The Nazi and the Moon

Wernher von Braun

A child obsessed by rockets, whose obsession would lead him to exploit thousands of slave labourers to build the test vehicles for his dreams this is the story of The Nazi and the Moon, the biography of Wernher von Braun.

The Chase

It was a chase across the country. The order had arrived on Easter Sunday, the whole operation, the entire organisation was to be evacuated. Orders were orders. From the central northern tip of the Reich as it once stood before rapid expansion met with a devastating collapse that was almost complete, to the southerly and easterly retreat. A Luftwaffe squadron was stationed there, and it was the idealistic centre of the underground fight that the National Socialist regime of delusional leaders had dreamt, the so called operation Werewolf. 500 staff in total were to be evacuated to the supposedly safe alpine fortress of the Oberammergau where Bavaria bordered Austria. For most they were to be placed on an SS train, the Vengeance Express. But he, he had survived a near fatal car accident a few weeks prior, and in preparation for the journey a nurse had plastered his broken arm so well that it hung before him at a right angle and had to be propped up with a support to his waste. Those above him had decided he was too valuable to have on the train, in case of an enemy air attack, the arm would prevent him from escaping with ease, so he was given special dispensation to travel the length of the country by car, a country where the enemy controlled the skies and strafed with bullets the moving automobiles below.

The corridor to travel through Germany was narrowing day by day. The Soviets had, since the beginning of the year, reduced Reich territory in the East greatly and in the West the Americans, British, Canadians and their allies were speeding forth.

The first stop, was Bad Sachsa where he stayed with a colleague for a week but where he also discovered that his other colleagues were surrounded by barbed wire rather than on their journey south. He continued on. His journey took him to Weilheim near Munich, to which he travelled with his youngest brother. On the 21st, the Führers birthday, he checked into a hospital, his arm, despite the lashings of plaster, had slipped within the cast and needed some adjustment. As he lay in bed, his arm in considerable pain, the bombs of the Allies fell on the towns and cities around, the shock waves shaking the vials and equipments of the hospital around him. Never had the war felt so close, for much of it, in-fact most he had been in the quiet of the Baltic, but now, having seen his colleagues interred he feared what the desperation of the regime might lead to. Would a SS officer stroll through the door one day and put a bullet between his eyes. It was an easy picture to imagine, he had seen much worse, he had been surrounded by death daily, and for a long time it had not affected his conscious for, before, death was not a danger unto him, but now it was a real possibility. The desperate SS, blind in their beliefs would much rather see him dead than fall into the hands of the enemy. His panic had the better of him, he convinced the doctor to reset his arm once more and soon he was on his way with his brother.

His car drove through the foothills and climbed into the mountains, their eyes warily searching the skies for enemy planes. Trundling on the car continued, through the villages that seemed undisturbed by the war that had raged for 6 years, where cities now lay in ruin, cities like Berlin a city he and his family had made a home in for many years which had little support for Hitler and the Nazis before their ascent to power lay in ruins, the alpine towns where support had been amongst the highest lay as if the war was just an inconvenience far off. Finally they arrived at Oberjoch.

Held up in a hotel where whilst the news of the Führers death was broadcast the silver service continued he lived out the privileged life that he had known for all his years. In the towns and cities around the peaks the French and Americans circled, but they knew not of the man sat on high above them eating fine food and watching the clouds pass. But there was fear. Fear still of an operation by the wild SS, or capture by the Soviets or even the French, both could be terrible. If the Americans were not to climb the mountain themselves, then someone would have to descend to negotiate.

It was his youngest brother who was elected, and on the 2nd of May, the day after the announcement of the Führers demise on the radio, that he, on a bicycle, was sent down the hillside to begin conversations with the Americans.

The boy sped down the hill as his elder brother paced along the balcony of the hotel, worry and guilt spreading within, feelings that many would be forgiven for believing he could not posses. Cycling down he ran into an infantry division who, naturally, were surprised by the appearance of a young German man, talking in English and German about some inventors who were hold upon the hillside and were demanding an audience with Eisenhower. With a mixture of disbelief and hopes that the infantry division could snag some important Nazis, the boy was sent up the mountain once again to bring those who claimed were held up back down.

Sure enough, a little before 4 in the afternoon three staff cars wound their way down the hill and with a pass of safe passage they were escorted to Reutte and placed in a large alpine house. Fed and then held over night they all waited. When morning arrived they were fed once again and then led into the fresh air.

He stood, as their leader, a smile on his face but with an air of arrogance in a pinstriped suit and before the photographers gathered, with his blond hair, broad frame and blue eyes, as the pinnacle of the Nazi aryan. GIs wanted to pose with the great fish captured by the division and he let them. He was a trump card, a winning ticket, he was a man who had used slave labour to achieve his dreams, had no qualms of the pain and hurt suffered under his command, the tens if not hundreds of thousands of deaths, and who had lived the war in relative luxury. Now he was in custody, what was to happen to him, was he to be brought to trial followed by a walk to the gallows ending in a short drop? Was he to spend the rest of his life behind bars in penance for all those that died in his program? Or was he going to be Wernher von Braun, the Nazi who put man on the moon.

