The Nazi and the Moon

Dora

The horrors and crimes committed all so that Wernher von Braun could see his dream fly.

The March

The Allies were closing in. News was coming from Berlin that the Soviets were beginning to surround the capital, but here, in the mountainous heart of Germany it was the Americans, the British and their allies that were rapidly advancing. The leadership, the SS guards, were growing twitchy. There was much movement within their ranks. For these people the guarding of emaciated, broken, crippled and diseased ghosts of once proud people was a luxury. A placement that brought little fear of death, at least for themselves. In reality their job was to be death. To wipe away life not with the gentle passage of time and deliverance of Thanatos to the river Styx but of the Keres the blood suckling spirits of violent and untimely death. They drank and sung in good spirits as through night and day those incarcerated wearing the colours of their crimes toiled to build the vengeance weapons for a war that could not be won, as those on high delayed until the country was burnt and Germany destroyed.

Now their haven away from the near certain death of the Eastern front had the potential to believer death unto themselves. Not through bullet or mortar but through the horrors of what they had done in stealing dignity and life from those within. They needed to hide.

One idea that sprung to mind was to escort all of the prisoners from the camp into the tunnels in which they had worked for the last eighteen months, destroy the entrance ways and through gas canisters within. But, it was quickly realised, too much gas would be required and the tunnels were not weather tight and the plan would fail technically.

So it was on the night of the 3rd of April 1945 that the night shift was told to lay down its tools. For the first time since production of the vengeance weapons within these tunnels did the sounds of machinery no longer echo deep within. For the first time there was no shift change. Those who fell that day were not to be withdrawn, those still hanging from the rafters were to be left.

Gathered outside as morning broke on the 4th all prisoners, day and night shift were gathered. Spring was making an appearance, and snow only rested on the top of the tallest mountains as the mercury within the thermometers read 8 degrees. From one of the buildings someone exited with a stack of clothes within their hands and began to hand them out to some of the prisoners. At the gate the SS guards were stacking wooden crates. Forward the order was cried by SS Untersturmführer Erhard Brauny. The prisoners were to march from the gates. Their clothes were a shabby collection of the blue and white overalls all prisoners within the concentration camp system of the white were obliged to wear, but some still held onto the blazers and jackets with which they had arrived, from which threads had started to tear. As this shabby collection of men marched through from the crates laid out by the gate the Kapos handed the prisoners each a 850gram tin of meat and a loaf of bread.

In columns they marched. Fragmented into groups under the command of a group of officers whose badges worn up on their head spoke that their purpose was only to be the bringers of death, they marched. Through valleys whose rivers had swollen with the melt of winters snow. Through small towns whose buildings had been largely destroyed by the aerial war, and through villages that showed almost no sign that war had been playing out for six years, under the stares of the residents who saw with blind eyes the horrors their regime had inflicted upon their fellow man, they continued for day and into night as they marched north. If one fell he was shot. There was to be no stragglers, and no left behinds with still a breath possible within their bodies.

Finally the forty or so kilometres had been marched. With little remaining energy the prisoners had had depleted, they were forced into cattle carts that sat waiting at stations. For some this was in Osterode, for others Wernigerode. The trains, loaded with human life, moved slowly forward. Under steam they advanced with little speed. Slowly creeping away from the Western front of war. Inside, no straw covered the floor, there was no bucket for use as a toilet, and many were suffering from diarrhea. Soon the floor was covered in excrement. Upon leaving the camp the prisoners had little idea that the food handed to them was to last them for many days. And soon starvation set in, especially amongst those who, upon having, what was to them a large ration of food, handed to them had wolfed it down and looked upon with envy at those who had rationed the measly supply. Occasionally loafs of bread would be thrown through the barbed wire that covered the small rectangular openings towards the roof of the cart, but what was thrown in soon was fought over.

For days the trains would start and stop. Within the carts life was hellish. But outside, away from the view of the human life in devastation the local NSDAP leadership was debating what to do. Gerhard Thiele knew that the 4,000 former prisoners that had left the camp were soon to be entering his district and was determined a solution should be found before the arrival of the Allies.

Many had fallen to the ground, slumped within the carts where there was no room to lie down, but these would not rise again and nor would the trains move forward. The intense aerial bombing had destroyed much of the rail infrastructure and the trains could go no further. The doors were flung open by the SS guards and the prisoners ordered out.

Some were loaded onto carts, those that could no longer walk, the carts were then dragged by other prisoners. Hungry and exhausted a group of Russian prisoners saw, at the side of a field, a pile of turnips, their eyes wide they dove onto the fresh food which might give them strength, but the SS guards open fired. The column continued to march.

