The stupidity of Nazi super-science. And hurrah for British boffins!

Anyone remember Nazi super-science? You know, the science for when ordinary super-science isn’t evil enough. I’m not talking about atomic Nazi super-soldiers led by Zombie Robo-Hitler. I’m talking real Nazi ‘super-science’ of the early 1940s – the ‘secret weapons’ Hitler insisted would win the war.

Heinkel He-177 four-engined bomber in Denmark, 1944. The engine arrangement - two engines in parallel - virtually guaranteed fires and bomber never worked properly. Public domain.
Heinkel He-177 four-engined bomber in Denmark, 1944. The engine arrangement – two DB 601 motors in tandem (dubbed ‘DB 606’) per nacelle – led to fires. Public domain.

Of course there were a couple of problems. One was that by the time the Nazis ordered German industry to build ‘super’ weapons, the war had already been lost – the tipping point came in mid-1943 when Hitler broke his own army trying to take Kursk against the advice of his generals. The Eastern Front was the decisive front of the war; after the Germans lost Kursk it was only a matter of time before superior Allied production was able to fuel a Soviet drive west.

The other problem was that Nazi super-weapons weren’t very ‘super’, even by 1940s standards. Hitler and his cronies thought they were. But what can you expect from people for whom conviction trumped reason? A regime convinced of their own destiny, buoyed by their sense of exceptionalism, and where state power pivoted around a tight integration of industrial complex with economy and government.

The main thing the Nazis were good at was evil – epitomised by one of the nastiest super-weapons their science devised; pure methamphetamine (‘P’), exploiting the prior discovery of pep-pills. This was the outcome of their quest to find a drug that could turn their own soldiers into psychotic killers immune to pain, no matter how much damage the drug did. It was actually used in 1944 by the Waffen SS as a combat aid. Alas, the recipe didn’t die with the Nazi regime – meaning ‘P’ is actually a Nazi drug. Uh – thanks, Adolf, Heinrich, et al. Yet another legacy you’re still inflicting on the world.

Messerschmitt Me-262 captured by the Allies, on test flight in the US. Public Domain.
Messerschmitt Me-262 captured by the Allies, on test flight in the US. Allied pilots during the war referred to these aircraft as ‘blow jobs’, presumably because they flew by jet thrust. Public domain.

The Nazis also encouraged rocketry, thanks to Werhner von Braun, an honorary SS Lieutenant and member of the Nazi party who was responsible, later, for America’s Saturn V Moon rockets. The problem was that the V2 missile project soaked up colossal resources – and lives. More people died making von Braun’s missile than were killed by it. But the rocket was pushed by Hitler’s regime anyway – a symptom of ‘conviction mentality’ presented as ‘logic’ and ‘reason’.

Other Nazi super-weapons that soaked up more than they delivered included August Cönders’ V3 ‘Fleißiges Lieschen’ ultra-long-range gun, which never worked; and Ferdinand Porsche’s Maus 188 tonne tank, which was too heavy for most bridges. That was dwarfed by Edward Grotte’s 1000-tonne ‘Ratte’ land battleship armed with 11-inch naval guns and powered by U-boat motors. Hitler was a fan, but Albert Speer cancelled that particular expression of Nazi megalomania in 1943, before it got to hardware.

Heinkel He-162 'Volksjager' emergency fighter, captured by the US, at Freeman Field in 1945. This wooden jet was meant to be produced in huge numbers to tip the air balance. Actually it was difficult even for experienced pilots to control, and in the hands of the half-trained boys the Nazis intended to use as pilots would have been a death trap.
Heinkel He-162 ‘Volksjager’, captured by the US, at Freeman Field in 1945. This wooden jet was meant to be produced in huge numbers to tip the air balance. Actually it was difficult even for experienced pilots to control, and in the hands of the half-trained boys the Nazis intended to use as pilots would have been a death trap.

Super-weapons that did work included the Fritz-X TV-guided bomb that sank the Italian battleship Roma in 1943, and a plethora of jet and rocket fighter designs since beloved of the “Luftwaffe 1946” fantasy brigade. Of these, the Me-262 made it to combat in 1944-45. These jets were about 100 mph faster than the best Allied piston-engined fighters, such as the P-51 Mustang flown by Chuck Yeager – but he shot down an Me-262 anyway, and damaged two others at the same time for good measure. That’s not hyperbole – here’s his combat report of 6 November 1944.

The Nazis also deployed the Tiger II tank, underpowered but with gun and armour comparable with Cold War tanks into the early 1960s. And other stuff, like tapered-barrel guns – since standard – and automatic rifles.

All of which, Hitler insisted, would win the war. They didn’t, partly because the real arbiter was industrial scale. In a war of attrition, Germany couldn’t build enough super-weapons that did work to make a difference, and the ones that didn’t soaked up resources. It has to be said that the Allies also pursued dead-ends, such as the giant Panjandrum – but to nothing like the Nazi extent.

