Operation Paperclip Part One: “Science Without Conscience”

One of the most “well known secrets” of American history is “Operation Paperclip,” in which the United States recruited and installed former Nazi scientists, engineers, and other specialists into positions of influence and power in our own government and military agencies following World War II. I had planned on this being my first topic to write about as it comes up quite often in conversations and online comments. I found significantly more information than I had planned, and thus will be splitting this into a several-part series. 

These stories will still be quite lengthy, but I think it is important to understand the atrocities that were quickly forgiven by the US government in the name of advancement and the pretext of the Cold War.

The majority of my information comes from the book Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program to Bring Nazi Scientists to America by Annie Jacobsen. This was one of the most well-researched and well-written historical accounts I’ve read; I would legitimately highly recommend the book to anyone who wants to learn much more than what I can fit in this space.



The roots of Operation Paperclip reach back to another program called Operation Alsos, which was an offshoot of the Manhattan Project that created the atomic bombs. It began in September 1943 with the goals of uncovering intelligence regarding enemy nuclear capabilities (or lack thereof) as the United States expanded military operations throughout Europe. Successes from Operation Alsos inspired – and were often connected to – those of Operation Paperclip two years later.

Two of the major findings came in November 1944. The Axis military was attacking Strasbourg, France, one of the locations several Nazi scientists and engineers were rumored to be operating from. A US team led by Samuel Goudsmit were able to capture four of Hitler’s top nuclear scientists, who had credible claims that the German nuclear program had been a failure.

A few days later, they uncovered some game-changing documents in the abandoned apartment of German virus expert Dr. Eugen Haagen. In the 1930s, Dr. Haagen had been awarded a fellowship with the Rockefeller Institute in New York City, was on the team that helped develop the first yellow fever vaccine, and was a final contender for the Nobel Prize. A letter written by Dr. Haagen that was abandoned before reaching post was found among the documents, intended to be sent to a German anatomist named Dr. August Hirt. Part of the letter read:

“Of the 100 prisoners you sent me, 18 died in transport. Only 12 are in a condition suitable for my experiments. I therefore request that you send me another 100 prisoners, between 20 and 40 years of age, who are healthy and in a physical condition comparable to soldiers. Heil Hitler. – Prof. Dr. E. Haagen.”

Dr. Goudsmit and his team realized the implications of that letter: the Germans were performing medical experiments on living human subjects. The fact that Dr. Haagen was one of the top vaccine scientists in the world also implied something even more sinister. As author Annie Jacobsen wrote in her book Operation Paperclip:

Haagen was a virus expert who specialized in creating vaccines. The fact that he was involved in human medical experiments made a kind of twisted sense to Goudsmit in a way that few others could interpret. In order to successfully unleash a biological weapon against an enemy force, the attacking army had to have already created its own vaccine against the deadly pathogen it intended to spread. This vaccine would act as the shield for its own soldiers and civilians; the biological weapon would act as the sword.

Dr. Haagen ended up fleeing to the east and began work for the Soviet Union following the war. Dr. Goudsmit found two very important names to Operation Paperclip amongst the other documents in the apartment, however: Dr. Walter Schreiber, the Surgeon General of the Third Reich, and his deputy to that post, Dr. Kurt Blome. Dr. Blome oversaw the Nazi’s biological weapons programs; Dr. Schreiber was in charge of military vaccinations.

V-2 Rocket Launch Party

Two weeks later, members of Nazi leadership were having a party at the Castle Varlar, hidden in the dark forests of Coesfeld, Germany to celebrate the inaugural launch of the V-2 rockets they had invented. The V-2 rocket was a German creation far superior to any other rocket or missile being used in World War II. The Allies did not have any aircraft that were fast enough or that could fly high enough to knock them out of the sky before reaching their destination. The Nazis set up portable launch pads and began sending the missiles towards Antwerp, Belgium. The goal was to devastate enough of the city that the Germans could set up an offensive in the Ardennes forest; this would signal the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge.