More and more prisoners that fell out of line were being gunned down by the SS troops. Over a hundred in one village, Estedt, alone. Those who were able to sum up the energy and had the courage to do so were also able to escape into the woods whilst the SS guards were preoccupied.

By the 13th of April over 1,000 prisoners had been gathered near the town of Gardelegen in an old cavalry stables. But if they thought that rest from the march had arrived they were wrong. Once again they were forced to march. They were marched through the fields and farmland of the local estates. At 7 as the sun began to descend behind the horizon they arrived at another barn.

It was a field barn whose sides had been bricked up. Built high for the storage of straw or hay and capped with a solid roof, but judging by the smell it had been used by the Wehrmacht to store fuel, rather than straw, although straw did still litter the floor. Inside, the over 1,000 prisoners were pushed.

Suddenly under the orders of Unterstürmführer Brauny three of the four rolling doors were slammed closed. The fourth remained open, but under the watch of SS men, Luftwaffe soldiers, parachutists, Volkssturm and others. Brauny stepped forward a kneeling down he fiddled at the entrance way. Quickly those at the front of the group of prisoners realised that it was a small flame within his hand and he was setting fire to the straw. The straw that had been soaked with gasoline by the Kapos. The straw caught ablaze.

Inside chaos broke out. Screams of curses and fear filled the air as smoke filled the space and the flames spread rapidly. Some realising that the situation could be controlled shouted orders to use their clothes to stamp out the flames. The SS watched on through the opening. They watched the desperation of the prisoners and with an order from Brauny they lowered their guns and began to fire. When a break in the firing to reload took place some guards pulled their grenades from their belts and threw them into the barn. Those who fell injured were burnt up by the flames. Voices begged to be shot to end the misery.

As the bullets continued to be unleashed into the barn after the sun had set, some prisoners, cowering in the dark recesses of the barn dug at the floor with spoons and shifted the earth enough to allow for an emaciated body to squeeze through and escape into the night. Twenty or so managed to do so.

The next day the barn still echoed with the moans of the dying. Some had managed to survive the night by hiding under the bodies of those already dead. Then arrived Gerhard Thiele. Upon surveying the site he order for traces of the massacre to be removed, for more gasoline to be poured within the building and for another inferno to be unleashed. A pit was dug for the bodies of those already dead, only 90 centimetres deep but 55 metres long, but as dead bodies were brought out, prisoners were found still alive.

Through the morning they worked to remove the traces. But how could they. It is not easy to erase the site of a massacre of 1016 people. By early afternoon word arrived the Americans were near. The SS workers laid down their tools and fled, leaving the smouldering barn as a beacon for the troops of the 102nd Infantry Division to take the town of Gardelegen and discover the site of the massacre. The massacre of 1,016 in horrendous circumstances of the people who had been forced to make Wernher von Braun’s rockets.

The massacre at Gardelegen
The site of Erhard Brauny's massacre of the Dora workers shortly after the American's arrival.

Ball Bearings

Allied air raids over German industrial centres were not uncommon. Since the defeat of the Luftwaffe in the so called ‘Battle of Britain’ the British had been able to increase their indiscriminate bombing over Germany. However, the British predominantly focused up on the bombing of civilians and it was with the American’s entry into the war that the bombing raids over Germany truly began to focus on the destruction of the means of war rather than the people.

As Minister of Armaments Speer was well aware and informed of the how much effect the bombings over Germany were having on production, especially on one of the more crucial aspects of all, the production of Ball bearings, he later would remember:

“We barely escaped a [further] catastrophic blow on August 17th 1943, only two weeks after the Hamburg bombings. The American air force launched its first strategic raid. It was directed against Schweinfurt where large factories of the ball-bearing industry were concentrated. Ball bearings had in any case already become a bottleneck in our efforts to increase armaments production.

But in this very first attack the other side committed a crucial mistake. Instead of concentrating on the ball bearing plants, the sizeable force of three hundred and seventy-six Flying Fortresses divided up. One hundred and forty-six of the planes successfully attacked an airplane assembly plant in Regensburg, but with only minor consequences. Meanwhile, the British air force continued its indiscriminate attacks upon our cities.

After this attack the production of ball bearings dropped by 38 percent. Despite the peril of Schweinfurt we had to patch up our facilities there, for to attempt to relocate our ball-bearing industry would have held up production entirely for three or four months. In the light of our desperate needs we could also do nothing about the ball bearing factories in Berlin-Erkner, Cannstatt, or Steyr, although the enemy must habe been aware of their location.

