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Wernher von Braun with the F-1 engines of Saturn V

Operation Paperclip: How Nazi scientists advanced American space travel

Image: Wernher von Braun with the F-1 engines of the Saturn V at the US Space and Rocket Center | Public Domain

In the final months of World War II, the Soviets and the Americans had their eyes on the same prize - the scientists, engineers and technicians of the Third Reich. As the Soviets advanced from the east, the Americans hatched a plan to grab as many of Germany’s brightest minds before their allies had the chance. This was Operation Paperclip.

The Osenberg List

The story begins in the unlikeliest of places - a toilet. That’s where a Polish lab technician searching Bonn University in March 1945 found several pieces of ripped-up paper. This was the ‘Osenberg List’ - the names of prominent scientists, engineers and technicians who had been recalled from menial work and frontline duties in the dying days of World War II. They were instead tasked to work on a wealth of secret weapons projects that the increasingly-desperate Nazis had hoped would turn the tide of the war.

The list was passed on to MI6, who in turn handed it to Major Robert B. Staver, the Chief of the Jet Propulsion Section of the Research and Intelligence Branch of the United States Army Ordnance Corps. Staver used the list to compile one of his own. The name at the top of his list was Wernher von Braun, the eminent rocket scientist who had helped design Germany’s fearsome V-2 rocket.

Capturing the scientists

Efforts to capture the scientists concentrated on the regions of Saxony and Thuringia - home to the V-2 rocket program at the German Army Research Center in Peenemünde on the Baltic Coast. It was here that most of the scientists on the Osenberg List worked, and the Americans wasted no time rounding them up and moving them out of the way of the advancing Soviets.

Initially, Staver’s plan was just to interrogate the scientists under his control and pass on anything useful to his superiors. However, when he began interviewing them and learned more about the cutting-edge work they were doing, he urged his superior in Washington, Colonel Joel Holmes of the U.S. Department of War, to bring some of the scientists over to the States because, in Staver’s opinion, they would prove incredibly useful in the war against Japan.

Holmes agreed, and the first scientists began arriving in May 1945. Amongst them was Herbert A. Wagner, the inventor of the first anti-shipping ‘glide bomb’; Eberhard Rees, in charge of V-2 rocket fabrication and assembly at Peenemünde, and the aforementioned Wernher von Braun. The men were offered jobs at various US military facilities such as the White Sands Proving Grounds in New Mexico and Wright Field, Ohio, home to a large military testing and training facility.

The pros and cons of employing Nazis

The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought World War II to a close. A new enemy quickly arose - the Soviet Union. The decision to continue bringing German scientists to help America fight the Cold War came from the very top. President Truman ruminated on the matter for several months, before finally giving Paperclip official presidential approval in September 1946.

The fact that many of the men invited to begin new lives in the States had been members of the Nazi Party was swept under the carpet. The most prominent of them, Wernher von Braun, had not only been a party member but also a Sturmbannführer of the SS. He had been accused of using slave labour and was photographed alongside Himmler, but that didn’t matter. What did was bringing his unrivalled expertise in the field of rocket science.

There was a belated investigation into the Operation Paperclip scientists, though only one of them was ever prosecuted - engineer Georg Rickhey, who was sent back to Germany in 1947 to stand trial for his work with the SS and the Gestapo. Another, former Nazi medical officer Walter Schrieber, arrived in the US as part of Operation Paperclip in 1951, but quickly relocated to Argentina when his links to human experimentation came to light. Shamefully, Schrieber was aided in his move to South America by the US military.

Scientific achievements and honours

The scientists involved in Operation Paperclip contributed greatly to many projects during the Cold War. Most famously, Wernher von Braun went on to lead the team behind the Saturn V super-heavy launch vehicle that blasted Apollo 11 into space on its successful mission to the Moon in 1969. Aerospace engineer Adolf Busemann, meanwhile, developed the ‘swept wing’ that almost all jet aircraft have used since the war.

Several Paperclip scientists were also honoured in their chosen fields. Four former Nazis were awarded the NASA Distinguished Service Medal - Wernher von Braun among them. Other awards handed out included the Department of Defense Distinguished Civilian Service Award and the Goddard Astronautics Award. Several Paperclip scientists’ names appear in the Space Camp Hall of Fame and the International Space Hall of Fame.

Wernher von Braun died in 1977. As was the case with the vast majority of Operation Paperclip scientists, he was never made to answer for his involvement with the Nazi regime. Instead, he was lauded in his lifetime and is today seen as one of the founding fathers of space travel.

Operation Paperclip ran from 1945 to 1959, bringing over 1,600 scientists, engineers and technicians from Germany to the United States. It was lauded as a great success, even though many of the men involved had highly questionable pasts.

Facts About Operation Paperclip

  • Physiologist and medical researcher Hubertus Strughold held several high-level scientific posts with both NASA and the US Air Force and was inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame in 1978. However, following his death in 1986, evidence came to light that he had been involved in human experiments during the war and his name was removed from the honour roll.
  • Two craters on the moon are named after Paperclip scientists - one after Wernher von Braun and the other after Kurt H. Drebus, a former V-weapons flight test director and the first director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.
  • The patents and industrial processes attributed to Operation Paperclip scientists, engineers and technicians are valued at $10 billion.