The Nazi and the Moon

Protective Custody

A slip of the tongue and Wernher von Braun receives a visit from the feared Gestapo.

A knock at the door

The winds of winter still blew across the baltic peninsula. Winds that brought with them shards of ice the pierced more than just the skin. Although the shortest day had passed three months prior darkness still hung over the island and its facilities like a blanket enveloping all light. In the night there was no movement. No one wished to step into the freezing cold and stepping into the cold risked leaking light.

However, the British and the American’s air raids over Germany had increased throughout the winter. Berlin, the Reichs capital, had been pummelled from above. If one ever needed to visit the city, it was likely another famous building was forever gone. In January the raids had reached new levels when 769 aircraft, Halifax, Lancaster and Mosquitos, had rained terror of the city. The civilians, growing used to the ever increasing frequency of the whine of the sirens, sleepwalked to the basements of the buildings that provided little protection. But if the levels reached in January were thought not to be superseded they were wrong. The RAF, wishing to break the moral of the German people increased the raids, wishing for a people, controlled through fear and propaganda who could not rise up, to over throw the dictatorship, when even uttering the word defeat could lead to being strung from a lamppost, beheaded in Plötzensee or sent to a labour camp like Dora.

In February, specifically the night of the 15th to 16th of 1944, the RAF increased the raids further, with 891 aircraft over the city in what would be the largest raid on the Hauptstadt. The bombers following the rivers and stars to guide them to their target a city sleeping in terror, where blackout blinds hung over the windows in the hope that the bombs might miss.

Blackout blinds hung also over the windows of the Baltic. Despite the raids of the previous year showing the allies knew of their existence it did not serve to attract attention further, especially when there was hope that the confidence of the British to the total destruction of the facility was high and thus a repeat of the previous air-raid was not required.

So they tried to sleep in their beds, grown men dreaming of the stars, like little children who strive for their wishes without realising the consequences of their actions, these grown men only dreamt of pushing man’s technically abilities, even if it was at the expense of other men. Soundly into the night they dreamt. They saw in their minds eye, the moon angered with the rocket of Méliès piercing its eye, the bullet like space ship of the Woman in the moon of Lang where many had begun their journey into Das All. But no-one suspected to have a visitor.

The car had driven into the night from Stettin, the large port city of 400,000 inhabitants that lay on the Oder before it exited into the Baltic. On small roads their Mercedes 260D drove. The headlights dimmed with the ironically named blackout lights. Soon the marshy land that surrounded the city gave way to the rolling tundra of hills and forests pot-marked with the traditional small German villages. There was little traffic on the roads, fuel was at a premium and being stored for the front, it was only the essential workers, of which the pair of them were, that could travel with ease by motorcar. Two sat in the front of the comfortable black Mercedes whilst a third lazed in the rear seats and behind, lost in the dark, came another identical car. If one were to get tired they could easily switch the role of driver, but so much of their work had been performed at night that they had slowly become adjusted to the nocturnal lifestyle.

The Peenemünde facility, they noticed, had conformed to the regulations of lights, and from the gate house it was almost impossible to see that these facility had launched objects higher than any other nation had. Slowly they crossed over the bridge onto the island. Thankfully, with the increase of traffic onto Usedom, a large part due to the operations of both the rocket facility and the Luftwaffe airbase, a bridge had been constructed, a bridge that a span of which could be raised to allow traffic to pass below. This construction, now entering its tenth year of use greatly increased the travel time, especially at night, when it was no longer required to wait for the ferryman to awake, not that they would have had to wait in any case, they didn’t wait for no man.

The first he was aware of a disturbance was when a knock came onto the front door of the building that he called home, the Inselhof. The first knocks disturbed no one, but soon the hammering intensified and those within the building began to awake. A knock at the door, in the middle of the night, terrified all. There was only one type of person that came calling at the ungodly hours. Heads began to appear in the corridors, and eyes looked towards the front door. All racked their heads, searching the archives within their own memories of what they might of done or said that could have attracted such an undesirable visit.

Eventually the door was opened. No sooner had a slit appeared than a hand had pressed on the wood of the door and pushed it open. Inside stepped the three men who had made the journey from Stettin. Dressed in black there was no mistaking who they were. They were Hitler’s henchmen, the Gestapo.
“Where’s von Braun?” One asked.
“Along the corridor,” the person who had opened the door began to reply, but he had little chance to finish, as the Gestapo men had already began their charge for the rocket scientists door. The door opened, however, before they had chance to express their terror with a knock. A tall man, blond hair, youthful in appearance but eyes tired by the time and with experience, appeared towering over them.
“Sturmbannführer von Braun,.”
“You are to come with us.”
“And who might you be?” von Braun asked knowing full well who they were. It seemed that his comment at Großgarten to Himmler, about smothering flowers with manure, to which the Reichsführer SS had laughed may have landed him in some considerable trouble. Either way, a stay with the Gestapo was equally tough, if you were to go quietly or with a haphazard wisecrack.
“I do not think you need us to answer that question, Herr von Braun.” The gestapo man responded.
“Then may I ask where we are going?”
“To Stettin and Police headquarters.”
“For what reason may I enquire?”
“You are required to make a witness statement.”
“You have a woken me, at” he looked to his wristwatch “at three in the morning. If it was a statement you wished for, we do have the technology to make use of a telephone. You might have saved yourself the journey.”
“Please, von Braun, for a man of your standing the journey was more than worth the distance travelled,” the Gestapo sneered in retort.
“Well Gentleman, I have just returned from an important business trip that has sapped much of my energy, and I will be returning to my bed to sleep, I thank you for the offer, but if you will kindly phone, my receptionist Frau Rosenthal will be happy to accommodate a more appropriate hour.”
Outside the wheels of more cars could be heard pulling into the area in front of the Inselhof.
Another sneer from the Gestapo, “von Braun, we do not make appointments. We shall make this perfectly clear for your esteemed self. We have orders, you are to come with us to Stettin.”