In June, 1946, the General Staff of the Royal Air Force asked me what would-have been the results of concentrated attacks on the ball bearing industry I replied:

Armaments production would have been crucially weakened after two months and after four months would have been brought completely to a standstill.

This, to be sure, would have meant;

One: All our ball-bearing factories (in Schweinfurt, Steyr, Erkner, Cannstatt, and in France and Italy) had been attacked simultaneously.
Two: These attacks had been repeated three or four times, every two weeks, not matter what the pictures of the target area showed.
Three: Any attempt at rebuilding these factories had been thwarted by further attacks, spaced at two month intervals.

After this first blow we were forced back on the ball bearing stocks stored by the armed forces for use as repair parts. We soon consumed these, as well as whatever had been accumulated in the factories for current production. After these reserves were used up – they lasted for six to eight weeks- the sparse production was carried daily from the factories to the assembly plants, often in knapsacks. In those days we anxiously asked ourselves how soon the enemy would realise that he could paralyse the production of thousands of armaments plants merely by destroying five or six relatively small targets.

Deception and Reality

American bombing of Schweinfurt
Boeing B-17F formation over Schweinfurt, Germany, on Aug. 17, 1943. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The second serious blow, however, did not come until two months later. On October 14, 1943, I was at the East Prussian headquarters discussing armaments questions with Hitler when Adjutant Schaub interrupted us: “The Third Reich Marshal urgently wishes to speak to you,” he said to Hitler. “This time he has pleasant news.”

Hitler came back from the telephone in good spirits. A new daylight raid on Schweinfurt had ended with a great victory for our defences he said. The countryside was strewn with downed American bombers. Uneasy, I asked for a short recess in our conference, since I wanted to telephone Schweinfurt myself. But all communications were shattered; I could not reach any of the factories. Finally, by enlisting the police, I managed to talk to the foreman of a ball bearing factory. All the factories had been hard-hit, he informed me. The oils baths for the bearings had caused serious fires in the machinery workshops; the damage was far worse than after the first attack. This time we had lost 67 percent of our ball-bearing production.

My first measure after this second air raid was to appoint my most vigorous associate. General Manager Kessler, as special commissioner for ball-bearing production. Our reserves had been consumed; efforts to import ball bearings from Sweden and Switzerland had met with only slight success. Nevertheless, we were able to avoid total disaster by substituting slide bearings for ball bearings wherever possible. But what really saved us was the fact that from this time on the enemy to our astonishment once again ceased his attacks on the ball-bearing industry.” (Speer: 390/391)

For Peenemünde, although von Braun and his associates efforts to dive into the flames and salvage what they could had lead to much of the essential paper work being saved, much was lost in the air raid of the night of the 17th of August 1943, the same night that Speer refers to as the night the RAF bombed Hamburg. As a highly specialised establishment, it was not like the ball-bearing production that was in Schweinfurt, Berlin-Eckner and Cannstatt. The one raid that was led by the British, whose planes had dropped their markers three kilometres south of the base, had proved successful even if only a few bombs had hit the area of the base.

The British had heard of Peenemünde and the strange events that were happening on the island of Usedom in the Baltic. Fishermen had reported strange sightings, of objects darting into the skies, and these Fishermen, the non German ones, had slowly circulated the stories. In June of 1943, two months before the air raid, this information, anonymously received by the British naval attache in Norway and named after said city, made its way to the British government. But rumours from the Polish underground, who had some members working on Usedom, had also spread to the British and it was also in June that a Mosquito had flown over the Peenemünde site taking aerial reconnaissance photographs, which, when developed, showed the worrying information that Germany was working on something futuristic and potentially dangerous. Hence the decision to launch the aerial attack on the facility.

The area that had been most damaged was the area which had caused many of the problems and been the principal doubt of Hitler in the program, the guidance systems. The raid had delayed the production of guidance systems and electrical equipment. When launching resumed, with tests from a base in Poland, farther away from the Western Allies air superiority, and at Peenemünde thirty nine A-4s had been launched. Eleven of these had failed due to problems with the propulsion systems, fourteen failed due to guidance problems, and of the eight launched in Poland just one had worked. Where the Allies had failed to repeatedly to stop the German production of war equipment due to lack of concentrated bombing, the erratic nature of their targets had lead to setting back the rocket program significantly.

It was at this time that the camp of Mittlebau-Dora, Mittlebau as the factory name, and Dora the camp name, was increasing the numbers enslaved within its bare rock tunnels to produce von Brauns rockets. From a few hundred in September by the end of the year as rocket after rocket proved unsuccessful, over 12,000 people were living in squaller so that von Braun could pursue his dreams and all were living under the careful eye and brutal fist of the SS.

