World War to Cold War: 1920 – 1955

After 1920, Ford’s monopoly on the automotive industry essentially eliminated innovation in the field most likely to produce it. Work on different energy sources would be at a relative standstill until World War II, when various countries experimented with it out of necessity, due to a shortage of strategic materials and/or desperation. The primary sources of innovation would stem from the major powers in the war – the United States, Great Britain, Germany, and Japan. Of these, Germany contributed the most to the postwar world, discounting nuclear power (whose ability to reach any corner of the world was still due to a German design). With the exception of the United States, the experimentation was usually done based on some measure of desperation.

Nazi Germany was possibly the most technologically-advanced nation of the war. [Ironically for an efficient, advanced nation, their insistence on perfection, their lack of knowledge about RADAR, their micromanaging, and their leader’s insanity led to their downfall.] After their campaigns began to turn against them in 1942 on all fronts, they decided that the best way to become victorious lay in one of many ‘secret weapons’. Many used a minimum of hard-to-find steel and/or oil in the hopes that these alternative designs and sources of energy would save them from destruction. Many of these were almost total failures; however, a few designs or their successors would make it into the history books as revolutionary achievements well ahead of their times.

The Me-163 Komet, a “Wunderweapon” (literally ‘wonder weapon’). Although its impact on the war was minimal, it was a key point for what would after the war become motorgliding, the art of using an onboard motor to get to altitude and then cutting the engine, using rising air currents to stay airborne.

Following the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, Germany (known as the Weimar Republic from 1919 – 1933) was banned from having an air force. However, this liability was circumvented by training soon-to-be-pilots at “sports clubs”, which were not limited by the treaty, using gliders, powerless aircraft that, once released from a tow-plane or tow-car, would glide back to the ground (unless they found atmospheric lift, in which case they would try to remain airborne). These gliders taught the pilots basic “stick-and-rudder” skills that were invaluable training tools, and helped make the Luftwaffe so feared in World War II. But by 1943, many of these pilots were dead or wounded, and at any rate, the German oil fields and aircraft factories were being crippled by Allied bombing raids. What the Germans needed was a weapon that could stop the nearly-unstoppable bombers that could be fast enough to climb to altitude quickly and destroy Allied aircraft just as quickly, before the tens of thousands of guns trained on them could cut them to ribbons. [‘Tens of thousands’ is not an exaggeration; assuming that there were 1,000 bombers in a formation (as was normal for WWII), and that each bomber carried 13 machine guns (as was found on early-model B-17s), 13,000 guns would be carried by the bombers alone, not even counting the hundreds of fighters that would be in close support.] The design agreed upon fell back to the prewar days of gliders, but had a jet engine attached that used experimental T-Stoff and C-Stoff rocket fuel, which were highly volatile when mixed; this was the Messerschmitt Me-163 Komet, the fastest aircraft of the war, which could climb to high altitude at the highly impressive rate of about 13,000 ft/min and reach over 600 mph.

A modern-day motorglider. [This one is made by Ximango; multiple companies in the U.S., Europe, and the Far East, including a few large aviation firms, produce motorgliders.] Motorgliding is alive and well in many parts of the world, and has been disputed to be a possible future method of transport.

[The Japanese counterpart to this was the wooden Okha kamikaze rocket, which punched holes in the sides of ships at 500 mph and detonated about one ton of explosives in the armor-piercing head. These were mass-produced, but as they had to be brought in and dropped from lumbering Betty level bombers at fairly close range, most did not even make it to the drop point, and the program achieved very little other than to scare many Allied sailors.] The Komet had only about 8 minutes’ worth of endurance, and did very little in terms of immediate impact, but was built like and operated as a motorglider (a powered glider). [It had a skid for landing, jettisonable wheels for takeoff, took off under its own power, and landed without power, being unmovable until a specialized tractor pulled up to it.] Because of this, when the war ended, it opened up a whole new field – motorgliders – as an energy-efficient method of transport. It could be argued that motorgliders, coupled with solar or wind power, could cross the world en masse; however, the speed, reliability, and ubiquity of powered aircraft will likely keep this off the radar for the foreseeable future. However, a solar-powered motorglider, the Solar Impulse, has recently completed test trials and is expected to go around the world nonstop within the next few years, so this coupling of technology is certainly possible.

The V2 Rocket. German rocket production, when captured by both the Americans and the Soviets, led to the Space Race; and through that, we eventually had the advent of many modern conveniences [and military equipment] – satellites, missiles, GPS, the quest to put men on the moon, etc.

