Sunday, October 30, 2016

Third Reich Television

TV of the Third Reich

Nazi TV
The broadcast sign-on image for the German television network (1938).

"Alternate histories" are always popular. They usually have Hitler escaping to Argentina, or modern aircraft carriers transported back to Pearl Harbor (that theme actually has become very popular in Japan as well as the US), or Germany occupying England and sending Winston Churchill to the Tower of London. There are endless various that would "disturb the timeline." But what if the Third Reich had developed television? Honest-to-goodness Third Reich TV, or TRTV? I want my TRTV! What on earth would that look like? Would it be full of "Heil Hitlers!" and stiff Wehrmacht boys recovering from wounds and young blonde maidens doing dances and even references to "the camps"?

German postal worker
The German postal service was responsible for promoting Third Reich TV.

Well, in fact... yes, it would. Third Reich TV would have all of those things. Actually, we don't have to guess, it actually did have all of those things. There was television during the Third Reich, and each of those things - the Heil Hitlers, the young blonde maidens, oblique references to the camps (in a joking fashion, if you can believe it), wounded warriors - appeared on it. German television of World War II was not "like" television, it was television just like you would watch on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1965 or, for that matter, today, though of course in black and white. It was of quite good picture quality, too, almost up to the standards of contemporary films. There weren't a whole lot of television sets in existence - the few around were set up in "television parlors" and military hospitals - but for all intents and purposes the system worked just like network television does today.

Let's take a look at  Third Reich TV and see what it was all about.


There is a bit of a myth that television is a purely American invention. In fact, television was the result of work by scientists around the world. Its immediate ancestor was the fax machine, first developed by Italian priest Giovanni Caselli in 1856. That got people thinking about transmitting images, and wouldn't it be great if they moved? The key advance in the early days was made by Paul Julius Gottlieb Nipkow, a Pomeranian 23-year-old university student, in 1884. He developed what he called the "electric telescope." The key part of his invention was what later came to be called the Nipkow disk, a spinning disk with a pattern of holes which each could scan a single line of an image. It had 18 lines of resolution. Nipkow quickly patented the disk, German patent No. 30105, granted on 15th January 1885, retroactive to 6th January 1884. Nipkow got involved in other things and allowed the patent to lapse, but his contribution was not forgotten and became a source of German pride. Later inventors, such as Lee de Forest, built upon Nipkow's work, which was far ahead of its time in terms of technology available to make it do anything practical.

John Baird
John Logie Baird with his original experimental Baird television apparatus, September 1926. The Nipkow disk can be seen clearly.

Frenchmen Georges Rignoux and A. Fournier demonstrated instantaneous image transmission in 1909. It was only a 8x8 pixel resolution, but it could transmit several times a second and thus portray a moving image. Images transmitted over wires were shown by Boris Rosing in 1911. The next big advance, though, was made by Scotsman John Logie Baird on 25 March 1925, when he gave a public demonstration in London of televised silhouette images in motion. He gave a much better demonstration of a human face on 26 January 1926. Baird used the Nipkow disk and transmitted the moving image over AM radio waves. By 1928, Baird was able to broadcast one of his "moving images" across the Atlantic and from shore to ship. Others were right behind Baird, such as Charles Francis Jenkins in the United States and Herbert E. Ives and Frank Gray of Bell Telephone Laboratories in New York. The first television station, WRGB/W2XB, began operating from General Electric's plant in Schenectady, New York in 1928. That same year, Paul Nipkow himself saw television for the first time at a Berlin radio show. The world's first daily TV broadcasts, using Baird's 30 line low definition system, began on the BBC in 1932.

Baird television

The Nipkow Disk was extremely clever and got the ball rolling in terms of television development, but it was a bit impractical. It was the television equivalent of a pinhole camera - it worked, but was kind of a dead end for advanced transmission. Working in San Francisco, Philo Farnsworth, building on the work of others such as Kenjiro Takayanagi of Japan (as all scientists/engineers do), perfected an alternate transmission method. It was called "all-electronic" and had no mechanical parts. Farnsworth demonstrated it at the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia on August 25, 1934. This used a live camera and was much more practical than systems using the mechanical Nipkow disk. It was this huge advance that led to the misconception that television is an American invention, but television was developed by different men around the world. And Hitler's  Germany had a use for it.

Third Reich Television

Let's get the technical background out of the way first. German engineers were working hard on television in the 1920s and 1930s, just like their counterparts in other countries. The first electromechanical broadcasts there began in 1929, and they began transmitting sound as well in 1934. That's a pretty phenomenal achievement, considering that theatrical films had only begun adding sound in 1928.

Nazi TV
A television image produced by Manfred von Ardenne in December 1930.

Manfred von Ardenne was a brilliant young German scientist who used an inheritance to set up his own research lab in 1928, Forschungslaboratorium für Elektronenphysik. It was just the right time to make a difference in TV. Von Ardenne was one of the most brilliant (and most undeservedly forgotten) men of his time who dabbled in a lot of different areas (including later helping to develop the atom bomb for the USSR). He demonstrated television using CRT tubes at the Berlin Radio Show in August 1931, and transmitted improved television pictures on 24 December 1933.

Nazi TV
An image from Manfred von Ardenne's "flying spot film scanner" of April 1931. It has a 60-line picture with a horizontal scan rate of 1500 Hz and a vertical scan rate of 25 Hz.