Decorations

SS Officer Hans Kammler

With the visits earlier in the year that Heinrich Himmler to Peenemünde had made, the interest the Reichsführer SS had in the developing A-4 rocket program had grown. It was a decision that was made in part on the 20th of August when Hitler ordered Minister of Armaments Speer to the headquarters of Himmler.

“The result was that we had to work out guidelines for a joint undertaking with the SS leadership – what was to be called the Central Works (Mittelwerk). My assistants went into it reluctantly, and their fears were soon confirmed. Formally speaking, we remained in charge of the manufacturing; but in case of doubt we had to yield to to the superior power of the SS leadership. Thus, Himmler had put a foot in our door, and we ourselves had helped him do it.

Himmler had conferred an honorary rank in the SS upon almost every government minister whose personal or political weight he had to reckon with. He had reserved a particularly high distinction for me; he wanted to make me an SS Obersgruppenführer, a rank corresponding to that of a full general in the army and one very rarely conferred. But although he let me know how unusual the honour was, I refused his offer with polite phrases.

“[…] By confirming such ranks Himmler of course meant to gain influence and thrust his way into areas not yet under his command. My suspicions proved only too justified: Himmler promptly made every effort to push his way into the field of armaments production. He readily offered countless prisoners and as early as 1942 began placing pressure on a number of my assistants. As far as we could make out, he wanted to turn the concentration camps into large modern factories, especially for armaments, with the SS continuing to have direct control of them.”

At the meeting on the 20th of August 1943, Himmler broke the news to Speer that he was now the Minister of the Interior, and as a member of the government, which he had not been until this point, he was now Speers equal within that sphere, and this gave him greater control over the A-4 rocket program. He told Speer, “I require a first-class staff of your engineers, who will have to be responsible to both of us for the strict execution of the Führers orders. On my side, I have assigned Kammler, one of my most capable SS commanders.”

Kammler, was Hans Kammler. Born on the 26th of August 1901 in Stettin. He was a member of the NSDAP before Hitler came to power, joining as the tide of support for the future dictator swelled with the economic crisis and political crisis of the Weimar republic at the end of the 1920s that flowed over into the 1930s. As a civil engineer he was employed in the department of building within the Aviation Ministry in 1933 the same year he became a member of the SS.

Within the SS Kammer was very quickly put to work rising through the ranks. Like Dr. Hans Globke was in his relentless legal persecution of the Jews, pragmatic and level headed, seeing not the destruction of humanity but rather the completion of a goal, i.e. the destruction of the Jewish people, Dr Kammler was also just as practical. Rudolph Höss, Camp commandant of Auschwitz, “the largest slaughter house in human history,” as described in his own words wrote in his memoirs:

“My […] meeting with Himmler was in the summer of 1942 when he visited Auschwitz for the second and final time. The inspection lasted for two days and Himmler examined everything in great detail. There were present, among others, Gauleiter Bracht, Obergruppenführer Schmauser and Dr. Kammler.

After his arrival in the camp we went to the SS officers’ mess where I had to explain the layout of the camp with the aid of maps. Then we went to the architects’ office where Kammler produced designs and models with which to explain the constructional work which had been proposed or which was already.”

Kammler was very much trusted by Himmler to be his solver of problems. Himmler, like Hitler, did not understand production, they saw numbers as success and always failed to take into account problems of material supply, production techniques, workers health. With workers if a factory had 3,000 workers, to the mind of Himmler and Hitler, it had 3,000 able bodied workers, not emaciated, starving, crippled workers due to the situation in which the German government and SS had put them. This was similar with Hitler and the Eastern Front, especially Stalingrad, and not taking into account the exhaustion the soldiers of the Wehrmacht was suffering from, least of all the lack of supplies from food to ammunition.

When on Himmler’s 1942 visit to Auschwitz, Höss took Himmler amongst the camps facilities including a synthetic rubber camp, but after this Himmler was taken to the Sewer gas facility.

“It was one of the worst spots in Auschwitz, and it affected everyone. The drainage water from the base camp was discharged, without any purification worth mentioning, directly into the Sola. The population was constantly exposed to the danger of infection, because of the disease which were always rampant in the camp. The Gauleiter described the position with great clarity, and asked in unmistakable terms for assistance. Kammler will apply all his energies to the problem,’ was Himmlers reply.”

At the end of his visit Himmler turned to Höss and said:

“You must see to it that swift progress is made with the building of Birkenau. The gypsies are to be destroyed. The Jews who are unfit for work are to be destroyed with the same ruthlessness. Soon the labour camps at the armaments factories will absorb the first large contingents of able-bodied Jews, and that will give you some breathing space. Armaments factories will be built (in Auschwitz). Kammler will give you far-reaching support in matters connected with their construction.”