Several individuals who would become involved with Operation Paperclip were present at this party. The host was Major General Walter Dornberger, the head of the rocketry programs in Germany. There to hand out the Knight’s Cross of the War Service decorations for those who worked hard on the V-2 was Albert Speer, the Minister of Armaments and War Production. Recipients of the medals included aristocrat-slash-physicist Wernher von Braun; one of the top scientists in the rocket design bureau, Walter Riedel, and a representative from the Reich’s armaments ministry, Heinz Kunze.

The V-2 rockets were launched relentlessly at Antwerp for several days. One struck a cinema full of moviegoers, leading to the largest known death count from a single rocket in the entire war: 567 casualties.

The Mittelwerks

The US Army was approximately 20 years behind Germany in rocket technology, and they were desperately seeking to change that status. General Dwight D. Eisenhower initiated another new operation: Special Mission V-2. Colonel Gervais William Trichel of the US Army was tasked with putting together a crew to infiltrate the German rocketry labs and gather as much intelligence as possible regarding their rockets. Using British information regarding the location of one of the rocket factories, Colonel Trichel and his men set out to the Harz Mountains in Central Germany.

[Bonus fact: The artwork and setting for the final segment of the original 1940 Fantasia, called “Night on Bald Mountain,” in which the devil awakens and summons evil spirits from the mountain, is based on Brocken Mountain in the Harz Mountain Range.]

This was the location of the Mittelwerk [“Middle Works”] underground factory where the V-2 rockets were assembled using slave labor in horrific conditions. The area was also referred to as Nordhausen [after the nearby town] and Dora .

The factory began operations in August 1943. Another factory had recently been bombed and they needed a more clandestine and naturally fortified location for operations. It was Heinrich Himmler's idea to move the operations to that location, an idea loved by Hitler; the SS was thus put in charge of supplying the slaves for the work taking place. The construction was designed and coordinated by Brigadier General Hans Kammler, the same man who designed and oversaw construction of the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The first slaves to the Mittelwerk were brought from the Buchenwald concentration camp, but as production ramped up, they were brought from all over: France, Holland, Belgium, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Russia, Poland, and Germany. To prevent attempts at escape using tools, the slaves were made to dig out the tunnels with their bare hands whenever possible.

One of the supervisors of the rocket production at Mittelwerk was Arthur Rudolph, who had worked under Wernher von Braun in rocket-related positions since 1934.

From the Operation Paperclip book by Jacobsen:

The prisoners worked twelve-hour shifts, seven days a week, putting together V-weapons. By the end of the first two months there were eight thousand men living and working in this cramped underground space. Blasting went on day and night and the dust after every blast was so thick that it was impossible to see five steps ahead. Laborers slept inside the tunnels on wood bunk beds. There were no washing facilities and no sanitation. Latrines were barrels cut in half. The workers suffered and died from starvation, dysentery, pleurisy, pneumonia, tuberculosis, and phlegmasia from beatings. The men were walking skeletons, skin stretched over bones. Some perished from ammonia burns to the lungs. Others died by being crushed from the weight of the rocket parts they were to carry. The dead were replaceable. Humans and machine parts went into the tunnels. Rockets and corpses came out. Workers who were slow on the production lines were beaten to death. Insubordinates were garroted or hanged.

Despite the high turnover rate, Albert Speer praised the efficiency of work under the direction of Hans Kammler. Speer wrote to Kammler, "your work far exceeds anything ever done in Europe and is unsurpassed by even American standards." This was nowhere near first project using slave labor that Speer had overseen throughout the war. The use of slaves contributed to the secrecy of the projects; there were less leaks to the outside world.

By mid-1944, the SS commissioned the Dora concentration camp - along with 30 subcamps - for the Mittelwork crews due to the large amount of personnel needed. A man named Georg Rickhey was placed "in charge of personnel" for the Dora camps - which sounds a bit nicer than "in charge of acquiring more slaves" - which was translated to "Mittelwerks General Manager" on his resume created by the US during Operation Paperclip.

