Military history




April 9, 1945

German jet pilot Hans Guido Mutke flew faster than sound long before any American achieved that claim—or so he claimed.

So who really was first to achieve this feat?

It’s almost certain that Lothar Sieber exceeded the speed of sound (763 miles per hour at sea level) in the Ba 349 Natter (on March 1, 1945), but Sieber was already dead so the achievement doesn’t count, so to speak.

But did Hans Guido Mütke fly at supersonic speed?

Mütke loomed larger than life to those who knew him. A very experienced but very junior German military pilot, Mütke flew the Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighter near the end the war. Afterward, “with tremendous charm and enthusiasm,” according to author and analyst G. G. Sweeting, Mütke was taken seriously—by some—when he claimed to have become the first person to fly faster than sound. In other conversations, Mütke claimed not to have been first, but to have been only one of a number of German pilots who accomplished the feat.

On April 9, 1945, Fähnrich (Officer Candidate) Mütke was climbing through a bright, cloudless expanse over the Third Reich at the controls of an Me 262—enjoying very rare clear weather at the controls of his twin-engine jet and reflecting, as many did, how well it flew when the engines were functioning properly.

A large man who felt a little cramped in the Me 262 cockpit, Mütke was enjoying the clear sky and the smooth feel of his fighter in “clean” condition with wheels up and no ordnance or fuel tanks beneath his wings. In his earphones was the voice of one of the Reich’s top fighter aces, commander of Ergänzungs-Jagdgeschwader 2 or EJG (Training Wing 2), none other than Obersleutnant (Lt. Col.) Heinrich Bär. A veteran of more than a thousand combat sorties, Bär had a way of conveying authority while seemingly remaining mild-mannered. Now, Bär got Mütke’s full attention.

“He’s under attack, right now …”

This was supposed to be a high-altitude training mission, but Bär was saying that an American P-51 Mustang fighter was firing on one of their fellow Me 262 pilots in a sector of the sky nearby. Mütke had been instructed to climb to thirty-six thousand feet after takeoff. He was near the Me 262’s service ceiling, listed on the books as thirty-eight thousand feet, when he received the call and decided to rush to the aid of the German pilot who was under attack.

With visibility more than one hundred kilometers (sixty miles), Mütke easily spotted the P-51. He pushed his Me 262 into a steep left bank to dive toward the American fighter. Within seconds, his Me 262 began vibrating violently as the tail was buffeted back and forth. His airspeed indicator was designed for a maximum reading of 1,100 kilometers per hour (684 miles per hour) and now the needle was jammed up against that maximum number.

The nose pitched down sharply. The plane was no longer controllable.

Mütke told author Walter J. Boyne: “I moved the stick wildly around the cockpit. For a brief moment, the airplane responded to controls again momentarily, then went back out of control. The plane still did not respond to pressure on the stick so I changed the incidence of the tailplane. The speed dropped, the aircraft stopped shaking, and I regained control.” This is a reference to changing the angle of attack of the horizontal stabilizer, a technique that was later associated with other supersonic aircraft.

Tests at the Messerschmitt plant in Augsberg had indicated that the Me 262 had a structural limit of Mach 0.86. At eighty-six one hundredths of the speed of sound, the Me 262 would become uncontrollable. If the pilot continued to accelerate, the aircraft would break up and come flying apart in a thousand pieces. But if the pilot could slow down, he could regain control. The Me 262 wing had a sweep of just 18.5 degrees for trim reasons and probably would have suffered structural failure due to divergence at high transonic speeds.

Later in life, Mütke said he overcame his high-speed dive by adjusting the Me 262’s whole tailplane incidence while the aircraft was still at high speed. This, plus Mütke’s recollection that he briefly regained control while still accelerating, matches up with later accounts of recorded flights at supersonic speed. Most experts are skeptical that Mütke went supersonic and do not believe any pilot achieved the feat before Yeager.

Mütke insisted. Described as the consummate gentleman, he was nevertheless passionate in his beliefs. Mütke began medical school before the war, completed advanced studies later after a stint as a civilian transport pilot in South America, and became a gynecologist, aviation doctor, and authority on space medicine. In an interview for this book, Boyne remembered Mütke as “brilliant … cordial and friendly,” but said he “had a way of dominating conversations.” Mütke remained a Fähnrich throughout the war because he would not become a Nazi, but his experience belied his junior rank.

