From German Tunnels to Space, Part 2–Peenemuende

Not quite "Frau im Mond" but close enough.
Not quite “Frau im Mond” but close enough.

In the first post to this series, I established my impressions of the German countryside and the Germans themselves:  pretty, green country full of great, hospitable people (some are still friends).  My family lived at the edge of the Ardennes in an area of hills and forests full of bunkers, pillboxes, etc.  All of these structures were evidence of German engineering with the West Wall and subterranean tunnel facilities like tank and rocket factories.  But for space operations in Germany, the modern rocket age began out in the open, along the southern shore of the Baltic Sea:  Peenemuende.

3 October 1942 is the day humanity first reached up into outer space.  It should have been a day of pride for all humanity.  Unfortunately, a NAZI rocket program achieved that historic honor.  The rocket, the fourth one of a series of rockets launched in 1942 from Peenemuende Army Research Center, was the first the program’s scientists considered to be successful overall.  The V2 (Vergeltungswaffe 2 or Vengeanceweapon 2), as the NAZI’s named it, had flown as high as 85-90 km (53-56 miles), which is considered high enough to be in outer space.

The German scientists and engineers responsible for the V2’s success should sound familiar to anyone with some knowledge of rocketry history:  Wernher von Braun as the facility technical director; Walter Thiel was the facility deputy director; Walter Riedel as design office head; Hermann Steuding for aeroballistics and math; Rudolph Hermann as wind tunnel designer; Ernst Steinhoff for guidance and telemetry equipment; Arthur Rudolph as development and fabrication engineer; Klaus Riedel as test laboratory head; Ludwig Roth in charge of future projects; and Walter Dornberger as military director for operations at Peenemuende.

April 1943, Arthur Rudolph endorsed and requested the use of slave laborers from concentration camps to build the rockets at the Peenemuende V2 Production Plant.  Two months after his request, some 1,400 prisoners started building V2s at Peenemuende under the eyes of the scientists and Heinrich Himmler’s SS.  Oddly enough, the German penchant for organization didn’t extend to the prisoners.  There are few names available of the prisoners who worked and died at Peenemuende.   Those lists seem to be lost.  By the middle of July 1943, V2 rockets were starting to roll off the line.  Wernher von Braun was the one who ran the tests for every single V2 rocket engine produced at Peenemuende to make sure they operated acceptably and without problems for the NAZIs.

17 August 1943.  The British Royal Air Force bombs Peenemuende with three waves of bombers in Operation Hydra.  The prisoners, mostly Polish, paid the heaviest price of the bombing—a little over 500 were killed by Allied bombs.  Ironically, the British aircrews also paid a hefty price:  215 died in Operation Hydra.  A nearby village was also a casualty of not-so-precision-bombing, with nearly 200 of its residents killed.  One of the main targets of the operation, the scientists, came through nearly unscathed—only two were killed:  Walter Thiel and another engineer identified only as Walther.  The V2 production program was delayed for nearly 7 weeks as a result of Operation Hydra.  Peenemuende itself eventually continued conducting V2 test launches until February 1945.

Operation Hydra didn’t finish off the NAZI rocket program and activities, but was aptly named, whether the British knew it or not.  Like the mythical hydra, if you cut off one head, two grow in its place.  The British bombing of Peenemuende encouraged the Germans to find a few hardened, safer locations.  The Germans moved V2 production and testing to two other areas:  Thuringia, Germany, and Blizna, Poland.  Blizna served as a V2 test launch site, where the NAZIs test-launched V2s over populated areas, occasionally destroying buildings unintentionally.  Wernher von Braun reportedly visited the impact areas of these test missile impact areas, looking for possible V2 problems.

Thuringia is where the Mittelwerk came into existence…

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