Wernher von Braun under arrest
Wernher von Braun the day after he and his brother, amongst other colleagues, uncluding Dr. Dornberger who stands in the background handed themselves in to American authorities.

A child dreams of the stars

Gœthe described an imaginary trip to the moon. It filled me with a romantic urge. Interplanetary travel! Here was a task worth dedicating one’s life to! Not just to stare at the moon and the planets but to soar through the heavens and actually explore the mysterious universe! I knew how Columbus had felt.

Wernher von Bruan was born in 1912, the son of Magnus Freiherr von Braun, a civil servant within the German Empire and his mother was the daughter, albeit orphaned, of a Junker, an estate owning family, the von Quistorps. Magnus said of his son that Wernher was a remarkable child. When he was four he could read a newspaper upside down and right side up.

At the age of ten the family moved from Wirsitz in the administrative district of Posen, todays Posnan in Poland but formerly within Prussia, to Berlin, to the heart of a metropolis after his father had lost his job due to the political turmoil and changing society that came about from the downfall of the Kaiser, the German revolution, the dictate of Versailles and the economic crisis that ensued.

However his father found a role within the ministry of the interior but it was short lived for in 1920 after declaring allegiance to the government installed by the Kapp Putsch that collapsed within 4 days of its declaration Magnus was fired. He was fined 600 RM, but kept his pension. Magnus however, due to his connections, was able to find a new job, that brought his family, who had been living in East Prussia, to Berlin. They rented a garden house behind the palace of a wealthy Silesian industrialist and settled into life on one of Berlin’s most elegant and prestigious streets, the Tiergartenstraße.

It was a sheltered life, but a sheltered life with a butler and the finer things, they knew not of the squalor that existed in Red Wedding or in the grim and decaying Neukölln.

The financial crisis didn’t dampen, however, Magnus’ prospects. With his roll in a land cooperative bank a Raiffeisen he enjoyed a prominent position and was careful with the families liquid funds. He became a founding member of the Rentenbank, and in 1924 moved up to the board of directors of the Reichsbank, and the family relocated to the In den Zelten 11 an address that had once been occupied by Clara Schumann, a pianist and composer, but today no longer exits.

Wernher and his brother were enrolled in the French Gymnasium of Berlin located on Reichstagufer, a not considerable distance from their home on In den Zelten, where the predominant language of learning was french.

From the age of seven he had shown an interest in engineering, in building, with working with his hands to craft and form objects of use. When in school, he, Wernher von Braun, and a classmate Beach Conger from America, formed the Germanoford Automobile Algemeinshaft, a mock company, but never-the-less it held a complicated coorporate structure and behind the von Braun home, from spare parts the two began to build their own automobile.

The young von Braun was rebellious and cheeky to say the least. At home, his interest in science was nurtured by his mother Emmy.

Wernher’s mother had a keen interest in science and displayed a deep understanding of science, scientist and Privy Councillor, Nikodem Caro said to Magnus Braun ˜I sweated blood at dinner today. Never has a woman put questions to me about my area of speciality, but also about atomic research, that showed such a profound command of the material.” Nikodem Caro co-developed the Frank-Caro process of fixing nitrogen from the air, and was the principal rival of Fritz Haber, a chief developer of the German arm of gas warfare.

Rebellious and cheeky, Emmy would find herself wanting to be at odds with her son, but she rarely could find it within herself to raise her voice to the young boy. Wernher, at an early age, had mastered the skill of using his smile and his manners to deflect from possible confrontation and punishment, and made use of his skill of talking rapidly of an interest to deflect.

When von Braun turned 12, his parents, Magnus and Emmy, chose not to present him with the customary, upper-middle class present of a gold pocket watch, but rather, on the behest of Emmy, to gift him a telescope, and here it would be that Wernher von Braun’s vision escaped the confines of the imagination of engineers around him, whose success were witnessed in the great examples of man’s pursuit of earthly technological advancements witnessed within Berlin, from the electrified U-bahn’s, luxurious automobiles, Zeppelin’s that had once flown overhead, but beyond, to the wonderful German wording, das All, or to space.

The Law

3 children sit together at the centre is Wernher von Braun
Wernher von Braun, centre, image credit NASA

von Braun’s constant need for understanding of technology was often interpreted as rebellious nature. In 1924 Max Valuer and Fritz von Opel had pushed for automobile speed records, not with conventional internal-combustion engines but rather with the use of rockets. von Braun inspired by this and not thinking of the consequences of his actions or how they might be viewed on by the vast majority of society who did not understand his processes of thought, attached rockets, in reality fireworks, to a toy car and lighting the fuse, let loose the toy car on a Berlin street. The explosion that occurred caused considerable dismay to the passing public, and the stiff eye of Prussian law enforcement did not take kindly to the trouble caused by the boy whose mind often did not think of the streets before him, but rather of the invisible roads that stretched in his mind to space. Nonetheless the Prussian police took Wernher into custody and Wernher’s father, Magnus, had to bail the boy out.

