Operation Paperclip was the name given to the secret movement of senior German scientists to America at the end of World War Two in Europe. Operation Paperclip was primarily involved with the movement of scientists involved in rocket technology for Nazi Germany. By the end of World War Two in Europe it had become increasingly plain to both Britain and America that the USSR would not continue with her wartime alliances and that what was to be known as the Cold War was about to start. Weapons supremacy was vital to both sides and Operation Paperclip was a successful attempt by the Americans to gain an upper hand against the USSR.
Operation Paperclip was formulated by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and carried out by the Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency. The plan did have one huge boost going for it – few, if any, of the German scientists wanted to fall into the hands of the advancing Red Army. Therefore, when Werner von Braun and his colleagues fled Peenemünde, the home of Nazi rocket technology, they headed for the advancing lines of American troops.
Officially, Operation Paperclip forbade any US recruitment of German scientists who had been actual members of the Nazi Party or who had been an active participant in its activities. This would have made it very difficult to recruit those scientists America had identified as being important to America. Werner von Braun, for example, had been a Colonel in the SS and had used his pass card for the SS to facilitate his movement across Germany in the last few weeks of the war. JOIA got around this major problem – and a presidential order – by whitewashing the backgrounds of those they definitely wanted. Braun, for example, was ‘sold’ to the authorities in the US as being only a ‘honorary’ Colonel in the SS – plus the fact that he had been made to accept the rank. This was sufficient for the man credited with developing the V2 and rocket technology as it then stood to be moved to the US to work for the US government. How valuable this whitewashing was – and how important sidestepping a presidential order was – was seen in the huge importance von Braun played in US rocket development leading right up to the 1969 Moon landing. Once whitewashed, scientists such as von Braun were given security clearance to become ‘US Government Scientists’.
American intelligence knew who they wanted to target as in the last few days of the war, a list was found at Bonn University of the scientists the Nazi regime had released from other duties to developed rocket technology to combat the success of the Red Army. This list, the Osenberg List, was handed to US intelligence. A US soldier, Major Robert Staver, was given the task of finding the men on the list. He was helped by the fact that many of them wanted to find the US military as the Red Army stormed across Poland towards Berlin.
Von Braun and many of his colleagues handed themselves in to US authorities who held them under the tightest of security at a safe house in Landshut, Bavaria in an operation titled ‘Operation Overcast’. However, when locals in the town started to talk about the man held at ‘Camp Overcast’, the US changed the name of the whole operation to ‘Operation Paperclip’.
Braun, other scientists and their families were moved to the US in great secrecy. They were initially housed at Fort Hunt in Virginia. It was here that Braun was questioned at length about what was known to the scientists as an entity, what had been their plans to develop such knowledge and what information had been shared with the Japanese – the war in the Pacific was still ongoing. Bletchley House had intercepted encrypted Nazi messages regarding U864, an ocean-going submarine that had been sunk with German and Japanese scientists on board along with jet engines. What the Americans needed to know was whether U864 had been the first U-boat to attempt to make the journey to the Far East or whether there had been a planned series of journeys with some getting through.
Initially each scientist was offered a one-year contract to work for the US government; in August 1945, 127 men accepted this and moved to the US. The movement of the scientists and their families started in September 1945. While the USSR had ‘acquired’ some of the scientists who had worked at Peenemünde, the majority of them went to America. For example, the US offered a work contract to Dr. Herbert Wagner, the man who invented the Hs 293 missile. He worked for the US Navy for two years.
Those who had worked on the V2 at Peenemünde were moved to Fort Bliss in Texas. Here they developed their knowledge on rocket technology. Testing of their new rockets was carried out in New Mexico. These men and their families were given legal US residency in 1950.
Operation Paperclip was perfectly understandable in the context of the Cold War and desired weapons supremacy over the USSR. However, it had its detractors who believed that some of the scientists who were brought to the US had been involved in crimes that made it untenable that they should have been given US citizenship. It was said, for example, that Von Braun must have known about the underground factory at Nördhausen where V2 rockets and jet engines were made – and where many thousands of forced labourers died. If he did know about Nördhausen, JOIA ensured that it was suitably removed from his history. One of the Paperclip scientists, Arthur Rudolph, was deported from America to West Germany in 1984 but never prosecuted. Georg Rickhey, who was brought to America as part of Operation Paperclip, was charged with war crimes in 1947. However, he was acquitted and returned to America where he continued his work. One Paperclip scientist, Hubertus Strughold, was linked by written evidence to medical experiments at Dachau but faced no charges.