On multiple occasions there were "mass acquisitions of qualified detainees" to the Mittelwerks facilities to replace the thousands of slaves who were dying during production. These acquisitions were coordinated by Georg Rickhey, Wernher von Braun, Walter Dornberger, and Arthur Rudolph. Less than one year later, those four men were on their way to the United States.

In the meantime, the end of the war and Germany's defeat was feeling more imminent to many of its leaders, some of whom were beginning secret preparations for their post-war activities, which they hoped would involve freedom rather than death or imprisonment.

IG Farben, Committee-C, Auschwitz-Birkenau

Dr. Otto Ambros, chairman of Committee-C for Chemical Weapons, was panicking at Auschwitz-Birkenau. He was ordering the destruction of all possible documents - of any variety - as quickly as possible. Ambros was also on the board of directors for IG Farben, the producers of the Zyklon-B gas used in the extermination chambers. He and a colleague named Walter Dürrfeld were overseeing not just the destruction of documents but the dismantling of Crematoria II and III and the bombed destruction of Crematoria V.

IG Farben also produced the rubber for the tires used on German military vehicles at Auschwitz. Ambros had invented the synthetic rubber being manufactured, which earned him an award of 1,000,000 reichsmarks by Hitler himself. IG Farben essentially ran the Auschwitz III camp, pulling their slave laborers from the train cars arriving at Auschwitz. The company was a conglomerate merger of six chemical companies in 1925, including familiar names such as BASF and Bayer.

As the buildings and documents were being destroyed, the SS was making a last ditch effort to relocate the prisoners to use them at other facilities, leading them on what became known as the "Death March."

Gerhard Maschkowski, a Jewish man of 19 at the time who survived the camp for almost two years, recalls the following in his memoirs:

The average lifespan of a slave laborer was three months. Many of my friends had long since been worked to death or had been murdered for minor infractions, like hiding a piece of food. I remember January 18, 1945 with clarity, because it was my last day at Auschwitz. It was still dark outside when the SS burst into the barracks. They shouted, Get up! March! They had large guns, thick jackets, and dogs. I put on my shoes and hurried outside. Nine thousand emaciated, starving inmates from Buna were lining up in neat rows. I heard cannon fire in the distance and the crack of firearms close by. There was chaos all around. SS guards were burning evidence. Bonfires of papers sent ashes up into the dark sky. Snow fall fast, then faster. There was a blizzard on the way. The guards, dressed in warm coats and boots, waved submachine guns. Dogs on leather leashes barked and snarled. Wearing thin pajamas, we began a death march toward the German interior. Within 48 hours, 60% of us were dead.

By the time the Red Army of the Soviet Union arrived to liberate the remaining camps at Auschwitz nine days later, Otto Ambros had already made it to a facility called Dyhernfurth to destroy more classified documents and evidence.

Liquid Tabun

Half a mile from the visible Dyhernfurth facility was a top secret underground bunker where 560 German scientists and about 3,000 slave laborers were producing liquid tabun, a nerve agent chemical much more deadly than any other introduced into warfare at the time. As described in Operation Paperclip:

Similar to a pesticide, the organophosphate tabun was one of the most deadly substances in the world. A tiny drop to the skin could kill an individual in minutes or sometimes seconds. Exposure meant the glands and muscles would hyperstimulate and the respiratory system would fail. Paralysis would set in and breathing would cease.

The production facility and the design of the tabun was all owned by IG Farben, who had been paid 200 million reichsmarks by Albert Speer's department to build and operate. The facility was designed and managed by Otto Ambros. Although the tabun was never used, they had produced enough to eliminate the entire population of London or Paris at will.

Speer's deputy and director of the Armaments Supply Office, Dr. Walter Schreiber, was in charge of designing gas masks and other equipment that would protect the Nazi troops from the tabun gas. Schreiber, along with Hitler's physician, Karl Brandt, had been involved in the production of 46.1 million gas masks by January 1945.

They used concentration camp prisoners to test the effectiveness of different gas mask and equipment designs. They would lock them in glass-windowed rooms and spray them with nerve agent, observing the effects on the human body as the prisoners suffered and died.