For the family, who perhaps also did not quite understand how far Wernher’s mind was reaching, it was one rebellious act to much. Wernher was withdrawn from the Gymnaisum, his bags were packed and he and his telescope were dispatched to boarding school.

For a boy gifted in a natural understanding of engineering he did not excel at either maths or physics. In 1925 von Braun heard of a treatise Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen (Rocket into Planetary Space) by Hermann Oberth which he managed to order. “When the precious volume arrived I carried it to my room. Opening it, I was aghast. It was full of mathematical formulas.” His teachers told him to understand it he would have to study hard at maths and physics, his two worst subjects. Knowing that his dreams lay within the formulas upon the pages and all he had to do was to decipher the mathematical equations as Jean-Francois Champollion did the Ancient Egyptian upon the Rosetta stone. He applied himself to his studies, working harder on his understanding of the fields that would allow him to pursue the burning ambition within, to reach space.

von Braun and his compulsive nature, led to issues within the boarding school, the rockets attached to the car on the Berlin street was not a one off incident, and the boarding school could do little to stop the headstrong boy from hasty and rushed experiments involving chemicals and naturally fireworks. A teacher remembered.

“I still remember very well that very first rocket, which blew up in the faces of Edwin May, Jochen Westphal, Ernst August Saalfeld, in the farmyard at Ettersburg, while the inventor, Wernher von Braun, was trying to get permission from myself, and I was trying to tell him that the experiment couldn’t go well, because without controlling the mixture ratio of acetylene and air, there was a constant danger of explosion.”

In deed there were explosions. When Wernher returned from boarding school for the holiday periods his experiments did not find rest. Rockets with clockwork internals were developed and soon windows found themselves broken and, unwittingly, Magnus became the first sponsor of the man whose rockets would not destroy the family greenhouse, but buildings and homes of the enemies of Nazi Germany.

Whilst in school however, Wernher von Braun displayed such a knowledge for detail in the understanding of space and the ability to use his manners, charm, smile along with his knowledge to present his dreams in a clear manner publicly and on paper. At the age of 15, in long hand, he wrote, neatly, a guide to space and space travel. With great detail diagrams of the travel of mercury, of telescopes and the ideas of movement within space were jotted by his own hand within a notebook. This and another notebook with drawings of rockets would be two of the few possessions he would carry with him after the war.

Slowly, within Germany, the public’s eye was drawn onto the field to which von Braun had dedicated so much of his life unto this point. On the 23rd of May 1928 Fritz Opel piloted another rocket powered car on the AVUS. The AVUS, or the Automobil-Verkehrs-und Übungsstraße, is Europes oldest motorway, where the new Weimar Republic and German efficiency picked up the mantel of the Ancient Roman road builders and built a perfectly straight motorway that lent itself well to the highspeed motor racing, and rocket tests of the day. With a loop at either end the track ran a total of 18 KM, or 11 miles. Opel reached over 200 kmph, in a car not dissimilar in looks at least from a formula one car of the 1950s, except with two large aerofoils protruding from the centre point of the body to force the car onto the ground in a form of aerodynamic wings that themselves would not be seen on a formula 1 car until Colin Chapman’s Lotus 49b in 1968. The technology within the Opel car however was crude at best, simple rockets put behind the car and it was more an advertising stunt that a real technological advancement, at least for rocket power.

The papers heralded Opel’s drive. The Berlin Tageblatt wrote “Jules Vernes dream of interplanetary travel is no longer a phantasy. The start has been made, today on the Avus.”

For the fifteen year old von Braun the Opel appeared before his eyes as a test bed, a way of proving the capabilities of rockets on the ground, and wishing to emulate it, he was able to find some large rockets himself. Converting an old children’s wooden car, he strapped the rockets to it and in his own words:

“In a sedate German thoroughfare called the Tiergarten Allee, I aimed the vehicle carefully down the pavement. The day was mild, and many strollers were taking the air. It never occured to me that they were not prepared to share the pedestrian way with my highly intellectual experiment.

I got behind the wooden car, put light to the fuses, and leapt aside as jets of flame thrust out from the rockets and the wooden car began to roll. Unattended, it picked up speed! It swerved this way and that, zigzagging through groups. I yelled a warning and men and women fled in all directions.

I was ecstatic. The wagon was wholly out of control and trailing a comet’s tail of fire.”

Unsurprisingly the attitude of the Prussian Police had not changed in the last four years and once again Wernher was found in their custody and once again bailed out by his father. His father was to lash out Wernher’s sentence for his recklessness. The young boy, wide eyed and still, despite his encounter with the Police, was handed a sentence of one days house arrest. It would be the only sentence he would receive in his life for all of his endeavours and experiments, no matter who was involved in them, willingly or by force, or where the products of his experiments might land, who they might maim or kill.

