In 1947, two years after the end of World War Two, the United States and then large parts of the world were gripped by a new obsession: flying saucers.
It all began in the summer of that year when an American private pilot, Kenneth Arnold, spotted a flight of very odd, unidentified aircraft near Mount Rainer in Washington State.
The craft he saw wasn’t circular, but he described the strange, undulating way in which they flew as being “like a saucer would if you skipped it across the water.” In newspaper reports, this was transformed into a report of “flying saucers.”
Within six months of Arnold’s sighting, hundreds of reports of strange circular flying craft had been made in the US and elsewhere.
The craft seemed to be able to fly faster and to manoeuvre more abruptly than any conventional aircraft. They didn’t seem to have engines and appeared to fly using some entirely new technology.
People wondered if they were prototypes created by the new US Air Force (the USAF became an independent element of the US armed forces in September 1947, having previously been part of the US Army).
But they seemed to have performance far exceeding anything in the USAF inventory.
Others wondered if these were evidence of extra-terrestrial visitation to the Earth, and this quickly became the most popular explanation. However, a few people proposed a third possibility: that these were Russian craft built using secret Nazi technology appropriated at the end of the war.
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But the notion that the Nazis developed circular craft that flew using some unknown form of propulsion was simply crazy. Wasn’t it?
During the latter stages of World War Two, Allied pilots began reporting encounters with what seemed to be small, unmanned aircraft of an unknown type.
Many were seen by night, with a number of reports coming from pilots of the 415th Night Fighter Squadron of the U.S. 9th Army Air Force flying the Northrop P-61 Black Widow in the winter of 1944/1945.
These generally involved small orange or white lights approaching the aircraft and then remaining close to it, though these couldn’t be picked up on either the aircraft radar or by ground stations.
These were unnerving, but none appeared to make any attempt to attack.
They would approach, stay in formation and then streak off at very high speed. Most of the reports seemed to centre on an area over the Rhineland, near the cities of Metz and Strasbourg, but these odd lights appeared in other areas too, and something similar was also reported in daylight.
On November 24th 1944, Captain William D. Leet, a B-17 pilot with the 2nd Bombardment Group of the 5th Wing of the Fifteenth Air Force based in Amendola Air Base in Foggia, Italy, was returning from a mission to bomb industrial targets in Klagenfurt in Austria.
While over northern Italy, Leet reported that a circular amber light suddenly appeared around 150 off the left wing of the bomber. It was estimated to be around 10 feet in diameter and stayed in formation for 50 minutes before abruptly “turning off like a light bulb.”
Other B-17 pilots reported seeing “basketball sized” translucent spheres streaking through formations and a few escorting P-47 pilots also reported seeing metallic spheres that seemed to be shadowing bomber formations.
RAF pilots saw these odd lights and spheres too, and they generally became known amongst Allied pilots as “Foo-Fighters.”
Were they some kind of Nazi secret weapon? If so, there was no record of them attacking any Allied aircraft.
During the latter stages of the war and immediately afterwards, US military and scientific personnel scoured Germany for information about new technologies that might be of use to the United States.
This led to the transfer of vast amounts of documentation and to a number of German scientists and technicians being brought to America where many became involved in the development of advanced jet aircraft and missiles.
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What these American investigators didn’t find was any information about the odd lights in the sky seen in 1944/1945. And they did look – declassified reports from one team under the heading “Balls of fire” specifically noted that nothing had been found to suggest that the Foo-Fighters seen by Allied air crews were some form of Nazi flying craft.
German Secret Weapons of the Second World War
Major Rudolf Lusar had served in the German Army during World War One and Two and in the years that followed, he published a number of books and scholarly articles that looked in detail at various topics including naval development.
With his background as an engineer, Lusar was able to provide detailed analysis of weapon systems and some of his articles were published by the US Naval Institute.
Then, in 1950, Lusar wrote something completely different, a book about some of the most secret German developments of World War Two (an English translation, German Secret Weapons of the Second World War, was published in 1957).
This book contained information about advanced but little-known German inventions that entered service, such as the Focke-Achgelis Fa 223 Drache cargo helicopter and the Fritz-X guided missile, but also covered developments that never went further than the drawing board.
This included the incredible “Sun Cannon” project that envisaged an orbiting space station in control of a giant mirror that could focus the rays of the sun with lethal effect at any point on the planet below.
Some of the projects described in Lusar’s book did sound like science fiction, but all have since been verified by analysis of German records. All but two…
Lusar explained that German technical experts had been working on the development of “flying discs” since 1941.
There were, he said, two parallel developments. One, based in a facility near the city of Prague, produced a craft that flew for the first time on February 14th, 1945.
On this flight, it attained “an altitude of 12,400 m and reached a speed of 2000 km/h in horizontal flight.” To put this staggering claim into context, that’s a top speed more than twice that of the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star, the USAAF’s first jet fighter, only then beginning to enter service.
