04 January 2011


An American officer stands in front of a captured German sound cannon, a dream weapon intended to translate explosions of oxygen and methane into killing noise.

In the strict sense, then, when we address the topic of German secret weapons of World War II, we are faced with an enormous task. But the term 'secret weapons' has a more precise meaning in general use: it implies something which goes beyond the development of a piece of more or less mundane equipment in conditions of secrecy. It implies a genuinely new concept, something truly out of the ordinary, which simply could not work without a new understanding of physical science or chemistry; a new mastery of technology; or some great leap of creative, imaginative invention. In the place and at the time in question, there was certainly no lack of those.

Perhaps the alternative term frequently used in Germany at the time - Wunderwaffen - comes closer to defining the true nature of these secret devices, for they were often truly things of wonder, being either completely new and hitherto undreamed-of outside a small select group, or achieving previously unthinkable levels of performance thanks to breakthrough innovations in science and technology. Some of them, it is true, were 'ideas whose time had come', in that the basic principle was understood, but had not yet been successfully applied, and in these cases, teams of scientists and engineers in America, Britain and Germany (and sometimes elsewhere: there were several significant advances made by Italy) were engaged in a headlong race to get the first reliable working version onto the battlefield. The development of the jet aircraft and of radar, not to mention the development of nuclear fission, stand out amongst those. But in other areas, particularly in rocketry and the invention and perfection of the all-important guidance systems, Germany stood head and shoulders above the rest.

Her scientists made an enormous and outstanding contribution, not just to the German war effort, but to modern civilisation. However, there were areas where German science and technology were deficient, most importantly - arguably - in the field of electronic computing machines, which were not weapons themselves but something without which the bounds of technological development would soon be reached. However, all too often these deficiencies arose as a result of demand chasing insufficient resource, and time simply ran out for the scientists of the Third Reich before a satisfactory result could be produced.


Time and again in the course of this work we will come upon development programmes which were either cancelled before they came to fruition or which were still in progress at the war's end. Many of them, of course, did not get under way until 1944, when the spectre of defeat was already looming large in Berlin and many essential items were in increasingly short supply. We can only speculate upon the possible outcome of an earlier start on the course of the conflict. Others were cancelled simply because they did not appear to offer the likelihood of spectacular results, and in those cases we can, all too often, detect the hand of Adolf Hitler. In general, we can note what can only be described as a wrong-headed insistence on his part that big (and powerful) was always beautiful (and irresistible). This major flaw led him to push for the development of weapons such as the fearsome - but only marginally effective and very expensive - PzKpfw VI Tiger and King Tiger tanks, which would have been far better consigned to the waste bin from the very outset, and the resources squandered upon producing them - and then keeping them in service - redirected into more appropriate channels such as the more practical PzKpfw V Panther.

In a very real sense, Hitler himself motivated and ran the German secret weapons programme. There seems to be a direct and very tangible link between this programme and his psyche, and we are perhaps left wondering whether the Wunderwaffen would have existed without him. On balance, it seems certain that they would have done, given the creative imagination of so many German scientists and the readiness of many of her military men to accept innovation, but it is equally certain that without Hitler's insistence, many weapons systems which made a very real impact upon the course of the war would either not have been developed at all, or would, at best, have been less prominent.

Nonetheless, without the genius of many German scientists and the brilliance of German technologists and engineers, the entire programme would have been stillborn. Many of the weapons produced for the first time in Germany and employed in World War II went on to become accepted and very important parts of the broader armoury, and several have made an enormous impact on life as a whole outside the military arena. The more spectacular failures have a certain grandeur, despite their shortcomings, and even the outright myths - and there were many, some remarkably persistent - frequently had an underpinning of fact.

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