It was during this time that von Braun’s studies were moved from the boarding school near Weimar and to Spiekeroog, an East Frisian island off of the north sea coast of Germany. Here he learnt to sail but predominantly, enjoying the darkness of the night sky away from the bright lights of the metropolis he stared at the moon. Through his teach Dr. Andreesen he instigated the purchase by the school of a telescope with a 95mm objective lens, that, after a difficult winter, was installed in the spring of 1929 by students, who under his direction, laid the foundations and built the wooden hut that surrounded the expensive piece of equipment and protected it from the wild weather of the North Sea.

If, in 1925, von Braun was far behind in his studies of Maths and Physics, he was now, by 1929, far ahead of his class mates, so far that he need not attend class. Rather, he was allowed to spend the hours in the observatory studying Kepler and Newton, working out the trajectory that a rocket would need to break free from earth and begin its journey into Das All.

So advanced was he in school mathematics, when a teacher fell ill, he took over the work of the teacher in his education of the mathematics class of the year above his own. His leadership skills shone through. As a teacher he strived to educate those of his class in a timely manner. With dedication and an ability to charm those of the class into learning, the students respected their younger Kommilitone and the once struggling educationally wise von Braun became somewhat a prodigy.

Verein für Raumschiffahrt

a group of young scientists stand around looking at rockets
Wernher von Braun stands second on the right. Image credit: NASA

Since 1927 von Braun had been a member of the recently formed Verein für Raumschiffahrt, the Society for Space Travel. In 1929 he reached out to one of its founders Willy Ley on how he could pursue a career in rocketry. He was advised to pursue mechanical engineering at the Charlottenburg-Institute of Technology, today’s Technological University in Berlin.

Passing his Prussian Abitur, the leaving exam of the school system earlier than expected and without having to do many of the prerequisite von Braun returned to Berlin in spring 1930. He worked for six months prior to the beginning of his course, but as part of it in order to garner a higher grade later, at the Borsig locomotive and heavy machinery manufacturing plant. At the Borsig he toiled under the eyes of a master who wished him to form a perfect cube from a block of iron to prove his worth. Through his work, his hands bled and his back ached but he was relentlessly obsessed with the goal that was at the end of the pathway before him and it formed in his mind the idea of hands on, or dirty hands engineering.

During this time the VfR was searching for a new home. After some disastrous promotional events for Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Moon and explosions on testing rockets, the VfR was moving from Breslau in Silesia to Berlin. In March of 1930, shortly before von Braun’s return to Berlin, the army had secretly shown its first interest in a rocket program and funded the development of a rocket with 5,000 marks. However nothing was produced.

In April the VfR held lectures with von Braun was probably in attendance and in May von Braun met his idol Oberth in the Wertheim department store on Leipziger Platz as von Braun was helping to hand a rocket display.

von Braun would spend more time with the VfR and Oberth. Experiments would continue and grow and in July they tested a rocket engine. The steel cone shaped motor, nozzle pointing upwards would produce 7 kilos of thrust for just 90 seconds. Although small, the result was a huge triumph to the team.

By September, a colleague of the VfR, Nebel had managed to take over an old ammunition dump in Reinickendorf, on what is today fields near the Tegel Airport. As testing of rockets increased, one picture from the summer of 1930 shows a young von Braun, eyes closed carrying a rocket upon his shoulder, the sounds of the small rockets reverberated across the flat planes of Berlin and echoed in the buildings, it is reported, at the cross roads of Europe, Potsdamer Platz. The site was owned by the city, the bunkers upon it owned by the army who allowed von Braun and Nebel to use their buildings for a nominal fee. The two erected a sign, Raketenflugplatz, or Rocketport.

It was at this time that the economy was in tatters once again. The death of Stresseman the previous year followed by the Wall Street Crash had caused the German economy to fall when it was just about seeming that it was on the correct path. So through 1930 and into 1931 the VfR struggled to stay afloat. It was through their lofty idealism, cunning, Nebel’s bartering and von Braun’s charm that they were able to continue, they were even able to build a launch frame.

Despite this success over adversity Braun left Berlin for Zurich in April of 1931, hoping between Universities. It was at the Zurich University that an American Constantine Generales, who would call later Wernher von Braun his friend, witness von Braun pouring over equations written in a letter, a letter that bore the signature Albert Einstein.

The two, Generales and von Braun began using mice as experimental subjects, creating centrifuges from bicycle wheels to simulate the G force of take off in a rocket.

But Zurich was not to be his home, after just one more semester he withdrew. He and Generales planned a holiday to Greece in Generales’ Opel but after problems they opted for other forms of transport. Eventually they both returned to Berlin in time to witness a launch at Raketenflugplatz. The VfR, whilst von Braun was away, had managed to fly a liquid oxygen rocket, and continued to do so, albeit with varying success. They named these rocket engines Repulsors.

von Braun picked up where he had left off. He dived into the design and launches of the rockets and by the end of the year there had been over 270 engine tests and 87 successful launches of their rockets.

Then a real change was in the air for Werner von Braun.

