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.
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.
In 1940, England was in a dangerous predicament. The Nazi war machine had been sweeping across Europe for almost two years, claiming countries in a crescent from Norway to France and cutting off the island from the Continent. The Battle of Britain was raging in the skies above the English Channel and southern coast of the country, while the Blitz ravaged London with a nightly rain of bombs and terror. The entire country was mobilized, prepared for Hitler’s inevitable invasion force to sweep across the Channel and claim another victim.
We’ve seen before that no idea that could possibly help turn the tide was considered too risky or too wild to take a chance on. Indeed, many of the ideas that sprang from the fertile and desperate minds of British inventors went on to influence the course of the war in ways they could never have been predicted. But there was one invention that not only influenced the war but has a solid claim on being its key invention, one without which the outcome of the war almost certainly would have been far worse, and one that would become a critical technology of the post-war era that would lead directly to innovations in communications, material science, and beyond. And the risks taken to develop this idea, the cavity magnetron, and field usable systems based on it are breathtaking in their scope and audacity. Here’s how the magnetron went to war.
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.
The image of the crackpot inventor, disheveled, disorganized, and surrounded by the remains of his failures, is an enduring Hollywood trope. While a simple look around one’s shop will probably reveal how such stereotypes get started, the image is largely not a fair characterization of the creative mind and how it works, and does not properly respect those who struggle daily to push the state of the art into uncharted territory.
That said, there are plenty of wacky ideas that have come down the pike, most of which mercifully fade away before attracting undue attention. In times of war, though, the need for new and better ways to blow each other up tends to bring out the really nutty ideas and lower the barrier to revealing them publically, or at least to military officials.
Of all the zany plans that came from the fertile minds on each side of World War II, few seem as out there as a plan to use birds to pilot bombs to their targets. And yet such a plan was not only actively developed, it came from the fertile mind of one of the 20th century’s most brilliant psychologists, and very nearly resulted in a fieldable weapon that would let fly the birds of war.
Nothing brings out the worst in humanity like war. Perversely, war also seems to exert an opposite if not equal force that leads to massive outbursts of creativity, the likes of which are not generally seen during times of peace. With inhibitions relaxed and national goals to meet, or in some cases where the very survival of a people is at stake, we always seem to find new and clever ways to blow each other to smithereens.
The run-up to World War II was a time where almost every nation was caught on its heels, and the rapidity of events unfolding across Europe and in Asia demanded immediate and decisive response. As young men and women mobilized and made ready for war, teams of engineers, scientists, and inventors were pressed into service to develop the weapons that would support them. For the British, these “boffins” would team up under a directorate called Ministry of Defence 1, or MD1. Informally, they’d be known as “Churchill’s Toy Shop,” and the devices they came up with were deviously clever hacks.
On a bright spring morning in 1940, the Royal Air Force pilot was in the fight of his life. Strapped into his brand new Supermarine Spitfire, he was locked in mortal combat with a Luftwaffe pilot over the English Channel in the opening days of the Battle of Britain. The Spitfire was behind the Messerschmitt and almost within range to unleash a deadly barrage of rounds from the four eight Browning machine guns in the leading edges of the elliptical wings. With the German plane just below the centerline of the gunsight’s crosshairs, the British pilot pushed the Spit’s lollipop stick forward to dive slightly and rake his rounds across the Bf-109. He felt the tug of the harness on his shoulders keeping him in his seat as the nimble fighter pulled a negative-g dive, and he lined up the fatal shot.
But the powerful V-12 Merlin engine sputtered, black smoke trailing along the fuselage as the engine cut out. Without power, the young pilot watched in horror as the three-bladed propeller wound to a stop. With the cold Channel waters looming in his windscreen, there was no time to restart the engine. The pilot bailed out in the nick of time, watching his beautiful plane cartwheel into the water as he floated down to join it, wondering what had just happened.
I’m guessing you got quite a few e-mails today. But have you ever had a v-mail? That sounds like some new term for video e-mail, but it actually dates back to World War II. If you are in Europe, the term was Airgraph — not much more descriptive.
If you make a study of war, you’ll find one thing. Over the long term, the winning side is almost always the side that can keep their troops supplied. Many historians think World War II was not won by weapons but won by manufacturing capability. That might not be totally true, but supplies are critical to a combat force. Other factors like tactics, doctrine, training, and sheer will come into play as well.
On the other hand, morale on the front line and the home front is important, too. Few things boost morale as much as a positive letter from home. But there’s a problem.
While today’s warfighter might have access to a variety of options to communicate with those back home, in World War II, communications typically meant written letters. The problem is ships going from the United States to Europe needed to be full of materials and soldiers, not mailbags. With almost two million U.S. soldiers in the European Theater of Operations, handling mail from home was a major concern.
British Mail Hack
The British already figured out the mail problem in the 1930s. Eastman Kodak and Imperial Airways (which would later become British Airways) developed the Airgraph system to save weight on mail-carrying aircraft. Airgraph allowed people to write soldiers on a special form. The form was microfilmed and sent to the field. On the receiving end, the microfilm was printed and delivered as regular mail.