Before becoming a jet pilot, Mütke flew hundreds of sorties in twin-engine propeller aircraft. He flew the Messerschmitt Bf 110 into British bomber streams to report on their altitude, speed, and flight path. He flew combat missions over Great Britain. He bailed out of a Bf 110 near Paris in a snowstorm. In October 1942, he was at the controls of a Dornier Do 217 he said was sent to shoot down a British aircraft believed to be carrying Winston Churchill. He never reached the British plane and it does not appear Churchill was in the air that day.

Mütke’s assertion that he flew faster than sound was not his only claim to fame. On April 25, 1945, after attempting to engage a formation of B-26 Marauder medium bombers, Mütke flew his Me 262 to neutral Switzerland. When fighting in Europe ended two weeks later, Mütke took the position that because the Third Reich no longer existed, he was the rightful owner of the sleek jet fighter.

The Swiss authorities never attempted to test fly the Me 262. They returned it to Germany in 1957, and it’s now on display at the Deutsches Museum in Munich. Over the years, Mütke filed several lawsuits asserting his personal ownership of the Me 262—to no avail. During the time he made his mark in the medical profession, Mütke continued flying as a civilian pilot. He hoped to fly one of the Me 262 replicas that began to appear in the United States in 2002. He never got the chance.

Because Mütke was interviewed repeatedly, numerous accounts of his experience have survived. Each is different. None reveals what happened to the fellow German pilot who was under attack by a P-51 on the day of Mütke’s most fateful flight.

April 26, 1945

The last Americans to engage and shoot down Me 262s were piloting the same plane that Val Beaudrault liked so much, the portly P-47 Thunderbolt. The last encounter took place on April 26, 1945, just a fortnight before the end of hostilities. It happened minutes after 1st Lt. James J. Finnegan of the 50th Fighter Group pumped hundreds of rounds into an Me 262 piloted by none other than … Adolf Galland.

Galland needed all of his virtuoso cockpit skills to bring his jet down to a dead-stick and belly land at Munich-Riem. He clambered out of his wrecked jet and was rescued by a mechanic who came after him with an armored tractor. Finnegan unquestionably defeated Galland in what had to be the final combat for both, and yet Germany’s most famous fighter pilot is not counted as an aerial victory for U.S. forces that day, perhaps because most of the damage to the Me 262 was done on collision with the airfield surface.

Once again—now, for the last time—Me 262s tore into formations of B-26 Marauder medium bombers and wreaked havoc. A fourth Marauder made a crash landing in friendly territory. Three of the medium bombers plummeted from the sky in flames. Captain Robert W. Clark, also of the 50th Fighter Group, engaged a second Me 262 from Galland’s outfit, JV 44, maneuvered behind it, and shot it down.

The very last aerial victory over any German aircraft by an American in World War II came a few minutes later. Thunderbolt pilot Capt. Herbert A. Philo pulled away from a strafing pass on a locomotive, spotted an Me 262, and led his wingman in a high-speed chase. Philo fired a burst from too far, drew closer, and fired again.

April 29, 1945

If the Third Reich’s first generation of operational jets couldn’t turn the tide—although they wreaked havoc on the Allies—a second generation might still save Germany, Adolf Hitler is reported to have said, within a few days of the end of his life.

If salvation was to come, it might have arrived in the form of the Messerschmitt P.1101 single-seat, single-engine advanced jet fighter. Futuristic in its appearance—on drawing board blueprints at least, since the first aircraft was never fully completed—the P.1101 was a product of the Third Reich’s emergency fighter program of July 1944 and was scheduled to make its first flight in June 1945. It became a “might have been” when the war in Europe ended.

When American tanks rolled into Oberammergau in Bavaria on April 29, 1945, the war had not yet ended and the American soldiers on the scene were partly distracted by the prospect of more combat to come. The GIs had no idea that they had found a top-secret air test facility that was unknown to Allied intelligence and had never been bombed.

The troops seized a tall figure who called himself Professor Willy Messerschmitt. It was, in fact, the famous plane maker, the man who had passed on an opportunity to tell Hitler that the Me 262 shouldn’t become a bomber. The soldiers understood Messerschmitt’s importance but paid little attention to the skeletal metal frame of an aircraft that was 80 percent completed but had never taken to the air. Nor had they yet discovered twenty-three miles of tunnels that had been dug, almost certainly by slave labor, and used for jet engine production.