Kammler was to Himmler, now as Minister of the Interior as well as the Reichsführer SS, his right hand man. The man who would get things done that needed doing and urgently, hence his placement at Mittelbau-Dora.

Limited Liability

Mittelbau-Dora was, when founded in the late summer of 1943, a sub camp of Buchenwald a camp which in its self was one of the earliest and the largest within Germany’s pre war boarders as a reaction to the meeting held by Himmler to which Speer was present. The new camp was 84 km north west of Buchenwald, it self situated near the historic town of Weimar, that once was home to Bach, Berlioz, Cranach, Dietrich, Goethe, Schiller and Zeiss, let alone the town that gave its name to the republic that Hitler had so hated. Set amongst the rolling hills of the Harz mountains Mittlebau-Dora would dive deep into the stone to find protection from the air in the mountain of the Kohnstein.

A company was set up. The Mittlewerk GmbH, a limited liability company. This was something that Herr Degenkolb had tried to do at Peenemünde previously, to try and wrestle the control of the rocket facility from the hands of the army and put it into the corrupt hands of individual opportunistic Nazis.

Dornberger had been invited to Berlin in February of 1943 for reasons unknown to him but soon after his arrival he found at why. He was placed in a room with Professor Hettlage from a department in charge of organisational problems of the German armaments industry, a Herr Mackels from the armaments industry in Stettin and finally Herr Kunze a representative of Degenkolb. Professor Hettlage had once been with the City Treasurer of Berlin and was now very powerful within the armaments industry.

“Herr Colonel,” began Hettlage, “I have invited you here to discyss the best way of transforming the Army establishment at Peenemünde into a private stock company.”

Dornberger was shocked. Degenkolb was trying to steal the program from the army and Degenkolb remember was instrumental in the suicide of Dornberger’s mentor Becker. Dornberger was quick to try and establish from whom the plan had come.

“May I ask, from whome the suggestion came?”
“The plan owes its origin to a proposal of Herr Degenkolb’s.”
Dornberger had suspected that something upon these lines would happen and he firmly and flatly refused the offer. But in September that same year Degenkolb won.

Speer, Himmler and Speer’s rival, naturally as having one person in charge of armaments would be too complicated, Karl Saur agreed to the foundation of Mittelwerk GmbH. On the board was Kammler, whom had proven so very successful at Auschwitz and was now head of the SS-Wirtschafts-Verwaltungsamt Amt C, or the SS economic administration office C, that of construction, Karl Maria Hettlage member of the SS who had been chosen by Speer to be involved in the Germania project that had been placed on hold due to the war and was now in the armaments ministry and had held the meeting with Dornberger in February, (later he would be State Secretary in the ministry of Finance of the Adenauer regime) and naturally Gerhard Degenkolb, based on his role with the Commezbank.

Naturally these were the board of directors, and the board of directors do not get dirty on the shop floor. Therefore the role of running the factory that was to be hidden within the Kohlstein was to be given to Albin Sawatzki.

Sawatzki was a March Violet. He was one of those who joined Hitler’s NSDAP after they had come to power, using membership to gain an advantageous position within the state. Sawatzki had been able to rise to the position of operations manager at Henschel and Sohn, a company with a rich tradition in the production of iron goods, including steam engines who would later come to manufacture, under Sawatzki the Tiger IV tank. Speer had already placed Sawatzki at Peenemünde in July 1943 before the air raid, but afterwards Sawatzki was put in charge of the labour and operations of the new Mittelwerk operation and his deputy from Peenemünde was to be Arthur Rudolph.

On the 6th of September 1943 Dornberger would meet the man now in charge of building Mittelbau and who had taken prestige in the contract that was awarded the new Mittelwerk GmbH company for 12,000 rockets, Kammler.

“I first met Dr. Kammler whilst on a duty trip to Berlin. He had the slim figure of a cavalryman, neither tall nor short. In his early forties, broad shouldered and narrow in the hips, with bronzed, clear-cut features, a high forehead under dark hair slightly streaked with gray and brushed straight back, Dr. Kammler had piercing and restless brown eyes, a lean, curved beak of a nose, and a strong mouth, the underlip thrust forward as though in defiance. That mouth indicated brutality, derision, disdain and overweening pride. The chin was well moulded and prominent.

One’s first impression was of a virile, handsome and captivating personality. He looked like some hero of the Renaissance, a condottiere of the period of the civil wars in northern Italy. The mobile features were full of expression. But the hands were thick and soul-less, almost coarse.

