The Nazi and the Moon

Fellow Traveller


It was in the harsh month of January that Wernher von Braun took his mother’s advice to look into the area of Peenemünde on Germany’s Baltic coast. January for much of Germany meant that snow lay upon the ground, but January on the baltic was hostile. An unbroken sheet lay across the surface of the sea except for the shore. Jagged boulders of ice broken by the movements of the waves and pushed onto the formerly sandy beach now snowy and white created a dragons teeth barrier between man and the body of water that provided much of the sustenance for the local communities that dotted the landscape. Frigid winds froze the extremities not covered. Never could a landscape look more bleak and desolate and for Wernher von Braun it was love at first sight.

With the only form of life other than himself and his driver the occasional sighting of a non-migratory bird he felt as if he could have been as far from civilisation as the stars. But the bleak landscape and harsh conditions of the North German winter only covered the reality that it was not so secret. German had no land which was entirely desolate. It had not the scorching desolation of America’s Death Valley nor did it have the skeletal wilds of the USSR’s Siberia, or the overseas Empire of Britain where surely there was a location such as Australia that the entirety of Germany could have disappeared into. For von Braun Peenemünde was perfect, but it did lay over the water from Freest and Kröslin two very small towns but the Gestapo could see that secrecy was maintained. To von Braun’s eyes and memory it was like the days as a youth when on Spiekeroog he directed the other Children of his school to erect a building to house the telescope he had persuaded the school to purchase. It was a wild sense of freedom and without the centralised location of Kummersdorf where the big wigs with the epaulettes dangling with gold, or chest laid heavy with cheap metals made to look expensive peering over his shoulder or dictating his work, for what did they know better than the scientific child prodigy, the Mozart of Rockets.

Rocket station Peenemünde V2
Peenemünde from the air


In March 1936, shortly after having looked at Peenemünde as a potential new location General von Fritsch, head of the Army paid a visit to Kummersdorf.

In the year’s preceding, since the National Socialist government had come to power, the rocketeers had struggled with the German bureaucracy of budgeting. The powers that be wished for every penny that was given to the rocketeers to be spent on the rockets, not on any other equipment. It was systematic of the Nazi ideology all or nothing that came from Hitler, Göring and others of wanting only results without understanding developments. Walter Dornberger who was Wernher von Braun’s direct superior as head of the rocket program remembered:

“We were not permitted to order either machine tools or office equipment. Only test facilities and apparatus pertaining thereto could be bought. However, we were young and inventive in more ways than one. We soon found means of defeating bureaucratic red tape. We learned in a hard school how to get everything we wanted. We acquired things “as per sample.” For instance, even the keenest Budget Bureau official could not suspect that “Appliance for milling wooden dowels up to 10 millimetres in diameter, as per sample” meant pencil sharpener, or that “Instrument for recording test data with rotating roller as per sample” meant a typewriter.”

However, with von Fritsch’s visit things would change. The Rocketeers already had the support of the Luftwaffe but they needed the army for, even though Becker had promised them money it still had to come from somewhere. The rocketeers arranged for a show. von Fritsch would be toured around the base and then be presented with three demonstrations. The first would be of a 300 kilo engine, then a 1,000 kilo, and finally a 1600 kilo of thrust engine would be demonstrated. Dornberger remembers “Hardly had the echo of the motors died away in the pine woods than the General assured us of his full support, provided we used the fund to turn our rocket drive into a serviceable weapon of war. Bluntly and dispassionately he put the all important question, “How much do you want?”

A month later, with the heads of the Army, von Fritsch and Becker, along with von Richtoffen and General Kesselring of the Luftwaffe they, von Braun and Dornberger, presented their plans for a complete facility at Peenemünde that would study all technological and scientific aspects of Rocket design that would lead to a product complete on paper and ready for production. von Braun’s charisma, along with the raw power of the rocket engines won the day. That very afternoon the Luftwaffe dispatched a car with a senior official onboard. They drove direct from Berlin north. A few hours later there was a phone call to the rocket division at Kummersdorf. The land had been purchased. 750,000 Marks had been handed over to the local authority and the rocket division was now the owner of site that they could begin to plan and eventually build their rockets on.

With a future for the rocket program now secured the scientists, principally of von Braun, Dornberger and Riedel could worry less over the bureaucracy and focus more on their plans. However, von Fritsch had laid out a specific point in his blank check, the rocket must be for a military purpose. For Dornberger this presented no problems, he had never been the idealistic dreamer of space like Riedel and von Braun, but for von Braun and Riedel it meant that space would have to wait. Sitting down, knowing now a facility was to be theirs and that money was soon flowing into the bank account from the Army and the Airforce, they began sketching the plans for the successor of the A-3, the logically named A-4 that would later become infamous as the V2.

Train Tunnels

Diagram of a V2 rocket
V2 diagram

The military of Germany often in popular media and representations is shown at being at the cutting edge of technology. The German Tiger tanks were feared, the 88 guns either as Flak or anti-tank weapons were fearsome, the Sturmgewehr 44 is considered the birth of the assault rifle, but what is commonly forgotten is that the German army heavily relied upon horses and carts through much of the war. At the beginning of the War over 514,000 thousand horses were in the German army. The British as a comparison only in 1940 employed 6,500. Despite Germany’s great automanufacturers it would seem that more money went to the production of luxury cars for Hitler and Göring and other Nazi elite than into the development of trucks, but this level of corruption was normal in Nazi Germany. For the rocket program developers they knew that the efficient and safe transportation of the Rockets, without custom designed trucks, could only be done by rail.

