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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Rebuilding an Extremely Rare Twin Mustang Fighter

Towards the end of the Second World War, as the United States considered their options for a possible invasion of Japan, there was demand for a new fighter that could escort long range bombers on missions which could see them travel more than 3,200 kilometers (2,000 miles) without refueling. In response, North American Aviation created the F-82, which essentially took two of their immensely successful P-51 fighters and combined them on the same wing. The resulting plane, of which only 272 were built, ultimately set the world record for longest nonstop flight of a propeller-driven fighter at 8,129 km (5,051 mi) and ended up being the last piston engine fighter ordered by the United States Air Force.

Today, only five of these “Twin Mustangs” are known to exist. One of those, a prototype XP-82 variant, is currently in the final stages of an epic decade-long rebuilding process directed by warbird restoration expert [Tom Reilly]. At the end of this painstaking restoration, which makes use of not only original hardware but many newly produced components built with modern technology such as CNC milling and 3D printing, the vintage fighter will become the only flyable F-82 in the world.

CNC milled replacement brake caliper

The project provides a fascinating look at what it takes to not only return a 70+ year old ultra-rare aircraft to fully functional status, but do it in a responsible and historically accurate way. With only four other intact F-82’s in the world, replacement parts are obviously an exceptional rarity. The original parts used to rebuild this particular aircraft were sourced from literally all over the planet, piece by piece, in a process that started before [Tom] even purchased the plane itself.

In a way, the search for parts was aided by the unusual nature of the F-82, which has the outward appearance of being two standard P-51 fighters, but in fact utilizes a vast number of modified components. [Tom] would keep an eye out for parts being sold on the open market which their owners mysteriously discovered wouldn’t fit on a standard P-51. In some cases these “defective” P-51 parts ended up being intended for the Twin Mustang project, and would get added to the collection of parts that would eventually go into the XP-82 restoration.

For the parts that [Tom] couldn’t find, modern manufacturing techniques were sometimes called in. The twin layout of the aircraft meant the team occasionally had one component but was missing its counterpart. In these cases, the original component could be carefully measured and then recreated with either a CNC mill or 3D printed to be used as a die for pressing the parts out of metal. In this way the team was able to reap the benefits of modern production methods while still maintaining historical accuracy; important on an aircraft where even the colors of the wires used in the original electrical system have been researched and faithfully recreated.

We’ve seen plenty of restorations here at Hackaday, but they tend to be of the vintage computer and occasionally Power Wheels variety. It’s interesting to see that the same sort of techniques we apply to our small scale projects are used by the pros to preserve pieces of history for future generations.

[Thanks to Daniel for the tip.]

Prop WWII Machine Gun Courtesy of Home Depot

There’s perhaps nothing worse than working on a project and realizing you don’t have the part you need to complete it. You look through all your stuff twice, maybe three times, on the off chance it’s hiding somewhere. Perhaps even reach out to a few nearby friends to see if they might have something you can use. Forget local stores, what you need is so specific that nobody’s going to keep it in stock. You’re stuck, and now everything has to be put on hold.

That’s precisely what happened to [Nathan Cragun] recently. He needed a Japanese Type 96 Light Machine Gun for a particular scene in the independent World War II film he’s working on, and couldn’t find one anywhere. Out of options, he ended up building a replica with parts from the hardware store. OK, so it isn’t exactly like being short a passive component or two on that new PCB you’re putting together. But while we can’t say a project of ours has ever been short a 70+ year old Japanese machine gun, we can definitely relate to the feeling.

To start his build, [Nathan] printed out a full size diagram of the Type 96 and starting placing PVC pipes on top of it to get a sense for how it would all come together. Once the basic tubular “skeleton” of the weapon was completed, he moved on to cutting the rest of the parts out of EVA foam.

The major pieces that needed to be made were the stock and receiver, but even small details like the spiral ribbing on the barrel and the sights were created to scale using pieces of foam. In a particularly nice touch, [Nathan] even made the magazine removable. If we had to guess, some Japanese soldiers will be shown reloading the weapon onscreen for added authenticity.

The important thing to remember with a filming prop like this is that it doesn’t need to look perfect, just close. It might be used in the background, or seen only for a second during a fast pan. Even in professionally produced TV and movies, many of the props are little more than carved foam. With the excellent job [Nathan] did painting and weathering this build, we have no doubt it will look completely believable in the final production.

We’re no strangers to prop builds here at Hackaday, but they are generally of the science fiction or video game variety, so a historical build is a nice change of pace.

