From German Tunnels to Space, Part 5–Liberation

In the previous post, slave prison laborers were working underground in a mountain, building rockets for the NAZIs.  The slaves were very literally worked to death, producing hundreds of V2 rockets a month.

Ruthless People, Brutal Numbers

Between April 1944 and March 1945, the slaves produced about 4,575 V2 rockets .  The conditions they worked in remained hellish.  They barely had any food and no medical aid to speak of.  The threat of beatings and hangings remained present throughout their lives at the camps.  The slaves of Mittelbau-Dora paid an intolerable price while producing and perfecting space technology for the NAZIs.  As many as six prison laborers died for every V2 that rolled out of Mittelwerk.

…while you’re pausing to do the math, please remember the 4,575 rocket number I gave you was only for nearly a year of Mittelwerk operations.  There were obviously more V2s produced earlier.  But if you want to multiply 6 times 4,575, you’ll come to 27,450 deaths.  I don’t really know if there were truly that many deaths, as other sites and sources are stating “only” 20,000 died of the total 60,000 prison laborers who lived in the horror of the Mittelbau-Dora camps.  I’m guessing the death of 20,000 people to build an Atlas or Delta rocket would not be acceptable on any level.  The information about the number of deaths is fuzzy, but the most reliable source I’ve found is information coming from The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933-1945, here.

The numbers of prison laborers are so large, because more were added to Dora-Mittelbau.  The encyclopedia talks of the “dumping” of prisoners from other concentration camps into the Dora-Mittelbau system.  Most prison laborers arrived barely alive, but some also arrived dead.  There were so many bodies, the camp’s crematorium couldn’t keep up with it’s relatively slow rate of incinerating them—so the NAZIs stacked the bodies instead, burning piles of them in huge pyres.

One of the ovens in Dora’s Crematorium. Image from V2Rocket.com.

Killing the Evidence

Still, the prisoners were in for much worse during the days before their liberation.  On April 1, 1945, work stopped on V2 rocket assembly.  The NAZIs knew the Americans were close and started herding the majority of prison laborers on “annihilation transports” to other camps.  The prisoners were never intended to make it to the camps.  8000-11000 prisoners were estimated to have died during their evacuation from Mittelbau-Dora in April alone.  The marchers were part of a nation-wide, systematic attempt by the NAZIs to ensure no one would know what they had done, while getting rid of the subhumans–the “untermenschen.”

Liberating the Dead

But liberation of these slaves, what remained of them, eventually came.  Almost exactly 69 years ago, actually, on April 11, 1945.  Here’s a picture of Mittelbau-Dora survivors (and relatives) taken a few days ago, in front of the Dora crematorium.

The True Space Pioneers. Unwilling, but hopefully never forgotten.  Image from Buchenwald.de.

The liberators were American soldiers, belonging to Combat Command B (CCB), 3rd Armored Division and the 104th Infantry Division (ID).  What they found there was hard for them to describe.  The picture, below, supposedly taken by 104th ID troops entering one of Dora’s subcamps, gives an idea of the hell facing the American troops.

Entering Mittelbau-Dora.  Image from 104infdiv.org.

Supposedly there were 6,000 residents in the camp when the American soldiers entered the camp’s gates.  But only 1,000 of them were still alive.

And it was, by all accounts, a difficult task to figure out who was living and dead.  The surviving prison laborers were, as you might imagine, in very bad shape.  And, as American troops are still prone to do today, both divisions pretty much dropped what they were doing to help the survivors and bury the dead.  Medics provided what care they could, chaplains and chefs working to feed the walking dead, getting them back to a form of humanity.  If the American soldiers had any doubts why they were fighting the NAZIs, those doubts must have vanished on April 11, 1945.

Descriptions by troops who happened upon the V2 rocket assembly tunnels in Mittelwerk noted the contrast between the studied neatness and organization of the assembly area and the rockets before them, and the bodies of slaves, the “living skeletons” of the survivors, and the camp conditions they had encountered just outside.  But for the survivors, they were done building V2 rockets for the NAZIs.

The survivors might have been some of the first rocket assembly-line workers in the history of humanity.  They might’ve helped iron out “quirks” and other flaws in a propulsion system or gyroscope.  They might’ve been one of the biggest history-making groups of slave laborers ever.  But I’m sure they were thankful their part in this horrific segment of world history was over.

So how did the deaths and labors of prison workers building rockets in German tunnels, working for NAZIs, contribute to American space programs?  Some of you might have an idea.  But for the rest of you—what do you know about paperclips?

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