Ambros and crew had managed to wipe the facility totally clean of documents, residue, and design blueprints for the tabun gas and the rockets that it would have eventually held if given the opportunity. The Soviet Union found the facility abandoned, but the machinery and production equipment was still there. The Red Army dismantled the factory and shipped it back to Stalingrad in pieces. With the aid of the Soviet's own scientist acquisitions from the war, they had recreated the facility and were producing their own tabun by 1948 under code name Chemical Works No. 91.

A few weeks later, Hitler issued a decree for demolitions on the Reich Territory, ordering Albert Speer to oversee the complete destruction of all German infrastructure, documents, communication systems, roads and bridges and dams, etc. Historians later began referring to this as the "Nero Decree," after the Roman Emperor who set a fire just to watch Rome burn.

Return to Mittelwerks

Despite the Nero Decree taking place in most of Germany, Wernher von Braun and Walter Dornberger were cracking the whip even harder at the Mittelworks underground rocket factory. Von Braun had been given a promotion and was in charge of the operation. The slave laborers were forced to perform in the bitter cold of winter, were only given cold watery broth to eat, and were dying at the fastest rate yet.

But they kept arriving. As other camps around Germany were shutting down, prisoners were being dropped off at the Dora camps that supplied the workers for Mittelwerks. The crematorium at Dora was overwhelmed and could not keep up with the pace of dying prisoners.

Because the slave laborers were so emaciated and overworked, many of the rockets coming out of the facility were defective; some failed to launch, some failed to make it the proper distance before exploding, and some did not explode at all.

Wernher von Braun blamed this on sabotage instead of the conditions and punished the slave laborers accordingly. Summation of a war crimes report:

Prisoners were hanged, up to 57 in one day. They were hanged in the tunnels with the help of an electrically controlled crane, a dozen at a time, their hands bound behind their back, a piece of wood put in their mouth to prevent shouting. The hangings were carried out directly above the V-2 production lines. Laborers were forced to watch their fellow prisoners suffer an agonizingly slow death.

In solidarity, a group of Russian and Ukrainian prisoners staged a revolt. The suspects were rounded up. Mittelwerks managers and SS guards decided to make an example of them. After these men were hanged, their bodies were left dangling until the next day. Only after Arthur Rudolph received a memo from one of his German engineers asking when they were going to get use of the crane back were the bodies taken down.

On March 12, 1945, von Braun was in a car accident that nearly took his life. One of the facility design specialists, Bernhard Tessman, and his assistant, Dieter Huzel, happened upon the crash and rescued von Braun. As von Braun was recovering, the two men came to visit him and discuss the imminent end of the war. Hitler was days away from ordering the end of V-2 production and sending all "non-valuable scientists" to the front lines with a gun to fight the Americans.

Warner von Braun had the two men round up Walter Dornberger and together they devised a plan to ensure their bargaining power at the end of the war. He sent the others to box up all documents related to V-2 production and hide them in a mining tunnel in the Harz Mountains, and then blast some dynamite at the opening to seal them in. He hoped that if [when] he was captured, this would give him leverage.

Going Nazi Hunting

Towards the end of March 1945, the American and British militaries and governments put together a massive task force - comprised of members of several different departments and disciplines - to gather up every piece of Nazi science data they could before it was all destroyed. The group of 3,000 specialists was called the Combined Intelligence Objectives Subcommittee as a cooperation between the US and Britain.

[Bonus fact: Ian Fleming, creator and author of the James Bond novels, was the leader of a British intel group of commandos called the 30 Assault Unit as part of this alliance.]

The leaders of the chemical weapons team from each nation should be briefly noted as their names will come up again later in more detail. The American leader was Lieutenant Colonel Philip R. Tarr and the British leader was named Major Edmund Tilley. They inspected several IG Farben factories, all of which been scrubbed of evidence prior to their arrival.

