How German WW2 Technology Helped Seed the World's Greatest Advancements

Many WW2-era German innovations have helped shape our modern world.
Christopher McFadden
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The Second World War was one of the most destructive periods in human history. But, from a technological point of view, the build-up to the war and its aftermath were one of the most fruitful periods in technological development to date.

Completely new technologies would emerge, from rockets to jet aircraft, which are still incredibly important tools today. It is debatable, for example, if we would have space programs today if it wasn't for the work of German engineers like Wernher von Braun. Ultimately, he was a key figure in developing rocket technology in Nazi Germany and, later, the United States. 

After the war, Germany was occupied by various Allied powers who scoured the country for people and technologies that would, to a greater or lesser degree, be either directly copied or used to inspire near-quantum leaps in domestic alternatives.

Here, we explore the technologies that exist because of work that came out of Nazi Germany.  

Did The U.S. ever steal German technology?

The answer is a definitive yes. We'll detail some important examples later on in this article, but there is an interesting historical example. 

In the later 1890s, the United States and the Kingdom of Spain went to war in what is now called the Spanish-American War of 1898. The conflict was triggered, so to speak, by an explosion of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor in Cuba that led to U.S. military intervention in the Cuban War of Independence. 

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The venerable Springfield M1903 rifle. Source: Drake00/Wikimedia Commons

Spanish forces fielded the Mauser M1893, a German-made rifle, that proved to be far superior to the Krag-Jorgensen rifles used by most American soldiers. United States forces are said to have used captured examples of the Mauser gun to develop their own version that would eventually become the Springfield M1903.

While disputed, some claim that Mauser, clearly perturbed by this action, approached the US Government for royalties on their technology but were flatly refused, with the US claiming they were simply copying “enemy equipment”. Mausser became more defiant in their defense and pointed out that US designers had incorporated a third locking lug in their new gun — a feature of Mauser's M1898.

Furthermore, since the Spanish had not used the M1898, so Mausser claimed, it could not be classed as “enemy equipment”. Mauser would eventually win their court case and the US Government had to pay the company compensation and a royalty fee on future production of the M1903. This continued until the US declared war on Germany in 1917.

It is important to note that many others have challenged whether this court case ever occurred, but it is clear that the M1903 American rifle was heavily influenced by the design of the Mauser M1893. 

What German inventions were adopted by the Allies after WW2?

Unfortunately, one of the biggest drivers for technological change for our species is conflict. From hot, kinetic wars, to the more sluggish, yet equally sinister machinations of cold wars, competition between nations really does inspire innovation. 

One of the most fruitful, technologically-speaking, periods in technological innovation was the build-up to and participation in the Second World War. The world before and after the conflict would be very different, so much so, that the war is often used as a bookmark in modern history. 

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Source: Per-Olof Forsberg/Flickr

Innovations were made independently, and in collaboration with, other nations throughout the war, but some very important ones were effectively plundered from the defeated Axis forces. This was deemed acceptable in the day as a form of "reparations" for the damage inflicted by the conflict.

But, it is important to note that this has been common practice throughout the long history of war. For example, the Roman Empire would commonly "steal" technologies from defeated foes. Most other nations, to a greater or lesser degree, have adopted a similar practice throughout time. 

It has also been pretty common practice for nations to capture or attempt to copy through espionage a foe's technology too. A practice that is still common today.

Of the Axis powers, one particular member, Germany, offered the Allied powers a literal treasure trove of advanced technology, at the time, which was quickly reverse engineered and developed post-war. Some of the most notable ones will be included here. 

This list, as you can imagine, is far from exhaustive and is in no particular order.

1. Night vision was "borrowed" from the Germans

stolen german tech night vision
Source: Rachel Lovinger/Flickr

One of the most interesting German technologies adopted by Allied powers after WW2 is night vision. While some early versions were developed in the late-1920s, it wasn't until just before the war that night vision was issued to units within the German army. 

Towards the end of the war, a number of German Mark V Panther tanks were even equipped with vehicle variants. These tanks saw action on both the Eastern and Western fronts. 

An infantry version called the ZG 1229 "Vampir" was also developed that could be used with the STG-44 Sturmgewehr assault rifle. This device weighed roughly 5lbs and was fitted with lugs at the weapons production facility. 