Realizing the immense power of television - not everybody did, but we already said von Ardenne was a bright guy - he quickly began working on an experimental public television station. In honor of the German engineer who basically had invented television (at least in German eyes), he called it "The Paul Nipkow Television Station" (literally, Fernsehsender "Paul Nipkow" (TV Station Paul Nipkow)). Nipkow himself became honorary president of the "television council" of the Reich Broadcasting Chamber until he passed away on 24 August 1940.

Paul Nipkow, standing behind the microphone on the left, appearing on German television in 1937.

The first German public transmission of the new TV station was produced in the Kroll Opera House on April 18, 1934. On 22 March 1935, building on Farnsworth's work, von Ardenne started an electronically scanned television service called Deutscher Fernseh Rundfunk. The service had resolution of 180 lines and, during this transitional time, used a variety of transmission methods: Nipkow Disks, telecine film transmission, and the intermediate film system. Broadcasts were for 90 minutes, three times a week. On 15 January 1936, the system began using the iconoscope system. After that, von Ardenne moved on to other things (he lived until 1997), but he had set a giant boulder rolling down the hill for others to grab onto.

Nazi TV
The E1. You can see this at Rundfunkmuseum der Stadt Fürth, Kurgartenstraße 37, 90762 Fürth.

So, von Ardenne had the transmission angle figured out. The most important part of a television system, though, is the television set itself. You can have the best transmission facility in the world, but it is useless if people have nothing worthwhile to watch programs on. Farnsworth got bogged down in a patent dispute over a television receiver with another inventor, Vladimir Zworykin (RCA ultimately bought Farnsworth out). Two Germans, however,  had filed patents in their own country two years before Farnsworth for what ultimately became the industry standard. Called the image iconoscope (Superikonoskop), it was ready just in time for the August 1936 Berlin Olympic Games.

Nazi TV
Walter Bruch at the 1936 Olympics.

There were many important but largely forgotten people behind the quick rise of Third Reich TV. Let's remember at least one. Walter Bruch presented a “people’s television receiver” in 1933 with a self-built telecine. He joined Fritz Schröter's Telefunken in 1935 as a technician in the Television and Physics research Department and worked on field tests of the first Iconoscope camera. Emil Mechau of Telefunken developed a special television camera for the 1936 Summer Olympics which Bruch put to good use. In 1937, Bruch established the first all-electronic TV studio in Germany and, at the Paris International Exposition, he introduced an iconoscope television unit that he had designed. Bruch went on to become a major figure in the post-war development of television (especially color tv), and he is considered a legendary figure in German TV - which today has the most viewers of any country in Europe.

Third Reich Programming

The 1936 Berlin Olympic Games put Third Reich television on the map. Two firms broadcast the Berlin Games - Telefunken and Fernseh, using RCA and Farnsworth equipment, respectively.

Nazi TV
Television cameras at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

The Berlin Olympic Games were the first sports events ever broadcast - over three years before the first broadcast football game in the United States in September 1939. The Games also, in the broader sense, constituted the first live transmission of any public event in real time. Broadcast via both all-electronic iconoscopic-based cameras and intermediate film cameras, transmissions went to "Public Television Offices" in Berlin/Potsdam and Hamburg. The Games introduced the first all-day television programming, as they were on the air for up to eight hours a day for a total 72 hours.

Nazi TV
A television viewing parlor in Berlin around the time of the Olympics. Admission was free.

Since very few individuals had television sets, 25-28 public television rooms or "parlors" (Fernsehstuben) were set up. They resembled movie theaters, with images transmitted by coaxial cable to projectors which displayed the images on 8 x 10 foot film screens (thus making this the first cable tv programming). Roughly 160,000 viewers saw the Olympic games this way, a phenomenal number for the day. The Games were a huge success and burnished Hitler's image as he presided over them every day from his prominent box seat. Most of the people in the stadiums had no idea what the huge telescope-like things were for.

Nazi TV
There were 21 television cameras used at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. This appears to be the Fernsehkanonen (television canon), which was 6 feet long. Three of these cameras were used at the Olympics.

The Germans thereafter upgraded their television technology. In February 1937, they introduced a 441-line system, which was slightly better than the British 405-line system at the time (which they had begun using in the fall of 1936). Virtually all German programming was done live, and it consisted primarily of Vaudeville-type acts and documentaries, with occasional political speeches. The project was "owned" by the Deutsche Reichspost, the Ministry of Aviation, and the Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. In practice, the Post Office (Reichspost) was responsible for promoting the service, as they had the most daily contact with the public.

Nazi TV
Broadcasting the Olympics.

There were plans for a mass-produced television set to spread Third Reich TV to the masses (much like the Volkswagen would provide cars to them). The Einheits-Fernseh-Empfänger E1 (Unitary-TV-receiver E1), also called Volksfernseher (People's TV) was a 441-line, 50 interlaced frames per second television set. The prototype was shown at the 16th Grosse Deutsche Funk- und Fernseh-Ausstellung (Greater Germany Radio and Television Exhibition) held in July/August 1939. Funkschau ("Radio Station") magazine in its 31 July 1939 (No. 31) issue, timed to coincide with the opening of the exhibit, reviewed the E1 (very loose translation):
The People's TV has a bright picture of deep contrast and sharpness without distortion. This results from its cutting-edge picture tube, which is rectangular with a flat fluorescent screen, preventing typical barrelling at the edges ("does not look like it was pulled over a roller").... [T]he dimensions of the screen are 19.5 cm x 22.5 cm with a diagonal of 30 cm.
The sets were highly advanced for the time, at least on a par with US sets of the 1950s. The physical display size was 7.68" × 8.86," and a color television version also was shown at the exhibit simply to demonstrate the technology (but was not going to be marketed). The sets could function solely as radios, too, which remained the main means of propaganda throughout the war on both sides. Production of the E1, despite its obvious allure, was cancelled in favor of war production after war broke out on 1 September 1939.