The second project, Lusar claimed, was based near the city of Breslau (present-day Wrocław in Poland). It was working on the creation of a craft with a diameter of more than 40m (130 feet) powered by “adjustable jet engines.”
This wasn’t completed before the area was overrun by Russian forces. The scientists and engineers involved, according to Lusar, were taken to the Soviet Union and continued development of this craft, accounting for the sightings of flying saucers in the US beginning in the late 1940s.
For the most part, German Secret Weapons of the Second World War is a sober, well-researched and accurate book giving the inside story of secret developments within the Third Reich. Most of what Lusar claimed has been verified by subsequent analysis.
Except for the stuff about Nazi circular flying craft. Could it really be true that Germany had created flying discs during the war?
In 1950, following the publication of Lusar’s book, the German news magazine Der Spiegel published an interview with a man named Rudolf Schriever, one of the men cited in that book as involved in the development of flying discs.
Schriever, a former Luftwaffe test pilot, explained that he had actually worked on a third flying disc project, this one undertaken for the Heinkel Aircraft Company at the Marienehe complex, near Rostock on the Baltic coast.
There, working in a small converted garage in a remote part of the complex, he and a team of engineers and technicians had produced a series of flying discs.
In the spring of 1941, he claimed, the first proof-of-concept model, the small, unmanned V1 (this stood for versuchs, experimental, 1 and was nothing to do with the V1 flying bomb) made its first flight.
This was followed by the V2 Flugkreisel (Flightwheel) which Schriever flew for the first time in 1943. The final development was the V7, a circular craft with a diameter of over 60 feet and a crew of three.
This was powered by an experimental BMW Radial Flow Gas Turbine (RFGT) engine. It was this craft, Schriever claimed, that attained a speed of over 2,000 km/h during a test flight on February 14th 1945.
No one has ever been able to find any documentation to support Schriever’s detailed claims – he told Der Spiegel that all project documentation had been stolen soon after the end of the war, though by who and for what purpose he did not know.
BMW has claimed that they have no record of the company ever working on the development of an RFGT engine. Schriever’s claims might have been forgotten were it not for the appearance of another book that seemed to support some of what he had said, this time by an Italian author.
Intercept but Don’t Shoot: The True Story of Flying Saucers
In 1971, Italian aerospace writer and journalist Renato Vesco published a book titled Intercept but Don’t Shoot: The True Story of Flying Saucers. This mentioned again the sole flight of a German manned, circular flying craft in February 1945, but it also introduced something entirely new, the Feuerball (Fireball) project.
This was said to be a small, circular, turbojet-powered unmanned craft that was launched under remote control and then automatically homed in on the exhaust heat and emissions of any aircraft in the vicinity.
Initial tests were said to have been carried out from an underground complex in the Schwarzwald (Black Forest), right in the heart of the area where Black Widow aircraft from the 415th Night Fighter Squadron began reporting unexplained lights that seemed to follow their aircraft from late 1944.
The ultimate plan was, Vesco claimed, to combine the Feuerball with another device being developed by the Luftwaffe, “an electrical apparatus capable of interfering with the operation of an engine up to a maximum distance of about a hundred feet.”
The outcome was planned to be an automatic craft capable of bringing down any bomber by disabling the ignition system of its engines.
The notion that Germany may have developed flying saucers during World War Two is intriguing, but the problem is that no one has yet managed to find definitive proof that it really happened.
Renato Vesco, for example, claimed that his information on the manned German manned disc and the Feuerball Project came from declassified reports prepared by the Combined Intelligence Objectives Subcommittee (CIOS), an Allied group tasked with assessing Nazi technology during and after World War Two.
But no one else has managed to find a reference to either project in CIOS files.
Rudolf Schriever claimed that all documentation relating to the Heinkel Flugkreisel project was stolen after the war, and is therefore no longer available. He was working as a truck driver at the time he initially made his claims to Der Spiegel, and short of cash, leading some people to suggest that he invented the whole story to bring in some funds.
Rudolf Lusar did not cite detailed reference sources in German Secret Weapons of the Second World War, but it is notable that almost all the other accounts of secret projects detailed in this book, including some that sound utterly outlandish, have subsequently proven to be accurate.
Where does that leave us? Well, the Foo Fighter reports made by Allied pilots in late 1944 and early 1945 are certainly true and verified by combat reports. These seem to describe intelligently-controlled lights and metallic discs or spheres that followed (but did not attack) Allied aircraft.
No one knew what these were at the time, and we still can’t be certain, though it’s tempting to wonder whether there is any truth in Vesco’s account of the Feuerball project.
And what about a Nazi-manned flying saucer? We know that towards the end of the war, the Nazis were willing to pursue almost any technology that might help to stave off defeat, so it certainly isn’t impossible that they might have commissioned experiments with a new type of craft using an unknown form of propulsion.
However, it does seem hard to believe that such a craft really could have attained a speed of 2,000 km/h (over 1,300 mph).
Perhaps in some dusty, forgotten file there still exists details of this project. Until then, all we can do is wonder.
Watch the skies!