Soldiers equipped with these night-vision enhanced rifles were known as "night hunters".

The unit was powered by a series of batteries that supplied power for an infrared light source and the main sight. Infrared light was generated using a conventional bulb using a special filter. 

According to historical sources, this technology first saw combat use in 1945, and around 300 or so units had been delivered to the Wehrmacht forces by the dying days of the war. It is not clear what impact this technology had on the war, but Eastern front allied veterans reported that German snipers were able to miraculously shoot at night with the aid of "peculiar non-shining torches coupled with enormous optical sights". 

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In 1943, the U.S. began the development of an infrared sight to provide night-vision capability. The Army engineers devised a rather rudimentary instrument consisting of an electronic telescope and sealed-beam light, somewhat similar to an automobile headlight, fitted with an infrared filter. A lead-acid battery to power the device was carried in a canvas knapsack. A limited number of M3 carbines fitted with an improved infrared sniper scope system were eventually manufactured and were used during the battle for Okinawa.

Post-war, former Allied armies, like the U.S., adopted and then refined the technology further culminating in the first use of "true" night vision in the Vietnam War.

2. The jet engine was first introduced by the Germans, but not technically invented by them

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Source: Mike McBey/Flickr

One of the most famous "confiscated" technologies of the Second World War was the jet engine. Developed in Germany by Hans von Ohain, who patented his design in 1936, several operational jet planes were fielded by the Luftwaffe towards the end of the war.

The famous Messerschmitt Me262 fighter and less-known Arado Ar 234 are two of the very first jet-powered aircraft to enter active service. 

As important as this development was, the jet engines developed by the Germans during the war are not technically the first. Frank Whittle, a British inventor, independently developed his own design as early as 1930. 

However, his engine was not flight-tested until around 1941, unlike Hans von Ohain's designs with the development, in 1939, of a fully operational jet aircraft — the Heinkel He 178. The technology was further refined by other German engineers, like Anselm Franz who developed the engine that would eventually power the Me 262. 

This aircraft would enter official service in 1944, and while small in number, would claim an impressive tally of kills. In Britain, the first Allied jet fighter, the Gloucester Meteor would enter service in later the same year. Sadly neither aircraft would meet in direct combat — much to the chagrin of RAF pilots. 

After the war, Ohain and many examples of German jet planes were captured and shipped to the U.S. and the Soviet Union for study. 

3. You can thank the Wehrmacht for guided missiles

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Surviving deactivated "Fritz X" bomb on display. Source: Kogo/Wikimedia Commons

Another interesting piece of tech that the U.S. and Soviet Union inherited from the Wehrmacht is guided missiles. During WW2, the Germans developed a fairly rudimentary version called the Fritz X (or Ruhrstahl X-1) anti-shop bomb.

This bomb was based on the PC 1400 (3,100 lb - 1400 kg) bomb and could be controlled using the same joystick radio-command system used on the Henschel Hs 293 missile. Mid-flight control was provided by spoilers on the cruciform tail, a system developed by Dr. Max Kramer at the Luftwaffe experimental establishment in Berlin-Adlershof.

First deployed by the Luftwaffe in 1943, the bomb could be launched and guided by the operator remotely using radio signals. The bomb was actually used in anger and was able to sink an Italian battleship Roma and severely damage another battleship the Italia

The Kriegsmarine also developed a form of guided torpedo during the war too. Called the Zaunkoenig (G7es) torpedo, this weapon was supplied to German U-boats from 1943 onwards. This torpedo was able to use sound waves, rather than radio control, to locate and home in on its unlucky target.

The Allies were able to develop a similar bomb, called the "Bat", a little later in the war which used radar to isolate and target an enemy ship. This bomb was fairly sophisticated and didn't require any human input. 

To do this, the torpedo employed two hydrophones, placed side by side, which directed the torpedo to home in on the target’s noise signature. As impressive as this setup was, it did come with some issues — the torpedo's own noise. For this reason, it had a maximum speed of around 25 knots. 

Not only that, but the sensor was only sensitive to targets moving at between 12 and 19 knots.

After the war, ordinance guiding systems were further developed by the U.S. and Soviet Union laying the foundations for modern guided missiles. 

