BIS Tour of German Rocket History Sites

Date: 19-25 September 2015 (please note dates have changed)

Full-size V2 replica stands at the entrance to the Peenemünde Museum.

Full-size V2 replica stands at the entrance to the Peenemünde Museum.

We are looking to organise a tour in September 2015 to Peenemunde (A4/V2 and V1 sites), Kummersdorf (rocket engine test site, including the site of von Braun’s PhD work), and Nordhausen-Dora (underground factory & adjacent concentration camp).  The tour would provisionally include up to 6 nights’ accommodation on a bed-and-breakfast basis: 2 nights Berlin – one before and one after the tour proper, 2 nights Karlshagen (Peenemunde) and 2 nights Leipzig (for Nordhausen).

Services of a professional guide (Dr Thomson’s Tours, who led our successful trips in 2005 and 2006), a translator, coach/minibus transport from/to Berlin would all be included – for a preliminary estimated cost of £590 per head (sharing a double room) and £725 for a single room.  Flights and airport transfer NOT included.

A minimum of 20 BIS Members or guests is required to make the tour viable.  Please email [email protected] – copied to [email protected] – if you are interested, by 1 September so that we can establish feasibility.  Booking and deposits will then be taken later in September/October.

Please see below to read a write up of the trip.

A4 Across Germany: Tracing the Development of the A4 (V2) in Present-Day Germany – Kummersdorf, Peenemünde & Nordhausen

Dr Andrew Thomson, Canterbury, England (www.drttours.co.uk)

Kummersdorf
Head south out of Berlin for an hour and today’s sprawling city of three million people gives way first to suburbs and then, passing under the autobahn ring, to a mix of heathland and woods. We’re out in the former East Germany now, passing small villages – empty, it seems, but for the occasional glimpse of life: cars filling up with fuel, older people talking outside a store. 25 miles from Berlin we pass Zossen, site of the German Army’s Operations HQ from 1939 until one day in April 1945 when Soviet tanks burst in; in the 1950’s it was ringed with a fence and reborn as the USSR’s military HQ for East Germany. We pass right through. Until the Soviets pulled out in 1994 (four years after German reunification) no one other than the military could drive along the road we are on.

10 miles more, off the highway and onto smaller roads, and the heathland and lakes give way to continuous woodland on the righthand side of the road. For five miles we follow it – this is the edge of the Kummersdorf artillery & early rocket testing site. Come here anytime before 1994 and you would have been getting much too close to a well known but off-limits military installation. Established in the late 19th century, Kummersdorf was the German Army’s extensive site for testing their big guns: close enough to Berlin, yet in an empty enough spot to enable many miles of land to be seized and several test ranges set up. Wide swathes through the forest made up 5 mile long ranges.

It was here on 22 June 1932 that Rudolf Nebel brought an amateur team from ‘Racketenflugplatz’ to demonstrate their simple liquid-fuel rocket to an Army Ordnance group led by Colonel Becker [1]. They likely came down the road we took, their equipment bouncing around in the early trucks and cars, racing to meet their 4 a.m. appointment. The test failed, but in the margins of the event Colonel Becker had been introduced to the 20-year-old Wernher von Braun (pronouced ‘fon Brown’). Becker liked what he saw. Von Braun was young, competent and confident – and more amenable than the driven and erratic figure of Nebel. Discussions and negotiations followed, and in October that year von Braun agreed to join Becker’s group at Kummersdorf whilst pursuing his PhD at Berlin University [2]. It was just three months before Hitler came to power.

Today an amateur group looks after the rocketry heritage at Kummersdorf. As well as maintaining a small museum they can take pre-arranged groups into the woods to see what remains of the rocket test sites (groups must come furnished with their own transport). No rocket was fired from here (save for that small scale abortive test in June 1932) – the ranges were not long enough. But the earliest liquid-fuelled rockets were designed, built and tested here by the Army. Here is the first place in the world where rocketry moved from amateur to professional status. The most striking sights today as you clamber through the bracken and tree roots (watch out!) are the A3 Test Stand, and the stand on which von Braun ran rocket motor tests that led to his PhD award. At the A3 stand you can see where the curved rail track ran that took the rocket out from its protective check-out shelter to stand above the trench with its flame deflector for firing. The pit for the flame deflector is still there. Of von Braun’s ‘PhD test stand’ only the concrete structure survives, no metalwork, tanks or pipes. With explanation – and photos from the time – you begin to understand where the fuel was, where the liquid oxygen was stored, where the flame trench was (and still is), and where the panes of glass for the observation windows went. Here von Braun was at work in 1933 and 1934; ten years later he was flying V2s at Peenemünde; thirty years later he was working at Huntsville on the Saturn V moon rocket.