Germany had thousands of kilometres of rail network that linked Breslau, Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt and Königsberg together. A mass network that allowed for the quick mobilisation of civilians across the Reich and therefore the military, however, the landscape was varied. One could not travel on a train without having to pass through a rail tunnel and if the railways were to be the major form of transportation for a ballistic missile the missile would have to conform to the space of these tunnels.

In Dornberger’s plan, this missile that could be transported in one piece by rail, it was to carry one ton of explosives over 240 kilometers and have a dispersion of 0.2 to 0.3 percent. von Braun and Riedel began planning. They envsioned a rocket that was 14 meters in length, a diameter of roughly 1.5 meters and fins that stretched to 3.5 meters. These dimensions would allow for 11 metric tons of liquid fuel and a motor that could produce 23000 kilos of Thrust. With a theoretical range of this rocket of 276 kilometres, the rocket, if launched from the recently remilitarised Rheinland would just have been able to reach Paris. For those, Becker and Dornberger, who did not dream of space this would be perfect as a weapon of demoralisation, a weapon to shake the enemy into surrender.

So slowly the facility in Peenemünde began to grow. From one day when boats arrived on the spit of land carrying surveyors to another when building materials arrived on a large ship ready for construction to begin. Soon after a harbour was dredged for the more efficient delivery of Materials. Berths were created. Tracks that had once been just cuttings within the earth were laid with wood to form crude roads. From crude beginnings technological equipment soon began to rise. Copper wire and pipping laced the island. An observation post was constructed, a platform erected with a dugout nearby.

Meanwhile, as Peenemünde was transformed from nature reserve into the world’s most advanced rocket port, Wernher von Braun, had taken a few weeks to himself. His Junker Pilot project had had to be placed on hold. The rocket that was to be placed within had proven to upset the balance of the plane too much, but he still dreamt of flying the HE-112 plane and therefore had gone to Frankfurt an der Oder to a Luftwaffe base to refresh his flying skills not returning until the 1st of August when Hitler’s Olympics, meant to showcase the superiority of the German Aryan opened.

von Braun dove back in, he realised that to fully perfect the design of the rockets a wind tunnel would be required on Peenemünde and the funds of 300,000 Marks were raised for such a project. However, it was known that the true cost would be around 1,000,000. To soften the blow of the cost an agreement was reached with the department in charge of antiaircraft ballistics to also make use of the wind tunnel. Peenemünde was coming together.

Jet Planes

Heinkel He-112 Plane
A Heinkel He-112 like this was adapted to be flown by rocket engine

But von Braun was desperate to have his HE-112 pet project take flight. von Braun had managed to second Erich Warsitz a flight instructor. One day at the Kummersdorf development centre von Braun took Warsitz to a building that appeared abandoned. A wooden shed that upon closer inspection had the faint wisps of smoke trailing from a half opened door. Inside a group of officers sat around, probably believing that the wooden shed was the ideal place to abscond from work, they had taken to relaxing and smoking copious amounts of cigarettes. Little did expect for someone to come in search of the mad hat idea that was the HE-112 plane that had been sat beneath a tarpaulin for many months. Not bothering to stub out their cigarettes as the tall gentleman they knew by sight and name Wernher von Braun entered they looked on with interest as he and the man who accompanied him Warsitz walked to the HE-112 into which von Braun jumped into the cockpit. Warsitz stood back, looking at the beauty of the aerodynamic of the form of the plane, which had a curved smooth cab rather than the boxy plate glass cabin of the Messerschmidt Bf109 to which it had lost out on a contract to. von Braun, having pressed a few buttons and pulled a few levers had managed to produce an unimpressive sputter from the plane, but soon, looking at Warsitz with a broad grin on his face, probably the same one he had once worn whilst watching he rocket powered wooden cart charge through the Tiergarten, von Braun began a count down. Three. Two. One. A great boom echoed within the shed. A burst of flame erupted from the tail and rocket engine sprung into life. von Braun looked on at the shocked soldiers and Warsitz with glee. Little did they know he had never fired the rocket up with out the safety of standing behind a blast shield and launching it remotely.

The same evening, von Braun took Warsitz back to Berlin. Driving his ancient Hanomag, that had once, during his father’s time as the Minister of food and agriculture been parked next to President Paul von Hindenburgs luxury limousine, he careered at deadly speed through the countryside, frightening Warsitz. In Berlin the two went for drinks, partyed at the gypsy club and then von Braun decided to drive three times around the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche in the wrong direction. Stopped by the police, just before completing his third circuit, von Braun used his charm to keep the offices talking until their shift change at 6 in the morning at which point the Police were keen to not press charges but rather go home and to bed. With the police dispatched von Braun turned to Warsitz and spoke “will you go along with us and test the rocket in the air?…Warsitz, you will be a famous man. And later we will fly to the moon together!”