Here, the Americans eventually learned about new German warplanes, some of which they would dismantle and ship home for postwar testing. Here, too, they encountered other well-known figures in the Reich and discovered horrors that went hand in hand with high technology.

Author James Shapiro wrote, “Looking at maps and photos of this installation, located on land that the village had made available to the German military even before the outbreak of war (the majority of village leaders thought it would be good for local business), it’s hard to believe that the people of Oberammergau didn’t know what was going on. The installation was one of the leading sites for advanced aircraft technology in Germany. It was also the place, Dennis Piszkiewicz has shown, where Wernher von Braun and four hundred other leading rocket scientists were relocated [from Peenemünde] toward the end of the war. They reported to Hans Kammler, the notorious designer and builder of the crematoria at Auschwitz, who had set up headquarters in Oberammergau at the Hotel Alois Lang. The Allied forces’ desire to appropriate this scientific booty and know-how may have been one of the reasons that Oberammergau wasn’t bombed as the war was winding down. As it turned out, Wernher von Braun and a hundred or so others, most of them Nazis, were subsequently brought to the United States where, two decades later, a number of them … helped the Americans win the race to the moon.”

Willy Messerschmitt was despondent yet relaxed, depressed yet argumentative, and openly worried about his future. As the Americans learned when they set forth to exploit his technology, Messerschmitt’s reputation as an aircraft designer was somewhat open to question. He was not personally responsible for the engineering work behind the Me 262 jet fighter that bore his name. Messerschmitt’s twin-engine Bf 110 was used for long-range escort missions during the Battle of Britain; it suffered heavy losses to RAF fighters then and was all but eliminated from the war later when the P-51 Mustang arrived. According to lore, someone—it is not known who—asked about designing a single-engine fighter like the P-51 with long range and Messerschmitt replied, “What do you want, a fast fighter or a barn door?” Years later, forced to seek shelter together from American Thunderbolts attacking the Augsburg factory, the same person told the self-appointed professor, “Those are your barn doors!”

So the Americans had found the Messerschmitt P.1101, possibly the most advanced piece of German hardware ever to fall into Allied hands. It was an extraordinary airplane that was far more advanced than anything the Allies possessed.

By the time they began hunting documents about the P.1101, French agents had already retrieved huge amounts of microfilm in watertight containers from a nearby cave and had spirited them off to Paris. In the period that followed, French authorities refused to turn the P.1101 microfilm over to American experts.

The P.1101 was a single-seat, swept-wing jet fighter powered by a 1,962-pound thrust Junkers Jumo 004B turbojet engine intended to offer the same endurance and range as Messerschmitt’s better-known Me 262. An operational version would have been armed with four Mk-108 30mm cannons. The P.1101 had variable-sweep wings (with a maximum span of 27 feet 0.5 inches), but only technicians on the ground could adjust the angle of sweep. Having the wings swept forward improved performance when taking off or landing; having them swept back increased speed and performance at altitude.

Robert J. Woods, Bell Aircraft Corporation’s chief design engineer and a key figure in the exploitation of German technology, became interested in the P.1101’s variable-sweep wing and tried to have the prototype completed in Germany under American supervision. With the French withholding documents and pieces of the prototype nabbed by GIs as souvenirs, the idea of flying the P.1101 at Oberammergau failed to materialize.

The P.1101 and a second set of wings were shipped to Wright Field, Ohio. Air force technical experts spent some time studying it, could find no further use for it, and transferred it to Woods’s company in Buffalo, New York, which was already making its mark in technology with rocket-powered research aircraft.

After further, fruitless efforts to find a way to fly the original, Bell proposed a new aircraft based on the P.1101 but with the capability for the pilot to adjust wing sweep while in flight. Basking in the success of Capt. Charles E. Yeager’s first supersonic flight in the rocket-powered XS-1 on October 14, 1947, and with the company’s X-1A and X-2 rocket planes about to make headlines, plane maker Larry Bell and right-hand man Bob Woods believed the P.1101 gave them the makings of the fighter of the future. Had they been right, a Bell version of the P.1101 might have been ready in time to fight the Soviet MiG-15 in Korea.

The F-86 Sabre, which was influenced by the Messerschmitt Me 262, filled that role. The MiG itself was also influenced by the Me 262 and another German design, Kurt Tank’s Ta 183.