von Braun’s face went white as the sheet of snow that lay on the ground outside. The penny had dropped. He had indeed pushed his luck as a subordinate and scientist to the Reichsführer SS and he was now to pay the price. It mattered not that any time spent away from the rocket facility might push the rocket program back by an uncountable number of weeks, he had shown a willing not to exchange Dornberger for Himmler and it would not just be himself that was to suffer. “You wish to arrest me? There must be a mistake, some sort of misunderstanding!” von Braun’s voice was charged with terror and indignation.
“Arrest? No, Herr von Braun, we are merely to take you into protective custody. It is best, therefore if you are to come with us now.’

Protective custody, Wernher von Braun must have lamented over these words. It was under the words protective custody that so many now languished in Dora, as political prisoners. It was under protective custody that the Social Democrats and Communists had been placed after the fire had gutted the Reichstag in 1933, it was under protective custody that the first camps had been opened in Germany, to concentrate the potential dissidents of state, all under the charge of protective custody. Göthe and Mann had proven German’s had a way with words and turns of phrase, and the Nazis had merely taken it to a whole new level.

von Braun turned and re-entered his room. Taking as much time as he could to draw on his clothes and to pack a small suitcase that he used often for travel, he bought as much time as he could to allow his brain to awaken from the thralls of of Nyx and her son Hypnos. What was to be done he questioned himself silently. Who could he call to throw the hounds of Himmler of off his scent, could he call anyone?

With no other plan able to be formulated he followed one of the Gestapo officers to the Mercedes 260D that sat outside, that now had another car for company. With the rear door held open, von Braun bent down his tall frame and clambered inside carrying his suitcase with him. There in the dark he sat and watched through the windscreen as the Gestapo officers returned to the building. There were not just looking for him he questioned himself. Soon from the bright light that fell over the courtyard from the door emerged more figures. Klaus Riedel came first, his features remenisent of Mussolini but with a little more hair. Then Helmut Göttrup, a close associate of the head of the program Dornberger, then came the one that Wernher von Braun was aghast to see exit. Leaning forward in the car to grant himself a better look his eyes fell upon the figure of his brother Magnus, being escorted from the building.

Into the night the convoy of two cars drove loaded with the officers of Himmler’s Gestapo and some of the principal figures within the German rocket industry. It could be that if irony were to strike, these names, the amongst the most important to the A-4/V2 project might find themselves in a form of protective custody where rather than designing the rockets they, like thousands of others, might find themselves starving and incarcerated working in 14 hour shifts to build the rockets at Mittelbau-Dora.

Dornberger vs Keitel

Dornberger was aghast to hear the news the next morning. His top scientists had been taken from him. He knew that Himmler had tried to steal the program when he had invited von Braun to Großgarten the previous month, and the von Braun had turned the offer of the Reichsführer SS down, but he did not imagine that Himmler might derail the entirety of the German rocket program out of malice and revenge. It should not have been a surprise that the pettiness of the Nazi elite might stoop so low, but nevertheless it was.

Dornberger had been on the road to Berchtesgaden through the night. His journey in his Opel Admiral had been delayed when a heavy air raid had been launched on Munich and his car had had to come to a halt on the icy and snowy roads as the drone of the four engined Halifax and Lancaster bombers had flown overhead.

The damage to the roads had meant that it had taken far longer than usual to reach Hitler’s mountain retreat, the true political capital of the Third Reich. If the British and the Americans had wished to truly wipe out the Nazi elite, one heavy air raid over the mountain retreat that overlooked the Obersalzburg could have wiped out not only Hitler, Bormann and Göring but also the High command of the Army in the form of the lackeys Keitel and Jodl. It was mid afternoon by the time that Dornberger arrived in the mountain town. Upon arrival he phoned General Buhle had the previous day ordered Dornberger to Hitler’s retreat on behalf of Field Marshal Keitel for an emergency meeting. General Buhle informed Dornberger that he would be at his lodgings very shortly and indeed he was. Fifteen minutes later Buhle was informing Dornberger of the arrests on the charges of “sabotage of the A-4 project” and that they were now in custody in Stettin. Dornberger pressed for more information but Buhle only replied that the Field Marshal will explain himself the next morning at 9.