Occupied Paris
Wounded warriors watching television at the Berlin hospital. If you think that all they watched were Hitler speeches, think again: just like today, tv broadcast soccer (football) matches, variety acts and other popular things then and now. There was only one channel, so no fights over the dial!

Only about 50 E1 television sets were produced, and these were placed in government buildings and military hospitals. They were used throughout the war and proved popular with the patients at the hospitals. About ten of these units still exist, several completely original and functioning. Daily programming expanded with time.

Occupied Paris
The Germans had a television broadcasting antenna on the Eiffel Tower, originally put there by the fledgling French television service.

After the capture of Paris, the Germans on 3 September 1940 seized the French television service, which had installed a television antenna on the Eiffel Tower. Eventually, the German Ministry of Post and Radiodiffusion Nationale resumed programming in Paris, broadcasting in both German and French (Fernsehsender Paris) from 7 May 1943. Among the more interested viewers were RAF and BBC engineers in southern England who learned what they could about the German homefront situation from the programs being broadcast.

Nazi TV

While most US programming from the 1950s and 1960s is lost forever because it was not recorded, significant portions of Third Reich TV were recorded and survived the fall of the Reich. What survives shows a mix of programming that is not that dissimilar to what you find today when you roam around the channels: variety shows, documentaries, comic acts and the like. Much of the programming in the early years was a cross between Vaudeville and nightclubs. During the war, documentaries began appearing which are a bit odd to modern eyes but would have been appreciated by the audience (primarily wounded men in hospitals). For most of the war, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels left the broadcasts alone and Third Reich TV was mindless entertainment - dancing girls, xylophone players, singers and the like. After Stalingrad, though, Goebbels began to see some political uses for it, and there were more documentaries about wounded soldiers recovering from horrible wounds and so forth. These included a documentary on how amputees could contribute to society and live happy lives after losing their legs.

Nazi TV
A talented singer on Third Reich TV. Some of the acts were quite good.

Many top German directors of the day worked on television during the Third Reich, and some big names got their start in it. The talent included director Carl Boese, whose career transcended the Third Reich, and his protégé Frank Wysbar, contributed content. Ilse Werner became the world's first television show, hosting a variety show. A special magazine, Fernsehen und Tonfilm ("Television and Sound film") chronicled cutting-edge developments in the area, and television listings appeared in the newspapers just as they did in the post-war world. Radio shows were adapted to the new medium and became known as "teleplays," better known as "movies of the week" in the 1970s and '80s. The overall strategy became known as "maximum entertainment" and revolved primarily around high-quality- stage acts. All of this paled beside the hugely popular Olympic broadcasts in 1936, of course, but those only lasted a couple of weeks and, as any TV programmer knows, you have to put something on the air aside from special events. Hitler wanted to host the Winter Olympics again in 1940, which might have been another good TV show, but the war intervened and they were cancelled. Incidentally, let's not romanticize or sanitize what was broadcast: there was a lot of blatant anti-Semitism and propaganda. The broadcasts were a reflection of the ruling culture, just as today's broadcasts are.

Nazi TV
This fellow delivers one of the creepiest monologues in television history.

The broadcasts lasted until late November 1943 in Berlin (when the antenna was destroyed in a British bombing raid). In Paris, the broadcasts lasted  5 1/4 hours per day until 16 August 1944, when the Allies were approaching Paris and the local authorities fled.  The entire project was dissolved on 18 October 1944. The Reich Radio Company produced and maintained 285 rolls of film of broadcasts (which were mostly live productions). These survived the war and passed to the East German State Film Archives, where they sat on a shelf for 50 years. They finally went to the Berlin Federal Film Archives after reunification in the early 1990s and have been digitized. These rolls of film are all that remains of Third Reich Television, and a fraction of it has been distributed on Youtube videos (see below). The videos make for interesting viewing even if you only have a passing interest in the subject.

Military Applications

The Third Reich hierarchy might have viewed television as somewhat of a gimmick when the war began, but developments during the war made Third Reich scientists give it a second look. The Luftwaffe developed wire-controlled missiles which proved effective, and even radio-controlled missiles. These all required visual observation of the missile from relatively close distances. But what if you could sit in your plane above the clouds - or over the horizon - and guide the missile with radio controls while watching its flight on a television screen? That would be a lot more effective, both for the crew of the plane controlling the missile and improving the chances of the missile hitting its target at all.

Television Remote Control

German World War II television remote control for missiles.

It turns out that the Germans indeed were busy making a television remote control system for their Mistel Bombers when the war ended. The Mistel set-up involved a fighter attached to an obsolete bomber which was packed full of explosives. The fighter would "ride" the bomber to the target, then release it at the last minute (literally) to produce a massive explosion. The basic configuration was proven to work, but the last few seconds of flight required perfect aim or the bomber would miss the target. A television control with radio guidance, though, would solve that problem and make the Mistel a much more effective and deadly weapon. In fact, if the television controls worked properly, the fighter could release the bomber miles away from the target and not be exposed to any danger whatsoever. This project remained in development as the war ended.

television Schmetterling
Henschel Hs 117 Schmetterling. 