Air force officials saw promise in a proposed P.1101 derivative but believed it would lack the capacity to carry guns or ordnance. With strong backing from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the new Bell aircraft became a research plane, the X-5, powered by a five thousand–pound thrust Allison J35-A-17 turbojet engine. It was planned to replace the J35 with a Westinghouse J40 eventually, but the latter engine became a spectacular failure so the powerplant change was never made.

Bell built two X-5s and flew both at Edwards Air Force Base, California, the first on June 20, 1951, with company test pilot Jean “Skip” Ziegler at the controls. (Ziegler lost his life in the explosion of an X-2 rocket plane while a B-50 Superfortress was carrying it on May 12, 1953.) The wingspan of the X-5 was twenty feet nine inches at maximum sweep (fifty-five degrees), thirty-three feet six inches when nearly unswept (at thirty degrees). A “glove” designed by Woods moved fore and aft along the fuselage on rails with changes in wing angle in order to assure stability.

The X-5 proved difficult to fly, even at the hands of test virtuosos such as Ziegler, Yeager, Albert Boyd, Scott Crossfield, and Neil Armstrong. It was unstable under certain conditions and had bad stall characteristics. On October 14, 1953, a spin recovery problem led to the loss of the second X-5 and caused the death of Maj. Raymond Popson. The first ship continued research flying with NACA, but an attempt to revive a fighter version went nowhere.

In Sweden, the SAAB design team under Lars Brising acquired P.1101 data and used it to explore the swept-wing configuration with an experimental version of the SAAB 91 Safir. This led to development of the SAAB 29 Tunnan (Barrel), designated J29 by the Royal Swedish Air Force and first flown on September 1, 1948, with British test pilot Robert A. Moore doing the honors. While it had roots in the P.1101, it did not employ variable-sweep technology. SAAB built 661 Tunnans between 1950 and 1956, and despite its portly appearance, the Tunnan was very comparable to the F-86 and MiG-15.

Many other jet warplanes from the 1950s onward mirrored the size and shape of the P.1101. The Messerschmitt airplane’s most significant feature, the swing wing, found its way to many subsequent aircraft, including the MiG-23 Flogger, F-111 Aardvark, F-14 Tomcat, and B-1B Lancer.

May 8, 1945

Two weeks after American troops liberated Oberammergau, the most famous of American aviators, Charles Lindbergh, began a journey through Western Europe with a U.S. naval technical delegation. At Oberammergau, Lindbergh met a haggard and depressed Willy E. Messerschmitt. The plane maker, who had seemed businesslike and attentive when Lindbergh visited the Augsburg aircraft factory in 1939, was now, six years later, a worn-down and despondent version of his former self.

He was a broken man.

Lindbergh, as A. Scott Berg wrote, “learned the once-revered designer’s country home had been ‘liberated’ by American troops; and he found him living with his sister’s family in a village farther into the country, reduced to sleeping on a pallet in a barn.” Added Berg: “A visibly broken man, he told Lindbergh that he had been concerned about defeat as early as 1941, when he saw America’s estimates for its own aircraft production. Lindbergh further learned that Messerschmitt had only recently returned from England, where he had been a prisoner of war. Both the British and the French had asked him to serve as a technical advisor.” Messerschmitt, as it turned out, remained in Germany during the postwar years and never recovered financially or emotionally from the setback of being on the losing side in the war.

May 8, 1945

Many of the things that never happened filled the pages of magazines such as the Police Gazette that Val Beaudrault read after war’s end. Did Adolf Hitler escape from Berlin in a Junkers Ju 290 aircraft and make his way to the secret Nazi base in Antarctica, together with German antigravity and time-machine technology, including the mysterious device known as Die Glocke (the Bell)? Did he take refuge at the SECRET NAZI BASE, always spelled with upper-case letters in postwar American pulps? In a different version, Hitler reportedly escaped from Berlin in a Ju 290 and made his way to Madrid, where his old pal Francisco Franco gave him lodging in a secure wing of the dictator’s residence.

In yet another story, Hitler, Eva Braun, and a small party flew in a succession of Junkers transports from the bombed-out center of Berlin to Denmark, to Spain, and to the Canary Islands, where they boarded a U-boat that transported them to Argentina. According to this scenario, Hitler was alive in Argentina until 1962, exactly as P-47 Thunderbolt pilot Beaudrault read in the Police Gazette. This version of events, with an impressive roster of documentation, is the core of the book Grey Wolf: The Escape of Adolf Hitler, by Simon Dunstan and Gerrard Williams.

