A Brief History
On May 10, 1946, at the White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico the US Army made the first successful launch of a German designed V-2 rocket, the same sort of weapon the Germans had used to terrorize England and Holland during World War II. V-2 technology was not the only German inspired technology to be eagerly scooped and later used by the Allies after World War II, and today we take a look at some of those items (keeping the list short and therefore not all encompassing). As always, feel free to nominate such items as you believe belong on a list such as this. (Note: While the Allies certainly obtained whatever documents the Germans developed from human experimentation on prisoners and may have somehow profited from that information, we have chosen not to discuss this shameful and disgusting topic. Perhaps another day…)
V-1 and V-2 cruise missile and ballistic missile
The V-1 “Buzz Bomb” was an early version of the cruise missile, powered by a single pulse jet engine. Although aiming was crude, with missile men calculating how far the missile would fly on a certain amount of fuel, and thus controlled the distance it would fly before crashing to the ground and exploding, the concept was good enough for area targets such as cities. The United States built a similar post-war copy of the V-1, dubbing their version the Republic-Ford JB-2, also known as the Thunderbug, Loon, or KGW. Over 1300 of these copies were produced. The USSR also built and fielded a V-1 copy, called the 10Kh. Neither the US or the USSR version was operational into the 1950’s. The V-2, also called the A-4, presented a much higher technology system, and was a rocket powered ballistic missile that unlike the V-1, could not be intercepted or stopped once it was launched. While the Americans captured V-2 missiles, the Soviets managed to capture the V-2 production facility, and promptly moved that facility to the Soviet Union in order to start building their own version of the weapon. The Americans made do with reverse engineering and the help of German rocket scientist, Werner von Braun to produce their own V-2 equivalent systems.
Space race scientists
The Allies captured numerous German rocket scientists at the end of World War II, and many were all too eager to continue their research in the employ of the victorious powers, or in the case of the USSR, those captured scientists did not have any realistic choice! In the US, Operation Paperclip employed around 1600 such German scientists and engineers, and Werner von Braun became not only the most important mind behind the development of the American space program, but quite a celebrity as well, virtually a national hero. Alas, Von Braun had a history of using slave labor in his German rocket factories, though he later denied knowing such slave labor was being used, virtually a certain lie and a fact the Americans were eager to conceal in their quest for Cold War dominance and propaganda. In fact, much information about the American employment of German war criminals in its fledgling rocket and space program is still classified.
MG 42 general purpose machine gun
The premier general purpose machine gun of World War II, the MG 42 became the template for the creation of the American M-60, the Belgian (Fabrique Nationale) MAG, and the French AA 52, among others. Unfortunately, the American designers did not get the MG 42 specs quite right, and the M-60, though it performed fairly well, was never as good as the MG 42 or the FN MAG, and in 1977, the US started replacing the M-60 with the FN MAG derived M-240. Of course, the post-war German army continued to use the MG 42 in the guise of the MG 1. Quick change barrels, reliability, accuracy and light weight (6 pounds less than the American M-1919 general purpose machine gun) all contributed to the greatness of the MG 42, as well as its blistering rate of fire at 1200 rounds per minute! (Roughly double that of most competing general purpose machine-gun designs.)
Swept wings on fighter aircraft
When the sleek Me 262 Schwalbe took to the skies as the first operational jet fighter in 1944, it sported a then revolutionary wing design, with its wings swept back from fuselage to wingtip at a modest 18.5 degrees. While the first American and British jet fighters opted for conventional straight wing designs, post war analysis of the Me 262 proved the advantage of swept wings, and the concept was applied to subsequent Allied jet aircraft.
Flying wing aircraft
Although the research and engineering by the Horten brothers in Germany during World War II was not completed in time to actually produce an operational flying wing jet aircraft, they did manage to produce some flying prototypes and gliders. Flying wing technical specs were intriguing to Allied aeronautical engineers after World War II, especially by Jack Northrup, the namesake of the Northrup Corporation, who produced prototypes of flying wing combat aircraft, both piston and jet powered, after World War II, though none of those designs made it to operational status. Finally, when the US Air Force adopted the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber in a flying wing configuration, the Horten Brothers and Jack Northrup were vindicated for their advocacy of such a design. (Other countries had toyed with the flying wing idea before World War II, but none approached a viable combat aircraft design.)
