Whose German Scientists?

The dean of our German scientists, Dr Ing Wernher von Braun.

The dean of our German scientists, Dr Ing Wernher von Braun.

In the Alistair MacLean novel Ice Station Zebra, and indeed in one of the scenes preserved in the necessarily snappier film adaptation, the British scientist (portrayed by Patrick McGoohan, not playing a spy for a change) observed:

The Russians put our camera made by our German scientists and your film made by your German scientists into their satellite made by their German scientists.

The Cold War thriller assumed facts that everybody suspected to be true, but nobody without a security clearance really knew: that Russian technology had gotten a similar boost from captive Germans as American had from acquiring Walter Dornberger and Wernher von Braun and their rocket team.

Over the years, it became possible to guess from Russian advances that we’d gotten the head start in rocket guidance and program management that led to manned space and surface-to-surface missiles. The Russians had gotten some real talent in rocket engine, jet turbine, and turboprop design (to this day, their engines generally have more thrust than their western equivalents). They also got a jump in air-to-surface and surface-to-air missiles; the Germans had operationalized the first (with which they sunk a number of Allied ships) and were close to operational on the latter at war’s end.

Fortunately, it’s no longer that necessary to guess. The National Security Agency has declassified an internal magazine article about German contributions to the Russian missile effort. Some ideas that we took away from this:

  • Ivan didn’t really trust his Germans much, and the ones taken to Russia were soon frozen out of design work and shipped home, except for guidance men, who probably took longer to develop good Russian understudies.
  • As far as we can tell, none of the Germans became naturalized Soviet citizens.
  • The use of these scientists was completely covert; the soviet public never heard their names.
  • The scientists were of more help in shaking down processes and overcoming specific logjams than in overall design. The Soviets had their own talent.

But you don’t need to take our word for it. Read The Whole Thing™: early_history_soviet_missile [.pdf]

One would assume — and the writer of the undated NSA document assumes — the the Soviets’ German scientists were pressganged into service. In fact, they seem to have been recruited, using a blandishment that the US ARmy had taken off the table for its Germans: the ability to stay in Germany. In 2003, Anatoly Zak, in Air and Space magazine, explained:

When I met [former Soviet officer Boris] Chertok in Moscow last year, …. his memory of events that took place half a century earlier was still vivid. He recalled the scramble in 1945 as he and his colleagues tried, with little success, to lure top German talent to the Soviet side. His emissaries made risky dashes into the American zone, approaching the rocket specialists with offers of hefty salaries, food rations, and—most importantly—the opportunity to stay in Germany. That was one of the few battles von Braun and his colleagues had lost in negotiating with the Americans, and the Soviet recruiting campaign appealed to the Germans’ longing to remain in their homeland.

Few took the bait. One who did was Helmut Gröttrup, a physicist by training and a top expert on the V-2’s flight control system. Historians have debated why Gröttrup turned down the offer to work in the United States, suggesting that it was a combination of his leftist views and his refusal to become a bit player on von Braun’s team. Chertok thinks the primary reason was Gröttrup’s wish—and the even stronger desire of his wife Irmgard—to stay in Germany. He doesn’t discount, however, the scientist’s left-wing politics. “He was what we would call a social democrat—definitely anti-fascist,” Chertok recalls.

The deal wasn’t kept on the Russian end, and Gröttrup and his colleagurs were spirited off to the USSR the next year. It’s interesting to compare Anatoly Zak’s post-Cold-War take to the NSA’s in-progress-look on the establishment of an institute in Belicherode (which the NSA report identifies as Institut Rabe).

At the end of World War II, German military technology was in several fields the most advanced in the world. They had world-leading small arms, tanks, aircraft, and entire new categories of guided weapons and missiles that the Allies were far from operationalizing. It did them almost no good at all. The Allies had vast quantities of stuff that was, in many cases, not as good; the German innovations were not enough to stem the logistical tide that buried the would-be  thousand-year empire. (Not that that outcome is a bad thing, considering the nature of the empire; but we’re prospecting for lessons learned here).

And what happened to the inventions? And even the inventors like Gröttrup and von Braun? If you lose the war, your enemies get them. QED.

Update

Even if it weren’t Friday, it would be just plain wrong to mention the good Herr Doktor without sharing Tom Lehrer’s musical character study:

4 thoughts on “Whose German Scientists?

  1. Aesop

    Minor nit:
    You owe us one mea culpa.
    Patrick McGoohan was playing exactly his trademark British spy in Ice Station Zebra, in that case a spy pretending to be a scientist/ Arctic expert.
    (British scientists, for example, do not routinely sleep with pistols under their pillows, nor recount having killed people to naval officers in submarine staterooms who they’ve recently bench-pressed into the wall at gunpoint, AFAIK.
    If you watched that excellent movie 150 times like Howard Hughes did, or about once a year or so anyways, you’d have known that. Tsk.
    But I too love that line, which was pretty high-brow intel insight for a 1968 movie.

    Thanks for the link to the relevant Cold War docs. My favorite WvB story is that when his biopic came out, entitled I Aim At The Stars, more than a couple of waggish US scientists subtitled it “But Sometimes I Hit London”.

  2. Y

    Russian guidance systems also got a very much needed boost from US industry.


    “The technological roadblock was mass production of miniaturised precision ball bearings for guidance systems. In the early 1960s Soviets attempted to buy U.S. technology for mass production of miniaturised precision bearings. The technology was denied. How­ever, in 1972 the necessary grinders were sold by Bryant Chucking Grinder Company and its products are today used in Soviet guided missile systems and gyroscopes. Specifically, the Soviets were then able to MIRV their missiles and increase their accuracy.”

    Someone slept on the job, apparently.

    I wonder how the Bryant Chucking Grinder Company felt about eventually ending up targetted by ICBM’s containing ball bearings made on their machines..

    1. Hognose Post author

      Funny. At one time I worked for Heald Machine Company, a now-defunct competitor of Bryant on some lines. Grinding is (or was for all of the 20th Century, anyway) the most precise method of cutting metal to size and tolerance, What killed Healed, and forced it into the very bad management of Cincinnati Milacron, nearly killed Bryant as well, and that was improvement by Japanese competitors. (Some of them made such precise copies of off-patent US machines that parts would interchange with no machine work. Parts didn’t always interchange on OUR machines without machine work!) By the 1980s, the US firms only held an advantage at the very high end of precision, with better balanced spindles and heads, and more precisely scraped ways (still a hand operation). Around that time, the Japanese firms like Hitachi and Toshiba behagan to feel pressure from Korean and Chinese competitors, at least in the commodity markets. By 2010, they were hanging on based on higher precision! Achieved with better-balanced spindles and hand-scraped ways….

      In the 1930s, Russia was Heald’s biggest customer, and I presume it was similar for many US machine tool firms. By 1940, it was all machinery for defense work. Heald’s files were full of machine records that ground such things as Bren gun gas tubes, BAR buffers, VT fuze parts, with photos… the Russian stuff had been primarily automotive, for plants Fiat and Ford built. I believe Milacron threw those records away. Even during the Cold War we got occasional letters from a Russian factory worker or manager, praising the quality of a machine… that we’d sold in 1933.

      Machine tools are the ultimate dual-use technology. You can make anything with them if you know what you’re doing… even more machine tools.

      1. Y


        In the 1930s, Russia was Heald’s biggest customer, and I presume it was similar for many US machine tool firms.

        Industrialization of the USSR would have been impossible or far more prolonged without foreign expertise.
        Some of the chief Soviet tank, sorry,.. tractor factories (Kharkov, Stalingrad, Chelyabinsk) were built by Americans – US plans, US engineers managing. Soviets did the grunt work. There was an older Leningrad one, but IIRC, most production was from the new plants.

        USSR had 30000 planes and 22000 tanks at outset of WWII. I’m not sure if it’s a pity or a relief Stalin killed the best people – so they were disorganized, had serious maintenance problems and so on.
        Red Army also had too few radios..

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