A September 4, 1944, Federal Bureau of Investigation memorandum sent up through channels to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover noted that, “a large, wealthy colony in Argentina affords tremendous possibilities for the providing of a refuge for Hitler and his henchmen.” The memorandum speculated that Argentina could “serve as a terminus for Hitler after a non-stop flight of 7,376 miles from Berlin to Buenos Aires in an especially constructed plane or as a passenger in a long-range submarine.”

None of this happened, did it? After all, Hitler’s personal pilot Hans Baur survived the war and contributed to a biography of himself, so his movements all seem to be accounted for and he couldn’t have flown the Führer to safety. Remember that Hitler often said he would never fly with anyone else. Most historians generally accept the widely published account of Hitler’s suicide in his Führerbunker in the German capital on April 30, 1945, when he shot himself in the head with his personal Walther PPK 7.65mm pistol.

The facts are known. Aren’t they?

The Ju 290 wasn’t a jet and wasn’t the highest-technology German weapon, but it does figure prominently in this tale of Hitler’s jets, his Wunderwaffen, and the plans formulated by some of his subordinates for his escape after the defeat of the Reich.

Hans Baur, who gave personal recollections of the Insterburg event for chapter one of this narrative, was “a nice, gentle family man you’d enjoy having next door,” said his biographer G. G. Sweeting, “but he was a member of the Nazi Party from 1926 on and remained steadfastly loyal to Hitler until his dying breath.” Baur never participated in the heinous atrocities of the Reich and he despised Himmler, Goebbels, and especially Göring; however, he was far more than just an aerial chauffeur.

Hitler often turned to Baur for advice about air war policy and technical developments. Baur’s special squadron (Die Fliegerstaffel des Führers) was not part of the Luftwaffe—and on paper, Bauer was a Standartenführer (colonel) in the SS, so Baur could offer words of wisdom without Göring being any the wiser. By 1945, Baur was one of a handful of people on earth who were genuinely close to Hitler. Bauer was a Gruppenführer (lieutenant general) in the SS but, far more importantly, he was the closest thing to a friend the Führer ever had.

Baur repeatedly devised plans for an escape from beleaguered Berlin for the Führer, only to have Hitler repeatedly rebuff him. Hitler insisted that he would stay until the end.

Or did he?

Baur told Sweeting after the war that he “would gladly have died for Adolf Hitler.” He understood that if the Führer were going to secretly escape and take up exile outside Germany, the escape would not remain secret unless the Allies could account for Hitler’s pilot. If the world were going to be deceived into believing Hitler was dead while the Führer was actually finding safe haven in another country, Baur would have to be accounted for when the Allies arrived. If Baur were going to whisk the German leader to safety in an aircraft, he—Baur—would have to return to the Führerbunker and become a prisoner when the war ended. Asked whether he would agree to do this even if it meant he would be a prisoner of the Soviets for ten years after the war—which is how it turned out—Baur said yes.

Under Baur’s direction, a small aircraft, a two-seat Fieseler Fi 156 Storch, was kept on standby, ready to take off from an improvised airstrip in the Tiergarten, near the Brandenburg Gate. The Reich’s celebrated and intrepid female aviator, Hanna Reitsch, used the airstrip on April 26, 1945, to bring in Colonel-General Robert Ritter von Greim, who became head of the Luftwaffe after the Führer abruptly sacked Göring. Reitsch transported Greim out of the capital two days later; she, Baur, and others pleaded with the Führer to make his getaway in similar fashion.

Had he gotten away from the immediate pressures in Berlin, Hitler could have been put aboard a much larger aircraft—a plane he’d admired at Insterburg. It was an aircraft that would also be seen at air shows in Ohio after the war, and in both Germany and in the United States, it flew with the swastika painted on its tail.

Hitler was smitten by the four-engine Junkers Ju 290 A-5 he saw at Insterburg along with many other new aircraft and prototypes. He told Göring he wanted a Ju 290 for his personal use. In late 1944, Baur’s Fliegerstaffel des Führers received a Ju 290 A-7. For Hitler’s use, the aircraft was fitted with a special passenger compartment in the front of the aircraft, protected by half-inch armor plate and two-inch bulletproof glass. A special escape hatch was fitted in the floor and a parachute was built into Hitler’s seat; in an emergency it was intended that he would put on the parachute, pull a lever to open the hatch, and roll out through the opening. This arrangement was tested using life-size mannequins.