Sure enough in April 1937 Warsitz, Dornberger and von Braun along with a small team travelled to Neuhardenburg, north of Berlin where the Heinkel 112 was wheeled out onto a test strip. Within the tail of the plane was the 1,000 KG thrust motor that von Braun had boisterously ignited the previous year. Warsitz, jumped into the cockpit he had been briefed on and the HE-112 was brought to the centre of the runway. Suddenly the air rumbled with the sound of the thrust engine bursting into life and within seconds the wooden plane was hurtling along the runway and into the sky. But as quickly as it started it went silent. From the ground everyone watched in horror as the plane suddenly went into a nose dive, before at the last moment pulling up and performing an emergency belly landing in the shrub. Warsitz had smelt smoke, and killed the engine thinking he was on fire and brought the plane to earth as quickly as he could. Warsitz was ok, but the plane, which was not on fire, rather a puff of smoke had been pulled by the rocket motor into the cockpit, was badly damaged. However, Warsitz had become the first pilot of a jet powered plane.

The Test

Come November the work at Peenemünde was advancing greatly. Although a rocket pad was well under construction for the envisaged A-4 it was the technological sites for the A-3 that had been completed. The A-4 sites would have to wait until 1939.

On the 12th of November 1937, a date Wernher von Braun would misremember, or lied about after the war as being 1939, Wernher von Braun became the 5,738,692nd member of the Nazi party. The claim, an oft used excuse, that if he did not join his entire position would have been under threat and he did so, so that he could continue his life’s work. An excuse that would have branded him after the war in the denazification courts as a fellow traveller.

Then at the end of November a delivery was made to the new research centre, Dornberger remembers: “One day at the end of November a ferryboat delivered two large boxes painted dark gray. They were 23 feet long and 4 3/4 feet in height and breadth. These giants’ coffins were unloaded with great care and cautiously conveyed by truck to the tent. There they were guarded night and day. Shortly afterward two additional chests of this type were unloaded and taken into the tent.

Then it started raining. The train poured down and the wind rose. It whistled over the island from the north, whipped the bare branches of the stunted trees, and blew through the window crevices of the houses. It tore up the tent. It hurled gigantic waves against the island, and thunderous breakers dashed over the stone walls of the harbour. The cold became intense. The bad weather forced us to postpone operations. But it departed as quickly as it had come. The sky grew clear and the wind blew steadily and tranquilly from the east. The weather forecast sounded favourable. We made final preparations, and motor launches brought all the staff detailed to take part in the test.”

Secrecy was of the utmost. By this point a few of Wernher von Braun’s former colleagues like Nebel and Oberth had been circling like vultures around the rocket program. Somehow they had discovered that there was an enhanced program and they wanted to be part of it. Nebel however was characteristically untrustworthy and Oberth enjoyed the inflation of his own ego too much, when they persisted von Braun had little qualms with calming the eager scientists with a visit from the Gestapo. It was showing in von Braun’s attitude that there was little more important than the work he was doing for the nation, and any breach of this trust would be accountable to treason.

Dornberger would write: “In the end about one hundred and twenty engineers and men of science had assembled. Everyone connected in any way with our rocket wanted to be there. We had to set a limit to the number, but it had been difficult to turn a deaf ear to all the requests received. To qualify, one had to have a job connected with the actual launching. When I finally came to check the list I found that the telephone operators were doctors of physics and mathematics, the truck drivers qualified engineers, and the kitchen staff made up of designers and experts in aerodynamics. Even the humblest posts were occupied by technicians or enthusiastic executives.”

The storms were rolling in at Peenemünde for the baptismal rocket test. The weather was changing with every forecast reading and a great deal of tension hung in the air. Technicians battled with fuses that kept shorting, parts were discovered to be missing, valves needed adjusting a nervous tension filled the key scientists.

Finally the A-3 rocket stood erect on its launch platform. 6.74 meters in height, 0.68 metres in diameter, fins at 0.93 metres, 748 kilos of mass placed on a platform in the Baltic ready to be launched into the air in an operation known as “Lighthouse.”

von Braun calculated prior to launch that the A-3 would reach a burn out speed at 500 m/second and finally peak at 20 kilometres in altitude.

It was on the 1st of December that finally the launch command from Dornberger was released. “Aggregat III/1 Deutschland will occur as far as weather allows on the 2nd of December at 09:30 am.” But as the weather stood when the rockets were first offloaded onto Peenemünde in November, the weather was not presenting itself in favour of the rocket engineers. It was not until the 4th that finally the launch could take place.


Spectacular it might have been, according to plan it was not. The rocket leapt from its launcher but after just 3 seconds of straight and true flight the parachute deployed. It burnt up in the blast of the rocket but not before it had caused the rocket to go wildly out of control. After 6 seconds the rocket itself cut out and then the whole thing crashed back to earth with an almighty explosion as the unburnt propellents suddenly ignited. Test one was a failure and test 2 was no better. The same thing happened but thankfully this time it crashed into the sea.

What was the cause of the failure? There was very little left from test one, the explosion had destroyed the rocket, and test 2 hadn’t faired much better. It was logically determined, due to its very quick deployment, that it was the parachute mechanism that had caused the failures and instead of a parachute a flare was put in its stead so that the height and position of the rocket could be determined. On the 8th of December another A-3 rocket was prepped.

The parachute this time did not deploy, quite simply because there was none. At 300 meters the flare deployed and the engine cut out. Guided by cold winds the third A-3 fell some 2 kilometres away and exploded underwater again not allowing for the problems of its launch to be analysed.