4. Long-range missiles were first developed in Germany

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Source: Richard Penn/Flickr

Another of the most famous pieces of technology "stolen" from the Germans in WW2 was the long-range missile. While rockets were employed by various armies at this time, the ability to strike from great distances without the need for aircraft was exclusively developed by the Wehrmacht during this period. 

Starting off with the V-1, dubbed the "Doodlebug" or "Buzz bomb" by the Allies, the German's would eventually develop a liquid-fueled, guided rocket called the V-2. The "V" designation stood for Vergeltungswaffe or "Vengeance Weapon".

The V-2 was much larger than its predecessor and weighed in at around 14 tons apiece. 

It took off vertically and had a range of around 200 miles (320 km) at a top speed of about 3,300 mph (5,310 km/h). This was much faster than any interceptor aircraft of the day, meaning the weapon had effective free-range over Allied territory once launched.

The V-1 and V-2 were made in large quantities and were used to strike distant targets including London and the port city of Antwerp in Belgium.  

Post-war, former Allied forces captured large quantities of V-1 and V-2 weapons to study and reverse engineer. As part of "Operation Paperclip", the U.S. recruited German engineers, scientists, and technicians, as well as captured examples of the rocket to use in ultimately developing their own domestic rockets and fledgling space exploration operations. In fact, the very first image from outer space was captured using a modified V-2 rocket. 

The V-1 and V-2 are effectively the granddaddies of today's cruise missiles and ballistic missiles. 

5. The first production helicopter was actually German

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Source: Raboe001/Wikimedia Commons

Another incredibly important technological innovation from WW2-era Germany is the production helicopter. Called the Flettner FI 282 Kolibri, a.k.a. the "Hummingbird", this diminutive aircraft was a single-seater intermeshing rotor helicopter, or if you'd prefer, synch-copter. 

Produced by Anton Flettner during the height of WW2, this is officially the world's first production helicopter, although only 24 were built by the end of the war. 

It was initially envisaged for use as an aerial reconnaissance aircraft or micro-transport for ferrying stuff between ships. However, the Luftwaffe quickly came to realize quite how capable this technology could be on the battlefield. 

This resulted in the development of the B-2 variant that included an extra seat for a dedicated observer onboard. The B-2 quickly earned its place as a very useful artillery spotter aircraft, as well as, general observation craft later in the war. 

Of prime importance was the craft's stability and reliability in bar deather that led the Luftwaffe to put in an order for around 1,000 units in 1944. Unfortunately for Flettner, allied bombing raids destroyed the company's factory in Munich after completing only a couple of dozen units. 

Towards the war's end, all surviving craft were stationed at Rangsdorf as artillery spotters. However, their numbers were gradually whittled down by Soviet fighters and anti-aircraft fire. 

In the U.S., the Sikorsky R-4 was the first large-scale mass-produced helicopter, and the only Allied helicopter to serve in World War II, and was largely used for search and rescue. The R-4 was replaced by the Sikorsky R-5 and R-6 and in all, Sikorsky produced more than 400 helicopters before the end of World War II.

After the war, Anton Flettner moved to the United States and would later become the chief designer for Kaman Aircraft. His collaboration would lead to the development of the HH-43 "Huskie". This helicopter would go on to earn great fame in the Vietnam War. 

Flettner's work on intermeshing rotor blades would become something of a calling card for the Kaman company who is still in operation today.  

6. You can also thank, or not, the Wehrmacht for methamphetamine

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Source: Jan Wellen/Wikimedia Commons

Believe it or not, but another WW2 German "innovation" was the popularization of methamphetamine. Called "pervitin", this substance is a direct ancestor of what today is more usually known as crystal meth.

While the Germans did not invent the drug, per se, its widespread use in Germany just before and during the early stages of the war catapulted the drug into the limelight. Just like modern variants today, "pervitin" was highly addictive and many a German soldier of the period became somewhat addicted to the stuff. 

It is widely believed that the German army physiologist Otto Ranke realized the immediate benefit of such a substance being employed in the German army. If soldiers, or airmen for that matter, were given the stuff they could be kept alert for longer on less sleep. 