By 1935 it was clear that if the Army’s plans for larger rockets (those with a range of around 200 miles) were going to mature, then a larger and more isolated site was needed to build and, most importantly, fly these rockets. And so rocketry in Germany moved to Peenemünde. The site opened in 1937. To follow this we need to turn back north from Kummersdorf, skirt Berlin and continue north – for 130 miles, right up to the Baltic Sea. At the town of Wolgast, on the Peene River, we cross a modern swing-bridge and drive onto the island of Usedom. Its southern end was developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with prime seaside resorts – the nearest Baltic coastline to Berlin. Usedom Island’s northern tip was always more remote and wilder. This is where we find Peenemünde.

Peenemude-by-air

Peenemünde village from the air today: the Power Station (which houses the excellent museum) is the large structure beside the harbour

Peenemünde
A visit to Peenemünde is akin to an exercise in industrial archaeology – but others have done the digging before us. Inaccessible until German reunification in 1990, the site is spread over some five miles north to south, and two miles east to west. First we come to the town of Karlshagen – here one can see a communist-era memorial (c. 1970) to the approximately 600 forced labourers who were killed in error in the British air raid of 18 August 1943 [3]. Near the shops (the town has developed as a modern seaside resort since 1990) are two streets which still contain the housing put up for the professionals who worked here (much of the rest were destroyed in the air raid): quiet comfortable suburban streets. In the bushes near the road the still-active railway runs past a disused station – the platforms and the subways linking each of the platforms are still there, overgrown now; this is where the bulk of the 15,000 who worked at the complex at its peak (1943) would arrive by train from the dormitory towns down the coast, change platforms and pick up a choice of work trains to the different parts of the site.

The huge Liquid Oxygen Production Plant.

The huge Liquid Oxygen Production Plant.

We drive on north to see those different parts: first we pass thick woods covering the hidden traces of the Production Facility – huge buildings which were being prepared for the mass production of the V2, but never used, then (along with the rest of the site) destroyed by the Soviets in 1945 as required by the Potsdam Agreement. On the right we see the Baltic Sea for the first time – perfect long sandy beaches, deep blue sea stretching off to the east. At a fork in the road there are the foundations of the main Guard House for the R&D Centre, known as Peenemünde East – cleared by youth camp workers around 1999, the layout of the Guard House is very clear and a nearby photo from c. 1942 helps one to imagine the scene: a sleek saloon car drawn up in front of the barrier, a soldier checking the papers [4]. Down forest tracks to our right here – all out of bounds today because of the danger of unexploded ammunition from the site’s days as an East German air force base – ran the roadways subdividing the R&D complex. It is evocative to look down these and picture Col Dornberger and his team of thousands working away here – 700 miles from London, and working in complete secrecy until 1943. We know that tracks from the R&D centre lead north to the site of Test Stand VII from which the first V2 was successfully launched on 3 October 1942. An RAF photograph of Peenemünde taken on 12 June 1943 revealed a rocket on its side at Test Stand VII [5].

The supports for the launch ramps for the V1 – the very first V1 flew from here in December 1943.

The supports for the launch ramps for the V1 – the very first V1 flew from here in December 1943.

A mile further on is Peenemünde West, the Luftwaffe base from which their secret weapon, the V1, was first flown in December 1943. A tour of this site is available by bus – on it one can see features of the East German Air Force base (including hardened bunkers for their MiGs), rich wildlife, and the bases of the original V1 launch ramps. It was near these that RAF photographs taken in July and September 1943 showed the V1, spotted by photographic interpreter Constance Babington-Smith [6].