There was only one final opportunity. The fourth A-3. Normally this is where the story goes that their luck changed and the rocket rose to the predicted height and speed that von Braun had foresaw before the test. But alas it was not to be. The fourth and final rocket performed almost exactly as the previous A-3 had.

von Braun and the team of scientists believed, after a short Christmas break, that it must have been something to do with the control system which was to weak to overcome the cold winds of the baltic.

Dornberger: “We realised that the power of the control mechanism was not enough to withstand the aerodynamic forces. A northeast wind averaging 7.5 meters per second had been blowing, and the control gear had not been able to prevent the rocket from rotating from the very start.

We made calculations and tests. It turned out that even with a cross wind of 12 feet per second the control system was too weak to counterbalance the turning of the rocket about its longitudinal axis. The movement of the vanes was also too slow. The control gear developed at most 245 Nm of torque over a period of 2.8 seconds. Therefore, we ought, if possible, to increase power tenfold and the speed of the vanes considerably.”

The result was that they briefly leapt over the A-4 in terms of development to go to the the A-5. The A-5 would carry the same rocket motor as the A-3 it would be the same shape, but it would crucially have a diameter just 7.62 centimetres wider. With a wider diameter they replaced the gyroscope that had been produced by Kreiselgeräte GmbH with a more powerful version provided by Siemens, the company to which most were contracted as a form of cover to the operation that they were actually involved in.

Tests took place. In Friedrichshafen the proposed design was placed in the subsonic wind tunnel of the Zeppelin company that was no longer in use by its own company since the Hindenburg disaster in May of the same year. Then the model was taken to Aachen where it was placed within a supersonic tunnel.

But too much hope was to be laid on the new contract with Siemens. The difficulties of developing new gyros to withstand the forces of a rocket launch meant that delays followed delays, and von Braun, growing inpatient started entertaining other companies. One of these companies was Askania, a company that exists just in name today as a maker of fine watches.

In making watches, both today and in the past, the company was used to the finer details and intricacies of mechanical devices. Amongst their products were film projectors and cameras, but from 1935 a large portion of their business came from the navy and later the Luftwaffe as Askania developed gyroscopic instruments for battleships and for planes along with target optics for aeroplanes. Askania suggested the use of the guidance system they had developed for torpedos which used compressed air and would not have been suitable for the job.

In von Braun’s search for a tender of more suitable knowledge on guidance systems he himself had garnered a greater understanding for the field and, in what would slowly become a trait of the Peenemünde organisation, decide to begin building his own in house research facility. To do this he was, however, benefitted by the political circumstances of the time. In the summer of the year, after a charge of homosexuality was levied against von Fritsch who had been Supreme Commander of the German Army, Dornberger’s old army colleague Walter von Brauchitsch was elevated to the position. With von Brauchitsch in charge the rocketeers at Peenemünde were able to persuade him that the program should be labelled top priority, which it was and more funds were released which enabled the development of Peenemünde’s own guidance research facility. This research facility would later expand to include Dr. Hermann Steuding and Ernst Steinhoff of the Darmstadt Institute of Technology.

But such were the problems with the guidance systems in October 1938 that, after the disappointment of the 4 A-3’s that hailed failed so terribly at the end of the previous year, the first of the new A-5 rockets were launched without a guidance system on board.

Impressing Hitler

This was not, however, the first time that the A-5 had flown. In the lead up to the launch and with the tests in the wind tunnels, the A-5 design had been tested. There was, according to Dornberger, always a hope that these rockets might go supersonic, but the materials used to produce the stabilising fins would always broke up. So it was that the first A-5s although solid iron versions, before the October launch to go through the air did not rise from the ground but rather fell towards it, after they were dropped from a Heinkel He-111 to see how the rockets flew. One of these reached an estimated speed of 800 mphs and therefore breaking the sound barrier.

The real rocket launches were a success. Although they had no guidance on board they flew with little deflection and reached a height of 8,000 meters on the 3rd of October 1938.

With the harsh winters once again setting in over the Baltic much of the rocket testing was placed on hold until the thaw came in the spring. In March Dornberger continued with test, not of the A-5 as such but on different models powered by a much cheaper Walter engine that did not produce as much thrust as the liquid fuel engines of the rocket program but enabled the scientists to evaluate the aerodynamic shapes of different rockets. But it was also in March that the rocket team would be put on its greatest display.

On a cold damp and rainy morning the team assembled on the old firing grounds at Kummersdorf. Peenemünde was seen as being to far so they had been instructed to return to the old headquarters so that they could be inspected by the man who now had expanded the German Reich into Austria and the Czech lands of Bohemia and Moravia. Dornberger remembered:

“[…] he arrived accompanied by Brauchitsch and Becker, at the experimental station of Kummersdorf West. When I reported to him at the entrance to the station in front of the great wooden shed, I immediately had the impression that his thoughts were elsewhere. As he shook hands with me his eyes seemed to look through me to something beyond. His remarkable tanned face, with the unsightly snub nose, little black moustache, and extremely thin lips, showed no sort of interest in what we were to show him. […] He was the only visitor who listened to me without asking questions.”