A secret interest

A long black car drew up alongside the open expanse of the Raketenflugplatz. It was a clear spring day in April 1932 and all of the amateur rocketeers who had been pursuing their hobby in the hopes of space travel and idealistic dreams noticed it as it approached. They had gathered in preparation, once again, for a test of their rocket, which was not a secret affair. The land was open, dotted more by swamps than by trees. The group, von Braun, Nebel amongst others paused. Could it be that they had fallen foul of the authorities once again, like von Braun had done in his youth, or they had done recently when one of their rockets had accidentally landed, due to its complete lack of gyroscopic control, in a near by police yard, or had they fallen foul of the property owners, the city and the army. Quickly they realised who it was.

Three men emerged from the car whilst a driver sat still at the wheel. One, quicker to exit, was a round faced man, rapidly loosing his hair and doing his best to cling onto what he had left, he was recognised as Walter Dornberger. A second man followed, Ernst Ritter von Horstig was not as easy to recognise and then finally the slower of the three was a friendly faced man. His eyes had a degree of sympathy to them, almost as if he were a teacher but the manner in which he held his body spoke that this was not the case.

He, the kindly faced man, and the two other men strode across the ground just as the group of scientists were preparing to launch a rocket. He did not need to introduce himself, they knew who he was. Since the Treaty of Versailles banned much in the terms of the Army and Navy for the Weimar Republic it did not have any limitations on rockets and this man was Colonel Karl Becker, who since 1926 had headed the ballistic munitions department, he was effectively in charge of military rocketeering.

He strode across the ground. Nebel knew exactly who he was, he was the man who had provided, secretly the 5,000 Marks in funding a few years prior, but it wasn’t Nebel that Becker was to see. Nebel had worn the patience of the army thin in his promises to get the problematic rocket of Oberth off of the ground, but word had travelled to him of a promising prodigy by the name of Werner von Braun.

von Braun would later recall: “The Army was desperate to get back on its feet. We didn’t care much about that, one way or the other, but we needed money, and the Army seemed willing to help us.”

Becker had realised the capabilities of rockets from the test on the AVUS in 1928, he hoped that solid fuel rockets could be a cheap means of battlefield saturation. His own experience within the army came as an artillery commander in the Great War and rockets, he felt, were a natural progression of this technology. With his deputies, Dornberger and Ritter von Horstig they were pursuing the theoretical and practical uses of the rocket as a military weapon that might balance the playing field for Germany.

The group, led by Nebel, who was looked on with distrust, offered to demonstrate the rocket, Becker agreed, but on the condition it was not to be public. Rather, the rocket was to be fired in secret, at the secret army weapons office at Kummersdorf, 40 kilometres outside of Berlin’s city limits and away from prying eyes. Although the Treaty of Versailles did not limit rockets, there was no harm in keeping the potential new weapon secret from Germany’s former enemies.

Knowing Nebel, his promises, ego and propaganda, Becker set out a list of targets that had to be met for any rocket launch to be considered a success. The rocket must be able to fire a red flare when reaching the pinnacle of its trajectory and also be able to deploy a parachute to return to the ground safely. If these conditions were met, Nebel and his team would have their expenses covered, but only expenses. And there was one final condition, it was to be kept secret from the VfR’s board of directors. There was no promise of future funding, but Nebel, von Braun and the rest knew if they were able to perform a successful flight they might find themselves able to draw on the money of the army rather then scrounging at the doors of industrialists for spare parts and scraps.

Into the night they drove. The word from Becker to assemble on the Kummelsdorf test range had arrived in June 1932. Under the cover of darkness, Nebel, Riedel and von Braun had managed to attach the test rack from their Raketenflugplatz to the roof of a car and strap within it a 4 metre long rocket that was to be powered by liquid oxygen through a Repulsor engine, the liquid oxygen container being carried on top of another car that followed the first.

As a metropolis slept, apart from those still lingering within the nightclubs of the city, the comedic site of a car, with a 4m long box and tube trundled through the city streets. Down through the districts, past the Berlin Flughafen and out into the fields where Berlin suddenly stopped. Around Dahlewitz and toward Zossen they continued on their secret mission. Once reaching Zossen they turned south west heading for Kummersdorf.

Upon arrival at the Kummersdorf munitions office of the Reichswehr they were directed to drive a few more kilometres to a rise within the landscape, the Speerenberg.

Dawn broke on the morning of the 22nd of June 1932 over the Speerenberg and revealed to the rocket scientists the lengths to which the army was pursuing rocket development. Because of competition and different theories the rocket groups that existed had often not known what the others were precisely up to, but because of their interest for weapons, the army had approached all and understood where each group stood. This would explain, at least to three scientists who had travelled under cover of dark why a state of the art solid rocket fuel launch platform had been constructed on the site and why the site was covered with forms of technology for monitoring the rockets that they had not even heard of. War, or the threat of it, really does push technology to new limits in the aim of hurting one’s enemy quicker and with greater success than they can hurt you.

