The theory of Panspermia holds that life exists throughout the universe and was seeded here on earth by meteoroids and asteroids. It can seem sometimes almost as if Germany had a similar effect on the world of aviation.
Twice, following two world wars, Germany’s aircraft industry has been severely curtailed. On both occasions, to extend the biological metaphor by quoting from Jurassic Park, ‘life (or in this case Germany’s talent for making aircraft) found a way’.
While the development of military aircraft was restricted under the Treaty of Versailles, German designers and engineers poured their energies into civil aviation and, as we’ve seen elsewhere, gliding. This saw Lufthansa establish passenger and airmail routes across the globe, from South America to China. But it was in 1935, with their release from their Treaty obgligations, that saw the German aviation industry realise its potential.
The Luftwaffe was re-established in March that year. Two months later a prototype for designer Willy Messerschmitt ‘s new Me-109 fighter flew for the first time. An outstanding aircraft, it went on to be built in greater numbers than any other fighter in history. In 1937 it set a new world speed record for landplanes. But Germany was blessed with a surfeit of talent. That same year, designer Kurt Tank at Focke-Wulf began work on the design of the excellent Fw-190, while rivals Heinkel had, by 1938 claimed a new world speed record with their He-100 V8 fighter. They raised it again the next year before the Messerschmitt Me-209 set a record of over 469 mph that was to stand for the next thirty years. In doing so they broke hearts at Supermarine, who realised that their own world record hopeful, the Speed Spitfire, wasn’t going to get close.
At the same time engineers like Wernher von Braun and Eugen Sangar were developing rocket engines and, in the case of the latter, plans for a sub-orbital placeplane.
During World War Two, German aircraft manufacturers were at the mercy of the priorities established by the Nazi leadership. On on hand it meant concentrating producing large numbers of existing designs to the exclusion of some promising new ones, on the other, as the prospect of defeat loomed larger, the development of advanced aerospace projects it was hoped by regain the initiative. Out of this came projects Messerschmitt’s Me-262 jet fighter, the Horten Ho 229 flying wing jet bomber, Alexander Lippisch’s Me-163 rocket fighter and the V2 rocket. Only the Me-262, foolishly pressed into service as a fighter bomber rather than being used as a fighter, bore any resemblance to what was being developed by the allies.
With the war’s end, through a land grab by the British, Americans, French and Soviets, the men and machines of the German aerospace industry were soon dispersed around the world.
In 1947, by suggesting to his employers, the Royal Aircraft Establishment, that a delta wing was the most suitable shape for a supersonic airliner, aerodynamicist Dietrich Kuchemann launched in the right direction the research that led to Concorde.
In America the Werner von Braun’s V-2 rocket became the foundation of the US space programme. Von Braun, famously, led the effort to put men on the moon. In the 1950s, in a series of articles for Colliers magazine, he detailed his plans for man’s conquest of space. It’s become known as the von Braun paradigm. And, while his timeline may have been optimistic, he’s been right so far. The moon landings, reusable space shuttles and a permanent space station are all in there. Expect a mission to Mars next.
Meanwhile Eugen Sanger founded the French Federation Astronautique in 1949 while resisting Soviet attempts to persuade him to join their German rocket scientists. Sanger later got himself into hot water for advising Egypt as they tried to develop a ballistic missile. But he was bored by the challenges on offer in post-war German aviation. After all, this was the man who came up with the idea of using a solar sail for interstellar travel. There were others, too who looked overseas.
Willy Messerschmitt designed jets for Spain and Egypt. Focke-Wulf’s Kurt Tank joined his compatriot Reimar Horten in Argentina. Horten designed and built a bizarre flying wing transport aircraft known as the Naranjero because it was expected to freight oranges. Tank pursued a more conventional path designing the Iae 33 Pulqui jet fighter and IA.35 twin-engined utility plane. A coup forced Tank out of Argentina and on to India where he produced their first homegrown jet fighter, the HAL HF-24 Marut.
And back home, Germany’s own aviation industry, again forced to down tools at the end of the war, began building aircraft again in 1955. Beginning with licence built production of foreign aircraft like the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, companies like Messerschmitt and Dornier began to flourish again, but not as they once had. Not through individual brilliance. While Germany is well established as the world’s leading glider maker, it’s through international collaborations rather than invidual brilliance that she has reclaimed her place at the top of the pile as aircraft manufacturer. Among other things, the country is a major force behind the Airbus family of airliners, the Panavia Tornado strike jet and the Eurofighter Typhoon.
It may be that these all stir the soul a little less than a vision like the Graf Zeppelin airship and some of the other exotica pictured here, but just remember that Sputnik, the Moon landings, Concorde, the Space Shuttle, the Northrop B-2 Spirit stealth bomber and many, many more wonderful flying machines all owe a huge debt to Germany’s aerospace talent.
A few photos below to whet your appetite. Where I could I plumped for pictures of many of the WWII machines in the colours they wore after their capture by Allied forces, because for me at least, it just adds a further layer of interest. Real ‘what-if’ stuff. Love that picture of the US Army about to launch a black and yellow V2. Looks like a big rocket wasp or something …