Retrotechtacular: Synchros Go to War (and Peace)

Rotation. Motors rotate. Potentiometers and variable capacitors often rotate. It is a common task to have to rotate something remotely or measure the rotation of something. If I asked you today to rotate a volume control remotely, for example, you might offer up an open loop stepper motor or an RC-style servo. If you wanted to measure a rotation, you’d likely use some sort of optical or mechanical encoder. However, there’s a much older way to do those same tasks and one that still sees use in some equipment: a synchro.

The synchro dates back to the early 1900s when the Panama Canal used them to read and control valves and gates. These devices were very common in World War II equipment, too. In particular, they were often part of the mechanisms that set and read gun azimuth and elevation or — like the picture to the left — a position indication of a radar antenna. Even movie cameras used these devices for many years. Today, with more options, you don’t see them as much except in applications where their simplicity and ruggedness is necessary.

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Milspec Teardown: CP-142 Range Computer

As some of my previous work here at Hackaday will attest to, I’m a big fan of World War II technology. Something about going in with wooden airplanes and leaving with jet fighters and space capable rockets has always captivated me. So when one of my lovingly crafted eBay alerts was triggered by something claiming to be a “Navy WWII Range Computer”, it’s safe to say I was interested.

Not to say I had any idea of what the thing was, mind you. I only knew it looked old and I had to have it. While I eagerly awaited the device to arrive at my doorstep, I tried to do some research on it and came up pretty much empty-handed. As you might imagine, a lot of the technical information for hardware that was developed in the 1940’s hasn’t quite made it to the Internet. Somebody was selling a technical manual that potentially would have covered the function of this device for $100 on another site, but I thought that might be a bit excessive. Besides, where’s the fun in that?

I decided to try to decipher what this device does by a careful examination of the hardware, consultation of what little technical data I could pull up on its individual components, and some modern gear. In the end I think I have a good idea of how it works, but I’d certainly love to hear if there’s anyone out there who might have actually worked with hardware like this and could fill in any blanks.

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Retrotechtacular: Field Assembling Airplanes Like Wartime “Ikea”

Imagine it’s 1943, and you have to transport 1,000 P-47 fighter planes from your factory in the United States to the front lines in Europe, roughly 5,000 miles over the open ocean. Flying them isn’t an option, the P-47 has a maximum range of only 1,800 miles, and the technology for air-to-air refueling of fighter planes is still a few years off. The Essex class aircraft carriers in use at this time could carry P-47s in a pinch, but the plane isn’t designed for carrier use and realistically you wouldn’t be able to fit many on anyway. So what does that leave?

It turns out, the easiest way is to simply ship them as freight. But you can’t exactly wrap a fighter plane up in brown paper and stick a stamp on it; the planes would need to be specially prepared and packed for their journey across the Atlantic. To get the P-47 inside of a reasonably shaped shipping crate, the wings, propeller, and tail had to come off and be put into a separate crate. But as any reader of Hackaday knows, getting something apart is rarely the problem, it’s getting the thing back together that’s usually the tricky part.

So begins the 1943 film “Uncrating and Assembly of the P-47 Thunderbolt Airplane which has been digitally restored and uploaded to YouTube by [Zeno’s Warbirds]. In this fascinating 40 minute video produced by the “Army Air Forces School of Applied Tactics”, the viewer is shown how the two crates containing the P-47 are to be unpacked and assembled into a ready-to-fly airplane with nothing more than manpower and standard mechanic’s tools. No cranes, no welders, not even a hanger: just a well-designed aircraft and wartime ingenuity.

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The German Space Program That Never Was

A previous post discussed the creation of the V-2 rocket, the first man-made object to reach space. Designed and built at the Peenemünde Army Research Center during World War II, the V-2 was intended to be a weapon of mass destruction, but ended up being far more effective as a tool of discovery than it ever did on the battlefield. In fact, historians now estimate that more people died during the development and construction of the V-2 than did in the actual attacks carried out with it. But even though it failed to win the war for Germany, it still managed to change the world in another way: as it served as the basic blueprint for all subsequent rockets right up to modern-day vehicles.

But the V-2 wasn’t the only rocket-powered vehicle that the Germans were working on, a whole series of follow-up vehicles were in the design phase when the Allies took Berlin in 1945. Some were weapons, but not all. Pioneers like Walter Dornberger and Wernher von Braun saw that rocketry had more to offer mankind than a new way to deliver warheads to the enemy, and the team at Peenemünde had begun laying the groundwork for a series of rockets that could have put mankind into space years before the Soviets.

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