But for von Braun and the team disaster struck when, shortly after launch, the flame of the rocket burnt through a weld, which allowed the thrust to be pushed out to the side, forcing the trajectory of the assenting rocket towards the horizontal and forcing it to crash just 1.3 kilometers away, the parachute still in its casing and the height of 3.5 kilometers Nebel had promised far from reached. The army were less than pleased. Nebel was considered a fraud, but the young smiling Wernher von Braun had caught their attention. von Braun would find himself in the office of Becker not long after, and he would later call Becker “a first rate scientist in an officer’s Uniform.” For Becker the way forward for the rocket program of the Reichswehr was to bring the technology in house, there was too much separation in ideals with the fragmentation of the individual scientist groups, and Becker was wanting a systematic scientific approach. He was willing to sponsor von Braun, not Nebel, and not the Raketenflugplatz, but solely von Braun in the role behind the encompassing gates of the army, who, would be more than willing to buy von Braun the instruments to turn an amateur outfit into a professional pursuit. von Braun would later state:

Changing fortunes

“The moral aspect of building rockets for military purposes was never touched. The very thought of a possible war was too absurd in those days. There has been a lot of talk that the Raketenflugplatz finally sold out to the Nazis. In 1932, however, when the die was cast, the Nazis were not yet in power, and to all of us, Hitler was just another mountebank on the political stage. Our feelings toward the Army resembled those of the early aviation pioneers, who, in most countries, tried to milk the military purse for their own ends and who felt little moral scruples as to the possible future abuse of their brainchild. The issue in these discussions was merely how the gold cow could be milked most successfully.” Politics were in play, unknown to von Braun, Riedel was slipping the discoveries they were making to the Soviets.

Through some contacts, Becker had von Braun enrol at the Friedrich Wilhelm University where he was placed within the department of physics then placed in Kummersdorf on subsidised dissertation research.

Meanwhile, Hitler, the man who von Braun said was just another mountebank, was getting closer to power. von Braun’s father had been elevated to the Council of Ministers within the Papen government, a government meant to keep the old conservatives in power but quickly was finding itself isolated, but Wernher was finding the benefits of his father’s position. In September he was elevated to becoming a member of the board of directors of the VfR and living with his family at the palatial ministry of food and agriculture on Berlin’s Wilhelmstraße, 2 doors away from the President, Paul von Hindenbergs residence and 4 from the palace of the Chancellor.

By November 1932 Werner von Braun was contracted to the army and was growing more distant from the VfR. He was allowed 14 marks a day for the inconvenience of travel to Kummersdorf, food and accommodation if needed. His position was to conduct experiments on liquid fuel reaction motor tests on the base at Speerenberg.

But the munitions department of the Reichswehr when von Braun started in December 1932 was riddled with the hierarchy of German bureaucracy. Nothing was easy to come by and for a recently contracted recent graduate he was very lowly on the ladder, his only support was a mechanic that had been scouted from the Raketenflugplatz nicknamed Heini.

If the army was to be the way forward for von Brauns visions of space travel it was not off to a strong start. He complained that there was too much focus on solid fuel because it was easier to store than liquid fuel and his superiors seemed not to notice him. But he kept his head down and continued his work.

On the 21st of December, three weeks since he began, he held his first test. It was a resounding success, producing 140 kilos of thrust at its peak. However, the complex nature of handling liquid oxygen began, shortly after, the tests. Explosions, frozen pipes and fires persisted in his experiments, not only at Kummersdorf but through his career with the German army.

Less than 6 weeks after this test there was a major change, not just for the Braun family but for Germany as Magnus von Braun lost his job as a minister, meaning the family had to move once more, when a new coalition government came into being, the government of Adolf Hitler, heralded by a torch lit parade that passed by the palatial home the von Braun’s would have to vacate.

As Hitler’s regime began their reign of evil, their systematic destruction of people who opposed them, the communists, the socialists, and as they burnt books, von Braun remained indifferent. Had he left the earth mentally already, did he decide that the violence the Nazis created against his fellow citizens was acceptable as long as he was not on the receiving end, did he not care that the institutions were being purged of their brilliant minds because they had different political leanings or proclaimed their freedom to think differently to what the Nazis wished, or that Jewish educators and students were forced to leave?

For Becker, who certainly leaned to the right, Hitler and his thugs was an opportunity. Becker began circling around the Nazi ministers and Hitler himself emphasising the work that his division was doing and the possibilities that rocket development could offer to a new extremely nationalistic Germany.

von Braun willingly or subconsciously placed around him the blinkers of a race horse and drove his focus further into the rocket engine research. He developed a new engine, in late 1933, that had better welds that the rocket that decided to go horizontally rather than vertically in 1932, and the rocket it was developed for was the 1 meter tall A-1. It was also this time that Wernher von Braun became an applicant for the Schutzstaffel, or the SS, supposedly to make use of the SS riding school. Although he would drop out after completing the assessment period.

In early 1934 the 4 A-1 rockets that had been manufactured were ready to be tested. However, every single one of the rockets exploded. It was later discovered that the gyro spinning at 9,000 RPM was cracking the liquid oxygen tank causing the sensitive liquid to explode. In spring the A-1 was replaced with a redesign, the naturally and efficiently named A-2 which stood a third of a meter taller than the A-1 and had the gyro placed in the centre of the rocket. I will place Spike7a’s diagram of the Aggregat rockets on the website if you wish to see the changing scale of the rockets.

