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Wednesday, July 05, 2017


Steve Cole's list of surprising facts about World War II that few historians, and even fewer regular people, are aware of.
1. The invasion of Japan was expected to be so bloody that the US planned to drop eight Hiroshima-type bombs on the invasion beaches to destroy the Japanese defenses, then land US troops into the blast zones the next morning. (Nobody at the time understood radioactive fallout.)
2. Those vertical steel panels on the sides of German tanks (four or five feet square) did a swell job of causing bazooka rounds to detonate away from the hull, protecting the tank, but that's not why they were originally there. In fact, the Germans started adding panels before bazooka rockets were used on the battlefield. Here's what was going on. The Russians had deployed tens of thousands of anti-tank rifles which (from 150 yards) could penetrate the side armor of German tanks (even the Panther) if they were aimed at the spot between the upper track and the roller wheels. German experiments found it was easier to fit the tanks with 5mm steel plates that would cause the bullets to tumble and lose energy than it was to add 10mm of armor to the tank body itself.
3. Everyone knows the story. The Germans tried to build an atomic bomb and gave up because it was too hard. There is some indication, however, that this is all a cover story and that they really did try to build a nuclear bomb. A very secret "synthetic rubber" factory at Monowitz never produced a bit of rubber but had trucks coming and going all the time and "used more electricity than the city of Berlin." If it was a "heavy water" factory, or a uranium enrichment plant, that would fit. Few know that the bomb the Germans had designed (the "Heisenberg Device" in The Man in the High Castle) was actually a hydrogen fusion bomb, not a uranium fission bomb, and would have been 10 times as powerful as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
4. Everyone knows about the German V1 flying bomb and V2 ballistic missile. A few even know about the V3 cannon which had multiple boost chambers to produce incredible range, enough to bombard London. This cannon (laying on a hillside) was destroyed by allied bombing. Few if any know that the SS took over the project and build two smaller cannons of the multi-chamber type, using them to fire 183 shells into Luxembourg City from a range of 50 miles during the Battle of the Bulge.
5. Anyone with any knowledge of World War II knows that the Germans were getting heavy water from Norway to build their nuclear bomb. This was the world's only factory making heavy water. Why? I had just assumed that the Norwegians had found a spring that was heavier than other water sources, but no, they were making heavy water, which was very hard to do. Here's the story. When the industrial revolution went electric, all advanced countries surveyed their rivers for good places to build hydroelectric dams (which even today are the cheapest and greenest way to make electricity, but almost all have been built). Vemork was found to be the world┬╣s best place to build a hydroelectric dam, with a major river falling over a thousand feet. The problem was that Vemork was remote and there were few customers for that much electricity. Norwegian industry found a solution. They built the world's biggest hydroelectric plant, then used it to split the water (which had just run the turbines) into oxygen (sold to hospitals) and hydrogen (sold to fertilizer companies). The plant used most of its power output in the adjacent gas factory. The waste water from the process was about 10% heavy water compared to a normal 1/6 of 1%. People had known about heavy water since 1931 but nobody knew what to do with it. Hundreds of chemical and physics labs around the world conducted endless experiments, each needing a gallon a year. Norsk Hydro added a special seven-stage system to turn the 10% heavy waste water into 99% heavy water, using electricity the dam produced but no customer wanted. When the world market for heavy water proved to be too small to make a profit, the plant was shut down. Then a few months later, atomic scientists discovered that heavy water could be used to moderate a nuclear reactor, and suddenly the French, British, and Germans wanted lots of heavy water, so the plant was turned back on. The Norwegians decided not to sell any heavy water to the Germans, but the German invasion (done to protect the iron supply that went through Narvik) changed that. It then fell to Norwegian commandos to slip into the country and destroy the heavy water shipments en route to Germans. See the movie Heroes of Telemark.
6. Even casual historians know that the German type-XXI U-boat was the greatest submarine invented in World War II. Its greatness, however, came by accident. The Germans had designed that series of subs to use hydrogen peroxide engines that would run without air, i.e., while the submarine was submerged. This would allow subs to operate submerged much faster than ever before, and for days or weeks not hours. The engine couldn't be made work in time, but the subs were designed and in production. They had a figure-8 hull. This consisted of two tubes each the size of a normal submarine hull, one stacked on top of the other. The lower hull was to be a huge hydrogen peroxide fuel tank. Without the need for the fuel, the Germans suddenly found themselves with a conventional submarine with twice the internal volume. This allowed them to add more diesel fuel, many more batteries (type-XXIs could run two entire days on batteries instead of just six hours), and expanded crew quarters with showers and sinks. No other submarine had enough fresh water to provide the crew with full-time showers. (US subs could allow their crews about a minute of shower time per day and even nuclear submarines today are always short of fresh water.)