It was not long until I had a clear idea of the man’s character. […]He was simply incapable of listening. His one desire was to command. He made decisions without due consideration. He rarely conceded any point. It was quite out of the question to get him to change his mind.

Owing to the many tasks he undertook, he was on the go day and night and spread nothing but unrest, hurry and nervousness around him. His ambition, lust for power, mistrust and vengefulness were matched only by the morbid inferiority complex and his mind mosa like sensitivity. With all this, he was well aware of his limitations. Anyone who had the advantage of him in education, experience, knowledge, or ability was not suffered anywhere near him on equal terms. He surrounded himself with youthful followers who could be dazzled by his zest and tireless energy, and with weak creatures who applauded his caprices and his brutal jests, feared him, flattered his vanity and believed him to be the great coming man. He was far too shrewd, however, not to be able to see through such people. He played with their destinies like mischievous child with tin soldiers. He was cunningly deferential and amiable to his superiors; arrogant, brutal, overbearing, intolerably haughty to those below him. He had no moral inhibitions whatever in getting what he wanted.

At the time I was still only an interested spectator. I watched the man as one watches a rare and ferocious beast of prey in a cage. His powers were limited to the control of building needed for production under Degenkolb, and I did not suspect that he had seen in our undertaking the great opportunity of his life. He did not yet seem dangerous to me; I was soon to know better.”

With Kammler taking pride in the project and Sawatzki’s ruthless efficiency the tunnels were dug and expanded. However, Kammler was taking an interest elsewhere

Nutrition

Pohl Trial

Before the tunnels were completed, whilst the workers slept on the hard rock floor, malnourished, beaten by Sawatzki, exhausted and lost, Kammler decided to take leave of the Mittlewerk facility. He travelled, with his private driver, on the roads East, the roads that traversed near the Capital of a Reich that was stretched to its limits and further east.

Blizna, a tiny hamlet is lost amongst the forests of South West Poland. Where the only clearings within the dense trees are the long and thin patches of land for farming, the traces of Serfdom. Deep within the territory of the Reich, it was far from both the prying eyes of the RAF and of the Soviet air force that was yet to find its footing. But it was not the eyes of the foreign airforces that the members of the 444th Battery of the Artillery under Major Weber gathered worried over, rather it was the eyes of that renaissance figure of Kammler.

The facility belonged to the SS, therefore they could not request Kammler to leave as one of Himmler’s deputies. The army had to bare the presence and hope that the firings went according to plan, but alas they did not. They were the first two of the 8 rockets that would be launched unto the end of the year and they both failed miserably. Kammler watched closely, as the second of the two crashed just 2,5 kilometres from the launch site, he turned and left.

Under Kammler the work was rapidly advancing at Mittlewerk-Dora. Trainloads of prisoners arrived wearing the rainbow of colours upon their chests that denoted the crimes committed reason for their incarceration, reason for their being slave labour and, for many, walking into the tunnels that would mean their death.
Red: political. Black: A social type. Green: Common criminal. Blue: Stateless. Violet: Conscientious objectors. Pink: Homosexual. White: Deserters. Yellow: Jews.

In within the tunnels prisoners put their hands to the walls to catch the moisture that seeped through the rocks, their only source of hydration other than the dirty puddles that filled within the chisel and blast marks upon the floor. Holes in the floor that often gathered the human waste of the inmates. Time could not be wasted in the early phase of construction in the building of a camp for the inmates, if they died their body lay for days in the squalor as critters began to feast until eventually it was discarded with out a thought to the spirit it once belonged to. If a worker was caught slacking, if they were too tired to raise the tool that had been forced into their hand, Kammler had them strung from the supports of the tunnels, their lifeless corpses an encouragement to the others to not let a tool fall unless it was to break the rock around. But they fell.

According to the doctor of the camp Dr. Pohl at the Nuremberg trials the in-mates received just 50 grams of meat a week, 120 grams of fat, 330 grams of bread per day. Dr. Seidl, the prosecutor asked of Dr. Pohl how many calories were required per day, and he answered 2,400. Dr. Seidl then asked: “In other words, you would say that a human being who gets only 850 calories, or 1m550 calories is not in a position to live much longer?”

Dr. Pohl answered: “Not at all.”
The calorie count for a prisoner of Dora was roughly just 900. Dr. Seidl’s argument was Dora under the command of the SS was committing genocide by malnourishment. Pohl was hung on 7th June 1951 for his crimes.

Kammler’s brutality was shown in document NOKW-17 of the Nuremberg trials, taken from the transcript of a speech and discussion at an air force conference concerning aircraft and weapons production:

“As usual it is because the people have noticed that they are no longer treated severely enough. I had 30 people hanged as a special measure. Since they were hanged, everything has been to some extent in order again. It is the same old story; whenever people notice that they are not being treated so severely as before they take all sorts of liberties.”

