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Operation paperclip

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by Lieutenant Colonel William L. Howard

By February 1945, the Allied offensive in Europe was striking toward the heart of Germany. On January 27, 1945, with the Russian forces closing in on Berlin, the first refugee caravans had reached the outskirts of Berlin with stories of the brutal behavior of the Red Army, and a wave of terror swept through the city. Many citizens, however, still had faith in Goebbels' promise that wonder weapons would save Germany at the last moment. By then, V-2s, developed at the experimental rocket station in Peenemunde under the leadership of 34-year-old Dr. Wernher von Braun, were causing havoc in London, Antwerp and Liege.

One of the men responsible for creating these Wunderwaffen (miracle weapons), General-Major Walter Dornberger, was holding a conference in Berlin. He had just been entrusted with the job of producing a missile that would unerringly destroy and plane attempting to attack Germany. The 10 members of "Working Staff Dornberger," after reviewing the many experiments made in this field--from nonguided anti-aircraft rockets to remote-controlled missiles for launching from ground or air--concluded that their only chance for success was to concentrate on a few projects. They agreed to retain only four guided anti-aircraft rockets.

Meanwhile, in Peenemunde, at the mouth of the Oder, Dr. von Braun, the technical director of the rocket station, was holding a secret meeting with his chief assistants. Together they had developed the A-4, a rocket they regarded as the first step to space flight. But Hitler saw it as a long-range weapon, and Goebbels had renamed it the V-2, Vengeance Weapon-2.

Dr. von Braun explained to his assistants that he had called the meeting because of conflicting orders received that day--both from SS officials. SS-Obergruppenfuhrer Dr. Hans Kammler, named special commissioner of the project by Himmler, had sent a teletype directing that the rocketeers be moved to central Germany, while Himmler himself, as commander of Army Group Vistula, had dispatched a message ordering all of Dr. von Braun's engineers to join the Vokssturm, the Peoples' Army, so that they could help defend the area from the approaching Red Army.

"Germany has lost the war," Dr. von Braun continued, "but let us not forget that it was our team that first succeeded in reaching outer space. . . . We have suffered many hardships because of our faith in the great peacetime future of the rocket. Now we have an obligation. Each of the conquering powers will want our knowledge. The question we must answer is: To what country shall we entrust our heritage?"

A suggestion that they stay and turn themselves over to the Russians was emphatically rejected; they finally voted unanimously to surrender to the United States Army. The first step was to obey Dr. Kammler's order and evacuate to the west. There was no time to lose; preparations for the move would take more than two weeks., and they could already hear the faint rumble of Zhukov's artillery to the south.

In mid-November 1944, American and British forces had entered Germany and were approaching the Rhine River. By March 9, 1945, American forces had succeeded in seizing the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen and had established a bridgehead on the east bank. Twelve supersonic V-2s were launched toward the bridge from Holland. They landed in a scattered pattern, with only one causing any appreciable damage with it hit a house 300 yards east of the bridge, killing three Americans.

Dr. von Braun, who was recovering at Nordhausen from a serious automobile accident--his torso and left arm were still encased in a huge cast--heard a report on Easter Sunday that American tanks were only a few miles to the south. He was afraid the SS would follow the Fuhrer's "scortched earth" policy and destroy the tons of precious V-2 documents and blueprints. Dr. von Braun instructed his personal aide, Dieter Huzel, and Bernhard Tessmann, chief designer of the Peenemunde test facilities, to hid the documents in a safe place.

It took three Opel trucks to carry the 14 tons of papers. The little convoy headed north on April 3 toward the nearby Harz Mountains. By the end of the day Tessmann and Huzel found an abandoned iron mine in the isolated village of Dornten. Thirty-six hours later, all of the documents had been hauled by a small locomotive into the heart of the mine and hand-carried into the powder magazine.

On April 10, work in the underground V-2 factory at Nordhausen stopped. The rocket specialists, engineers and workers--4,500 of them--scattered to their homes, and the slave workers were returned to the nearby concentration camp.

