Captured Messerschmitt Me 163 rocket-powered fighter, equipped with Helmuth Walter’s hydrogen peroxide propulsion engine

How Nazis ended up working for the Allies after WWII

Image credit: Royal Aeronautical society, German Chemical Society, nasa, getty images

The popular BBC TV drama ‘Close to the Enemy’ tells the story of a fictitious Nazi engineer recruited to work for the RAF in the aftermath of the Second World War. We look at several real-life cases where German scientists and engineers ended up working for Britain and the USA.

TV drama ‘Close to the Enemy’ by writer-director Stephen Poliakoff, which is currently being aired on BBC2, is a cat-and-mouse story set in Britain at a pivotal time around the end of World War Two.

British intelligence officer Captain Callum Ferguson (Jim Sturgess) is trying to convince German engineer Dieter (August Diehl) to work for the British RAF on urgently developing the jet engine.

Dieter is reluctant, keen to go back to his German home, and Ferguson’s department is under pressure from the War Crimes Unit, which is interested in some of the Germans under the government’s charge.

The story is based on the real-life work of the Allies under the US Operation Paperclip and the British Operation T-Force. The two groups detained Nazi German scientists, physicists and engineers, along with weapons and any other technology, including whole test centres, they could find.

The Allies believed, somewhat wrongly, that Nazi technological capabilities were greater than theirs. They were concerned these technologies would become pivotal in the encroaching Cold War with the Soviet Union.

This belief overrode any possible moral questions that could be posed about working with the enemy.

Wernher von Braun, rocket scientist

A member of the Nazi party and the paramilitary Schutzstaffel (SS), Wernher von Braun headed the development team of the V2 - the world’s first long-range ballistic missile - in World War Two.

The V2 was a liquid propellant missile extending 14 metres in length and weighing 12,500kg. It could be flown at speeds in excess of 5,000km/h and delivered a 1,000kg warhead to a target 320km away.

It is now known the rocket was built using concentration-camp labour, and it is unlikely von Braun wouldn’t have been aware of this at the time.

In early 1945, it became clear to von Braun that Germany was going to lose the war. Thinking strategically, he engineered the surrender of 500 of his top rocket scientists, along with plans and test vehicles, to the Americans, before the Allied capture of the V2 rocket complex.

In 1969, after a successful career with Nasa, he watched one of his rockets, the Saturn V, a direct descendent of the V2, take the Apollo 11 crew to the Moon.

Werner Heisenberg, nuclear physicist

Nobel Prize winner Werner Heisenberg was tasked with building a nuclear bomb for the Nazis during World War Two.

Although he failed, Heisenberg would later claim he deliberately stalled his research in order to delay the Nazi’s access to a nuclear bomb. This story has been widely discredited by historians who suggest it is more likely Heisenberg and his team were unable to create a nuclear bomb in sufficient time and with a limited supply of raw materials.

Heisenberg thought the Germans were much further advanced in their nuclear development than the Allies. Therefore, as he sat in Farm Hall in Cambridgeshire after being detained by the British in 1945, and the news reached him of a nuclear bomb being dropped on Japan, it is likely he received it with both shock and disbelief.

In fact, the Allies learnt very little from the Nazi nuclear programme.

Walter Reppe, chemist

Walter Reppe carried out extremely hazardous research on the reactions of acetylene, later known as ‘Reppe chemistry’. His process included the highly explosive combination of ethynylation and copper acetylide under pressure. 

In 1943-4, this process was used to make synthetic rubber for the Nazis at Ludwigshafen. The fact that the operation of a high-pressure acetylene plant was undertaken in the midst of aerial bombardment was considered a feat of technical skill and great courage and shocked the Allies when they discovered his factory.

In 1945, Reppe was captured and detained by Operation Paperclip, which ranked him highly because of his acetylene technology. However, he was very uncooperative and claimed his treatment by the Americans was particularly severe and included being wrongly accused of war crimes.

After two years in custody, during which he was forced to write papers for the American Chemical Society, he still refused to go to the USA and was returned to Ludwigshafen.

Otto Ambros, chemical engineer

During the Second World War, Otto Ambros managed the IG Farben factories where sarin and soman, both nerve agents he developed, were produced, along with the skin irritant mustard gas.

A year after the war ended, Ambros was arrested by the US Army and imprisoned at Nuremberg for eight years for war crimes, including testing poisons and chemicals on concentration camp inmates.