Another plan was to use the television guidance on the Henschel Hs 117 Schmetterling ("Butterfly") surface-to-air and air-to-air missile. In the air-to-air version, this missile would be controlled by using a joystick - just like you could use on your 1990s Microsoft pc games like Flight Simulator. The Schmetterling project was promising, and obviously the concept was completely feasible; in fact, it is used today with drones.  Some say it is the future of all military planes in the 21st Century as pilots become redundant. However, neither the missile nor the guidance system was far enough along for it become operational during the war. Despite poor testing results, in January 1945, production of 3,000 missiles a month was proposed. However, on 6 February 1945, SS-Obergruppenführer Hans Kammler cancelled the project in order to focus on things that were of more immediate use. Under better circumstances, the Schmetterling with its joystick control that was decades ahead of its time might have become operational in 1946 or 1947.

Nazi TV
The A4/V2 launch pad at Peenemunde, 1943 (Ang, Federal Archive)

The remote control apparatus may not have made it into guided missiles used during the war, but it did prove useful elsewhere. Walter Bruch, mentioned earlier, graduated from his work on public Third Reich TV to designing and operating a closed-circuit television system installed at the secret military rocket test site Peenemünde. Bruch used this system to control test A4 (V2) rocket launches from a safe distance within a bunker. This is considered the first CCTV system in history, built by Siemens to Bruch's specifications. Bruch also worked on TV transmission systems for planes and radar technology using the glass delay line patented by Telefunken in 1940 and used in the “Rehbock” distance control unit. Many people make up stuff about advanced Luftwaffe super-planes; but in the use of television, the Germans really were decades ahead. The Allies had nothing like any of this under development.


Third Reich television lasted for about a decade. The clips that survive make for startling viewing. There are hints throughout the of the more brutal aspects of German culture, presented in a way that is eerily reminiscent of modern television programs. There is a lesson for us there. When that attractive woman sitting behind the desk in front of the camera starts talking, remember that she is advancing an agenda today just as much as the German presenters did during World War II. Learning about Third Reich television helps to hammer home the point that technology itself is morally neutral; it is the people behind the scenes who decide whether it is used for good or evil.


Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Foo Fighters of World War II

UFOs of the Air War

Foo Fighters bomber stream
Ball Lightning? Photoshopping? Foo Fighters? Who knows.

"Foo Fighters" were UFOs spotted by numerous pilots on both sides during World War II. UFOs are Unidentified Flying Objects, a catch-all term for unexplained aerial sightings, and Foo Fighters meet the definition of UFOs: they were unidentified, they were flying, and they were objects. Or, at least there supposedly is eyewitness corroboration for each of those three prongs of the definition, though how solid that corroboration is can be debated up, down and sideways.

Foo Fighters
A photo supposedly taken of Foo Fighters over Italy in 1945.

The term "UFO" had not even been coined yet during World War II. It originated in the 1950s in a book by Marine Corps Major Donald Keyhoe (who may have gotten it from USAF officer Edward Ruppelt around that time). The term "Flying Saucer" was not used until 1947, when pilot Kenneth Arnold used it to describe what he had seen near Mount Rainier. Thus, there weren't even words to describe strange things that pilots were seeing during the war. Since those other terms later replaced "foo fighters" except in very restricted circumstances. we will take the term to refer only to the specific phenomenon usually seen by air force pilots and crew while in flight. Thus, we won't get into any general UFO chatter, at least in this article, fun though that may be.

Foo Fighters P-51 Mustang

There were too many reports of sightings of Foo Fighters to pretend they didn't exist and were just the result of a few too many down at the bar. The US Air Force took them seriously, and they were reported in the (presumably) legitimate press of the time. While many other UFO sightings have been debunked over the years, Foo Fighters remain unsolved. But, that doesn't mean we have to just accept these stories at face value, either.

My goal is to present the basic facts and draw some prudently skeptical conclusions from them. It is unavoidable to be selective in the facts examined in an article of this length, but I will try to be fair. This is intended as an introduction to the topic, not the "last word."

So, let's see what we can uncover about Foo Fighters.

Where the Foo Fighters Story Started

There have been reports of strange objects in the sky throughout recorded history, including the Bible (Ezekiel's Wheel). However, Foo Fighters are a distinct phenomenon, a well-defined subset of UFO reports, and their discovery has a precise starting point.

Arado Ar 234B
An Arado Ar 234B, operational by late 1944, after capture in US markings.

In late 1944, US Army Air Force Intelligence was worried about a resurgence in the Luftwaffe. The Me 262 fighter, Arado AR 234 bomber and other advanced German jet planes were superior to the overwhelming bulk of Allied planes. The Germans also were building up their armored forces and seemed ready to make a stand at the German border, supported by rumored "wonder weapons" such as the V1 cruise missile and V2 ballistic missile. Into this tense atmosphere dropped a strange blurb in the 13 December 1944 New York Times. It summarized a bizarre news briefing given by Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) based in Paris.

Foo Fighters

The Times description (and different iterations in other newspapers) is notable for its weirdly precise detail. The "mystery balls" are not unexplained phenomena in this write-up. Instead, they are "German weapons." They also aren't fireballs, but "silver colored spheres" that can be "semi-translucent." Right from the start, we see that the report was feeding into the narrative that those evil Germans must be up to something - which was going to keep the boys at the front from coming home before Christmas as many had been hoping for since D-Day in June. V-2
A V2 ballistic missile.

