From German Tunnels to Space, Part 1

It wasn’t unusual to walk past something like this. Picture of Baudenkmal in Aachen-Mitte on Wikimedia. Photographer: Arthur McGill

Stay with me here, this will eventually lead to space-related topics.

When I was much younger, I was privileged to live overseas twice.  Both times my Dad moved us to the Rhineland-Palatinate (Rheinland Pfalz for German speakers)/Eifel region of Germany.  It was very pretty—forested and hilly with networks of small, curvy roads.  The first time we lived there, I was only four years old.  But I learned the language in a child’s typical way (easily and quickly).  So much so, when Mom and Dad wanted me to learn to read English, I responded in German, “Why, when I can already read German?”

So, I had fun as a child, and later as a teenager, living in Germany.  When Dad moved us there, both times we did what is called “living on the economy” instead of living on the Air Bases where Dad worked.  We lived with the locals in their villages and they were very nice.  We became attached with our landlord’s family, eventually considering them closer kin than our “real” relatives.  But I eventually became, and then always remained aware of, the dark side of Germany’s history.

As you can imagine, when I was a very young child it was confusing to find out the Germans I lived and played with could do very bad things.  I didn’t quite, at that time, understand why the Swastika was bad.  Of course I started to learn and understand more as I got older.  I eventually, by traveling with my parents through Europe, developed a taste for learning about Germany’s history.

The areas where we lived in Germany were full of historic reminders.  Not just of World War II, but of eras thousands of years before the United States of America was fought for and founded.  During our second tour of Germany, we lived in Bollendorf, a town right along the Sauer River and Luxembourg border.  It’s a pretty town in a pretty setting.  Granite cliffs and boulders project along the forested river valley’s sides.  Every sunny Sunday, rubber rafts full of half-dressed tourists floated down the river.  One rubber-boat riding gentleman in particular always whistled in a manner that loudly echoed throughout the valley.

A ruin of an ancient Roman villa was almost in our backyard.  Down the hill was Burg Bollendorf, an old castle, still in use, in which Napoleon was purported to have lived a little while.  Along the riverfront’s bicycle trails were two somewhat circular concrete piers:  one upon which was built a tourist visitor’s center, and the other serving as a pavilion for outdoor dancing and concerts.

Those foundations were originally for anti-aircraft emplacements meant to protect the town and bridge from Allied aircraft.  We lived, then, in an area infamously known for Hitler’s last gasp, military-wise:  the Ardennes, where the Battle of the Bulge was fought.

Nearby our home were parts of Germany’s West Wall (older folks might call it the Siegfried Line).  For those not in the know, it was Germany’s “Maginot Line,” in a way.  Nearly 400 miles of tunnels, pillboxes, and bunkers, some interlinking, along nearly ALL of Germany’s west border.  Lots of pop-up machine gun and artillery turrets.  It wasn’t unusual to walk in the forests down an old Roman road and see destroyed pillboxes and bunkers nearby.  Just down the valley road, close to another German town, Irrel, was a bunker called the Panzerwerk Katzenkopf (armored installation ‘Cat’s Head’).

But the West Wall was just one of the more public of the subterranean achievements the Germans constructed.  Under the Nazi’s firm hand, there began to be factories of all kinds built underground towards the end of the war.  Probably the more famous ones are the “Richard” factories.  The Nazis used old, huge limestone mines as underground factories in the Czech Republic.  These factories produced tank parts.  But just saying that sweeps the absolutely horrid and nauseating truth behind small and interesting facts about war.  The Nazis used prisoners from nearby concentration camps as slaves in underground factories, in terrible, death-inducing conditions, to build the machines used to kill anyone fighting against the Nazis.

And that’s where the space angle comes in, and possibly the moral line the United States crossed in getting there.  The next post will talk about Mittelwerk and Mittelbau-Dora—one of Nazi Germany’s “centers of excellence” for its space program.

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