The War Years: 1939-1945

McDonnell Aircraft Corp. ... Testing Guided Missiles

Computer science merged with propulsion technology during World War II as engineers and scientists found new ways to build better weapons.

The German rocket scientists, ahead in their field, were led by Hermann Oberth, who had published Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen ("The Rocket into Planetary Space") in 1923, and by his assistant, Wernher von Braun, who would later bring his expertise to the United States. By 1941, the Germans had built the V-1, a pilotless bomber that could deliver a 1-ton payload 150 miles.

McDonnell's first guided missile was the Gargoyle, a TV-guided glide bomb fitted with an acid aniline rocket engine, which first flew in 1944. It was heavily tested but never deployed.

The German V-1's successor was the V-2, which could deliver 2,200 pounds of bombs 200 miles in less than 4 minutes. It was built using the first electric analog computer with aerospace applications, designed by Helmut Hoelzer. Fortunately for the Allies, the German V-2 emerged too late in the war to affect the outcome. Instead, it caused post-war rocket science to make a quantum leap forward.

The V-2 was tested over Poland in 1944, so Polish partisans were able to recover most of a V-2 that had fallen into a marsh. It took 200 members of the resistance, working right under the enemy's nose, to transport the missile pieces to Brindisi, Italy, and a stripped-down Douglas DC-3 flew the parts to Farnborough, England. One of the experts reassembling the V-2 was an American rocket engineer, Tom Dixon, who went to work for North American on the Navaho missile project after the war.

In addition to the acquired V-2 technologies, the U.S. aerospace industry benefited from "Operation Paperclip," which sent masses of scientific data, tons of unused missiles and several hundred scientists from Germany to the United States, once World War II ended.

Previous narrative | Next narrative