From German Tunnels to Space, Part 3–Mittelwerk and Dora

Looks pretty, right? But NAZI plans can make something pretty twisted, too. This is from the German Bundesarchiv.

This series started with my experience growing up and appreciating the beauty of Germany, its land and people.  But with that experience came an understanding of Germany’s darker history, a history that country would rather forget.  This is why Mittelwerk is important, especially for space.

There aren’t many people in the world who know about Mittelwerk, dug into the Kohnstein mountains/hills (pictured at the top) located near Nordhausen, Germany.  The reason for its near anonymity is because it was kept secret for a good long while.  We will get into the whys of keeping that secret in another part of this series.  Right now is the time to contrast humanity’s proudest moment—launching a rocket to space—with what should be humanity’s enormous regret and shame.

The Mittelwerk complex was initially mined in the 1930’s.  Later the complex was used to store oil, gasoline, and poison gas.  It was already huge, but by the end of World War II it was bigger.  There were two parallel tunnels (A and B shown on map below) a little over a mile long.  The tunnels were a little over two stories tall, and averaged about 32 feet in width.  46 cross tunnels connected them—each one of those about 600 feet long.  Plenty of room to accomplish plenty of things.

Imagine working in this 12 hours a day, as a slave. Click on the image to get to the interactive map. Image hosted on

No surprise then, that someone thought it would be a great idea to use the tunnel complex to build rockets.  The impetus for that idea:  the Royal Air Force bombing of the Peenemuende research facility in 1943.  After that experience, the NAZIs thought it was a fabulous idea to move the building of V2s away from Peenemuende.  They wanted to ensure that V2 rocket research and production weren’t impeded, or worse, destroyed, by enemy air attacks.

So moving to a safer location is reasonable during wartime and Mittelwerk was fairly safe, located deep inside of Germany.  And if they were moving only V2 rocket production and research to Mittelwerk, there would have been no shame.  But they didn’t.  On August 28, 1943, 107 prisoners from Buchenwald were forced to break ground for Mittelwerk—the camp and project was code-named “Dora.”  And remember, in Peenemuende, the NAZIs and scientists working for them used prison laborers in 1943 to build V2s?  These laborers were moved to the Mittelwerk tunnels in the middle of 1943.  Too bad for them, because their work conditions became significantly worse.

The prisoners moved to a different SS concentration camp jurisdiction—one administered by the lovely people at Buchenwald.  These prison laborers had to finish the tunnel complex and make it ready for V2 production.  They had to drill and blast into the rock, widening the tunnels, making them ready for the NAZI rocketship factory.  All of their work was done by hand, with hand tools such as picks and shovels.  They installed temporary rails to move the rock.

Since the tunnel to factory conversion was a high priority project to the NAZIs, no thought was given to building outdoor living facilities for the prisoners, initially.  The prison laborers were forced to sleep in the tunnels they were digging.  For nearly seven months the prison laborers worked in the tunnels, with no access to the world outside.  They ate, slept, worked, and suffered in the tunnels.  If someone took a misstep and fell, he would be beaten, whipped, and kicked.  If a skip full of rocks accidentally tipped, the person responsible would be beaten, whipped, and kicked.  For those that simply died from disease, overwork, or the sheer brutality, a special corpse cart was there to take the dead away.  But the Peenemuende laborers weren’t the only ones suffering.

By the time January 1944 rolled around, an additional 11,200 prisoners were working in the Mittelwerk tunnels.  About 10,000 of them still lived in Mittelwerk’s tunnels.  Not that it should make any difference, but none of the prisoners were Jewish, and all were male.  Working conditions were horrid:  no toilets (barrels were used, and apparently not that many), dust, 12-hour work days, and disease were all conspiring to deliver the weak into Death’s hands.  Of 12,682 prisoner laborers, 669 died in January 1944 alone.

In February and March, the weakest and sickest prisoners were sent to death camps on trains.  There were three trains, and each train contained about 1,000 prisoners.  Combining their deaths with the ones continuously occurring at Mittelwerk raised the number of Mittelwerk-related deaths to 6,000 by April 1944.

Hard to believe it got worse.

Reference links:

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