Pervitin became colloquially known among the German troops as “Stuka-Tablets” and “Herman-Göring-Pills.”  However, the drug has very serious after-effects that tended to render a user effectively out of action for a few days afterward. Despite this, the drug still saw widespread use. Records from the British War Office estimate that between April to June 1940 about 35 million Pervitin tablets were sent to 3 million German soldiers, seamen, and pilots.

Towards the end of the war, a new experimental drug, D-IX was developed based on methamphetamine. This was an experimental performance enhancer that was scheduled for widespread distribution among German armed forces. 

This drug was envisaged for use as a form of combat drug to keep up a soldier's spirits up by generating a feeling of euphoria. This was a very logical conclusion, as the Wehrmacht was suffering from a series of very serious defeats at the hands of Allied forces towards the end of the war. 

This was not to be as the war ended before the drug could be put into mass production. However, it did see limited use among Neger and Biber pilots. 

After British intelligence agents discovered Pervitin tablets in a downed German plane, it was decided to give Allied soldiers a similar chemical advantage. They settled on the amphetamine Benzedrine, which was used to keep American and British soldiers alert.

After the war, methamphetamine was further developed, with one form, "obetrol", becoming very popular in the 1950s and 196s as a popular diet pill. 

Today, the drug is most widely used as a recreational drug but does have legitimate medical uses as a second-line treatment for conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and obesity. 

7. Paratroopers: a German military tactic that came back to bite them

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Source: Kārlis Dambrāns/Flickr

Another German innovation that was copied by the Allies was the principle of airborne forces. More commonly known as paratroopers today, the Germans were the first to understand the potential for this tactic in war. Although Italy was the first country to found airborne forces, in the 1930s, Germany was the first to use them in combat.

Perfectly suited to the German concept of Blitzkrieg ("lightning war"), paratroopers, or Fallschirmjäger (roughly "parachute hunter")  would be used to great effect by the Wehrmacht before and during WW2. 

Germany's first parachute regiment was raised by Hermann Göring in 1935 and was first used in combat during the Spanish Civil War. Ferried and deployed from the highly flexible Junkers Ju-52, German paratroopers gained a lot of valuable experience during this terrible conflict. 

The Ju-52 would later become the workhorse of German paratroopers throughout the Second World War, starting with the first airborne attack of the war on an airfield at Wagram, in Austria. 

Paratroop regiments were an integral part of the swift German invasion of some European nations, including; Norway and Belgium. However, one attack, in particular, that of Crete, would ultimately prove to be something of a turning point in the war. 

While successful, in part, German forces would take very heavy casualties, ultimately leading Hitler to lose faith in the tactic of airborne assaults. The Allies, on the other hand, saw the great potential for it and quickly began to raise their own paratrooper regiments. 

Some of these would be used to mixed effects during the Normandy Invasions of 1944. 

8. The Allies basically ripped off the German Type XXI submarine

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Source: AlMare/Wikimedia Commons

Of all the German innovations of WW2, it was the blatant copying, or downright direct use, of captured German Type XXI submarines that can clearly be labeled as "stealing" by Allied forces. These submarines were by far the most advanced of their kind at that time, and, unlike other contemporary submarines, could remain submerged for long periods of time. 

A diesel-electric submarine, one hundred and eighteen of these ocean hunters were built, but only four were combat-ready by war's end. Of these, only two were ever unleashed on Allied ocean-going forces, though none saw actual combat. 

To help keep them submerged, these submarines incorporated large numbers of batteries that could allow them to remain underwater for days at a time — a major innovation at the time. They were also much faster than other submarines and were armed with power-assisted torpedo reloading systems. 

While impressive in their own way, they did also suffer from some serious setbacks. One was the mechanical unreliability and vulnerability to combat damage, This was in part due to the fact that they were rushed to production and were fairly advanced, meaning existing manufacturing facilities lacked the necessary experience to build them to the required high standards. 

Once the war was over, several Allied navies acquired Type XXI submarines and either operated them with little modification or reverse engineered them to build new submarines of their own design. 

9. The "Jerrycan" was obviously a German invention

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Source: pimvantend/Flickr

Colloquially called the "Jerrycan", this iconic gasoline canister is now a common implement today. Typically used to store gasoline, it is used by the military and civilians all around the world.