And so to Peenemünde village at the western end of the island. A fine modern museum fills the huge power station – excellently presented, the museum has models of the test stands, rich film archives, and a good collection of artefacts [7]. A huge reproduction of the best RAF photos of the complex in 1943 – large enough to walk on – allows you to trace what you’ve seen so far, and how the elements fit together. On the site is a collection of Warsaw Pact planes, a lifesize V2 replica, and all the equipment from the power station itself which was only closed down with the collapse of East Germany in 1990. In the harbour is a Soviet submarine from 1965 which you can visit. Close by are the largest set of ruins which escaped total destruction by the Soviets: the Liquid Oxygen Production Plant from 1942. Trees grow in amongst this impressive four-storey high concrete and brick structure; display boards tell its story. Round about are drab navy housing estates from the 1970s – a Cold War naval base sitting opposite these evocative remains from a priority World War II project, the two sites representing waves of German 20th century history sweeping over this previously ‘innocent’ island backwater; what these waves had in common was isolation and secrecy.

Surviving housing for the engineers in Karlshagen town.

Surviving housing for the engineers in Karlshagen town.

End the day at Karlshagen, walk its beautiful beach and look north. With the sea on your right and the woods stretching north up the beach to the left, imagine the scene on those days in 1942, 1943 and 1944 when V2s would be launched just four miles to the north and rise up out of the woods – silently at first given the four miles distance (the sound would reach you 20 seconds later) – then the rockets would arc out over the sea and off to the right. Powered flight lasted one minute; the missile would coast on and fall into the Baltic 180 to 220 miles downrange, off the Polish shore. There are striking similarities to the view north from Cocoa Beach in Florida – in the late 1950’s / early 1960’s people in Cocoa Beach would get to know of ‘shots’ due to be fired and gather on the beach to look north to see the rocket rise up and arc out over the ocean, just as they had in Karlshagen less than twenty years earlier.

But the secret world of Peenemünde – thrilling for the engineers and technicians working here, hellish for the forced labourers [8] – could not last. The 18 August 1943 air raid showed that the secrecy had been compromised; its principal two effects were the immediate decision to move V2 production to Nordhausen, and to move many test flights to Blizna in Poland [9]. Nordhausen was chosen because it was deep in the centre of Germany and could use tunnels already dug for strategic oil storage, making it relatively secret and immune to bombing.

Nordhausen

Flowers laid beside the statue of prisoners outside Dora camp’s crematorium.

Flowers laid beside the statue of prisoners outside Dora camp’s crematorium.

Nordhausen is a 6 hour drive south from Peenemünde even with today’s autobahns; it is located on the southern edge of the Harz Mountains, two hours west of Leipzig. The site, preserved as the Mittelbau-Dora Memorial, is two miles outside the town. It is run by the same organisation that looks after Buchenwald concentration camp, 50 miles south and under whose wing the Dora camp was set up in 1943; Mittelbau (Middle Works) was the name given to the collection of several camps in the Harz Mountains all involved in production of war materiel. Whilst space history students think of this site as one of V2 production, you are in fact now about to visit the remains of a concentration camp – that is the prime memory now. The site was just behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany – this fact, together with the move of von Braun’s team to the U.S. in 1946 and a desire not to dwell on these harsher aspects of the V2 story, meant that the name Nordhausen and/or Dora did not immediately become part of the litany of famous concentration camp locations (Dachau, Belsen, Ravensbruck, etc.). But Dora was unquestionably a concentration camp – and its remains are what you visit first: the gateposts, the roll-call ground, outlines of the accommodation huts, and (preserved) the crematorium [10]. A simple sculpture of a group of prisoners outside the crematorium stands as mute testimony to the collective suffering, a plaque at its base listing the names of the many countries that prisoners came from. This part of the site is wooded – birdsong and rustling leaves puncture the silence.

V1 parts litter the tunnels at Nordhausen-Dora (this is cross-tunnel number 45).

V1 parts litter the tunnels at Nordhausen-Dora (this is cross-tunnel number 45).