The Germans indeed were up to something. They had jet fighters, rocket-powered planes and even were working on missiles guided to their targets by television monitors with joysticks. The German scientists were decades ahead of the Allies in several high technology areas that were very noticeable. To ordinary grunts, the German "Wonder Weapons" acquired an over-sized reputation that, even 70 years later, hasn't dissipated entirely. Which, of course, was part of the Germans' intent in developing these weapons, to keep their own soldiers at their guns with the promise of final victory and also intimidate the enemy.

A V-1 cruise missile.

The military scare passed quickly - the Germans indeed had a lot of flashy and exotic stuff, though not nearly enough and of little practical benefit to their war effort - but the mystery about the "mystery balls" remained. The US military, as it was was to do many times over subsequent decades, took steps to figure out what was going on without really pinning it down, at least publicly.

Hap Arnold
General Henry H. 'Hap' Arnold.

Lieutenant Colonel Jo Chamberlin was an aide to "Hap" Arnold, the Commanding General of the US Army Air Forces since 1938 (when it was called the US Army Air Corps). Arnold sent Chamberlin to Europe in the spring of 1945 on a general fact-finding mission without a discernible purpose. Arnold was known to be interested in odd reports he was receiving from both the European and Pacific Theaters about these unexplained aerial phenomena (he even had a scientist on staff trying to figure it out). Chamberlin poked around the ETO, interviewed people, gathered some evidence, and finally reported back to Arnold. Chamberlin later wrote an article on some of the things he had discovered. After Air Force Intelligence reviewed and approved the article, Chamberlin submitted it to the American Legion Magazine for publication in December 1945. Chamberlin then pretty much disappeared from history.

Foo Fighters 415th Night Squadron
 The mascot insignia of the 415th Night Fighter squadron featured Donald Duck on a night mission. 

Chamberlin's article in the American Legion, entitled "The Foo-Fighter Mystery," is one of the first mainstream articles from an official source that directly addresses paranormal sightings. Apparently, he referred to classified documents while drafting it. The article sets forth where the stories about the "spheres" mentioned by SHAEF had come from. He begins with recent stories from the Pacific theater, but quickly circles back to the true beginning of the legends. He found during his investigation that the first reports had emanated from the USAAC 415th Night Fighter Squadron based in Dijon, France in late 1944.

Foo Fighters Smokey Stover
The Foo Fighter name derives from comic strip "Smokey Stover," the creation of cartoonist Bill Holman (1903-1987). Smokey was a crazed fireman who wore his helmet backwards, worked with Cecil Sizzlebritches at the False Alarm Fire Company, and drove the Foomobile, an egg-shaped, two-wheeled car with the letters "FOO-E-2-U" on the license plate. 

Specifically, Chamberlin pinpoints the start to three men in a night fighter "At ten o'clock of a November evening" (first sighting 26/27 November) who spot "some lights":
Yet the "lights" were still glowing – eight or ten of them in a row – orange balls of fire moving through the air at a terrific speed.
They did not report the sightings at first. However, that does not mean they did not tell their buddies in the unit about the "orange balls," who then went up looking for them. "A few nights later," two other men in the unit also reported seeing "a huge red light 1,000 feet above them, moving at 200 miles per hour." Then, on 22-23 December 1944, another crew from the same unit also reported seeing "large orange glows" that "leveled off and stayed on my tail," a sighting repeated by this same crew who this time described it as:
A glowing red object shooting straight up, which suddenly changed to a view of an aircraft doing a wing-over, going into a dive and disappearing.
Pretty soon, the sightings were extremely common in the 415th. One of the men in the original mission that spotted the lights, radar observer Lt. Donald J. Meiers, gave the phenomenon its moniker. A fan of Bill Holman's "Smokey Stover" comic strip - he carried around copies and actually had one in his pocket when he went to report the incident - he called the lights "F'ing Foo Fighters" (use your imagination). The word "foo" was a typical 1930's nonsense word (like boff or buck or dibs) from the comic strip. A newspaper reporter later took out the "F'ing," and the name stuck: Foo Fighters.

As the stories circulated (military guys read the Times and other papers), pilots in other units began describing similar sightings. They used various descriptive phrases, saw them under a variety of circumstances, and had a variety of experiences with them. The sightings spread throughout the air force, to other air forces, and around the world to the PTO. "Foo Fighters" became the shiznit.

Post-War Reports

The Foo Fighter narrative died down immediately after the war, but then occasionally erupted again. The "flying saucer" incident near Mount Rainier kept the idea of "strange phenomena" going in 1947, and on 21 July 1952 there was another flurry of sightings. An article in the New York Times, echoing many in other publications, described air force jets failing to catch "lights."

Foo Fighters 1952 clipping
July 1952 was a hot time for Foo Fighters.

This group of sightings closely followed the 28 September 1951 release of the Robert Wise "flying saucer" film "The Day the Earth Stood Still." Major General General John Samford of the US Air Force Director of Information gave a famous press conference in which he noted a "certain percentage of this volume of reports that have been made by credible observers of relatively incredible things." President Truman himself added fuel to the fire, saying he always would "discuss [flying saucers] at every conference we had with the military."

Gordon Cooper, one of the original NASA astronauts, later recalled his own experience around this time. He adds that later he was present when a "saucer" landed nearby, watched as a professional crew filmed it, and then watched it fly off. He looked at the film the crew had shot, then sent it off to D.C. and never heard another word about it. There were, of course, many other sightings of Foo Fighter-type UFOs during the decade, but then the subject died down again. Belief in UFOs has never gone away, however, but it has become a spectator sport from the ground filmed with cell phones, not observed from high-speed jets. Cooper believed it was from "somewhere else." It is worth observing that the object he described sounds somewhat similar to a modern drone, which is not that otherworldly but certainly would have seemed so then. However, Cooper saw what he saw and he explains what he saw quite well.