The Osenberg List

The Osenberg List - a document allegedly uncovered under dubious circumstances - was a list of 15,000 Nazi scientists and 1,400 research facilities. The circumstances of its discovery, as reported, are that a Polish lab technician found it in a bathroom at Bonn University, where scientists and professors were burning documents in the courtyard and allegedly trying to flush them down the toilets in the bathrooms.

Regardless of how it was actually found, it provided the Allies with a massive advantage in tracking down scientists and other specialists towards the end of the war. The list was named for Dr. Werner Osenberg, who had originally compiled it as part of the war effort to bring scientists back from the front lines and into service advancing Nazi technology. Dr. Osenberg's address was on the list, and the Allies showed up at his home. He and several colleagues were hiding out there, and the Allies seized his index card cabinet that contained thousands of names and addresses of scientists.

Berlin Burning

By early April 1945, approximately 85% of Berlin had been destroyed; the city had many more piles of rubble than it did standing structures. Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, propaganda minister, ignored this and implored the German people and troops to continue the fight. Goebbels continuously broadcast the slogan "conquer or die" over the radio alongside a recording from Hitler stating "the old men and children will be murdered, women and girls will be degraded as barracks whores, and the rest of you will be marched to Siberia," if the Americans and Soviets won.

Liberating the Camps & Detaining the Scientists

While Berlin was burning, concentration camps were being liberated all across Germany. The discovery of the camps - and the emptying thereof - led to further information about more Nazi laboratories and research facilities. In the second week of 1945 the Allies uncovered four major facilities, all of which would lead them to the capture of scientists recruited during Operation Paperclip: Nordhausen, Geraberg, Völkenrode, and Ruabkammer.

At Nordhausen - home of the Mittelwerks - the slaves had been abandoned and left to die in the underground tunnels. Thousands of corpses lined the tunnels. Arguably more distressing was that hundreds more were alive - barely - too weak and hungry to stand on their own and covered with bruises, sores, and diseases. The only thing their stomachs could handle was watered down milk as they were attempting to regain strength.

In one of the offices at Mittelwerks, Allied troops found a directory of the chain of command of the facility. At the top of the list were Georg Rickhey and Arthur Rudolph.

South of Nordhausen, at the other edge of the Harz Mountains, the town of Geraberg was also freed. Here they were told by the locals that an SS officer, Dr. Karl Gross, had recently abandoned the area but had left behind several trunks full of documents and equipment. The locals also led the Allies to yet another hidden facility in this area; it was discovered to be a biological weapons research facility and vaccination testing site. It also turned out that Dr. Karl Gross reported directly to Dr. Kurt Blome, the Deputy Surgeon General and head of biological weapons research; the same Dr. Blome that Dr. Haagen was asking for more live test subjects in the undelivered letter.

In the town of Braunschweig [Brunswick], the Allies discovered a huge complex comprised of more than 70 buildings that was used for aircraft design, production, and testing. The facility was called Völkenrode, and its director, Adolf Busemenn, was cooperative with the Allied teams and provided evidence of the Germans having tested aircraft that could break the sound barrier - a milestone that the US was still very far from reaching at the pace they were advancing.

US Colonel Donald L. Putt was the leader of the team who was investigating Völkenrode,. He was also involved with the design of the B-29 bombers that would eventually drop the atomic bombs on Japan. The discovery of such advanced Nazi aircraft inspired an idea between Col. Putt and his superior, Major General Hugh Knerr. General Knerr suggested the following:

Why not also fly scientists like Adolf Busemann out of Germany, along with the captured Luftwaffe equipment? If we are not too proud to make use of this German-born information, much benefit can be derived from it and we can advance where Germany left off. The German scientists could be of immense value in our jet engine and airplane development program. Pride and face saving have no place in national insurance.

This idea, presented to the War Department, was seen favorably by the US military leadership. The Luftwaffe equipment was immediately packed up and shipped to Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio.

The Nazi engineers were rounded up and held in a luxury hotel near their test facility and told that they would "most likely" be able to be given American contracts. In the mean time, they were treated to plenty to eat, drink, and smoke at the hotel.

