We Almost Lost The Weapon Race
We know now why the Nazis fought to the end. They were making rockets we couldn’t stop, U-boats we couldn’t find and planes we couldn’t catch
Maclean's Ottawa Editor
FROM D-Day to V-E Day we used to wonder why the Germans didn’t quit. What kept them fighting in the face of certain defeat?
Today we know the answer: They didn’t
'Mnk defeat was certain at all. They thought aey had a fighting chancè right up to the end, for they had weapons perilously near completion that might have altered the whole course of the war.
We, of course, had an ace in the hole—the atomic bomb, which we completed long before they could have done, and which probably would have won the war for us no matter what they’d been able to do in the meantime. But if the Germans had had a little more time or a little better luck thfey could have done us terrible damage before we’d have been able to retaliate.
Teams of Allied scientists and military technicians have been combing Germany and questioning German generals and research men ever since war ended. Now they’re coming back-—a Canadian team of 45 arrived just before Christmas. Here are some of the things they say:
Just Three Months Late
IF GERMAN-GUIDED missiles, V-l’s and V-2’s, had been in production a mere three months sooner, invasion on D-Day would have been impossible.
Even the “buzz bombs,” the jet-propelled V-l’s, had an interval of relative invincibility before we learned to knock them down. Against the V-2, the rocket that flies faster than sound, we never did find a defense. Either of these weapons, falling in large numbers on our invasion base, could have postponed, if not prevented, the landing in Normandy. But the first buzz bomb didn’t land in England until 10 days after we’d landed in France.
If the V-3 had ever been fired, it might have knocked England out of the war. The V-3 was a huge sunken gun, captured just in time near Calais. Each of its 50 smoothbore barrels was 400 feet long, set 350 feet into the hills at an angle of 55 deg. This contrivance could have rained upon London, 95 miles away, rocket shells at the rate of 600 per hour—a shell every six seconds. The installation itself was protected by 18-foot concrete armor which, if completed, would have been invulnerable to any pre-atomic bomb. The Calais gun was nearest to completion, but the Germans had eight of these things under construction when they were driven out of France and the Low Countries.
They were ahead of us in other fields too. If they had got their latest submarine into full production we’d have had to fight the Battle of the Atlantic all over again.
In this 1945 U-boat the Germans had finally, for the first time anywhere, succeeded in building a true submarine. All other types had been, strictly speaking, submersible surface craft. They were like whales—they could go below the surface for a short while, but they had to come up to charge batteries. One recognized technique of submarine hunting was simply to chase them so closely that they couldn’t surface safely, so they had to choose between surrender on the water or paralysis below it.
The Germans’ new submarine wasn’t like
a whale, it was like a fish. It could and often did remain submerged for the whole duration of a voyage—anywhere up to six or seven weeks—and it could travel at speeds never possible before for undersea craft.
Previously U-boats could operate their Diesels only on the surface, where they could be seen by day and spotted by radar at night. Submerged, they had to use battery-driven electric motors that gave a top speed of only six knots. When the batteries were exhausted they had to be recharged on the surface.
By 1945 the Germans had got over this difficulty with a device they called a schnorkel, a kind of submarine stovepipe. They’d keep the U-boat just below surface, run up their bit of pipe and draw air down through it to run the Diesels under water. It meant the sub could travel at surface speed, that’s up to 25 knots, while submerged.
Schnorkel wasn’t the answer to all a submarine captain’s dreams. Sometimes it would be drowned by a big wave, sending gallons of water into the U-boat. Sometimes it would become clogged, and the Diesels would use a lot of the crew’s air before anyone noticed what was up. Also there was the garbage disposal problem—one sc/mor/,e/-equipped submarine was captured by a Canadian frigate after 45 days under water, and an RCNVR officer said, “You could hardly get through the conning tower for garbage.”
But in spite of all drawbacks, the schnorkelequipped sub was a real headache to our side. It could stay under all the time and thus was hard to detect by air patrol. And the best of them could move from point to point at 25 knots, under water.
Up to V-E Day our radar couldn’t pick out this little piece of pipe with any assurance. The schnorkel echo was indistinguishable, on the radar screen, from wave echoes.
NAVY people admit that if the 1945 U-boat had been available in sufficient quantity it would have made our antisubmarine fleet practically obsolete. Corvettes and frigates .with a top speed of 18 to 20 knots aren’t good enough to deal with subs that can do 25 knots with schnorkel, and that have such improved batteries that they can do up to 10 or 12 knots even 200 or 300 feet down.
Besides its newfound speed and its ability to stay under water for the whole duration of a voyage, the German U-boat was on the verge of another advance that would have made a number of our standard detection devices useless. ASDIC, the Admiralty’s great antisubmarine development of the last war, was the backbone of sea defense in this war too. It catches submarines by throwing a beam of sound at them under water, recording the echo when a sound beam hits a sub, and deducing the position of the sub from the time interval between emission of sound and receipt of echo.