Dornberger and von Braun showed the Führer two engines firing, one on its side, and one standing vertically and Hitler said nothing. They showed him the internals of a rocket that had been colour coded for greater understanding, von Braun explaining with great energy and yet Hitler just shook his head. He remained blase on hearing of the A-3 and A-5 and only did his ears prick slightly on mentioning of the war use intended A-4.

Later at lunch Dornberger sat opposite the Führer and remembered: “As he ate his mixed vegetables and drank his habitual glasas of Fachingen mineral water, he chatted with Becker about what they had seen. I couldn’t tell much from what was said, but he seemed a little more interested than during the demonstration or immediately after. He asked casually how long it might take to develop the A-4, and its range. When I named the long peacetime standard periods he answered with a brief nod. Finally he wanted to know whether we could use steel sheeting instead of aluminium. When I did not reject the possibility but emphasised that it would cause delay, he looked past me with an absent smile and uttered the one word of appreciation that was to be vouchsafed to us. “Es war doch gewaltig!” (Well, it was grand!).”

Hitler left still appearing unimpressed. Dornberger was confused how the man who loved the details of tanks and guns had become the only person it seemed to not be moved by the raw power that the rocketeers had harnessed with their rocket tests. However, as many historians have speculated since, Hitler had a pesemissm for anything he could not grasp. Tanks and guns had been in use, at least in the case of the Tanks in part, during WW1, in which he had fought. These were machines he had seen in operation and had been a spectacle to his eyes but a rocket, something that needed the invisible to work, that relied on complex calculations that only those who were either prodigies or learned could understand, was far beyond his comprehension, and thus he tried not to comprehend.

Shortly after Hitler’s visit to Kummersdorf, as the winter truly turned to spring with the advent of buds on the trees bringing not only comfort that the harsher months of the years had abated but also a natural cover the first firing of the 22700 kilo of thrust engine that would, they hoped, one day power the V-4.

But for the summer, the firing of the rocket was about as much as was achieved in practical terms. Work continued on trying to perfect and understand the gyros which were to be tested in the A-5 later in the year. Outside of the rocket program the rocket power aircraft tests of Heinkel continued from the Heinkel base at Rostock a short distance along the coast from Peenemünde but the results in practical terms were rather unimpressive. Short flights of 50 seconds could be safely managed in the strange looking HE-176 whose wings seemed far too small for safe and sustainable flight.

Then came the 1st of September.


German Soldiers remove Polish Border
German soldiers take down the Polish Border

With the arrival of September the German Wehrmacht crossed over the Polish frontier on what would begin the Second World War. Now Germany was on a war footing and the rocket facility was made by von Brauchitsch a top priority. With this elevation of status von Braun, Dornberger and Becker had secured not only the future of their program but also the future of their staff who might otherwise, as intellectuals been signed up by the Nazi elite as cannon fodder. von Braun was able to actually, with new found power, able to conscript people he believed necessary to the programs future which is what happened with Helmet Hölzer who was drafted to help with in flight stability.

It was at the end of October that finally a rocket could be tried with a guidance system once more, this time manufactured by Siemens. After the typical delays due to the temperamental weather on the 31st of October 1939 an A-5 was placed upon a launch pad and prepped. A year had passed since the firing of the 4 rockets without a guidance system and all were eager to see if their work had progressed and been fruitful.

Two of the rockets were to be launched vertically, the third was to be launched to take on an incline. All eyes were on the first. So much time and effort had led to this moment and none wished it to fail but there was nevertheless the worry that one little mistake could lead to disappointment. Then the rockets engine erupted into life and rising vertically with no oscillation the rocket left the ground and flew high into the sky before disappearing into the clouds. Only the thunder of the motor could still be heard until after twenty or so seconds of life the radio signal was sent to kill the motor followed thirty seconds later by the signal to deploy the parachute. They waited. All eyes perused over the greying sky before suddenly a brightly coloured object came into view, it was the rocket, all systems had fired successively and the rocket was parachuting down to earth. After landing in the water a team half an hour later recovered the rocket and the scientists felt a weight had been lifted from their shoulders. However, there was still two more launches to go before the skeptic nature of the scientist could give way to celebration.

The second launch was almost identical to the first, the rocket landing just 80 metres away from where the first had splashed down. Finally it was the test of the third. Launching vertically with the gyro set to guide the rocket to follow an incline path and not vertical this was to be the true test. Dornberger described the system as:

“The procedure, which produces the tilt needed for firing over great distances, may be visualised about as follows. The axis of one gyroscope is tilted by electrical or mechanical means in the direction of the target. The control mechanism of the rocket then seeks by means of the vanes to keep the rocket’s longitudinal axis parallel to the axis of the gyroscope. Therefore the rocket does not continue on its vertical path but moves in the direction “prescribed” for any moment by the slowly moving axis of the gyroscope. The result is movement along a curve.”

The rocket launched and after a few seconds of vertical flight it began to tilt. It reached its peak over 6 kilometres from the launch pad and 4 kilometres high. All looked on in wonder as the rocket deployed its parachute and fell softly into the water. All three had been a success and now the scientists felt they could congratulate one another. The A-5 had performed its roll as a test bed, the systems could now be scaled up and a focus could be placed on taking a step back to the A-4 the rocket that would eventually become infamous as the V2.

