copied for Soviet use. Through incredible attention to detail and skill, Soviet engineers did exactly as Stalin wished, converting the B-29 into metric measurements and recreating the airplane as a real life flying example of a an exact copy of a US B-29 bomber! The Soviets called their “new” bomber the Tu-4 (NATO code name, Bull) and starting in 1947, built 847 of the modernistic looking aircraft. The massive number of Tu-4’s built by the Soviets are an indication of exactly how important the Soviets deemed this aircraft to be. Prior to the Tu-4, the Soviets had a paltry force of 32 heavy 4 engine bombers of the obsolete Pe-8 design. Having been turned down by the United States in his request to be given B-29’s, Stalin was only too happy to be able to build his own versions and instantly modernize his air force’s bombing capability. Not only did the B-29 boast a pressurized cabin, the only World War II piston engine bomber to have this feature, its computer gunsights, computer bombsights, advanced metallurgy and cutting edge engines were all beyond Soviet capabilities of the time. The “gift” of the B-29 into the hands of the Soviets was a tremendous technological shot in the arm for Soviet aircraft designers and for the capability of the Soviet Air Force. The reverse engineering work involved is perhaps the greatest such example of any reverse engineering project in history. (Note: Soviet Bloc defectors that delivered the MiG-15 and MiG-25 fighter planes into US hands resulted in technology coups for the US, but not in the kind of reverse engineering done by the Soviets with the B-29.)
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For more information, please see…
Ferran, Lazlo. Screaming Angels: How the Soviets stole Rolls Royce’s best jet engine and built the greatest fighter in the world. W & B Publishers Inc., 2017.
Gaemperle, Roger. Captured Eagles. Vintage Eagle Publishing, 2011.
Gordon, Yefim,Dmitriy Komissarov and Vladimir Rigmant. Tupolev Tu-4: The First Soviet Strategic Bomber. Schiffer Military History, 2014.
Green, Michael. Russian Armour in the Second World War. Pen and Sword Military, 2013.
Rearden, Jim. Koga’s Zero: The Fighter That Changed World War II : Found in Alaska. Pictorial Histories Publishing Co., 1995.
The featured image in this article, a photograph of a German Focke-Wulf Fw 190 A-3 of 11./JG 2 after landing in the UK by mistake in June 1942, is photograph MH4190 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums. This work created by the United Kingdom Government is in the public domain, because it is one of the following:
- It is a photograph taken prior to 1 June 1957; or
- It was published prior to 1969; or
- It is an artistic work other than a photograph or engraving (e.g. a painting) which was created prior to 1969.
HMSO has declared that the expiry of Crown Copyrights applies worldwide (ref: HMSO Email Reply).