The next morning, April 11, Task Force Welborn of the 3rd Armored Division approached Nordhausen from the north as Task Force Lovelady came in from the south. Both commanders had been alerted by Intelligence to "expect something a little unusual in the Nordhausen area." They thought at first this meant the town's concentration camp, containing about 5,000 decayed bodies. But several miles northwest of Nordhausen, in the foothills of the Harz, they ran into other prisoners in dirty striped pajamas who told them there was "something fantastic" inside the mountain.

The two commanders peered into a large tunnel and saw freight cars and trucks loaded with long, slender finned missiles. With Major William Castille, the combat command's intelligence officer, they walked into the bowels of the mountain, where they found a complex factory. V-1 and V-2 parts were laid out in orderly rows, and precision machinery stood in perfect working order.

When Colonel Holgar Toftoy, Chief of Ordnance Technical Intelligence in Paris, learned of the amazing find, he began organizing "Special Mission V-2." Its job was to evacuate 100 complete V-2s and ship them to White Sands Proving Ground, New Mexico.

Dr. Wernher von Braun and his leading V-2 scientists voluntarily surrendered to the U.S. 44th Division. Almost as important was the recovery of the 14 tons of V-2 documents hidden by Tessman and Huzel in the Dornten iron mine.

Despite a slow start, Colonel Toftoy's "Special Mission V-2," led by Major James Hamill, also succeeded in its mission. One hundred complete V-2s were evacuated only hours before the Russians occupied the area. Major Hamill had been ordered to remove the rockets "without making it obvious that we had looted the place," yet, curiously, was not told that Nordhausen would be in the Soviet zone. Consequently, it never occurred to him to destroy the remaining rockets.

By April 19, 1945, the Russian high command announced that the Russian drive on Berlin had begun. By April 28, elements of the First United States Army had linked up with the Russians at Torgau. In Berlin, Hitler committed suicide on April 30 and Admiral Doenitz was placed in charge. German forces surrendered on May 7, and victory in Europe was declared.

Shortly after VE Day, Magnus von Braun, brother of Professor von Braun, was sent as an emissary to contact the American authorities and inform them that a large number of the Peenemunde scientists and technicians, who had scattered to the four winds after the collapse of the Nazi regime, were living in small villages throughout the Alps.

This was the beginning of "Operation Overcast" which was renamed Operation Paperclip. The American authorities, realizing the progress that had been made by German scientists in the field of guided missiles, saw a chance to gain from their experience and start not from scratch but from the Germans left off. Approximately 150 of the best scientists and technicians were rounded up and, after preliminary interrogation and background investigations by U.S. intelligence agencies, were offered five-year contracts to come to the United States and work for the U.S. Army. In turn, we promised to provide housing for their families, who had to remain Germany until arrangements could be made to bring them to the United States.

The first group of seven guided-missile scientists signed by contract under Operation Paperclip arrived at Fort Strong, New York, September 20, 1945, and from there were taken to Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. Here, in the tightly guarded Industrial Area, in the midst of secret military developments of all kinds, but always with a GI escort, these scientists carried on the work began at Peenemunde.

The research at Aberdeen was concerned with the processing of German guided-missile documents captured by U.S. military forces. Here, these men scanned thousands of documents, all of the stamped "GEHEIM," the equivalent of "SECRET." It is impossible to estimate the amount of time and money saved by having these scientists and technicians available to assist us in segregating, cataloging, evaluating and translating more than 40 tons of documents.

The purpose of the project at Aberdeen was to provide Fort Bliss, Texas, and White Sands Proving Ground, where an additional 120 German scientists and technicians were working of the development and testing of guided missiles, with documents or translations thereof.

Operation Paperclip came to a fitting conclusion with the naturalization of the first group of more than 50 German scientists and technicians on November 11, 1954, in Birmingham, Alabama.

A 1947 photo of the German team at Fort Bliss, Texas. Dr. von Braun, inset, is in the front row, seventh from right.

Posted October 7, 1998

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