Tag Archives: V2

A Landmark Anniversary for Space?

The first image of Earth from space. Image was atop an A-4 rocket. Image hosted on Wikimedia.  Go here to read more about this rocket and image.

Oct. 3, 1942–72 years ago–an A-4 test rocket was launched from Peenemuende Army Research Center.  The fourth A-4 to be tested, it was the first to successfully fly.  It was also the first rocket to reach the edges of outer space (it flew about 85-90 kilometers above the Earth).

If you’ve never heard of the A-4, there’s another name for it you’re probably more familiar with:  V2.  So yes, the Germans, NAZI Germans in particular, were responsible for achieving a very historic moment–something everyone should have been proud of.  It’s unfortunate that NAZIs were the ones to do this with their V2 for the very obvious reasons that were later exposed through history.

However, such a feat is what led the US government to eventually hire ex-NAZI German scientists after the war, in a secret program called Operation Paperclip.  The US intelligence agencies were convinced the Germans were at least 25 years ahead of the US scientists and engineers.  So they recommended vetting the NAZI scientists, and if they passed certain criteria, they recommended thne hiring the best brains of Germany.

Celebrate, then, the achievement of the first spaceflight conducted by man.  The rather rotten roots of that labor yielded fruit that helped to accelerate the US space and missile programs.  But remember, there were people in the war who were involved–both criminals and victims–who should be thought of as well.  About 27,000 victims died as they assembled and constantly perfected the V2 as a weapon for the Reich.  If you’d like to read more about this particular aspect of NAZI space history, please read my 7 part series, starting with this particular post, here.  Warning–it can get a little depressing.



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?

From German Tunnels to Space, Part 4–Attaining Heaven from Hell

This is hell. Picture of Mittelwerk workers from Jirzy.webzdarma.cz.

A Scenario of Questions

What do you do when you have something absolutely wonderful in your hands?  Perhaps a magical gem that provides a portal to different parts of the universe?  The gem would also be the key to not just your future prosperity, but the future prosperity of your future generations.  You would use it, right?  You would cherish it and ensure everyone knows how wonderful the gem is.  But somewhere along the way, you find out a historically distant but horrible truth about the gem:  a wizard murdered a young girl in fulfilling a pact with a demon to create the gem.

What would you do with the gem, after that revelation?  Would you throw the gem away?  Would you hide the truth about the gem from others?  Would you label the truth as a falsehood because nothing could ever tarnish the gem for you?  Would you rationalize that the young girl was probably dumb, or ugly, or of a different race, and it was therefore okay to kill her to create the wonderful gem?  Would the rationalization be that it only took the unwilling sacrifice of one girl to create the wonderful gem?

Would you want to know more and understand the history of the gem?  Would you acknowledge the girl’s sacrifice, and honor her by ensuring the gem would be used to help others?  What would you do?  And does your answer define the kind of person you are?  Does it define a nation?  This conundrum is present in America’s space programs, which, whether you agree or not, are intertwined with NAZI rocket history and Mittelwerk/Dora.

Building Rockets on Death’s Bed

Mittelwerk/Dora is still a relatively unknown episode of NAZI Germany history for most of the Western world.  It was an underground V2 rocket production facility, and eventually prison camp, that used and killed slave laborers to manufacture V2 rockets.  The previous lesson left off at April 1944.  Of the 17,535 prison laborers that arrived by April 1944, nearly 6,000 died in the activities surrounding Mittelwerk’s renovation from a petroleum/poison gas facility, to a V2 rocket manufacturing facility built into a mountain (it was also to be used to build aircraft parts—but believe it or not, those workers were paid German workers).  So many prisoners died for Mittelwerk, that the NAZIs thought it better for the camp to have its own crematorium.

The number of deaths and working conditions for the Mittelwerk slave laborers were horrifying, but for the NAZIs the results were worth it.  By December 1943, V2 production started in Mittelwerk.  The majority of prison laborers still were sleeping in the Mittelwerk tunnels until sometime in the Spring of 1944.  During the Spring, the NAZIs finally decided work had progressed far enough to build a labor camp near Mittelwerk’s south entrance.  The camp wasn’t completed until October 1944.

Whether living in the Mittelwerk underground facility or the camp outside, the prison laborers faced terrible conditions until the facility’s liberation in April 1945.  Weirdly, the prison laborers worked beside “free Germans”—laborers who were paid by the government to help build the rockets.  While it’s not clear from the sites referenced, the free Germans were probably treated differently, although still under threat of the SS, than the prison laborers.  The prison laborers were supervised by a special class of prisoner—a kapo—who was often a German criminal.

The Mittelwerk/Dora prison laborers worked alternating 12 hour day and night shifts, with certain shifts extending as long as 18 hours.  They worked under supervision of the kapos.  Any mistake the prison laborers made would be considered potential sabotage by the NAZI handlers and they would be beaten.

“Everyone is gasping and crying for air… In all passages, halls, tunnels dead and dying humans. Everything at running pace. The SS ruthlessly hit us to make us work faster. They use clubs, rifle butts, iron bars, and wooden sticks. Whether they hit us indiscriminately on the head, the shoulders, or the back is not relevant. Everything has only one purpose – the production of V-weapons.” – Erich Neumann, German prisoner, from the website benthere.com/Travel/Europe/Germany/Germany11.html.

It was so bad, there was a decree disseminated stressing that prisoners shouldn’t be beaten or stabbed so work could continue on the V2s.

A prisoner’s art of prison laborers hung at Mittelwerk/Dora. Image from the “Dora and the V-2” website, here: http://dora.uah.edu/slavelabor.html#

Setting Examples for Saboteurs

Many times prison laborers identified as saboteurs would be hanged.  The hanging would be carried out within the Mittelwerk facility from cranes, sometimes in massive groups.  Then they would be left to hang about five feet above the factory floor for that day, with work on the V2s still going on underneath the corpses.  Hangings increased in number when SS guards from Auschwitz were transferred to Mittelwerk.

None of the prison laborers were fed well.  One account told of the prisoners being fed just bread and a few potatoes per day.  This naturally meant the prison laborers were weak, and prone to sickness.  Many of the sick were sent to a hospital ward.  Being sent to the ward was the equivalent of a death sentence as patients weren’t so much cared for, as just parked and recorded in file.  No care, no medicine, no food, no clothing, and no blankets were provided.  Patients shared beds.  Sometimes the dead weren’t noticed for days.

The food situation became worse the nearer the end of the war came.  So did the treatment of the prison laborers.  The number of prison laborers supporting the V2 rocket production in or near Mittelwerk at one time was as much as 32,471, in November, 1944.  Prisoners were mixed, some coming from evacuated camps, such as Auschwitz.  There were Jewish Hungarians, Czech resistance, French army and more.

One French Resistance fighter, Michel Depierre, wrote an account about his capture and subsequent experience at Mittelwerk.  You can read about his experiences at Mittelwerk here.

In spite of these conditions, in spite of the sickness and death, and the bombings by the Allies, the V2 production facility produced 600 to 700 V2 rockets a month.  That production, and the associated slavery, misery, and death, continued until Mittelwerk’s liberation in April, 1945.

Slaves building rockets for NAZI masters—sounds like a sci-fi movie plot, doesn’t it?  But does this part of the tale make the gem of the American space programs less shiny?  What do you think should be done?  I will tell more of the prison laborers story in the next few weeks…

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…