The 5.2-gallon (20-liter) container was invented by the Müller Engineering company for the Wehrmacht in around 1937 and is technically called the Wehrmacht-Einheitskanister ("Armed Forces Unit Canister"). Its nickname comes from the pejorative slang "Jerry" to refer to Germans by the Allies.  

Compared to previous liquid canisters, the "Jerrycan" proved to be more robust and were easier to carry and use in the field. Previously, large liquid containers tended to require the use of tools and a funnel to empty to contents, but the "Jerrycan" could be used "as is". 

The can's iconic triple handle was developed to meet the need for the Wehrmacht's specification that a single soldier should be able to carry either two full, or four empty, containers of this kind. The handles could also be used to allow two people to easily handle and carry the can when needed. 

The can has a large spout and flip-top closure allowing for rapid pouring and refilling of the can and safe storage. It also has an innovative overall rectangular design meant it could be readily stacked, and its recessed welded seams and x-form indents meant it was very robust and could expand/contract without unduly damaging the can's structural integrity. 

Large quantities of the were made, with some falling into the hands of U.S. engineers who reverse-engineered the cans, making them slightly lighter, but designed to be stacked interchangeably with German versions. 

10. Without the Wehrmacht we might not have Fanta

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Source: atharva80/Flickr

Believe it or not, but the world might never have heard or seen of Fanta if it wasn't for the Second World War. The outbreak of the war lead to a trade embargo on Nazi Germany which meant that many ingredients for popular soft drinks, like Coca-Cola, were no longer available to Germans. 

For this reason, Max Keith, the then head of Coca-Cola in Germany, came up with an innovative workaround. He, and his team, managed to develop a new soft drink using ingredients they did have available in wartime Germany and Fanta was born. 

The original recipe used apple fibers leftover from cider pressings and whey to make the now iconic fruit-flavored drink. This base was then mixed with whatever seasonal fruit was available.

As for the name, it is commonly believed that it is derived from the German word "fantasie" (meaning fantasy) after Keith told the company's salesman Joe Knipp to "use his imagination" when thinking of a brand name. 

Due to similar issues as Germany, the Netherlands division of Coca-Cola was also provided access to Fanta for their respective markets, albeit electing to use elderberries as one of the leading ingredients.

At war's end, the formula for the drink became the intellectual property of Coca-Cola, who discontinued the drink for time. After Pepsi released some new lines of soft drinks in the 1950s, Coca-Cola decided to resurrect the wartime drink. 

The rest, as they say, is history. 

11. The Germans might have invented the first stealth bomber

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Source: Michael.katzmann/Wikimedia Commons

Ok, this one is a little bit of a long shot, but elements of WW2-era experimental German aircraft are said to have inspired some elements of the American B-2 Stealth bomber. Two aircraft, in particular, were developed by the Germans during the war to meet a perceived need to develop jet-powered, long-range bombers that could, in theory, be used to bomb mainland America.

One example, the Arado E.555 was designed under the so-called "Amerikabomber" project for this purpose. After a series of designs were developed, engineers behind the project settled on a unique angular single-wing design.

While a fascinating concept for us today, especially due to its ostensible similarity to modern aircraft, like the B-2, none were ever built or flown. 

Another example, the Horton Ho 229, was another flying wing experimental plane developed during this period. This particular aircraft was born out of Herman Goring's so-called "3 x 1,000 requirements" for a new bomber. This required an aircraft to be able to carry 1,000 kg of bombs, at 1,000 km/h, over a distance of 1,000 km.

Three prototype aircraft were built, but as far as we know, none were ever flight tested. The only surviving example was eventually shipped to the United States for closer examination as part of "Operation Seahorse" and  "Operation Paperclip". 

It has been alleged that the Horton Ho 229 was constructed using a mix of charcoal woven into its wings that acted as a kind of rudimentary stealth technology to early radar. To this end, it, in part, helped inspire the design of the B-2.

However, it is important to note that modern testing has cast doubts on these claims. 

And that, German tech fans, is your lot for today. The above are but some of the most notable German innovations that either directly, or indirectly, inspired technological innovations in other countries following its defeat during WW2. 

While some claims of direct "copying" of German tech are debated, there is no doubt that German engineering was, and still is, pushing the boundaries of what can be done.

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