The British army came across a 76-square-mile Luftwaffe bombing test site called the Robbers' Lair in a rural forested area called Munster-Nord. Also on the premises was what was described as a "zoo" - cages for animals of all types and sizes. Adjacent to this area was a large wooden cylindrical structure - an aerosol chamber - 65 feet high and 100 feet wide. This showed signs of a chemical testing area. The chemical weapons would be deployed in the large open areas and the animals would either be pre-staged there or let loose to the test area to see the effects of the chemicals on them.

Also found at the Robbers' Lair were 100,000 mustard gas shells and 175 bunkers containing bombs loaded tabun gas.

The Birthday Boy

April 20, 1945: Adolf Hitler's 56th birthday. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels put out a "Happy Birthday Hitler" broadcast on all German radio stations, imploring the German people to keep fighting until the bitter end. Hitler announced via the radio that the Russians would "soon suffer their most crushing defeat yet."

This was not even remotely the case. The Red Army had begun its decisive assault on Berlin that same morning. The Germans had retreated and as such there was no front line of defense against Berlin. The Soviets stormed right in with 2,500,000 soldiers, 41,600 large guns and mortars, 7,500 aircraft, and 6,000 tanks. In the following twelve-day period it was estimated that the Red Army fired 1,800,000 shells on the city.

Fight or Flight

At this point - late April 1945 - the vast majority of Nazi leadership was attempting to flee the city of Berlin and escape to the countryside. They devised plans to use anything and everything they had - prisoners, information, technology, connections - to stay alive and essentially enter protective custody with the Allies.

Joseph Goebbels and his wife were said to already be plotting the murder-suicide of themselves and their six children. This would eventually take place on May 1, 1945, the day after Adolf Hitler's alleged suicide.

Science Without Conscience

On April 29, 1945, US forces arrived at the Dachau concentration camp near Munich, Germany. After the Americans shot down the first few SS guards who were resistant, the rest of the SS dropped their weapons, put their hands in the air, and surrendered.

Dachau had been put into service by Heinrich Himmler all the way back in 1933. Its first purpose was to imprison "Communists and other enemies of National Socialism." Dachau and other concentration camps were soon designated as "legally independent administrative units outside the penal code and the ordinary law." It was the primary training ground for SS officers and the prototype for the hundreds of other camps commissioned before and during the war.

American doctor Marcus Smith was the sole doctor who arrived with the US troops to Dachau the next morning - April 30, the day of Hitler's alleged suicide. The following is from his recollections:

We were instructed to do what we could with the 32,000 starved, diseased, and dying camp survivors as they waited for Red Cross workers to arrive. The newly liberated suffered from dysentery, tuberculosis, typhus, pneumonia, scabies, and other infectious diseases in early, late, and terminal stages.

Even my callous, death-hardened county-hospital exterior began to crack. One of my men weeps. I cannot believe this is possible in this enlightened age.

On one of these walks I enter a one-story building that contains laboratory counters and storage shelves. Almost everything in it has been smashed. I step over broken benches and drawers, twisted instruments and shattered glassware. In the debris, I am surprised to find a few specimen jars and bottles intact, filled with preserved human and insect tissues.

Surviving prisoners said that the laboratory had served Nazi doctors as an experimental medical ward, and that they were afraid of it, because it was a place where selected prisoners were used as experimental subjects without their consent.

The following passage by Annie Jacobsen really put the scene into perspective:

Although it was not yet known by American or British intelligence at the time, what Dr. Marcus Smith had come upon at Dachau was the place where a group of Luftwaffe doctors had been conducting medical research experiments on humans. This work took place in a freestanding barracks, isolated from the others, and was called Experimental Cell Block Five. Many of the Reich's elite medical doctors passed through the laboratory here. The work that was performed in Experimental Cell Block Five was science without conscience; bad science for bad ends.

That at least six Nazi medical doctors involved in this research at Dachau would be among the first scientists given contracts by the US Army would become one of the darkest secrets of Operation Paperclip.

A week later, on May 8, 1945, Victory in Europe day would be declared.

[Continue to Part Two: Nazi Roundup]



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