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Helicopters of the Third Reich (Book Review)

Originally published on Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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Reviewed by Thomas Mullen
Steve Coates, with Jean-Christophe Carbonel
Classic Publications, Hersham, Surrey, U.K.

Two generations after their inventions first saw the light of day, the marvelous ingenuity of the Third Reich's aviation engineers continues to amaze us. Born during the Great Depression and raised under totalitarianism, innovators such as these nonetheless dreamed, drew and flew some of the most amazing aircraft ever imagined. Sixty years later, we still find ourselves reaching back for inspiration to the Messerschmitt Me-262 and Me-163 and the Gotha Go-229. But alongside all these epochal fixed-wing designs, another current of development surged: helicopters.

During the 1930s, the Germans explored many rotary wing concepts, including autogiros (such as the Flettner Fl-265), models seemingly able to do little more than rise and hover (such as the Nagler-Rolz RI), and one-man open-air vehicles (such as the Nagler-Rolz NR-54). Imaginative German designers envisioned many uses that would seem familiar today: transportation, mountain passenger transport, ranger support, air-sea rescue, antisubmarine warfare and pilot rescue. Not bad for 1944!

The many twists and turns in the tale of German helicopter development are well told by Steve Coates in Helicopters of the Third Reich. The constant in the story, of course, is the German government's relentless interest in weapons. By 1942, experiments had started to evaluate one aircraft, the Flettner Fl-282, for antisubmarine warfare and another, the Focke-Achgelis Fa-330, for U-boat reconnaissance. Another, the Focke-Achgelis Fa-223, was seen as possible transport and mountain warfare support. Yet the exigencies of war were such that by 1944 manufacture of the large Fa-223 was discontinued and its staff was transferred to support Me-163 and Me-262 production. By early 1944, production for most models was waning, though training and tinkering continued almost through the end of the war on some models such as the Fl-282.

In the end helicopters did not lengthen the life of the Reich by a single day. The war ground on relentlessly, and Axis airfields, production centers and research facilities were obliterated. In fact, one of the most interesting portions of Coates' book details how helicopter pilots moved aircraft from one haven to another, surrounded by refugees and signs of slow collapse. The episodic, desultory efforts made after the war to understand and assimilate the various German helicopter technologies are also detailed. Most accounts seem to end with a wrecked machine being written off.

In the end, the significance of these marvelous machines lies in their beauty, their ingenuity and their contributions to later designs. More discussion of the significance of the aircraft would have been welcome. Minor and major aircraft are all cataloged with the same exhaustiveness, and more authorial interpretation could have helped tremendously in placing each helicopter in a broader context.

Even so, Helicopters of the Third Reich is an amazing book, representing the fruit of 20 years' research. Many of the sources astonish, such as notes from a 1937 presentation by Michel Focke on the 10 ways of counteracting rotor torque, and an Allied photo interpreter's comments on a helicopter photographed during an airfield reconnaissance. Even contemporary cartoons are included.

Much of the history of this technology has been lost, but Coates has done a remarkable job of collecting and collating what remains. Included are rare color photos as well as black-and-white images, technical drawings, sidebars on key players in the story and excellent appendixes. This book should appeal to a wide audience of aviation history enthusiasts and WWII buffs.

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