Late in the war the Germans developed a coating for submarine hulls which had the effect of greatly diminishing the echo. Luckily the British happened to sink one of the first U-boats to be coated with this anti-echo preparation. They recovered a bit of the hull, guessed at once the purpose of its queerlooking surface, and broadcast on the BBC that the touted Continued on page 48
We Almost Lost The Weapon Race
Continued from page 9
anti-ASDIC sub had already been sunk. The Germans, discouraged by this setback, didn’t bother equipping any more U-boats with the new surface material.
But, actually, the stuff was quite effective. It did diminish the echo greatly, and proportionately reduce the efficiency of our ASDIC.
Combine the difficulty of locating a fast sub with the difficulty of hearing a coated hull at all and you have a real headache for the antisubmarine
experts. We didn’t have to deal with this problem during World War II, because the new type U-boats never got into actual combat. But they were in production—a few more months and there would have been plenty in the Atlantic.
But you may say, “After all, three ‘ife’ add up to a pretty wide margin of safety. We could count on the Germans losing some of their bets, couldn’t we?”
No, we couldn’t. Because the three “ifs” I’ve mentioned were, in reality, just one big “if.” If the Germans had been able to retain or recapture control of the air they’d have gained their other objectives with ease.
It was the bombing of submarine
yards that slowed production of the new U-boat. Robomb launching sites in The Netherlands were top priority objectives of the RAF and American Air Forces from late 1943 on. When the nearly finished V-3 near Calais was captured, 30to 50-foot bomb craters around it showed why the V-3 never went into action. The RAF slowed down construction so much that in the summer of 1944, when Allied forces went past it, the V-3 was still unfinished.
We Won With Old Planes
But our control of the air, the alldecisive advantage by which we won in Europe, was itself threatened far more than most people realize. Increasingly, in the closing months of the war, the Germans were challenging it with better planes than we had. The RAF had proved gloriously, in the Battle of Britain, that a small advantage in quality can offset a large disadvantage in quantity The Nazis came nearer than most of us think to proving the same point in reverse.
‘We won the war with obsolete aircraft,” said an aeronautical engineer just back from Germany. “Our highspeed planes couldn’t touch theirs—ask any Allied pilot who fought in Germany in the last six months of the war. We hung onto our control by sheer weight of numbers, massed planes over their airdromes so they hardly ever got off the ground. But when they did get their fighters in the air they gave us a warm time.”
Their Messerschmitt 262, for instance, is reported by Allied test pilots to be a beautiful job. This twin-jet aircraft could fly and fight at 530 miles per hour, climb at 4,700 feet a minute to 39,000 feet, and had a number of little wrinkles that made it a superior combat plane. It had sweptback wings for those speeds just under the speed of sound, where older-type planes run into compressibility trouble or “shock stall” (see “How Fast Can We Fly?” in the Jan. 1 issue of Maclean’s).
They had in production, too, another still faster fighter, the rocket-driven Messerschmitt 163, with a. top speed of 560m.p.h. and a climb to40,000 feet in four minutes. This was a tailless aircraft, a so-called “flying wing.”
“While we were debating the pros and cons of tailless aircraft,” said a Canadian engineer rather bitterly, “they had one in production. They flew a prototype of that ME 163 at 620 miles an hour back in 1941!”
If it took four years to get into production, this must have been a complicated job. But the Nazis had another very fast fighter, a cheap, mass production article which set a production speed record never equalled anywhere in the world. Goering put his okay on the design for this plane, the Heinkel 162, in September, 1944. The first plane was completed in the first week of December, the second plane on Dec. 20, and from January, 1945, to V-E Day it was in regular production and in use at the front—“very annoying to our people too,” one airman reported. The Nazis planned a production of 1,000 Heinkel 162’s a month by April, but, of course, they n'ever attained that goal.
This little plane had a single jet engine, located just behind the pilot. It was tiny—“would fit into this room,” a research man told me, indicating an office of very modest size—and it was wickedly dangerous. It killed at least one of the British test pilots who tried to fly it after V-E Day. But it could fly at 520 miles an hour and climb to 40,000 feet at 4,200 feet a minute. It was, in other words, about the equal of the best high-speed planes we had in sight when war ended.
Our only jet fighter to be used in this war was the Meteor, tested as high as 600 miles an hour but with reliable top speed a good bit short of that. It never got into actual combat but was used for knocking down buzz bombs.
RAF pilots might argue this, but Canadian fliers think the Meteor isn’t a patch on the Messerschmitt 262.
“If the 262 had the Meteor’s engines, we couldn’t come within miles of it,” one Canadian said. “The Germans had to use ersatz materials in their jet engines, which made them inferior to ours. But the 262 was a much better plane in design.”