After his release, he became an advisor to many US and UK chemical companies such as W R Grace and Dow Chemical.

Ambros also advised Chemie Grunenthal, which synthesised thalidomide in 1954, and Distillers, which distributed thalidomide in the UK, on the development of the drug.

Hellmuth Walter, engineer

Before World War Two, Hellmuth Walter pioneered the hydrogen peroxide propulsion system used first for submarines and then for rocketry.

Walter’s engines were installed in Wernher von Braun’s rockets, and later into the Heinkel and Messerschmitt aircrafts.

The Heinkel He 176 became the first aircraft to fly powered only by a liquid-fuelled rocket.

When Walter’s engine was combined with Alexander Lippisch’s revolutionary airframe design, it became the cornerstone of the Messerschmitt Me 163 rocket-powered fighter, which was first used in 1941. At the time, its speed and performance were unprecedented.

After the war, Walter was captured and his factory investigated by the British Army unit T-Force.

He went on to work for the Royal Navy, where he helped raise one of the German submarines that used his drive, the U-1407. It was re-commissioned as HMS Meteorite. The Royal Navy constructed two more submarines using Walter’s engines before abandoning research in this direction in favour of nuclear power.

Ferdinand Porsche, engineer and inventor

At Hitler’s request, in 1934 automotive engineer Ferdinand Porche designed a ‘people’s car’ - the Volkswagen Beetle. During World War Two, along with his son Ferdinand Anton, he went on to create a heavy tank for the Nazi Tiger Programme.

The father and son team designed the Panzerkampfwager VI, christened ‘Tiger’. The tank had an 88mm anti-aircraft/anti-​tank gun and thick armour. Although it had some technical issues due to its weight, 1,347 were built.

Austrian-born Porsche, who was a Nazi party member, was arrested at the end of the war for Nazi affiliations by French soldiers and served 22 months in prison. During this time his son oversaw the creation of a new racing car, the Cisitalia, a Porsche-company product. The father and son team went on to make history in 1950, when they introduced the Porsche sports car.

Robert Lusser, engineer and aircraft designer

Robert Lusser assisted famous German aircraft designer Willy Messerschmitt with his design for a touring aircraft, the Messerschmitt M37, many features of which were combined in the Messerschmitt Bf 109 - the most important fighter for the Luftwaffe during the Second World War.

Lusser also designed the less successful He 280 and He 219 and worked on a pilotless aircraft known as the flying bomb V1 - in direct competition with Wernher von Braun’s V2 vertical take-off rocket.

At the end of the war, Lusser was taken to the US where he worked for the Navy and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Later he would work with his old rival on von Braun’s rocketry team. Lusser once declared von Braun’s ambitions of reaching the Moon doomed to failure - he was, of course, wrong.

Peter Debye, nuclear physicist

When Hitler took power in 1933, Debye was the director of the prestigious Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics, having succeeded Albert Einstein.

Dutch-born Debye spent much of his early career working in Germany, and his greatest achievements include decoding the physical character of molecules, in particular, how they react with light and other forms of radiation, and helping to understand how X-rays and electron beams can reveal the shapes and movements of molecules.

Debye moved to the US a year after World War Two broke out, taking up a position in Cornell University where he remained for over a decade.

His short stint working under the Nazis was enough for people to question his relationship with the regime. First, he was widely criticised for not leaving Germany sooner. Then later he was ‘outed’ as a Nazi collaborator in a book published in the Netherlands in 2005.

Some records do show that Debye participated in cleansing of Jewish and other non-Aryan people at the institute. However, many historians say that  denouncing Debye is an excessively harsh judgement, that his stance was typical of the position of most physicists during the war - ambiguous, yet mostly middle-ground.

Nazi gold: the Allied brain drain

The Allies’ beliefs about the extent of the Nazi’s technology arsenal were exaggerated, according to Dr Michael J Neufeld, senior curator of space history at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in the USA.

“I think the Germans and the Allies were on roughly equal terrain in terms of capabilities, but had differences in emphasis,” he says.

“The Germans invested a lot in rocketry, which didn’t do them much good, but their rocket programme with the V2 was really a long way ahead of everybody.”

Dr Neufeld asserts that in most other technologies the two sides were fairly equal, with the Allies perhaps slightly ahead in nuclear capability.

“I think Germans scientists and engineers in general helped the countries they ended up in; they were useful,” says Neufeld, “but of course, it raises the moral question: what price did we pay for bringing them in?”


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