Quarters for the living

Survivors of Nordhausen and Dora
Survivors of Nordhausen Dora

In December, as snow covered the peaks of the mountains of the Harz, as NSDAP Skiing clubs carved tracks down, Albert Speer made a visit with his staff to the tunnels. What they saw was a scene from Dante’s inferno, it bothered some of Speer’s staff greatly, those who had pushed papers and pencils not seeing beyond their work to the human cost.

“On December 10th 1943 I inspected the extensive underground installations where the V-2 was to be produced. In enormous halls prisoners were busy setting up machinery and shifting plumbing. Expressionlessly, the looked right through me, mechanically removing their prisoners’ caps of blue twill until our group had passed them.

“I cannot forget a professor of the Pasteur Institute in Paris (Dr. Balachowski?) who testified as a witness at the Nuremberg Trials. He too was in the Mittelwerk which I inspected that day. Objectively, without any dramatic, he explained the inhuman conditions in this inhuman factory. The memory is especially painful, the more so because he made his charge without hatred, sadly and brokenly and also astonished at so much human degeneracy.”

The condition for these prisoners were in fact barbarous, and a sense of profound involvement and personal guilt seizes me whenever I think of them. As I learned from the overseers after the inspection was over, the sanitary conditions were inadequate, disease rampant; the prisoners were quartered right there in the damp caves, and as a result the mortality among them was extraordinarily high. That same day I allocated the necessary materials and set all the machinery in motion to build a barracks camp immediately on an adjacent hill. In addition, I pressed the SS camp command to take all necessary measures to improve sanitary conditions and upgrade the food. They pledged that they would do so.”

But they didn’t, Pohl’s statements at his own trial would confirm this. The Pasteur to which Speer refers, but mis states was at the visit of himself on the 10th of December, was Dr. Alfred Balachowski, who was arrested by the Gestapo on the 2nd of July 1943 for being a part of the French resistance, on the 16th of January he arrived at Buchenwald, before being trasnferred to Dora on the 10th of February 1944, and back to Buchenwald on the 1st of May 1944 where he bore witness to the horrendous trials o in block 46 involving Typhus vaccines.

Shortly after his visit, Speer wrote to Kammler, whom with Degenkolb had guided him through the tunnels congratulating him profusely for the feet he had achieved in “transforming the undergraound installation in Nidersachsenwerfen (Mittelbau) from its raw condition two months ago into a factory, which has no equal in Europe and which is unsurpassed even when measured against American standards. I take this opportunity to express my appreciation for this really unique achievement and to ask you also in future to support Herr Degenkolb in this wonderful way.”

So wrote the Speer who was racked with guilt over the conditions he had seen.

The situation was for the prisoners was amongst the most horrid imaginable, and all to produce, amongst other things, Wernher von Braun’s A-4. von Braun himself in November had, after a discussion with Kammler Dornberger, Sawatzki amongst others on the 1st of November, stated in a proposal sent to Degenkolb on the 12th “you have now given permission that the Schlier and Mitte facilities be manned with prisoners. In view of the difficulty of the testing processes to be carried out there, the ratio of prisoners to German skilled workers for the foreseeable future cannot exceed 2:1.” Von Braun was now implicit in a crime against humanity.

By the end of the year, just 1 kilometre from the entrance B to the Mittlebau tunnels a camp in the relative fresh air, where death only partially hung within the nostrils, was constructed.

It was also by the end of the year, the Mittelwerk had promised the Armaments ministry that the first A-4 rockets would have been produced. Sawatzki had tasked Arthur Rudolph the brilliant engineer whom von Braun had brought into Peenemünde and who had then be sent to Mittelwerk as a representative, with overseeing their production under the threat of himself becoming an inmate if none were produced by the end of the year. Sure enough as the clock of a year almost past ticked down toward the new Arthur Rudolph stood in the snow watching as three A-4s were haphazardly transported from the tunnels and onto a camouflaged train transport. They need not have bothered. The A-4s were sent straight back to Mittelwerk due to the quality of their construction being of such poor quality that there was no chance of them working.

The rocket program that had based it self on careful calculations before, had, like many Nazi regime projects, been pushed by desire for speed and results. Nearly all of the rockets were failing. They were either blowing up on the test pads shortly after ignition, blowing up in mid air or breaking up on re-entry. Dornberger exasperated decided that it only could be problems within the manufacturing facility that had recently began to produce the rockets. von Braun was dispatched to investigate.