If Hitler was to make a getaway and Baur was to be found by the Allies, how could it be explained that his aircraft was missing? The official version of events is that more than a month before the end, Baur flew the Ju 290A-7 to Munich-Riem airport on March 24, 1945, landing just as an air-raid alert was sounded. Parking the plane in a hangar, he went to his home. Upon returning to the airport, he discovered that U.S. bombs had destroyed both the hangar and the plane.

Only forty-seven Ju 290s were built in transport and maritime patrol/bomber versions. But what if the Third Reich had invested in four-engine heavies on the same vast scale as the British and Americans? If a thousand Ju 290s had been available for the German airlift to Stalingrad—in which 266 smaller and less capable Ju 52 tri-motors were lost in battle—a rash promise made by Hermann Göring of a successful supply effort might have been fulfilled. The outcome of one of history’s largest battles might have been different.

The Ju 290 was a tailwheel-equipped aircraft similar in configuration to the U.S. B-17 Flying Fortress or the British Handley-Page Halifax, but about 20 percent larger than either. Long after 1936, when the Reich abandoned a more ambitious project for a “Ural bomber”—capable of striking Soviet targets to the east beyond the Ural mountain range—the Ju 290 was developed from the Ju 90 airliner and made its first flight on July 16, 1942.

The prototype Ju 290 V1 and the first eight Ju 290 A-1s were unarmed transports and were rushed into service, but only one was available to participate in the Stalingrad airlift. The Ju 290 A-2 was a maritime patrol/bomber warplane with low-band UHF search radar and cannon armament. A Ju 290 A-3 version followed with more guns, giving the Junkers a mantislike appearance with cannons protruding in all directions. A Ju 290 A-4 weapons test ship—the plane that eventually reached the United States—was followed by Ju 290 A-5 and Ju 290 A-7 versions with heavier armament and self-sealing fuel tanks.

The Ju 290 A-5 carried a crew of nine, had a wingspan of 137 feet 9 inches, and was powered by four 1,700-horsepower BMW 801G/H fourteen-cylinder radial engines. It was credited with a maximum speed of 273 miles per hour.

The Ju 290 appears to have been a more than adequate performer, more robust and longer-legged than the Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Kondor. So why were there so few? The limited number of Ju 290s produced—including a pair of six-engine variants, designated Ju 390 that came too late to influence the war—was partly the result of a decree by Albert Speer that was intended to divert all aircraft industry resources to the manufacture of fighters to confront the Allied bombing campaign.

Any date, maybe today

Postwar conspiracy theories—the Police Gazette, remember?—apply to fanciful events that could have happened at any point on the calendar after the German surrender.

Or not.

No, the Nazis didn’t send vast numbers of scientists and military troops to Antarctica in 1938 to build a “New Berlin” under ice inside a city-sized, warm-water cave. But the Germans did send a ship, the Schwabenland, to explore Antarctica’s Queen Maud Land. They may have known as much about Antarctica as the Western Allies did. They could have built an ice runway where a Ju 290 could touch down.

The most imaginative of the conspiracy theories applies to Die Glocke (the Bell) and the extraordinary claims made about it. According to researcher Rob Arndt, during tests “various plants and animals … decomposed into a blackish goo without normal putrefaction, within a matter of a few minutes or hours after exposure to its field effects.”

It’s necessary to wallow through a lot of fantasy literature and, only thereafter, to ask whether the same brilliant minds that produced the V-2, Me 262, and the misguided Natter might also have produced a secret doomsday weapon. Or is the Bell merely a fantasy concocted by postwar pranksters armed with Photoshop?

To Nick Cook, author of The Hunt for Zero Point, Hitler’s Nazi Germany developed Die Glocke—named because it was roughly the shape of a bell—as part of a search for antigravity technology. To other researchers, the Bell was just one of dozens of Wunderwaffen.

The Bell was a purported top secret experiment with a mysterious purpose carried out by Third Reich scientists working for the SS in a German facility known as Der Riese (“The Giant”) near the Wenceslaus mine. The mine is located about thirty miles from Breslau, a little north of the village of Ludwikowice Kłodzkie (formerly known as Ludwigsdorf) close to the Czech border.

Exactly what was the Bell? Maybe it was an antigravity device. Maybe it was a shortcut toward enriching uranium for weapons-making purposes. Maybe it was a time machine. Or, in the view of many, the Bell is a myth created long after the war by writers like Polish historian Igor Witkowski and Cook.