But this is not the only technology created by the Germans that is still in some use today. GPS, satellites, space programs, and two-thirds of the Cold War nuclear triad (of intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and nuclear bombers; the first two are referenced here) would not be possible without the V-1 and V-2 rockets created by the Germans during the waning days of World War II. The V-1 was the world’s first cruise missile, and the V-2 was the world’s first ballistic missile; the V-1 was powered by the experimental rocket fuels T-Stoff and Z-Stoff, while the V-2 was powered by liquid oxygen; the latter’s powerplant has been retained until today for all rockets capable of reaching Low-Earth Orbit (i.e. space). The V-1 was fired on London in the thousands until the launch sites were overrun in the ground offensive; reaching about 500 mph, only a few British aircraft could intercept them, primarily the Hawker Tempest V and the (jet-powered) Gloster Meteor. [The rocket did not have a guidance system other than its trajectory when fired; consequentially, one way to destroy them was to tip them over (!) and allowing them to crash into the sea.] These caused havoc, but not nearly as much as the V-2, which as a ballistic missile, was practically indestructible [by contemporary technology] once it launched; this problem was partially alleviated by bombing Peenemunde, the primary testing and launch site when the program was still new.

Wernher Von Braun. Inventor of the V1 and V2, he was the single most important influence on the U.S. space program.

After Operation Paperclip, and its Soviet counterpart, many German scientists were given amnesty in exchange for helping each country defeat the other. [For those interested in the subject, I would recommend studying Operation Paperclip, which will put the entire war and the subsequent ‘punishment’ of the war criminals in a new light.] One of the chief scientists to come to the U.S. was Werner Von Braun, designer of the V-2; his postwar work led to the development of the Saturn V, the first (and only) rocket to send men to the moon, as well as the development of just about every postwar rocket design. He could be argued to be the sole reason that we have access to satellite technology today, as he is the one whose designs got them up there.

A Type VIIC U-boat. Most submarines up to WWII were hybrids of sorts, diesel-electric in nature. Here, batteries can be seen just fore and aft of the control room (in the center), in the bottom of the hull; four diesel engines were located in the compartment aft of the control room.

The Germans were still not quite finished, and their next design was an extensive modification of the submarine, whose history will be briefly explained. The first submarine in existence was a screw-powered design named U.S.S. Turtle. Designed by David Bushnell and having Ezra Lee as the world’s first submariner, the hand-cranked design was built to attach an explosive charge to the bottom of H.M.S. Eagle, the British flagship in New York Harbor during the American Revolutionary War; in three war patrols, it scored no hits. The next try was during the American Civil War, when the Confederate submarine C.S.S. Hunley successfully attacked the Union frigate U.S.S. Housatonic with a spar torpedo, an explosive charge kept away from the ship by a long spar and remotely detonated. However, while the Housatonic was destroyed in the first-ever submarine sinking, the crew of the Hunley had no chance to savor the victory, as the blast wave plunged the submarine underwater with its hatch open and sank the boat with all hands. The Holland, designed by John Holland in the United States in 1898, was therefore the world’s first truly useful submarine, and was powered on diesel motors for use on the surface and batteries underwater, with the diesels able to recharge the batteries on the surface; the diesel/electric hybrid engine was the biggest change in submarine design until nuclear power, and when married to the self-propelled Whitehead torpedo and its derivatives, the submarine became formidable. [This author has had the opportunity to visit the remarkably tiny Holland in person, as well as an exact replica of the Turtle and perhaps a dozen other submarines of all types over the years, including some that have since been scrapped or sunk, and including some that will be discussed further down in this column.]

U-793, one of the “Walter boats” under construction. The hydrogen-peroxide powerplant was complex, unsafe, and unreliable, and all thoughts of using hydrogen peroxide for power vanished after the war.

The Germans’ improvement to the submarine was an attempted change in powerplant. Fuel oil was in relatively short supply, and submarines were relatively slow, reaching up to 20 kts on the surface but only about 8 kts below the surface, making the submarine’s best habitat, underwater, a death trap simply because a good sonar operator could ensure that the submarine never outran even the slowest pursuing escorts. To fix this problem, Helmut Walter proposed several ideas to the Kriegsmarine; the most radical of these were the Type XVII and Type XVIII “Walter Boats”, U-boats running [submerged] on hydrogen peroxide engines. Hydrogen peroxide was extremely powerful, and on a test bed, had proven that they could maintain an underwater speed of about 25 kts (!), very near the speed of modern-day submarines and able to outrun most escorts. The engines, codenamed “Ingolin” (an inside joke, as Walter’s son was named Ingol), could separate oxygen from hydrogen peroxide and run off of that; trials proved that submerged, they could travel about twice as far as contemporary U-boats (to about 100-150 miles), not enough to justify the complexity involved in the undertaking. The engines were extremely temperamental and highly dangerous, and the fuel extremely scarce and non-renewable (unlike batteries, which could be recharged); only seven hydrogen-peroxide powered Walter boats were commissioned during the war.