Gloster Meteor Mk III's, seen here during operations in 1944 - yup, the Allies had jet fighters at the same time as the Nazis.
Gloster Meteor Mk III’s on operations in 1944 – yup, the Allies had jet fighters at the same time as the Nazis. Public domain.

Even so, the Allies had it all over the Germans when it came to super-weapons. Starting with the atomic bomb, the most powerful weapon in the history of the world. The German effort failed partly because their competent physicists fled to the United States in the face of Nazi persecution, partly because the Nazi bomb program was never fully resourced.

The Allies built two other key war-winning devices – effective radar, based on the British cavity magnetron, and the first radar proximity fuse for anti-aircraft work – using thermionic valve technology. General Electric did it to a design by British scientist Sir Samuel Curran. As Vannevar Bush pointed out, that fuse was decisive in key ways. The Nazis? Rheinmetal’s parallel effort was cancelled.

That’s apart from Allied jet development which paralleled the German – the British had the Gloster Meteor and the Americans the Lockheed P-80. The difference was that the Allies didn’t prioritise them. The RAF whipped the Meteor into service to help meet the V1 threat, but industry otherwise focussed on existing weapons, which they could build in overwhelming numbers. And so – fortunately – the west won the Second World War.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014


7 thoughts on “The stupidity of Nazi super-science. And hurrah for British boffins!

  1. “…A symptom of ‘conviction mentality’ presented as ‘logic’ and ‘reason’.” We still seem to see a lot of this, don’t we? Forgive my cynicism, Matthew, but this phrase is just so perfect. I suspect it will stay with me. Interesting post. Thanks, Matthew.


    1. Thanks! It seems to me that it’s a common enough human failing. The totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century took conviction mentality to extreme, of course. And the legacy of their evil seems to endure, alas, in all sorts of ways. Just last week there was a horrific killing near Wellington in which the crazed murderer was reportedly fuelled by pure methamphetamine. Nobody today realises where that appalling material was invented, or why. A terrible legacy of evil though, realistically, I suppose that if the Nazis hadn’t invented it, somebody else would have.

  2. Oh yes, I’ve witnessed the way forum-goers and some documentaries drool over Nazi Super-weapons. Personally, I’m not impressed. They didn’t invent the Spitfire did they? Now THAT’s a super-weapon! I especially consider the V1 and V2 to be vile. Weapons that don’t target a specific military target (usually landing upon non-combatants) are just awful. Worse, they are ineffective. They only strengthen the resolve of the populace to continue the fight (“if they do such terrible things, fighting them is justified!”). On top of it, hitting non-military targets is a complete waste of effort. Fighting war is all about eliminating the enemy’s ability to wage war. Hitting an old woman’s rose garden will never accomplish that.

    When I saw the topic, I immediately thought of the German TV-guided bomb and the He-177. Then there’s the Amerika Bombers: Me-264 and Ju-390. Germany simply had too little experience with strategic bombers (a fact that severely hampered their war effort), and they couldn’t pull it off. It’s true they pulled themselves into too many directions. They could’ve had the Me-262 doing intercepts in 1943, but Hitler insisted it should be the new Schnellbomber (facepalm). By the time they got the fighter doing what it was supposed to do, this wonder weapon appeared in too few numbers and far too late to make a difference. I guess we should be happy the Nazi goofballs screwed up six ways from Sunday. I like speaking English. 🙂

    1. Me too. Yes, the Nazis mucked up their own war effort big time. And a good thing too. I’ve seen it argued that in practical terms the war was in the balance as late as 1942, certainly in terms of the risk of the Germans reaching an accommodation with the Soviets. The winner in the end was British and US scientific ingenuity backed by US mass production, but that took time to get rolling and if the Soviets had folded in 1942 the Germans would have been very tough to crack. For me the most intriguing part is the fact that while wr know how it all panned out, nobody at the time did. It was a worry.

      1. Yep. If Britain had fallen, things would’ve been different. Just a few slight changes and Germany might have won the Battle of Britain. If that happened, US bombers wouldn’t have an “Unsinkable Aircraft Carrier” to launch from. Honestly, I think Germany was doomed the moment they launched Operation Barbarossa. They were battling on two fronts with two future superpowers, and no long-range bomber with which to disrupt the industrial capacity of either one. They didn’t stand a chance. It’s true that we can criticize now with 20/20 hindsight. At the time, no one knew that wars were won as decisively with industrial might as much as military power. Now we do. But perhaps we did. Have you heard the parable about the “war was lost for want of a nail?”

        1. I think it’s possible that if Britain had fallen, the US would have fought the war across the Atlantic – the B-29 was specifically ordered for that purpose in 1940, though never used that way. I agree that the failure of Barbarossa ended any chance of a swift Axis victory against the Soviets. The book to check out is Richard Overy’s ‘Why The Allies Won’, which is a pretty interesting dissection – his theory is that the Allied strategic bombing campaign tipped the balance because it forced the Luftwaffe to pull back from the Eastern front and gave air superiority there to the Soviets. I’m not so sure, but it’s an interesting argument.

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