Aircraft ejection seats
Other nations had experimented with ejection seat for airplanes before World War II, but when the Germans developed viable jet planes for combat, the exigent circumstances of requiring a method of getting out of an airplane at high speed became a mandatory subject for engineers to develop workable ejection seats. Thus, German engineers developed the first operational ejection seats for the Heinkel He 162, a simple and low-complexity jet fighter called the Volksjäger, which means “People’s fighter,” a nod to its low cost, easy to build nature meant to equip masses of barely trained pilots. After World War II, other countries finally developed workable ejection seats, notably the British. We have to think German technology inspired some of the post-war Allied engineering on ejection seats, as well as providing some valuable data. In fact, the He 162 itself, a lightweight, low cost, single engine fighter concept was also later developed by Allied nations as evidenced by fighters such as the F-104 Starfighter, F-5 Freedom Fighter and F-16 Fighting Falcon as low cost mass produced compliments to the higher end of fighter mix.
While various nations did produce semi-automatic battle rifles during World War II, only the United States with its M-1 Garand made such a rifle general issue. The Germans came up with the ingenious idea of a mid-range caliber assault rifle, a weapon that fired an intermediate cartridge more powerful than a pistol caliber but reduced in size, weight and power from a typical rifle cartridge. Additionally, the weapon would also fire from either a semi-automatic or full automatic mode, the rifleman selecting which mode by a simple lever. Ammunition was supplied by a removable and readily replaceable box magazine of 30 rounds which provided tremendous virtually uninterrupted firepower. The tradeoff in reduced maximum range was found to be of negligible concern, as research indicated riflemen rarely engaged targets past 300 meters anyway. Thus, the StG 44 was born, though known by other designations as well, and the format for future assault weapons such as the M-14, the M-16, the FN-FAL and the AK-47 was adopted by virtually the rest of the world after World War II.
Modern single action/double action semi-automatic pistol
While most semi-automatic military pistols of the 1930’s and 1940’s were of the single action only type design, the Germans produced the Walther P-38 to replace their labor intensive and finicky P-08 Luger as the main issue sidearm for the German Military during World War II. The Walther featured the now familiar ability to fire the first shot from an un-cocked pistol with a long double action trigger pull, with the subsequent shots fired single action. Alternatively, the soldier could manually cock the pistol and fire the first shot in single action mode for greater accuracy. Unlike other pistols, when the shooter was done shooting, instead of having to manually de-cock the pistol by pulling the trigger while (hopefully) restraining the hammer and gently lowering the hammer, the P-38 had a de-cocking lever which allowed for the safe and sure de-cocking of a cocked pistol. Meanwhile, a manual safety was also retained. Thus, the modern layout of the military and police semi-automatic pistol was created and later adopted by most militaries throughout the world, including the US military when the M-9 Beretta was adopted in the 1980’s. (Later, the double action only or semi-pre-cocked type of pistol would make its appearance in pistols such as the Glock, but that is another story…)
While the US, USSR and UK all had reasonably effective submarines during World War II, the Germans had relied more heavily on that particular aspect of naval warfare and logically devoted even more effort into developing superior systems. A notable development was the snorkel, or schnorchel, a device actually invented by the Dutch, but utilized by the Germans late in World War II. This breathing tube allowed the sub to remain submerged while running its diesel engines and drawing in fresh air for breathing. With a snorkel, a sub never needs to surface at all until the end of its tour or to replenish fuel, food and stores. Some German U-boats were also equipped with “Walter” engines, which ran on Hydrogen Peroxide and did not need atmospheric air so they could operate underwater, while providing superior speeds, up to 28 knots submerged! Superior batteries and hull design also provided increased underwater range and endurance as well as speed, valuable technical information used by the Allies after World War II.
Question for students (and subscribers): What World War II German technology do you believe was the most important to post-war Allied nations? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Hogg, Ian. German Secret Weapons of World War II: The Missiles, Rockets, Weapons, and New Technology of the Third Reich. Skyhorse, 2016.
O’Reagan, Douglas. Taking Nazi Technology: Allied Exploitation of German Science after the Second World War. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019.
The featured image in this article, a U.S. Army V-2 cutaway drawing showing engine, fuel cells, guidance units and warhead, is a work of a U.S. Air Force Airman or employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image or file is in the public domain in the United States.