But as ever there must exist a balance. The great celebration of October was met not just with the storms of winter again but with the storms of the changing temprament of the Führer who had decided that the materials to Peenemünde should be cut and focused elsewhere on the war effort as, even though Poland had surrendered, the British and French after the invasion of Poland had called Hitler’s bluff and declared war and it now seemed that the success of Hitler in expanding the Riech might now be somewhat curtailed. War production was to increase and the group of young scientists on the coast producing something the Führer could little understand were an unnecessary drain to the mineral wealth of Hitler’s Reich, at least in his view.

Greater trouble came in April of the next year when it seemed all could be lost with the suicide of Becker who had pushed the rocketry program of the Wehrmacht forward after he was accused of short fallings in the ammunition production sector. With Becker’s death von Braun and Dornberger along with the program were transferred to the new office under Fritz Todt, who had just the month prior taken up the new role of Reich Minister for Armaments and Ammunition. Todt, in a meeting with the pair, informed them that their program would not be affected and that they could continue their work. The same month von Braun also rejoined the SS. Whether he did so willingly or not is a different debate, but bare in mind that the common assertion that “he had no other choice” while it once may have allowed Nazis to scrub their conscious clean once legally does not fly in court today as ex-SS guards find themselves on trial as accessories to murder showing they did not search for a way out.

Shortly after joining the SS the war moved west and very quickly after the fall of France, von Braun and his test pilot of the He-112 Warsitz flew in a Heinkle 111 to Paris for a vacation, taking advantage of von Brauns rank to do so.

Meanwhile the men of Peenemünde with the death of Becker and Hitler’s dislike of the program and even with Todt’s approval were being plundered, Dornberger had to work with von Brauchitsch closely to, without Hitler’s knowledge, draw almost 4,000 enlisted men from the ranks and return them to work in the Peenemünde and weapons development system.

By October a year after successful test of the A-5 a A-4 was assembled at Peenemünde but it was not to fly. It was, to all assembled, the first view of their dream project, it had leapt from the paper and now stood 15m high before them, 3.5 metres wide and weighed 13,000 kilos. Meanwhile work continued in developing the systems that would power the A-4.

In spring of the next year, 1941, the status of the program was restored to top priority, perhaps because of the planned invasion of the Soviet Union. But the year of uncertainty had done damage. Siemens had slipped behind in producing the gyros von Braun had requested of them as resources and materials had been diverted to other, and as viewed by the Nazis, more necessary projects, and this had been true elsewhere. Todt was exasperated by the endless black hole that swallowed all money it was given and yet new things, launch pads, departments, research centres always needed constructing.

The lack of organisation, or project management, that did not exist in the period of the Nazis was evident. von Braun’s desire to produce much in house led to having to establish industrial facilities from scratch rather than outsourcing to companies that understood the methods and the nature of the materials as they stood and not in what they could do. Departments worked independent of one another and barely did there seem to be anything holding the project together other than von Braun. There was a hierarchy but no management structure. There was a goal, but sometimes one department developing one product that required another departments research had no idea what the other was doing. Some departments produced whilst others merely sketched. Frustration was growing on the outside where a war was expanding and could benefit from the resources be driven into an island in the Baltic.


Bigger must be better!

In August of that year von Braun was called to the East Prussian headquarters of Hitler, the Wolfsschanze. The meeting is shrouded in mystery but it was a meeting, from notes recorded a day later, that the Führers opinion, when presented with enemy progress, changed. Hitler had quickly regressed into his nature of bigger must surely be better and ordered an insurmountable sum of rockets of the A-4 variety, even if Germany did not possess the mineral wealth to have them produced but this was not something that worried the irrational mind of the dictator. Yet what it did mean was that, even without having flown a rocket, there was finally the top level approval for the program that could be rescinded by no one except the Führer himself who was not likely to admit he had made a mistake.

Yet at Peenemünde, as von Braun was looking at building the production lines that might reach the settled figure of 5,000 rockets a year, down from Hitler’s wish of 100,000, the tests of nonflying A-4s was going appallingly with three exploding and damaging two launch pads. Dornberg was furious and ordered von Braun to focus, but in December 1941 von Braun was in Friedrichshafen courting world famous Zeppelin commander Hugo Eckener for use of the Zeppelin works as a base to produce some of the goods that would be required for mass production of the rockets. Meanwhile another A-4 fell from its holder on a launch pad due to shrinkage and was damaged thanks to the inexperience of the staff on site.

Launches that were scheduled for January soon fell to February and from February into March when the first flying prototype named Versuchsmuster 1, of V1 was destroyed when a deadly mixture of gasses erupted around one of the engines and destroyed the rocket. If things could get worse they did. The second test rocket was damaged as it was raised to the launcher and further delayed the test. Finally in June the rocket could be tested, a test that new arnaments, since the death of Todt in a mysterious plane crash in February, Albert Speer was present for.

“On June 13th, 1942, the armaments chiefs of the three branches of the armed forces, Field Marshal Milch, Admiral Witzell and General Fromm, flew to Peenemünde with me to witness the first firing of a remote-controlled rocket. Before us in a clearing among the pines towered an unreal-looking missile four stories high. Colonel Dornberger, Werner von Braun, and the staff were as full of suspense over this first launching as we were. I knew what hopes the young inventor was placing on this experiment. For him and his team this was not the development of a weapon, but a step into the future of technology.

