As he crosses the French countryside, Private Rooney hears a noise. He raises his rifle and tenses, ready to shoot at German infantry or dive for cover if it is a tank or plane. The noise is not like anything he has heard before.
Rooney’s sergeant curses as he points at the sky. Following his gaze, Rooney sees the most extraordinary thing. A dozen black-clad soldiers in helmets and goggles hurtle above the treetops on columns of fire. As the American stares open-mouthed, the flying Stormtroopers scatter grenades before disappearing back over the treetops. Rooney dives for cover as the explosions start.
It might sound like something from science fiction, but it did come close to happening. In the final years of the Second World War, German scientists were working on a jetpack that would have launched a whole new kind of soldier – the Sky Trooper or Himmelstürmer.
Nazi Germany: Putting the Mad in Mad Science
From its instigation, the Nazi regime was fascinated by science and engineering. German scientists strove hard to make their country and military superior. Science was a way to understand and to control the world.
At times, this led them down paths that now seem both absurd and obscene. The so-called science of race supported by the regime was grounded in 19th-century prejudices, not the reality of evidence. Yet, it was used to justify the deaths of millions.
Inside the concentration camps, science took some of its darkest turns. The torturous deaths of innocent people were used to develop an understanding of the human body. For years afterward, people would grapple with the ethical dilemma of what to do with life-saving information which was acquired due to horrific deaths.
Inevitably, given the regime’s militarism, much of Nazi science was centered on creating weapons of war.
Focus on Rocketry
One of their greatest areas of innovation was in rocketry.
Early in the war, a German scientist leaked details of German military projects to the British in a document known as the Oslo Report. The technology reported there included work on military rockets.
These came to fruition in 1944, when V1 and V2 missiles fell on London. Hitler had gained the ability to reach out and strike other countries with unmanned rockets. Thanks in part to the intelligence gathering of resistance fighters and targeted Allied bombing raids, that technology arrived too late to turn the tide of war.
It was not the only plan the Nazis had for military rockets. They were also working on a jetpack.
One Man, Two Engines
By 1944, work was underway on creating the Himmelstürmer flight pack.
The flight pack was based on a pulse engine similar to that used in the V1 rocket. Developed by German engineer Paul Schmidt, it built upon previous work on jets. Schmidt had found ways to make jets more efficient. Sponsored by the German Air Ministry, he turned this to military purposes, both in creating missiles and in seeking greater propulsion for aircraft.
The Himmelstürmer pack involved two jet engines. The main one was strapped to the wearer’s back, providing forward and upward propulsion. The other was steered using handgrips, providing direction and stability.
Unlike other jets under development, the Himmelstürmer pack could not rely on forwarding movement to push oxygen to its intake. Instead, the oxygen had to be force fed from a tank.
Equipping a Jump Soldier
Plans for Himmelstürmer troops did not involve special uniforms or fancy equipment. They would wear ordinary German military uniforms and carry guns and grenades just like other troops.
In many ways, it was a development of the path the Germans had been down since 1918. Then, elite Stormtroopers equipped with hand grenades and the latest light machine guns had been used to break through Allied trenches in lightning assaults. Now they would do the same from the air.
Jumping Scenery or Jumping Enemies
Speculation about how the technology might have been used has gone down two paths.
For the more imaginative, the Himmelstürmer could have made daring strikes in entirely new ways. Flying figures could have crossed enemy lines unseen, striking suddenly in the midst of the Allies. Or they could have hurtled over the heads of their enemies, dropping grenades as they went, then opened fire from behind the lines.
Realistically, the potential of the first jet packs was more mundane. Test flights covered distances of 50 to 70 meters. Fuel limitations meant long trips could not be made. Also, the packs had to be switched off immediately on landing.
Most likely, if they had been operational, they would have been used to cross obstacles quickly. It would have given their wearers a greater edge, letting them cross barbed wire, minefields, and areas of cover, but it was not the stuff of jetpack dreams.
Exciting Technology That Was Never Used
In the end, the Himmelstürmer never saw service. By the time the technology was in the test phase, the war was turning against Germany. Resources were running low. Every available soldier was being sent to the front.
Rocketry still played a part. Following D-Day, Hitler lashed out by raining rockets down on London in a series of terror attacks. However, the technology had not reached a point where it could be tactically useful, whether carrying a warhead or a Stormtrooper.
Abandoned at Bell
American forces seized a prototype of the jet pack and took it back to the USA. There it was examined at Bell Labs. No-one was willing to risk strapping themselves into the machine, and it was eventually abandoned.
It was one more example of German rocket technology, and as such became part of the research that eventually put men on the moon.