Operation Paperclip: How Nazis Took America To The Moon

Hello defence lovers! In the autumn of 1944, the United States and its allies embarked on a covert mission called Operation Paperclip. Their mission: track down and secure cutting-edge German weaponry, spanning from potent biological agents to formidable rocket technology. Soon the Americans grasped that merely obtaining these weapons was not enough. A bold decision was made – America needed to bring the brilliant but enigmatic Nazi scientists themselves onto American soil. Thus, a high-stakes mission unfolded to recruit the best Nazi scientist, doctors, physicists, and chemists. Among them was the legendary Wernher von Braun, a key player in crafting the very rockets that would propel humanity to the moon.


Seizing the possessions of a fallen enemy has been a prevalent custom since the earliest pages of recorded history, and likely well before. Nevertheless, the requisition of assets from the Third Reich following the conclusion of the Second World War in Europe represented one of the most distinctive and contemporary episodes in historical narratives. The confiscated resources extended beyond typical economic valuables like money, gold, and other commonplace riches; they included scientific assets and knowledge. Both of these elements had evolved into strategically vital components crucial for national success as the twentieth century unfolded.

Termed by some as the inaugural scientific conflict, the Second World War witnessed a pivotal role played by technological innovations like radar, jet engines, and ultimately, decisive nuclear bombs. Despite succumbing to the overwhelming might of allied armies and resources, Nazi Germany boasted technological prowess reportedly surpassing that of the Allied powers across various domains. The notion of ‘Wunderwaffe,’ or ‘wonder weapons,’ held a fantastical allure for Hitler, yet, in reality, a semblance of truth underscored their existence. The development or existence of such weapons indicated the presence of individuals possessing valuable knowledge—knowledge that could be exploited by those who acquired it.

As the allied armies advanced into Germany during the war’s final stages, they were accompanied by over 3,000 scientific and technical experts, and operatives of the Combined Intelligence Objectives Subcommittee (CIOS). This joint British-American task force, established in London during the summer of 1944, aimed to explore various facets of German science, encompassing radar, missiles, aircraft, medicine, bombs, fuses, chemical and biological weapons, and more. Nevertheless, CIOS didn’t operate in isolation. Another parallel endeavour, the Alsos Mission, frequently collaborated and sometimes competed with CIOS to extract as much valuable information as possible from the defeated enemy nation. Agents from this mission obtained a substantial collection of documents from a Polish lab technician at Bonn University, including a classified list known as the Osenberg list. This compilation featured names, addresses, and critical details about the top scientists of the Third Reich, forming the foundation for a blacklist and subsequent arrests.

In the aftermath of Germany’s surrender, the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) was keenly focused on confronting the emerging Soviet threat. To appraise the situation, its operatives wrote 16 major intelligence reports between June 15th and August 9th 1945, the most important of them detailing the USSR’s military capability and future intentions. In short, it warned that Stalin’s Soviet Union was an ideologically hostile entity which would continue to seek global domination. In October, JIC Intelligence Report 250/4 advised the joint chiefs of staff that ‘eight of ten leading German scientists in the field of guided missiles’ had gone missing, probably seized by the Soviets. More disturbingly, two entire German physics institutes had been disassembled, transported and reassembled in the USSR, a precursor of ‘intensive Soviet scientific research programs’ underway across Russia at the time. It was this fear of losing out which prompted an intensification and systematisation of US attempts to appropriate German science, including its scientists.

In late Summer of 1945, a subdivision of JIC was created, the Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency or JIOA. This new group quickly gained total control of a rapidly expanding Nazi scientist program called Operation Overcast, renamed ‘Paperclip’ in November 1945. From the moment JIOA took control, the employment of Germany’s scientists was specifically and strategically aimed at achieving military supremacy over the Soviets before the latter could dominate the United States, setting them up in such areas of the United States as Wright Field, Ohio. The morality of employing potential war criminals was, for the most part, sidelined by the military establishment due to the perception of a ticking clock.

Importing German excellence in aerospace

Perhaps German rocketry and German Scientists associated with it were the centrepiece of Operation Paperclip. The German V-Series of rockets and in particular the V-2 rocket, often considered a terror weapon, was an unprecedented device which no fighter aircraft was capable of shooting down and which proved perfect for demoralising enemy populations because of sheer helplessness.