Anyway, everyone knows where the UFOlogy topic went from there. The literature on UFOs is abundant. But, the initial report - the Foo Fighter sightings - remain unchallenged.

So, What Was Going On

Foo Fighters RAF fighters
This photo is a normal shot of RAF fighters that is usually doctored to show Foo Fighters.

The problem with even discussing this topic is that you get tarred with the "paranormal freak" label. So much misinformation and outright fabrication has been slung both at and in support the entire UFO field that it is impossible to emerge free of taint. It is just too easy to fake these photos. But... let's talk about it anyway.

Foo Fighters
The doctored "Foo Fighter" version.

Let's rule out two possibilities as being extremely unlikely.

There is absolutely no evidence that, as described in the original news reports on 13 December 1944, Foo Fighters were any kind of Axis weapon. The Germans had nothing even remotely similar to "glowing balls" that followed aircraft, nor did the Japanese. In fact, today, in the 21st Century, there is no known weapon that resembles a fireball and tracks planes from close at hand.

It also is unlikely that Foo Fighters are "natural phenomena" like St. Elmo's Fire, that is, natural fireballs that follow planes around. The Foo Fighter reports describe a phenomenon that should be seen with regularity every day if they are simply natural events. There should be sightings from commercial airliners by passengers looking out the window and seeing nearby patterns of fireballs trailing along nearby like friendly puppies on every shuttle flight from New York to D.C. While there might be rare sightings like that now and then, they are not nearly common enough to support the idea that the night fighter pilots flying out of Lyon would see them day after day on ordinary nights under average conditions.

Foo Fighters Concorde
This is a still from a film purporting to show a Foo Fighter following a Concorde.

So, what were they? As I see it, there are three ways to approach the Foo Fighters subject:

  • Aliens!
  • Pure Innocence
  • Healthy skepticism.

The first choice is self-evident. If you want to believe in aliens, and that Foo Fighters mark their presence, there is no proof you are wrong. It is somewhat comforting to think that our lives are so fascinating that creatures from Alpha Centauri or the year 3424 come to visit incognito, as it were. However, as Carl Sagan would say, extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. There is no proof, let alone extraordinary proof that Foo Fighters arise from ... somewhere else. But faith in the unproven can be unshakeable.

The second choice above is probably the default for most people. Just take the whole issue innocently. There are reports of strange things by credible people, and no other real evidence either way about them. Simply accepting that there are unexplained events in the world shows an open mind and requires no deep thought. Basically, the attitude is, well, that's fine, so what, what difference is it to me? The only danger to watch out for with this attitude is that you do not cross the line into becoming gullible.

Foo Fighters clipping

The third choice, healthy skepticism, requires you to be a bit cynical and exert some brainpower. The bottom line on this avenue is that, sure, lots of people "saw Foo Fighters," but the whole topic may have decidedly earthly origins.

The first thing to note is that the entire topic appears to have arisen from one unit of the USAAC. A bunch of guys began seeing things, undoubtedly talking to each other about them, scaring each other and goading each other on. They then graduated to seeing more things, and on and on until word spread up the chain of command. With nerves on edge about the unknown German Wonder Weapons, no reports from the Front could be discounted without some sort of investigation. As I note elsewhere, SHAEF may have had its own motivations for publicizing the issue.

Next, the timing of the initial report in the press is a bit convenient for the military. The public had become convinced by the relative ease of the D-Day landings that the war would be over by Christmas. By mid-December, the military knew there was absolutely no hope of that, and, in fact, that the Wehrmacht was building up reserves. Only three days later, the Germans launched their last major offensive through the Ardennes. Preparing the public for unexpectedly strong German resistance with reports of "wonder weapons" and the like served a certain public relations use for SHAEF.

Foo Fighters Battle of Los Angeles
The famous "Battle of Los Angeles" of 24 February 1942 is cited by some as an earlier Foo Fighter appearance. The official explanation was... weather balloons.

Third, despite some later fabrications, there is no evidence of any sightings of Foo Fighters before those by the 415th, at least in the mass media. There was a later claim that Foo Fighters had been observed during one of the Regensburg raids in 1943, but that was debunked (the Commanding General himself denied ever hearing anything of the sort, and no official document supporting it has been found). The Foo Fighter sightings just started suddenly all of a sudden in late November 1944, and as soon as the military acknowledged them, they spread around the world like wildfire. Why the phenomena, whatever it was, would just "begin" at a random time is as much a mystery as everything else. Even if there were some earlier sightings, it was the publication of the November 1944 incident in the New York Times that seemed to set off a sudden avalanche of similar sightings.

Foo Fighters LA Times
The US military has a long history of digging a hole for itself, then spending eternity trying to fill it in again. Incidentally, the "alien ouster" mentioned in the sub-headline are not, you know, those kinds of aliens. 

Fourth, the Foo Fighter incident is interesting because it reflected an odd military tendency of the time. The US military would make some fantastic claim with alarming implications in an oddly casual way, then quickly retract or at least not follow up on it. The Foo Fighter incident was just one in a pattern. It was repeated with the infamous 1947 Roswell, New Mexico UFO incident, when a local military official practically swore that space aliens were involved, then quickly backed down. The patter became rather common in the 1950s (in numerous "fighters chasing UFOs" accounts). Why the military might engage in such a pattern is unclear, but odd patterns are worth noting. Nowadays, the military pretty much refrains from any claims, having learned from bitter experience it will only wind up spending decades retracting them.

Beaufighter Night Fighters
Beaufighter Mark IF night fighters of No. 600 Squadron RAF based at Colerne.

There also are some peculiarities about the initial sightings. The first sighting mentioned in Chamberlin's account states that there were three men were in the aircraft. However, they were flying a Beaufighter, a two-seater airplane. While an observer could be crammed into the small space behind the two seats, he would have been able to see next to nothing. There also would have been no reason to bring along an observer on an ordinary flight... unless you wanted an extra witness for something unusual. Subsequent research shows that Meiers had reported a couple of nights earlier seeing "a red light through area about 35 miles ENE of point A. Came in to about 2000 feet off starboard and then it disappeared in a long red streak." Apparently, he had a tendency to see strange things that had eluded the rest of the air forces of both sides. The regularity with which the unit began suddenly seeing these "glows" is suspicious, suggesting that it either was some sort of prank or perhaps a local condition.

Foo Fighters
This is one of the more venerable photos in the field. Nobody is sure when it was taken or even what types of planes are shown. Could be altered, too.

As for later sightings during the war by others, for example in the Pacific Theater, they may have resulted from the desire for a "shared experience." Air crews heard about the strange sightings over Germany and wanted to become part of the story, of the narrative of strange events in the sky. There were lots of strange items floating in the air during world War II, including balloons, radar chaff, debris from bombed cities, ice crystals, electromagnetic phenomena and the like. Flying at all hours of the day and night can create optical illusions, refractions of light through dirty canopies that can resemble real objects.This is much like camera film that gets double exposures creating odd images (another common source of supposed "paranormal incidents"). It is not a question of air crews fabricating or hallucinating, but of quickly assigning odd (but otherwise explainable) events of their own experience under the broad and sexy "Foo Fighter" category.

However, no matter how you explain away the initial sightings, later sightings are much trickier to explain. Personally, I tend to straddle the second third categories. I combine an open mind with an edge of skepticism. Perhaps there was something odd going on... but the evidence certainly doesn't prove it.


Foo Fighters were unexplained aerial phenomena during World War II and thereafter which resembled fireballs and acted in unnatural ways. Their nature remains a mystery. The sightings have become intertwined with broader subject of UFOlogy and, in fact, helped to spawn that topic, but that does not mean there was anything "otherworldly" about them. While there are possible explanations for Foo Fighters, different people can draw widely varying conclusions based upon the evidence. However, it requires quite a leap of faith to assume they were a paranormal phenomenon. The subject remains open along with the broader topic of UFOs.


Saturday, October 22, 2016

Stylin' In World War II

Stylish World War II
They called him "Fast Heinz."

Okay, let's imagine that World War II wasn't about killing people and achieving world domination. Instead, it was a fashion contest to create the most stylish pictures. In other words - the objective was for ordinary soldiers or leaders or whoever, in some way connected to the war, trying to create a "look" that would pass muster on Madison Avenue.

Stylish World War II
Some very spiffy SS men in their Hugo Boss suits.

Herewith, some contenders for "fashion plate wannabes of World War II."

Stylish World War II
Adolf Hitler and top cronies in their gangster suits right before the invasion of Poland. They wore these to look inconspicuous for a meeting at the Berghof.

Above, Hitler at Berchtesgaden on 16 August 1939. He hasn't actually invaded Poland yet, but the U-boats have put out to sea and he's decided to spend the day in his gangster outfit.

Stylish World War II
The Luftwaffe intelligence chief, Beppo Schmidt, didn't know a Spitfire from a Fokker, but he sure knew how to wear leather coats.

Beppo Schmid, Luftwaffe Intelligence boss. He couldn't quite get a handle on how many fighters the RAF had left, but he sure could pull off the leather trenchcoat look.

Stylish World War II

Aleksandra Grigoryevna Samusenko was a Soviet commander of a T-34 tank and a liaison officer during World War II. She was the only female tankman, er, tankwoman in the 1st Guards Tank Army. For our purposes, though, she is here because she had the prettiest smile in the 1st Guards Tank Army.

Stylish World War II

Bomber jackets could get quite creative.

Stylish World War II

Winston looking dapper early in the war.

Stylish World War II

And he could handle a tommy gun, too!

Stylish World War II

Coco Chanel is a controversial figure. Some say she was a German spy, but she was never charged with anything. Maybe it's cheating to include her here because basically she was a model.... But, what the heck - she pulls it off.

Stylish World War II

Yes, it's the crying guy from the Fall of France. Never mind the tears, though - anybody know his tailor? Reminds me of a Warren Zevon song.

Stylish World War II
(Pinterest/Leisa Shannon Art Studio).

Unfortunately, I don't know who Ginni was or why she was Down Under wearing US Army threads. My only information is the postcard itself, that she was in Australia during November 1942 - and she might have been somewhere else in the Pacific but put Australia for security reasons, so we can't even be sure of that. Those look like tropical fatigues. Apparently, Ginni was an Army nurse. However, whoever or wherever she was .... I'm sure the boys down there appreciated her presence.

Stylish World War II

Do you know how hard it is to pull off that "smokin' a pipe and lookin' bad" look? Well, RAF ace Douglas Bader (that's Sir Doug to us mortals) did it with ease.

Stylish World War II

So, you know that's Erich Hartmann, right? Maybe the greatest Luftwaffe pilot of them all? Maybe you can tell from this shot why they called him "Bubi." Incidentally, for some reason the Germans loved lighting people from underneath, which any horror film director will tell you is the best way to look someone normal look like Dracula.

Stylish World War II

Do you know how hard it is to pull off that shade of green and still look classy? It looks like Scarlett O'Hara just pulled the drapes off the wall and made that dress out of them. But, give her props, Eva Braun pulls it off at Berchtesgaden.

Stylish World War II

Adolf Galland looks so awesome in his bomber jacket - and that goofy grin shows why he was dynamite with the ladies, too.

Stylish World War II

The Reichsmarschall with Galland (right) during an inspection tour in France during the Battle of Britain. Galland was one of the very few guys who could act normally and make sarcastic remarks to the fat man - "Send me a squadron of Spitfires" he once told Goering - but, when you're the best fighter pilot in the world, you have a little extra leeway.

Stylish World War II

I don't know anything about this girl or why she's wearing what appears to be a very authentic SS uniform, but it looks like it was made for her.

Stylish World War II

RAF Pilot Officer Robert D "Jumbo" Grassick looking relaxed and ready for anything. Who says you need to spend a lot to look like a model?

Stylish World War II

I know the center of attention here is Hitler - which is how he liked it (and probably why he dated a photographer, by the way). But the one who stands out in this shot is Heinz Guderian on the left. You have got to be a real badass to get away with that pimp collar in the middle of a bunch of killers.

Stylish World War II

Hans Ulrich Rudel. Luftwaffe legend. And, male model wannabe.

Stylish World War II

Ilse Hirsch was one of the most devoted Germans in the BDM. For some reason, women were among the most fanatical to the end - and beyond. Ilse participated in Operation Carnival and thereby showed that she was a true, honest-to-God, hard-core Party loyalist.

Stylish World War II

J. Edgar had files on everyone. If you even visited Washington, D.C., he knew that you had flipped off that teacher in third grade. It gave him ... leverage. Hoover has a building named after him, so let's show a little respect, okay?

Stylish World War II

Hermann-Friedrich “Jupp” Joppien had 70 victories, which was more than any Western Allied pilot. However, he was really a killer with the ladies when he donned that leather jacket. Check out the "oh, I'm just casually working my gloves" modelling trick.

Stylish World War II

Air Vice Marshall Keith Park was the point man in the Battle of Britain. If any one man saved England, he was the guy. For his pains, he basically was cashiered as soon as the smoke cleared so someone else with pull could take his spot. However, he still look stylish in that flight jacket, and he looks like he's trying to sell that plane.

Stylish World War II

King Leopold got kind of bad rap when he surrendered about a week too early for England's liking. He knew how to stand out among the troops, though. "I'm just stridin' down by the tanks...."

Stylish World War II

King Michael was one of the true unsung heroes of the war. He changed sides at just the right moment to avoid a lot of unnecessary bloodshed. He is still with us in the 21st Century, the last World War II leader.

Stylish World War II

Kyra Petrovskaya was a World War II sniper. She kind of looks like Supergirl in this shot. She is still with us as of this writing as well. Tough lady.

Stylish World War II

Hanna Reitsch isn't really wearing anything special, but that 1000-megawatt smile puts her in the high-fashion league all by itself.

Stylish World War II

Werner Mölders led the Luftwaffe in victories during the Battle of Britain. Werner got along great with everyone and rose to command the Reich's fighter forces. He also knew how to wear a bomber jacket with style, and soften it with that puckish grin.

Stylish World War II

I don't know who this fellow was, and this obviously was a propaganda shot. However, he looks like he stepped out of the pages of GQ... if GQ had been published by the Ministry of Propaganda, that is.

Stylish World War II

Three tankers showing why black is best.

Stylish World War II

There is nobody more controversial than Joachim Peiper. Some view him as God's gift, others as a true horror. He's the kind of guy who gets sentenced to death... and only serves five years. Regardless, he's really emoting for the camera in this shot.

Stylish World War II

Everyone has questions about whether this is an authentic shot of Soviet sniper girl Roza Shanina. It certainly has awesome resolution for a photograph taken circa 1944. However, I can't find any indication that it is a modern fake from a movie or something like that. The wear marks on the scope match those on other photos of her that are easy to date from the period. So... I think it's authentic. At least, I hope it's authentic, because nobody wore a camouflage smock better.

Stylish World War II

This is a two-fer of Rudel and Galland. It is taken from a film taken as they were taken into custody by the Allies. They look kind of relieved that it is all over, and who can blame them? Both almost got their butts shot off in the final days.

Stylish World War II

Hugo Sperrle commanded Luftlotte 3 in France throughout the war. The failures during the Battle of Britain weren't his fault: he wanted to continue attacking the airfields which almost everyone now agrees was the winning strategy. Goering once mentioned that Sperrle was his most "brutal-looking" General, and he was probably thinking of this picture.

Stylish World War II

Michael Wittmann was one of the top panzer leaders of the war. You may be good at the video games, but he did it for real.

Stylish World War II

I don't know why this shot was taken, and why the pretty girl is riding a torpedo. However, it's from 1944 and, well... I like it.

Stylish World War II

A Reich post office girl. Why doesn't my mailman look like this?

I hope you enjoyed this page. Some pages are serious, and some are just for fun. It's good to take a break from all the death and destruction.