Wisps of vapour showed that the fuel tanks were being filled. At the predetermined second, at first with a faltering motion but then with the roar of an unleashed giant, the rocket rose slowly from its pad, seemed to stand upon its jet of flame for the fraction of a second, then vanished with a howl into the low clouds. Wernher von Braun was beaming. For my part, I was thunderstruck at this technical miracle, at its precision and at the way it seemed to abolish the laws of gravity, so that thirteen tons could be hurtled into the air without any mechanical guidance.

The technicians were just explaining the incredible distance the projectile was covering when, a minute and a half after the start, a rapidly swelling howl indicated that the rocket was falling in the immediate vicinity. We all froze where we stood. It struck the ground only a half a mile away. The guidance system had failed, as we later learned. Nevertheless the technicians were satisfied, since the thorniest problem had been solved: getting it off the ground.” (Speer: pg.495)

The next test would be held without such fanfare of having the minister of Armaments and high ranking representatives of the OKW the army high command present. Two months after the second test A-4 had failed due to a roll control failure another A-4 was ready to fly.This time the rocket, launching on the 16th August 1942 took off elegantly and smoothly it climbed. The scaling up of the ideas that had been tested in the A-5 appeared to be working. The A-4 v3 accelerated and then passed through the sound barrier and against the fears of those who had predicted it would break apart upon passing this mark the A-4 continued.

Then came the fall. A puff of white smoke first appeared and the rocket began to fall. The nose cone then came off and the A-4 began to break apart into pieces before finally crashing into the Baltic almost 9km away. But there was jubilation, it had left the ground and flown far, no where near as far as the A-4, as a practical weapon of war was intended to, but far. Had the program finally passed over the bump in the road that had seen disaster after disaster.

The next A-4 to launch later in the same year in that typical launch month of October would mark another great milestone. A launch watched on ,once again, only by the scientists and engineers, that kept the gaze of all gathered transfixed as the rocket rose perfectly still into the sky as if the earth had moved and the rocket had stayed still. This time the rocket flew higher and higher to the point that, after dreaming for so many years, after bothering the pedestrians of the Berlin streets and cajoling Kommilitone into building telescope sheds von Braun had done it. His, and his team’s, idea had become the first man made object to touch space.

Everything that could have gone to plan, did. For the team it was a welcome change, not only was it proof of the concept, but with the rocket landing in the Baltic sea, after a successful re-entry, 190Km from the launch site and almost exactly where they had predicted it proved that the program was on the right path.

For Germany, in October 1942, it also was spread to its greatest extent. From Normandy to the Smolensk the hackenkreuz now flew. Even in Stalingrad it seemed as if the great battle for the now ruined city that bore the name of the Soviet Dictator and tyrant was about to end in favour of the Wehrmacht.

On the following day of the rocket launch, Hermann Göring announced, at the end of the harvest season, that Germany’s food situation “will continue to get better since we now possess huge stretches of fertile land.” But as ever then came the winter.

Those gains of the Wehrmacht in the Soviet Union soon began to collapse. In November Stalingrad was surrounded, not by the German army but by the soviets created the Stalingrad pocket. Partisan fighting in Belorussia and in the Balkans began to stretch the security forces behind the front lines. The great advancements of previous years had reached their zennith and now, like the rockets of von Braun the high command and those above had to come back down to reality.

The test flight of the A-4 V4 could not have come at a better time. As Speer and Hitler questioned whether or not the rocket program was a viable program and still doubting the guidance technology the flight had proven that their was hope, especially now as the tanks had stopped rolling forward and were quickly moving in reverse. Could the rocket program offer a new hope for Germany, could it be that where it was once hoped that it would balance the tables for Germany pre-1933 that now it could be a wonder weapon of sorts that might provide a victory?

Von Braun hoped that by mid February 16 A-4 rockets could be fired to further prove the capabilities. Yet on high there was the typical power struggles that defined much of the inefficiency of production within the Nazi regime. Many heads were butting against one another as departments that should have been under one rule were placed under numerous people that normally did not like one another. This was characteristic of Hitler’s paranoia in government, never allow one person to have too much power for they might become an enemy.

Hitler and Speer were still unsure of the program but nevertheless a bunker and launch pad was commissioned to be constructed in France to bring Britain easily within range of a missile. But Speer also, in character with the government two heads are more inefficient than one proposals, appointed the former chairman of the locomotive Special Committee Gerhard Degenkolb to be in charge of the A-4 as an industry. Dornberger recognised the name but could not place why until in a meeting with Degenkolb:

“I recalled with a shock that Degenkolb’s name had been linked in the spring of 1940 with the suicide of General Becker, head of the Army Weapons Department, a man who I had revered. Was it not Degenkolb who after the sudden appointment of Todt as Minister of Munitions and shortly before Becker’s death, had given emphatic and eloquent expression, in a speech made to representatives of the Army and of industry, to his bitter hatred of the Army Weapons Department and its offices and had made no secret of his contempt for all industrial work initiated or directed by the Army?”

Degenkalb through the simplification of process had proven himself a success when he had been appointed as head of the Locomotive Committee and increased the production of locomotives massively in his first year. It was the hope, that if, as Speer and Hitler had wanted, for 5,000 rockets to rain down at once someone with the tenacity of production should be placed in what seemed from the outside with eyes that saw the Peenemünde as a weapons facility, to streamline and increase production.