The Type XXI U-boat. Its similarities to the Type XVII U-boat (shown above) are no coincidence; after hydrogen peroxide was scrapped as a power source, Helmut Walter realized that the extra space could be used to increase the ship’s battery capacity. This minimized the amount of fuel needed, creating the world’s most efficient hybrid-at-sea for its time.

But Walter saw an upside to this; the specialized hull had to be widened for the hydrogen peroxide tanks to be installed, and he proposed that with the same hull, large batteries could be installed to greatly extend underwater range. Conversion of the design was simple, resulting in the building of the much-feared Type XXI and Type XXIII, which could theoretically reach underwater speeds of 18 kts, roughly the maximum surface speed of wartime submarines; this was an unprecedented achievement, and allowed for the fuel-starved U-boats to conserve fuel further, making them the most-efficient “hybrid” vehicles of any type anywhere in the world until recently. Unlike with hydrogen-peroxide power, this type of diesel-electric submarine was the most advanced and most efficient in the world until the advent of nuclear power about ten years later. [The ten years refers to the U.S.S. Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear submarine, which was launched in 1954; more on that later.]

The British did not follow up on hydrogen peroxide power after the war. They built two testbeds, Explorer and Excalibur; wags called them Exploder and Excruciator after their checkered safety records. The only thing that the British might have contributed in terms of energy efficiency was the construction of wooden aircraft, which used a minimum of strategically-necessary aluminum. Their most famous example was the twin-engine Mosquito, a fighter capable of outrunning most opponents at about 400 mph, delivering a bombload as large as that of a medium bomber, and with the range and precision to carry out practically anything requested of them. These used a minimum of fuel for a maximum of effect, but since one woe is traded for another here (wood instead of fuel), and because the postwar world made wooden aircraft all but obsolete, it will not be discussed further.

The Americans arguably had the worst equipment of the war. Their ships were not as powerful, their soldiers were not as well-trained (Marines aside), and some of their armoured vehicles were nicknamed “Ronson Lighters” or “Zippo Lighters”. [The later aircraft, though, were pretty good.] Their sole advantage was that they had the power of industry behind them, and could outproduce any enemy. It was not militarily that they submitted to this discussion; rather, it was at Los Alamos, New Mexico, where thousands of laborers worked under cover of secrecy on the Manhattan Project almost since the start of the war. In early 1945, a test was conducted on top of a tower in White Sands Missile Range to demonstrate years of work academically backed by J. Robert Oppenheimer and (more distantly by) Albert Einstein. After witnessing the effect of his work at the Trinity test, Oppenheimer recited a segment of the Bhagavad Gita, “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” The power unleashed at the Trinity test then was unleashed twice more, on August 6, 1945, and August 9, 1945, on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively.

U.S.S. Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine. Built in 1954, Nautilus quickly broke several records in speed and duration. Following these accomplishments, the Americans and the Soviets competed in nuclear power, which revolutionized not just the military world, but the civilian world as well. However, disaster would strike the nuclear program, casting doubts on its safety throughout the world…

But prior to its military applications, nuclear energy had been seen to power reactors; this was further contained and modified, and under the supervision of Hyman Rickover, soon powered the submarine U.S.S. Nautilus in 1954; this was the beginning of a new era in propulsion and energy efficiency, as nuclear reactors began to spring up for civilian use around the world. [What no one knew at the time, however, was that we would have to deal with the results of nuclear waste. The risk of a nuclear failure casting a pox on the whole idea was known to Rickover, who against the Navy’s wishes, personally oversaw construction of every nuclear ship to come off the slipways. The Navy found a way to sack him, temporarily as it turned out – the first submarine off the ways not under Rickover’s supervision was the U.S.S. Thresher, which sank during sea trials with all hands due to a corner-cutting measure imposed by the contractors. Rickover was reinstated, and only one other nuclear-powered U.S. ship – showing the relative safety of the program – has sunk since, the submarine U.S.S. Scorpion, in mysterious circumstances. To understand the term ‘mysterious’, this author recommends the (non-fiction) book Blind Man’s Bluff, about how the Cold War wasn’t really that cold, at least behind the scenes. It is thought now among historians (on the subject) that Scorpion sank as a quid pro quo from the Russians, who had just lost a submarine in the Pacific to an accidental ramming by a U.S. vessel; in fact, in a very short span of time surrounding the loss of the Scorpion, about four or five submarines of all navies and quite a few aircraft were lost to ‘mysterious’ circumstances. Since public knowledge of this would have incited nuclear war, much of this was hidden until several years after the events took place.]

In other news for this time period, motor vehicles were still gasoline powered across the board. To reiterate, this would not change markedly until the Arab Oil Crisis of 1973. Ships had begun the transition to diesel-burning engines from coal-burning engines about this time; however, as both are environmentally-unfriendly, they will not be discussed in great detail.

One Response to World War to Cold War: 1920 – 1955

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *