Movement of skilled workers between countries is usually slow, happening over years or decades, but sometimes it happens more rapidly. This is particularly the case if there is a perceived and tangible strategic advantage to be gained.
In 1945 the Allied armies were advancing into Nazi Germany. Between the Americans, British and Russian armies clustered the remains of Germany’s high-technology industries, including the scientists working on Wernher von Braun’s V2 rocket programme.
Von Braun was aware of the perilous situation he faced. Conferring with close colleagues, he decided that he and his team should surrender to the approaching US forces rather than to the Russians, of whom they were terrified.
Having relocated from Peenemunde on Germany’s Baltic coast to the Harz Mountains, the underground V2 rocket factory at Nordhausen was captured by American troops on 11 April 1945. The Americans immediately implemented efforts to evacuate as much as they could before the Russians arrived.
In Operation Paperclip, 100 complete V2 rockets were shipped to America. Around 150 of the best German V2 scientists and technicians were offered contracts to work in the USA, starting in September 1945. Continuing the work carried out on the V2 rocket at Peenemunde, they contributed to the American strategic missile programme and also laid the technical basis for America’s space programme, culminating in the moon landing on 20 July 1969.
Less well known are the substantial moves to bring German scientists to the UK after the war. This resulted in a number of rocket experts going to the new guided weapons research centre at Westcott, near Aylesbury, while several influential aerodynamicists and aeronautical scientists took up posts at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough. Some of these made important contributions to the British aircraft programmes that developed such aircraft as the English Electric Lightning fighter and Concorde.
The migration of this relatively small number of highly skilled scientists was out of all proportion to its influence on postwar history.