In the tunnels of Dora he bore witness to the squalid conditions, he saw the blasting of further tunnels and the enslavement for his program of 10,000 people. Yet, he did not see himself as part of it. He was a rocket scientist. He produced designs and drawings, gathered materials, the production of the rockets was out of his sphere, but nevertheless there he was walking amongst the incarcerated of a criminal regime, inspecting their work so that the rockets he wished to launch could fly.

However, in February as von Braun watched on another A-4 exploded at the test site in south west Poland. Despite the failures on launch, Mittelwerk had produced 56 A-4s in January and slowly the number would rise, on paper the camp was a success, and for this Kammler was promoted to SS Gruppenführer.

Loose Tongues

Ruins of Himmler's Bunker

Shortly after his visit to Mittelbau-Dora Wernher von Braun received a telephone call to his office, his secretary Mrs. Lewandowski answer. It was the office of the Reichsführer SS, Heinrich Himmler. von Braun was not on Peenemünde at the time that his office received the call, but he, and his brother Magnus were on their way. Flying in a small Stork aircraft. The Stock was produced by Fieseler, who amongst other things were responsible for the A-4 or V2s competition the V1, known more commonly as the Buzz Bomb or Duddlebug, the flying bombs that were produced alongside von Braun’s own rocket in Mittelbau-Dora. Upon landing the handsome and tall von Braun leapt from the Stork that he had been piloting and walked towards the administration building. Mrs. Lewandowski had seen the Stork approach and with a note in hand fro the phone call she had received she approached the rocket scientist.

An order from on one of the many plinths of the higherarchy of Nazi Germany could not be ignored as much as one may have wished to. von Braun stated he was surprised, but then again Himmler was his superior ever since he had joined the SS. He had little choice but to freshen up and return to his plane as soon as possible and fly the distance from Peenemünde to a town known then as Großgarten in the wilds of East Prussia.

The aerial route was similar to the one that he, von Braun and his superior Dornberger had flown previously, when they had flown to Rastenburg to make a presentation to Hitler. Himmler ever maintaining the appearance to the Führer of a faithful lacky, whilst simultaneously building up through his SS and RSHA organisations under his command a state within a state that he was in charge of, hence the title Reichsführer SS. Therefore, in 1941, Himmler had the SS begin construction of a headquarters for himself, just 20 kilometres away from Hitler’s own.

A large concrete bunker had initially been constructed, followed shortly thereafter by a number of well camouflaged amongst the trees wooden cabins to hold the administrative staff, guards, security, and for meetings on the days when it felt safe to do so.

Upon von Braun’s arrival he was directly escorted to see the Reichsführer SS who he later noted was sat behind a simple wooden desk. The man who held so much power, who had been a simple chicken farmer but now commanded a military arm of a nation as well as the power to take life away at a moments notice, was sat in a forest almost as isolated as one could be, if it were not for the 48 members of staff around, greeting the rocket scientist as a friend. von Braun for his memoirs later would draft in 1950 (Neufeld: 168)

“I must confess that I felt a bit jittery when I was shown into his office, but he greeted me politely and conveyed rather the impression of a country grammar school teacher than that horrible man who was said to wade knee-deep in blood.

“I trust you realise that your A-4 rocket has ceased to be an engineer’s toy,” he spoke up “and that the German people are eagerly waiting for it. I can well imagine what a pitiful position you are in: a poor inventor enmeshed by the Army bureaucracy! Why don’t you come to us? You know that the Führer’s door is open to me at any time, don’t you? I shall be in a much better position to help you lick the remaining difficulties that that clumsy Army machine!”

I replied cooly that in General Dornberger I had the best chief I could wish to have, and that it was technical trouble and not red tape that was holding things up. I ventured to compare the A-4 with a little flower that needs sunshine, fertile soil and some gardener’s tending – and said that by pouring a big jet of liquid manure on that little flower, in order to have it grow faster, he might kill it.”

Himmler looked at the rocket scientist before him, for a moment von Braun’s answer might have been his end, but Himmler smiled and laughed. von Braun had stood up to the Reichsführer SS and lived, but surely at some point by shaking the hands of someone so evil, being merely in their presence, knowing the power that they had, the destruction that they caused, the lives they extinguished, surely one would have to look at one’s self and ask, am I not evil too?

von Braun, dealing with evil and rejecting its advancements, would soon lead to the devil knocking on his door.

Achtung! History is produced by The Berlin Tour Guide, and presented by Simon J. James, follow Achtung! History on twitter, facebook and instagram visit the website theberlintourguide.com, book a tour with Simon in Berlin and become a patreon at patreon.com/achtunghistory

 

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