Operation Backfire: Witness To The Rocket Age

As the prospects for Germany during the Second World War began to look increasingly grim, the Nazi war machine largely pinned their hopes on a number of high-tech “superweapons” they had in development. Ranging from upgraded versions of their already devastatingly effective U-Boats to tanks large enough to rival small ships, the projects ran the gamut from practical to fanciful. After the fall of Berlin there was a mad scramble by the Allied forces to get into what was left of Germany’s secretive development facilities, with each country hoping to recover as much of this revolutionary technology for themselves as possible.

V-2 launch during Operation Backfire

One of the most coveted prizes was the Aggregat 4 (A4) rocket. Better known to the Allies as the V-2, it was the world’s first liquid fueled guided ballistic missile and the first man-made object to reach space. Most of this technology, and a large number of the engineers who designed it, ended up in the hands of the United States as part of Operation Paperclip. This influx of practical rocketry experience helped kick start the US space program, and its influence could be seen all the way up to the Apollo program. The Soviet Union also captured V-2 hardware and production facilities, which subsequently influenced the design of their early rocket designs as well. In many ways, the V-2 rocket was the spark that started the Space Race between the two countries.

With the United States and Soviet Union taking the majority of V-2 hardware and personnel, little was left for the British. Accordingly their program, known as Operation Backfire, ended up being much smaller in scope. Rather than trying to bring V-2 hardware back to Britain, they decided to learn as much as they could about it in Germany from the men who used it in combat. This study of the rocket and the soldiers who operated it remains the most detailed account of how the weapon functioned, and provides a fascinating look at the incredible effort Germany was willing to expend for just one of their “superweapons”.

In addition to a five volume written report on the V-2 rocket, the British Army Kinematograph Service produced “The German A.4 Rocket”, a 40 minute film which shows how a V-2 was assembled, transported, and ultimately launched. Though they are operating under the direction of the British government, the German soldiers appear in the film wearing their own uniforms, which gives the documentary a surreal feeling. It could easily be mistaken for actual wartime footage, but these rockets weren’t aimed at London. They were being fired to serve as a historical record of the birth of modern rocketry.

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The Hills Are Alive With The Sound Of Train Whistles

In Northern England, the hills used to be home to steam trains. The trains have long faded into history, but the sound of their whistle is making a brief return. Artist [Steve Messam] has created “Whistle” as part of The Great Exhibition of the North. [Steve] doesn’t cover the installation on his website yet, but there have been a few great articles about it in the local press.

Whistle consists of 16 steam engine whistles around Newcastle. From June 22 to September 9, you can hear the whistles at 1pm. First one whistle sounds, then another, then another after that. In all, 16 whistles are included in the art installation, all controlled by Raspberry Pi computers. The Pi’s were programmed by Nebula Labs. Tech details are slim on this one, but we’re guessing each Pi has a Cellular radio built-in.

The whistles used in this installation aren’t old train whistles. They are brand new cast brass whistles based upon the original steam train sounders. The compressed air available today doesn’t sound exactly like steam though, so the brass whistles were modified to sound more authentic. [Steve’s] idea is to get the whistle as perfect as possible, which will trigger the memories of those who are old enough to have heard the originals.

Want to know more about steam engines? Check out this Retrotechtacular about repairing steam locomotives!

Beeping The Enemy Into Submission

In July 1940 the German airforce began bombing Britain. This was met with polite disagreement on the British side — and with high technology, ingenuity, and improvisation. The defeat of the Germans is associated with anti-aircraft guns and fighter planes, but a significant amount of potential damage had been averted by the use of radio.

Night bombing was a relatively new idea at that time and everybody agreed that it was hard. Navigating a plane in the dark while travelling at two hundred miles per hour and possibly being shot at just wasn’t effective with traditional means. So the Germans invented non-traditional means. This was the start of a technological competition where each side worked to implement new and novel radio technology to guide bombing runs, and to disrupt those guidance systems.

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British Hacker To Be Extradited To U.S.

British computer hacker [Gary McKinnon] lost his final appeal to block his extradition to the U.S. He stands accused of hacking into almost 100 U.S. military and NASA computers from his girlfriend’s aunt’s house in London over a four year period by the U.S. government. If convicted of the crimes in a U.S. court, he could face up to 70 years imprisonment. [Gary McKinnon] freely admitted to hacking into the computers, but claimed that he did it out of curiosity, not out of malice or any terroristic aims. He was looking for information on UFOs. The U.S. government claimed that in addition to hacking into the computers, he also stole 950 passwords and erased important files. [McKinnon’s] next move will be to appeal to the European Court, and if unsuccessful, he will have no other option but to stand trial in the U.S. court system.