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Book Review – The Race for Hitler’s X-Planes: Britain’s 1945 Mission To Capture Secret Luftwaffe Technology

By John Christopher; Trafalgar Square Publishing; 226 pages

By the time World War II ended in Europe, the Third Reich had introduced into warfare jet- and rocket-propelled combat aircraft, the V-1 robot bomb that was an early ground-launched cruise missile, and the V-2 ballistic missile powered by a rocket engine. Adolf Hitler’s Germany had many more high-tech aircraft and weapons in development, including the Messerschmitt P.1101 jet that appears on the cover of this handsome volume as a representative example of Hitler’s X-Planes, albeit without a caption.

Using previously unearthed records from Britain’s Air Ministry, Christopher relates the story of the British mission to Germany aimed at grabbing up secret weapons and bringing them home for analysis.

The story of how American experts sought to exploit German technology in the immediate postwar period has been told often, and perhaps best in American Raiders, by Wolfgang Samuel. John Christopher, a graphic designer, balloon pilot, and author of Transatlantic Airships, sets forth to fill a gap with The Race for Hitler’s X-Planes: Britain’s 1945 mission to capture secret Luftwaffe technology. Using previously unearthed records from Britain’s Air Ministry, Christopher relates the story of the British mission to Germany aimed at grabbing up secret weapons and bringing them home for analysis.

Hitler's X-Plane cover

The Race for Hitler’s X-Planes, by John Christopher; Trafalgar Square Publishing; 226 pages

Christopher follows the British mission led by Sir Roy Fedden from one German weapons site to another as British specialists uncover scientific marvels and Holocaust horrors. Especially revealing is the chapter on Oberammergau in the Bavarian Alps, a seemingly idyllic spot better known for passion plays than for plane production. Here, Fedden’s specialists found an underground facility that had been unknown to the Allies and was untouched by their bombing. Fedden’s team did not reach Oberammergau first — by the time they arrived on June 22, 1945, American soldiers had already taken Willy Messerschmitt into custody and trashed the almost-finished P.1101 — but they did uncover new information about flying wings, delta wings and tailless aircraft.

The title is only a little misleading. Adolf Hitler makes cameo appearances in this narrative. The Führer was thoroughly acquainted with aircraft and equipment even if he made repeated mistakes, such as overestimating the speed of the British De Havilland Mosquito and encouraging Willy Messerschmitt to modify the Me 262 Schwalbe (Swallow) jet to carry bombs. The term “X-Planes” derives from U.S. research aircraft of the postwar era, beginning with the brilliant orange Bell X-1 (as the XS-1 rocket plane was redesignated months after making history’s first measured supersonic flight on Oct. 14, 1947) and including the X-5 (an intentional copy of the P.1101) and the X-15, which took rocket pilots to the edge of space. The term is used here in a more general way to suggest “experimental aircraft.”

Hitler’s X-Planes does an excellent job of recounting the histories of aircraft like the Heinkel He 280, which may qualify as the world’s first practical jet fighter, and the Me 262 which was, of course, fully operational at war’s end. Christopher does a good job of relating how the Reich’s high-tech industry, faced with a deteriorating war situation, moved underground to places like the notorious V-2 assembly plant at Mittelwerk, where slave laborers were literally worked to death building — and sometimes sabotaging — Hitler’s wunderwaffe, or “wonder weapons.”

Christopher follows the British mission led by Sir Roy Fedden from one German weapons site to another as British specialists uncover scientific marvels and Holocaust horrors. Especially revealing is the chapter on Oberammergau in the Bavarian Alps, a seemingly idyllic spot better known for passion plays than for plane production. Here, Fedden’s specialists found an underground facility that had been unknown to the Allies and was untouched by their bombing. Fedden’s team did not reach Oberammergau first — by the time they arrived on June 22, 1945, American soldiers had already taken Willy Messerschmitt into custody and trashed the almost-finished P.1101 — but they did uncover new information about flying wings, delta wings and tailless aircraft.

Some of the words and most of the photos in Hitler’s X-Planes have been seen before. The details of the Fedden mission’s scavenger hunt are new and will be of interest to enthusiast and historian alike. At $32.95 for U.S. readers, this book is a little on the pricey side but is mostly well worth the investment.

By

Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...