To help von Braun, the munitions department of Becker began stripping rocket companies like Heylandt of their staff and bringing them to orbit around the young hot shot rocket engineer of von Braun. One would be Walter Riedel an engineer and designer ten years von Braun’s superior but would be at the command of von Braun despite the fact that von Braun had only just finished his dissertation entitled “Design, Theoretical and Experimental Contributions to the Problem of the Liquid Fuel Rocket” which was renamed by the Army to induce boredom and therefore advert eyes to “Regarding Combustion Experiments” nevertheless von Braun received an “eximium” the highest grade possible.

From May til September 1934, as Hitler held his Knight of the Long Knives, the purging of the SA by the SS ridding opposition within his own ranks, von Braun continued with the development of the A-2 rocket. There was a stark reminder of the dangers however when another rocket engineer, Dr. Kurt Wahmke, and two students were killed when the propellant propagated backwards into the tank and exploded in July of 1934. But undeterred by all this Werner von Braun and his team pushed on. All the tests were static however, a flight test was not to be held until December.

The rocket division had been growing, with the procuring of scientists from companies, the expanding budget of the Army under the new regime that tore the Treaty of Versailles into shreds, the increasing amount of tests being held at the Speerenberg and the lack of space in the village of Kummersdorf, a decision was made. The two new flight ready A-2 rockets, Max and Moritz were not to be launched near Berlin, but farther away, on the East Frisian island of Borkum.


The rocket division had been growing, with the procuring of scientists from companies, the expanding budget of the Army under the new regime that tore the Treaty of Versailles into shreds, the increasing amount of tests being held at the Speerenberg and the lack of space in the village of Kummersdorf, a decision was made. The two new flight ready A-2 rockets, Max and Moritz were not to be launched near Berlin, but farther away, on the East Frisian island of Borkum.

On the 10th of December 1934, just over two years since his contract with the Army began, von Braund and his team departed from Kummersdorf for Borkum. High-tech measuring equipment was set up, wires strung across the island and residents told to stay in doors, the launch was planned for the 18th. However, the winds of the north sea are not easily calmed, and great gusts blew across the sand dunes. The launch was delayed a day, but the next day was little better. But the only thing that could stand in the way of the wind was hard headed Prussian punctuality. Despite winds of 15m/s it was ordered for the launch to take place at noon. Residents received the reiterated instruction of staying at home and indoors, a peak through a curtain might lead to a knock on the door by the Gestapo. Max was to be launched first. He was prepared with the liquid fuel and they waited for a change in pressure within the tank as the liquid oxygen boiled off and then they launched.

Max flew high 100, 200, 300 meters and still he soared, those of the Army who had gathered with the scientists looked on in awe as the 1.4 meter tall cylinder soared over the clouds and was recorded at reaching 1700 meters. The wind battered Max as he burnt off and began to fall back to earth eventually embedding in the sand 800 meters from the launch site. The atmosphere was intense with excitement. Even though Max had not even reached half the height of what Nebel had promised over two years prior for the first test at Speerenberg, Max had been followed by all below and all saw the launch as a great success. On this high Moritz was ordered to be launched shortly after day break the next day and a photographer was to be present to capture its flight, a flight that proved to be almost identical, the only thing that could fly higher now was von Braun’s ego:

“It was for me an uplifting and proud feeling! We had proof that we were on the right road. “Max” and “Moritz” were the first rockets at that time that flew over two kilometers high. What was much more important for me, however was this: the two were entirely my own work. I designed them myself, I drew every screw on the drafting table, I conceived the pressure regulator myself – in short, I had put them together from A to Z.”

Good Marks, Lots of Marks

ruined bunker amongst trees-min
Remains of ruined bunkers at Kummersdorf where Wernher von Braun first tested rockets for the German Army.

Since 1933 and the arrival of Hitler into power the National Socialist regime had been preparing for the future of war. World War One had seen the advent of the aeroplane as a tool of war, from initial reconnaissance vehicle to becoming fighter planes with the development of the synchronisation gear to allow planes to fire through the movement of the propeller, but the treaty of Versailles had banned Germany completely from having an airforce. Hobby airfields were set up as a loose means of training future pilots and glider schools became popular and Lufthansa was founded, but no fighting airforce was allowed. But this did little to stop secret plans. The Truppenamt, the German General Staff based near Moscow after the 1922 treaty of Rapallo was overseeing a Junkers factory that was producing aircraft and also received Dutch Fokker planes for its fighter pilot school. However the scale was still, in terms of an airforce, minuscule in comparison to the expanding airforces of its former enemies. With the arrival of Hitler, and the Prussian Prime Minister, recipient of the Pour Le Merit and famous fighter pilot Hermann Göring, the reestablisment of a German airforce was seen as a necessity. In April 1933 the Luftwaffe was founded as the Reich Aviation Ministry, a structure was planned to occupy a monumental stretch of Wilhelmstraße in Berlin. The building was to have over 2000 office rooms, 53,000 m2 of usable space and was designed by Ernst Sagebiel who later would design the terminal for Tempelhof. The foundation stone was laid in 1935 as the offices of the Reichsluftfahrtministerium meaning aviation ministry were rearranged and revealed for their true purposes as they became known as the Oberkommando der Luftwaffe, or Air Force High Command.

