It may look like a scene from a movie shoot – Germany’s answer to The Dam Busters, perhaps – but this strikingly modern photograph from 1940 offers instead a real-life glimpse behind the scenes of a top-secret aeronautical project.

The state-of-the-art wind tunnel at the Herman Goering Aviation Research Institute, near Braunschweig (or Brunswick) in Lower Saxony, was one of Germany’s most closely shrouded military sites.

Spread over 1,000 acres, the Institute’s 60 buildings were low-rise, nestling under the treeline, and well camouflaged from the air. As a result, until the end of the war, the facility and its 1,500 workers remained undiscovered (and were never bombed) by the Allies.

The Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter we see being tested here was known to British and German fliers more simply as the Me 109. Designed by Willy Messerschmitt, Robert Lusser, and Walter Rethel, and launched in 1936, it first saw service during the Spanish Civil War and was to become the stalwart of Goering’s Luftwaffe, and the foil to the British Spitfire. In total, some 34,000 Me 109s entered service, making it the most produced combat aircraft in history.

Dwarfed by the sheer scale of their environment, the workers at the bottom-left of the photograph seem almost incidental, the least significant part of the scene – it is impossible to know what thoughts were going through the two men’s minds as they went about their business. More eloquent, certainly, is the slogan on the wind tunnel’s wall – framed by the emblem of the Luftwaffe – which translates, starkly, as: ‘The German people will, by means of conquering the air, enforce their due and rightful place in the world.’

This article appeared in issue 72 of Military History Monthly.

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