“Because,” answered a Canadian research man, “they knew far more about high-speed flight than we did, or do now for that matter. I saw a textbook on high-speed aerodynamics written in 1929, and they’d been studying it ever since.
“They were quick to recognize the special design problems of high-speed flight. Most of our high-speed fighters ran into compressibility trouble—the Meteor had to have governors to keep its jet engines from reaching the speed of which they were capable, because the Meteor itself wouldn’t fly at that speed.
“Germans were much more skilful than we in anticipating and shooting these compressibility troubles. They had at least a dozen wind tunnels capable of developing supersonic (faster than sound) speeds. In England we had only two, neither big enough to be much good.”
While we were “approaching the upper limit of the subsonic region with qualms,” as one engineer put it, the Germans were experimenting at supersonic speeds. Their plans for the immediate future were startling:
Test flown, though not yet in production, was a little rocket-powered interceptor designed for mass production. Called the “Viper,” they believed it could go at any speed you wanted to power it for, up to the point where friction with the air would have neated it red hot. The thing sits on its tail, pointing straight up; the pilot pushes a button, fires off a rocket and takes off vertically. He doesh’t pilot his plane at all in this part of the flight; it’s guided by radar, like a V-2 rocket bomb. When he gets near the bombers against which he has set out he takes over the guidance of his plane. He switches on a searchlight, locates his bomber formation, and fires 40 rocket-propelled explosive shells, any one of which is designed to be enough to bring down a bomber.
Then the pilot jettisons his plane, but he and the power unit come down by parachute. German aeronautical research men were enthusiastic about the simplicity of it all—“You don’t have to train your pilot in the difficult skills of take-off and landing,” they explained to our people. “All he has to learn is how to fly a plane in the air for a few minutes—easy.”
But nothing flying, or even test flown, approaches the bold attacks on supersonic speed which the Germans had on the drafting board, some of which were as far as the glider test stage. Junkers were developing a research plane, powered by two liquidfuel rockets, that would climb to 66,000 feet and fly at 1,500 miles an hour, double the speed of sound. Still another twin-rocket research plane was aiming at 1,700 miles per hour at 100,000 feet.
The Germans were equipped for research into far bigger things than the V-2’s. An RCAF investigator told me about their testing halls for rockets.
One had walls three or four yards thick, of ferroconcrete, capable of testing a rocket thrust of up to 100 tons. The V-2 had a thrust of only 30 tons. New installations, planned but not built, would have tested rockets up to 300 tons thrust. The transatlantic rocket, aimed at New York, would have been merely a matter of time, and perhaps not very much time either.
What were we doing while they were doing all this?
In high-speed aircraft we were working away at the same problems but making a good deal less progress.
Broadly speaking, we were relying on the piston engine and the propellerdriven plane to win the war for us. The bet paid off—they did win the war for us. But not by much. While we were refining our Spitfires and Mosquitos, our enemies were attacking a new concept of flight altogether.
They didn’t quite get there. But it would do us no more good in another war to have the best piston engine, the best propeller-driven plane, than it does the American Navy to have the world’s best sailing ship in the Yankee Clipper.
Army Behind Too
This condition exists all along the line, in all services. The Army, all things considered, was probably as close to the Germans in fundamentals as any other service, but there were many details in which they never caught up.
In a garage at Hull, Que., the Canadian Army has a weird collection of captured German equipment. There I looked through an infra-red telescope by which I could read the letters on a sign yards away, through a room that was pitch-dark. Now our research men know just as much about the physical principles of infra-red light as the Germans know. We have infra-red equipment of our own, still on the
secret list. Not many service people you meet ever saw any of this equipment, but it was being produced all right, from 1942 on.
But men who have used it say it isn’t as good as the German sample now on view at Hull — and that piece of equipment bears a 1936 date stamp!
... But We Split the Atom
Of course there were things in which we were ahead of the Germans. We were ahead of them in radar—an advantage that may have meant victory, in a critical stage of the war. We were ahead of them in a number of other specific developments, notably the radio proximity fuse that sets off an anti-aircraft shell whenever it comes near an attacking plane.
Above all, we were ahead in nuclear research, the work that led to the atomic bomb. The Germans didn’t seem to realize, until too late, that physics had anything to contribute to the winning of the war. They gave chemists and engineers all the time and money they wanted, while at the very same time they were drafting eminent physicists, men who might have smashed the atom for them, into the German Army as privates.
But all this, the scientists say, points the same moral—on both sides research meant victory. Each side threatened the other most, not with platoons of foot soldiers but with advances on the frontiers of knowledge.
By the same token, they say, preparedness doesn’t mean a big standing army, or a big obsolescent navy, or swarms of propeller-driven planes. It means knowledge of the things now possible, the developments now imminent, in spheres not yet fully explored. It means that if we are going tó hold our own, come peace or war, we must keep on pioneering new ways of doing things.