And then our guided tour takes us into the tunnels themselves – 400 metres outside Dora camp itself, the two parallel tunnels, each a mile long, had their entrances blocked up by the Soviets in 1948 [11]; we enter via a new tunnel constructed especially for visitor access in 1994 [12]. The tour allows us to see 200 metres of Tunnel A and – the most striking part of the visit – three of the slightly smaller cross-tunnels that joined the two main tunnels, appearing like forty or more rungs on a ladder on diagrams of the site [13]. This end of the complex was in fact given over to V1 production from September 1944 when the impact on Britain of the V1 campaign, which started on 13 June 1944 (one week after D-Day), spurred Hitler to give the V1 the top priority. Consequently it is pieces of V1s that we see littering the floor of the tunnels – left there as if in a time capsule; we look down on all this detritus from a walkway suspended one metre above the tunnel floor. In Tunnel A a V2 engine – rusty, picked off the tunnel floor in the 1990’s – speaks of the reason for the move here in summer 1943. The part of the complex that we can get access to was the scene of horrific conditions in those first four or five frantic months – to get V2 production started the adaptation of the tunnels (which included actually finishing the boring of the last 300 metres of Tunnel A) was given priority over the construction of Dora camp, so the prisoners were housed inside the tunnels; around 10,000 prisoners. Dora camp was not ready for its first inmates until the late autumn.

Around 5,000 prisoners died at Dora and a further 5,000 ‘useless’ prisoners after they were shipped out to other camps. Operationally the V1s and V2s resulted in approximately 5,000 fatalities each (10,000 total); approximately the same number as died in the programme of their mass production. As well as these losses, a visit inside the tunnels – seeing their scale and the chill and damp – is an important way to remember the suffering of those who survived.

Inspecting the rocket motor test stand at Kummersdorf on which Wherner von Braun undertook his PhD research.

Inspecting the rocket motor test stand at Kummersdorf on which Wernher von Braun undertook his PhD research.

Just ten years – and 140 miles – separate Kummersdorf from Nordhausen. Ten years from von Braun testing simple rocket motors on his ‘PhD test stand’ to mass production of 15-ton ballistic missiles with slave labour in airless tunnels. The chronology goes via Peenemünde of course – engineers taking their work out from the laboratory to the first ever launch of a long distance liquid-fuelled rocket, striking out across the Baltic Sea from the isolated island of Usedom. Visiting these three sites in sequence takes one to the heart of early rocket history, to the heart of Nazi Germany – and, as a fascinating by-product, to the heart of the secret state of East Germany. To see these sites in the opening years of the 21st century is a striking way to see a slice of German history, and also to reflect on where rocketry took us in the 20th century – and at what initial price.

References

1. Michael Neufeld The Rocket and the Reich (Harvard 1995) p.22. The ‘Racketenflugplatz’ group flew small scale rockets from an ex-Army Ordnance base in the Berlin suburb of Renickendorf – on what is now the site of Tegel Airport.
2.Guido de Maeseneer Peenemünde (Vancouver 2001) p. 20.
3. The fullest account is Martin Middlebrook The Peenemünde Raid (London 1982).
4. As reproduced in (e.g.) Jan Heitmann After the Battle magazine (London 1991) no.74: Peenemünde Rocket Centre p.2.
5. RV Jones Most Secret War (London 1978) p.340.
6.B King & T Kutta Impact (Staplehurst 1998) p.122; de Maeseneer p.259.
7. www.peenemuende.de – note the spelling of Peenemünde for internet purposes.
8. A few hundred concentration camp workers had been introduced to the Production Works in June 1943, but there had been around 3,000 forced labourers from all across occupied Europe for several years before that. It is the forced labourers who were caught in the off-target British bombing.
9. But not all test flights – test flights from Peenemünde restarted on 6 October 1943: de Maeseneer p.248.
10. There is an important distinction between the extermination camps – Auschwitz, Sobibor, Treblinka, etc – and the concentration camps: the former employed gas chambers for a deliberate aim of mass exterminations. Whilst the concentration camps did not have the aim of mass extermination, they nevertheless saw thousands of prisoners worked to death. Both sets of camps had crematoriums to dispose of dead bodies.
11.Karel Margery After the Battle magazine (London 1998) no. 101 Nordhausen p. 42.
12. André Sellier A History of the Dora Camp (Paris 1998) p. 453.
13. e.g. Margery p. 27 and Sellier p.514.

Be sociable; support the BIS!