In December came death itself. Heinrich Himmler arrived on the 11th of December 1942 to inspect the facilities and witness a launch. The rocket exploded after just 4 seconds. But Himmler, giddy as a child, now took an active interest in the program.

With Himmler, the SS now interested and Degenkolb wishing to streamline production to prove himself, it was only a matter of time until the rocket program became corrupted with the foulest and most horrendous stench of the Nazi regime.

Degenkolb put forward a plan. It was to see 300 rockets produced in October 1943 with that initial 300 hundred number rising to 900 in December. These were less than what was originally discussed within the Nazi elite with that number being at a 100,000 over the course of a year, but despite it being more than significantly less it would still be a herculean task to deliver on Degenkolb’s projections.

How would Degenkolb, Dornberger and von Braun reach these numbers. The facilities on Peenemünde were not a production line. The rockets produced were in numbers a hundredth of even the October projection. The technicians could not be stretched and the required hired labour would drain the budget even if it could be found with the increasing conscription into the army to replenish the loss of the 6th Army at Stalingrad along with the dead of the Soviet Advance. But this was Nazi Germany and free labour was not in short supply.

Slave labour

With the Himmler and the SS on board a decision was made in April to begin the use of concentration camp inmates as labour. With the lightening attack of Operation Barbarossa in June 1941, the victories of which seemed so distant in April 1943, the German armies had captured millions of Soviet soldiers who now provided much of the forced labour in Germany. Dornberger agreed to not only use slave labour at Peenemünde but also at the production facility in Friedrichshafen.

By July over 1100 Slave labours would pass into the SS guarded camp at Peenemünde. These were made up not only of soviets but also of German and French prisoners. von Braun chose, fully knowing of the conditions that these forced labourers existed in, to turn a blind eye and later would lie about his knowledge of the atrocities being committed. The common excuse to persilschein him, or to clean him up so not as to tarnish his reputation, is that he was not responsible for it, rather it was the SS. But it was his program, he could have stopped working, today he might be placed on trial with guilt by association on the knowledge that his products were produced by slave labour but for von Braun venturing into the vast nothingness of space where there were no humans was more important than the humans on earth.

Himmler returned to Peenemünde on 28th June 1943 and on the 29th bore witness to another two A-4 launches. The first crashed on the nearby airfield but the second performed well. Himmler’s visit wasn’t a one off from the elite who were now focusing on the vengeance weapon as turning the tides of the war once more in their favour. So as von Braun flew around the country trying to procure equipment for the production line he also had to be present at Peenemünde when one of the upper echelons of Germany decided to visit causing von Braun to loose valuable work time when a deadline for production was looming. This culminated in Hitler wishing for a presentation on the A-4 on 7th July 1943, the request was handed to von Braun that very same day. von Braun gave the presentation to the ailing dictator who was now more infused with passion for the program than he was in Kummersdorf years prior, so impressed that he gave von Braun the title of professor.

Peenemünde, despite its use of slave labour and production of a rocket meant for war had passed the four years of the war in relative calm. But on the night of 17th August 1943 the war arrived. Shortly after 11pm von Braun had gone to bed only to be woken by an air raid siren. A fleet of bombers were heading towards the island however it was presumed they were to shortly turn south for Berlin. von Braun elected to return to bed, that was until an automated fog system went off. Designed to shroud the island in smoke and hide it to enemy aircraft but nevertheless colourful flares started to fall from the sky. These flares, dropped by Mosquito planes laid the targets for the bombers that would shortly follow.

It was after midnight that the bombs fell. The flares however had been dropped early and much of the bombs fell 3 kilometres to the south and landed on one of the forced labour camps killing 600 of the slave labourers within. However some bombs did fall on the technical headquarters and once the alarm had abated with the leaving of the planes, the scientists returned to the surface to see some buildings on fire and von Braun running into the flames to try and salvage documents necessary for the production of the A-4.

Much had been lost but also much, like the test stands still remained and the team, although broken, had to return to work with haste. But the air raid had shown the dangers of the facility to an air raid and thus the discussions of moving the facilities and production underground was placed on the table. The work for the underground caves necessary it was noted would be carried out by slave labour, the location decided upon was to be in Nordhausen where a large underground storage facility already existed.

The SS brought people from Buchenwald camp and forced them to finish the tunnels and then interred them in a sub camp that took the name Dora as the production facility for the jet engines took the name Mittelwerk and was placed under the command of SS officer Hans Kammer, the man responsible for the construction of the gas chambers at Auschwitz.

Under Kammer the work force at Mittlewerk had risen to 4,000 people who were forced to sleep on the bed rock of the tunnels, this was in October, the following month, as they set about trying to reach the target of Degenkolb this number rose to 10,000 that von Braun witnessed in the tunnels in his visit at the end of November 1943. He hardly could have not have felt the stench of death within the air as it burnt into his nostrils, or witnessed the foul living conditions to which the inmates had to exist, or the brutality of his SS comrades, he could not have been so blind to have not seen what his project in the hands of the Nazis was degrading fellow human beings to, yet he was, he was producing a weapon of war for a regime that had no humanity and he was more than a fellow traveller in this.

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, book a tour with Simon in Berlin and become a patreon at


The best way to see Berlin is with a private tour with The Berlin Tour Guide.