One Nazi scientist said to have worked on the Bell was Kurt Heinrich Debus, described by one writer as “a particularly nasty SS officer and electrical engineer.” Debus is better known for his humorless personality, said by critics to be akin to Hitler’s, and for his work on the V-2 rocket, developed at the secret northeastern German rocket facility Peenemünde on the Baltic coast. Debus led the Test Stand Group personnel at Peenemünde and was the engineer in charge at Test Stand VII, which would be called a launching pad in today’s jargon. Several versions of Debus’s life story—widely available because he became a key U.S. scientist after the war—have him remaining at Peenemünde until within weeks of war’s end and then making a dramatic escape that put him in the hands of the advancing American 44th Infantry Division near Oberammergau in Bavaria—itself a site of secret weapons projects and a base the Allies didn’t know about until they reached it.

So what is the truth? “The Nazi Bell was nothing to do with UFOs, or antigravity except in the imaginations of impressionable people,” wrote one researcher who publishes extensively on the Internet but does not provide his real name or whereabouts. “It was, however, the most top secret arm of Nazi nuclear research, and as a result of secrecy or ignorance, many people have filled in the blanks with their imaginations.”

This writer also claims, “The Nazi Bell was a spherical Tokamak plasma generator. The Nazis were using it for transmuting Thorium 232 to Uranium 233 (and possibly Uranium 238 to Plutonium 239) using photo fission. Originally the project was under the control of Heereswaffenamt as Projekt Thor, led by Gerlach whose role was procurement of enriched uranium for the German A-bomb. Following the failed assassination attempt against Hitler on July 20, 1944, the SS took control of all nuclear projects on 22 July and at that point the project became Projekt SS/1040 Charite Anlage.”

Say what? Could the Bell in some odd way be connected with the futile and failed efforts of Hitler’s minions to develop an atomic bomb?

No date, not ever

Never fully understood or fully supported by Hitler, the German attempt to develop the bomb, called the Uranverein (Uranium Club), began shortly after the invasion of Poland. Scientific teams were formed, of which two rival teams stood out as they struggled to make an atomic pile critical—one consisting of theoretical scientists under Werner Heisenberg and the other a more empirical team under the program’s administrative director, Kurt Diebner.

Many of the Reich’s scientific advances made dramatic progress in spite of Hitler’s abrasive and divisive leadership style. The nuclear weapons program did not. Authors Simon Dunstan and Gerrard Williams, who believe Hitler escaped to Argentina after the war, described the challenges facing atomic scientists before the war: “In reality, the Germans lagged far behind largely due to the divisive nature of Nazi governance. Unlike the Manhattan Project, with its strictly centralized control under Gen. Leslie Groves, German researchers reported to several bodies, including the Army Ordnance Office, the National Research Council, and even the Postal Ministry. Furthermore, the scant resources were divided [among] nine competing teams all pursuing different agendas.” Dunstan and Williams also wrote that many leading physicists in prewar Germany were Jewish. They either escaped or were killed.

The Heisenberg and Diebner teams wrongly believed that graphite could not be used as a moderator in an atomic pile (now called a nuclear reactor). This left only “heavy water” (deuterium oxide) as the only alternative. The Germans’ heavy water plant in Norway, which came under frequent Allied attack, could not produce enough of the substance. Heisenberg’s men, nevertheless, began building a rudimentary pile in a cave at Haigerloch in southern Germany. They made little progress.

History captures the imagination precisely because it all could have turned out differently, so that the study of past events is also the study of “what if?” Imagine this: What if the atomic bomb had been developed near the beginning of World War II instead of near its end? Nothing more needs to be said about that possibility. It speaks for itself.

What if Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold’s staff had gotten its way and prevented the P-51 Mustang from arriving in England at the time the Eighth Air Force was reeling from the defeat of its bomber forces in August and October 1943? Imagine that instead of “Big Week,” in which bomber formations pounded German aircraft facilities and fuel supplies, the Western Allies had experienced “Bad Week” in February 1944, with formations of German jets decimating the bomber swarms. Used earlier, more smartly, and in greater numbers, jet fighters had the potential to halt the daylight bombing offensive and delay the Allied invasion of occupied Europe.

This in turn might have enabled even more jets to become available for the defense of the Reich.

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