For Becker and von Braun the reorganisation of the aviation department of the Reich into the Air Force meant the tiptoeing around that had to be done before as Hitler tested the resolve of Britain and France to launch a threat other than the use of rhetoric was over. The British and the French, resolved not to have to go to war had proven that their only weapon against German rearmament were weary words. Hitler, Göring, and the High Commands now knew that there was little Britain and France would be able to do to stop the full re-establishment of the German Military arm from the Kriegsmarine to the Luftwaffe and into the new fields that the scientists of the Reich were pushing, and this meant that the bank account of Germany was open for withdrawals.

In January of 1935 von Braun put forward his vision. Those of Kummersdorf were already thinking of the uses of missiles based of off Max and Moritz in the field but von Braun warned against this and adopted an approach that looked to the surprise nature and shocking scale of continuing on a course of development, an ideology that was, in effect, the beginnings of the Wunderwaffen, the wonder weapons that Hitler clinged on so dearly, and Goebbels promised the people all the way almost until the Red Flag was hanging on the Reichstag. von Braun envisioned a rocket that could produce a surprise effect. A rocket that would not target 50 kilometres from the front line but rather strike, with the use of gyro, at the heart of Germany’s enemies. A rocket with a 1500 Kilogram payload and fly at least 400 kilometres. Had von Braun lost the idealistic dream of space flight to be replaced with the development of rockets to destroy the buildings of enemy cities, or did he see the development of the rocket as a weapon as a stepping stone to financing his dreams but with Max and Moritz proving a success the next step was logically the A-3. von Braun’s ideas of development quickly caught the attention of the new head of development of the Luftwaffe, a Major Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen, a cousin of the famous Red Baron, and a man who would become famous an air raid on the Spanish civilian population during the Spanish Civil War in Guernica. Richtofen was of the belief that the with the development of bombers fast and more rapid interceptors would be required and thus took a keen interest in the rocket program in Kummersdorf.

Major Ritter von Horstig must have spoken well of the test to the high command as soon a cheque arrived at the office of Becker at Kummersdorf. With the cheque in hand the 5,000 Mark discreet loan to the Raketenflugplatz must have seemed eons ago as now, Becker held 500,000 Marks in his grasp, and it was all to be put toward von Brauns program.

The money was quickly spent, in Nazi Germany this was the best means, one could always ask for more, but if you let the money sit it presented itself to eager eyes and would soon dwindle away inexplicably. A locomotive was ordered to transport equipment, new rocket test beds were designed and commissioned, huts were erected as office spaces and von Braun was made a full time employee. With more office space, more furniture was ordered, more tables and more chairs, and slowly more arses to polish the wood. Under von Braun and Becker the rocket department grew in numbers and von Braun built a core team. Walter Riedel was to design and test and a new acquisition of Arthur Rudolph a savy engine developer was brought in, pending his resignation from the SA.

Together they worked on the new A-3 that would host an engine capable of outputting 1500 kilos of thrust. To the superiors the development of a rocket engine was paramount as the engine could be, according to von Braun when presenting to the superiors, used both to power a missile as it could a rocket powered interceptor plane, an argument that meant even more funds would be channelled into his one project.

There were meetings with the Junkers company, and then with Heinkel. Ernst Heinkel, the companies owner and namesake, traveled to Kummersdorf to witness the firing of the rocket engines, and von Braun shared his vision of inserting a rocket engine into the piston powered He-112, a design from 1933 that had lost out on a contract with the Reichsluftfahrtimisterium to the infamous Messerschmitt Bf 109.

von Braun had already put an order in for a test bed for rocket propelled aircraft. A small Junkers Junior biplane which was to have one of the motors from an A-2 rocket installed which would arrive in Kummersdorf later in the year, but only began testing in 1936, when von Braun at Kummersdorf would run a duel testing bed of the Junker Junior and a converted He-112.

However in late 1935, around Novemeber, the greatest change would take place in the fortunes of von Braun and his program. He was called to the Reichsluftfahrtministerium building where he, after a short presentation, was presented with a check, for 5,000,000 marks, 26 million euros, but on his return to Kummersdorf, check in hand, Becker was furious. The money given to von Braun made it feel as if the new upstart Luftwaffe was trying to steal his program from him, so he managed to raise, from the Army koffers, 6,000,000 marks.

With money in hand it was time to look at expanding the rocket program. Kummersdorf that lay south of Berlin, although it was small and rural, was not ideal for a program that had its vision on one day flying rockets hundreds of kilometres, especially considering the law dictated that they had to be, when flying such distances launched from the coast, so it was that the rocket program had to move and it was the idea of von Braun’s brilliant mother that he should look at the site to which his grandfather used to go duck hunting, on a spit of lang on the Baltic sea by the name of Peenemünde.

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