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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: The Toolmakers of Nazi Germany – Part I

By Tom Morrow

This is part one of a two-part column on aircraft designers and well-known chemical companies who aided Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany using slave laborers.

The first is aircraft and engine designer Dr. Ernst Heinkel, who was born Jan. 24, 1888. Heinkel produced the HE 178, the world’s first turbojet aircraft and the HE 176, the first rocket aircraft, but, in World War II history, it was the Heinkel 111 bomber that, especially the Brits, is remembered for its devastation during the London Blitz.

Ernst Heinkel (right)

Early on, Heinkel had a fascination with Zeppelins. In 1910, he built his first aircraft. In 1922. Due to the restrictions placed on German aircraft-manufacturing  after World War I, Heinkel built aircraft in Sweden and in Japan catapult-launched seaplanes for the Imperial Navy. He installed a similar catapult on the ocean liner SS Bremen for launching mail planes.

After Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, designs by Heinkel formed a vital part of the Luftwaffe’s (air force) growing strength in the years leading up to the World War II, especially the HE 111 bomber.

Heinkel 111

Heinkel was passionate about high-speed flight, and was keen on exploring alternative forms of aircraft propulsion. He donated aircraft to Wernher von Braun who was investigating rocket propulsion. After the War, von Braun would go to America and design NASA’s rocket that took the U.S. to the moon.

Heinkel had been a critic of Hitler’s regime concerning being forced to fire Jewish designers and staff in 1933, however, he was a member of the Nazi party. He used forced Jewish labor starting in 1941, in which his company was considered a “model for slave labor.”

But, Heinkel wasn’t necessarily a willing participant in Hitler’s demands. In 1942 the government “nationalized” the Heinkel plant. He was “detained” until he agreed to sell his controlling interest in his factories to Hermann Göring, head of the Luftwaffe. Heinkel moved to Vienna and started a new design company.

It was in Vienna Heinkel worked on the HE 274 four-engine high-altitude heavy bomber, which was dubbed the “New York” bomber designed to reach America.

After the War, Germany was forbidden to manufacture aircraft, so in 1953, Heinkel began production of the Tourist scooter, the Perle moped in 1954, and in 1956, the Heinkel Kabine bubble car.

In 1959, Heinkel’s company was sued for being enriched by slave labor during World War II, however, the German Supreme Court dismissed the claims for filing too late.

Ernst Heinkel died in 1958. According to a column by author Mitchell Bard in the Oct. 13, 2017 issue of the San Diego Union-Tribune, Heinkel has been selected for inclusion in San Diego International Air & Space Museum’s “Hall of Fame” for aircraft and engine designers.

Wilheim Emil “Willy” Messerschmitt

While the name “Heinkel” was prominent among German aircraft manufacturers, the Messerschmitt ME-109 built by Wilheim “Willy” Messerschmitt was probably best known.

Messerschmitt, who was born June 26, 1898, designed the ME 109, in 1934. The 109 became the most important fighter in the Luftwaffe as Germany rearmed prior to World War II. To this day, it remains one of the most-produced warplanes in history with some 34,000 built. Only the Soviet Union’s Ilyushin Il-2 surpassed it at 36,000.

Messerschmitt’s ME 209, broke the world airspeed record, holding it for propeller-driven aircraft until 1969. His firm also produced the first jet-powered fighter to enter combat service — the Messerschmitt ME 262.

During the thirties, Messerschmitt had formed ties with leading Nazis Rudolf Hess and Hermann Göring, to ensure he would get government contracts. In 1936, the Messerschmitt ME109 won the single-seat fighter contest to become one of the main Luftwaffe aircraft types.

On 11 July 1938, the company began work on what would become the ME 262, a fighter — the world’s first “operational” jet aircraft.

Following World War II, Messerschmitt was tried by a denazification court for using slave labor, and in 1948 was convicted of collaborating with the Nazi regime. After two years in prison, he was released and resumed his position as head of his company.

Since Germany was forbidden to manufacture aircraft until 1955, Messerschmitt turned to manufacturing prefabricated buildings, sewing machines, and small cars. In 1952, Messerschmitt designed a jet trainer for Spain before eventually being allowed to return to aircraft manufacturing in Germany, the Fiat G91 and then Lockheed F-104 Starfighter for the West German Luftwaffe. He designed the later Helwan HA-300, a light supersonic interceptor, for the Egypt.

Messerschmitt died Sept. 15, 1978. It is clear both Heinkel and Messerschmitt’s aircraft greatly strengthened and prolonged World War II. But, without slave labor their companies couldn’t have produced the huge amounts of aircraft they built. Slave labor completely tarnishes the legacies of these two aviation pioneers.

Next week: IB Farben and Bayer

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