‘It seemed likely that, if the German had succeeded in perfecting and using these new weapons six months earlier than he did, our invasion of Europe would have proved exceedingly difficult, perhaps impossible.”

– Dwight D. Eisenhower, prompted by the development of Advanced systems such as the V-2

The man at the centre of the V-2 rocket program was a prodigious German scientist named Werner von Braun, a man in his thirties at the end of the Second World War, he came from a wealthy, aristocratic background. A group prominently comprised of rocket scientists, including von Braun himself and General Walter Dornberger, surrendered to the Americans on May 2nd, 1945. By this time, von Braun was already at the top of CIOS’ blacklist for rocket research.

Von Braun was confident his work was so important that the Americans would never harm him. Despite his use of brutal slave labour to fulfil production targets for his work in Germany, there was no guilt or remorse about von Braun, and he seemed to act like a celebrity rather than a prisoner. The V2 rocket production moved to the United States with him following his capture. Later the V2 rocket was used for various experiments and eventually paved the way for the development of more complex rockets like the Saturn V.

Another important figure was Dr. Adolf Busemann, born in Germany in 1902, and a distinguished aeronautical researcher. After earning a Ph.D. in engineering in 1924, he joined the Max-Planck Institute in 1925 and became a professor at Georgia Augusta University in 1930. Busemann directed research at the Braunschweig Laboratory and, in 1935, presented a groundbreaking theory on drag reduction at supersonic speeds at the Volta Congress. Post-World War II, he assisted the United States amid tensions with Russia, continuing his work on wing sweep theory.

Chemical Weapons

Another area of focus lay in the realm of chemical weapons, where American analysts swiftly recognized their significant lag behind Germany. If the war had escalated to full-scale chemical attacks, the advantage would have overwhelmingly tilted in Germany’s favour.

In the summer of 1945, Dr. Gerard Schrader, among hundreds of other German chemists, was captured by the Americans and transported to Kransberg Castle in Hesse for interrogation. It was revealed that Schrader, albeit accidentally, was the creator of a devastating new nerve gas named Tabun, serving as the precursor to lethal gases such as the now infamous Sarin variant.

Previously employed at an insecticide laboratory of IG Farben in Leverkusen, Schrader had attempted to develop a pesticide for eradicating weevils and leaf lice. However, upon synthesizing a cyanide-containing fumigant codenamed ‘Preparation 9/91,’ he realized its massive lethality, rendering it unsuitable for pesticide use, much to his own regret. The Third Reich’s chemical weapons department, however, envisioned a more destructive application for the new substance, eventually giving it the name ‘Tabun’ after producing a kilogram of it for the German army.

As Operation Paperclip advanced, the U.S. effectively “imported” an expert in Tabun synthesis, Dr. Friedrich Hoffman. Hoffman immediately began producing potential chemical weapons for the Americans. Moreover, Hoffman was an anti-Nazi throughout the war and possessed an affidavit confirming such. Additionally, his father had risked his life by spying for the Americans, underscoring the diverse array of personalities, ranging from fervent war criminals to innocent, talented scientists, that Operation Paperclip targeted.

How Operation Paperclip was exposed

The revelation of the operation reached the public domain when the New York Times disclosed the presence of Nazis living in America under a clandestine military program. This exposé and subsequent stories triggered widespread condemnation from various interest groups and the general public. Despite objections and protests from prominent political figures in America against the employment of German scientists, Operation Paperclip, notably in the case of Werner von Braun, proceeded relatively unscathed. Von Braun eventually emerged as the primary NASA architect behind the crucial Saturn V vehicle, playing a pivotal role in the moon landing—an extraordinary achievement in American history.


Whether justifiably or not, Operation Paperclip brought over 1,600 scientists to the West, engaging them in various endeavours and contributing significantly to intellectual reparations valued at US$10 billion in patents and industrial processes. Among them, only one individual faced trial for crimes during the Nazi regime, yet he was never convicted. The Paperclip initiative stands as one of the more contentious plans of the early Cold War, indicative of the profound fear towards Soviet Communism held by Western authorities. This willingness to swiftly collaborate with former adversaries underscores the perceived magnitude of the Soviet threat and the urgency felt to unite against this new adversary.


Sheershoo Deb

I am a defense aspirant preparing to be an officer in the prestigious Indian armed forces. Earning the prestigious blue uniform is my dream.

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