At the typical alpine home found throughout Bavaria Dornberger was to report. It was the private residence of Keitel in Stanggaß, a township of Berchtesgaden. Situated at the end of Urbanweg it was, like almost all the houses of the area, pleasantly situated amongst the rolling foothills of the mountains that rose and surrounded the town in a great bowl. The door was opened to Dornberger and he was immediately ushered into the office of the Field Marshal. Dornberger remembered the conversation later:

“You have heard that von Braun, Riedel, and another of your men were arrested early yesterday morning by the Gestapo?”
I nodded without speaking. he continued. “The charges were so serious that arrest was bound to follow. The men are likely to lose their lives. How people in their position can indulge in such talk passes my understanding.”
I replied instantly, “Sir, I do not know what the individual charges are. But I vouch for von Braun and Riedel. Gröttrup I don’t know so well. In this case I should have to hear what he is accused of.”
“Keitel looked astonished. “You would vouch for these men with your own life? You’ve made up your mind that quickly?”
“It surely goes without saying sir, that I stand by my closest colleagues without hesitation or reservation.”
Keitel said gravely, “do you know that your closest colleagues have state in company at Zinnowitz that it had never been their intention to make a weapon of war out of the rocket? That they had worked, under pressure from yourself, at the whole business of development only in order to obtain money for their experiments and the confirmation of their theories? That their object all along has been space travel?”
So that was it! “Nevertheless, I still vouch for them. I have often said myself in introducing a demonstration at Peenemünde that our work on the A-4 is only the first tentative step into a new age of technology, that of the rocket. How often have I insisted that the time is now ripe for this turning point in human history!. We have shown the way to space travel. We have provided proof of its possibility. If my men have committed sabotage by repeating such phrases I ought to be arrest too.”
“The sabotage,” Keitel explained “is seen in the fact that these men have been giving all their innermost thoughts to space travel and consequently have not applied their whole energy and ability to production of the A-4 as a weapon of war.”
“I could only shake my head. “Who was the informer, sir? There can be nothing but malice behind this. Or does it come from someone without the first idea of what’s involved?”
Keitel shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know. I know only what I have told you.”

The informer turned out to be a young female dentist, a spy for the SS, who had twisted the overheard words of von Braun and the other scientists to allow Himmler an excuse for their arrest.

Dornberger continues;

“These arrest will be ruinous for the whole project – especially as the rocket is soon due to come into service and we haven’t even tracked down the latest trouble. There must be some incomprehensible misunderstanding or mistake.”
Keitel again shrugged his shoulders. “I can’t do anything about it. Himmler has taken over himself.”
“Sir, all service and civilian staff at Peenemünde come under military law. Peenemünde is subject to military jurisdiction. The men must be taken out of the Gestapo’s hands at once and trasferred to military detention.”
“I can’t interfere now in the middle of the investigation but I will detail an observer from Counterintelligence to be present at the hearings. He will report direct to me. You think these men will be a vital loss, do you?”
“Sir, I wish to put on record that if these arrests stand, completion of development will be problematic and employment of the rocket in the field will have to be postponed indefinitely.”
“You really think the consequences will be as serious as that?”
“At this stage von Braun and Riedel are the most important men in the program. Gröttrup, too, is indispensable to the electrical side as permanent representative to the head of the department. It is my duty to demand immediate release of these men in the interest of the program.”

Keitel was taken back by the firm foot with which Dornberger placed his demands. The head of the entire German army was being ordered by a subordinate who was, himself, shocked at the blase nature of the Field Marshal and his reluctance to get involved with the Secret state organisms of Himmler. It truly was a different state within the Nazi state.

Hitler’s fear of one person, other than himself, having too much power had led to a country that was divided in its mechanisms of operations. Even Hitler himself had become a victim of his own organisational nightmare. With so many people within vying for power it was often the case that the correct information regarding: orders of battle, armaments production, equipment supply, success and failures did not reach the Führer. Instead, the inflated egos of his ministers battled for praise from the cult leader, and warped reality to fit the perspective to which they wished to portray. Hitler was, besides Himmler himself, the only person who did not have to fear from the organisations of the Reichsführer SS, so powerful had Himmler become. Feld Marshal Keitel was no exception. In his conversation with Dornberger in March 1944 he stated:

“I can’t release them [von Braun, Riedel, Gröttrup] without Himmler’s agreement. I must also avoid the least suspicion of being less zealous than the Gestapo and Himmler in these things. You know my position here. I am watched. All my actions are noted. people are only waiting for me to make a mistake. If I ever have to go, the Officers’ corps will have lost the last intermediary between itself and the Führer, its last chance of exercising any influence at all. Then the only rulers will be the SS and Himmler.”

In that house in Berchtesgaden, Dornberger asked Keitel to phone Himmler on behalf of himself then hand the phone to him so he may speak with the Reichsführer SS. Himmler’s office answered, but Himmler refused flatly to come to the phone to speak with Dornberger. Himmler, so powerful, but only when he sheltered behind his SS and Gestapo Organisations. Dornberger was informed he had to see Kaltenbrunner in Berlin to make an appointment. DOrnberger was enraged. He left the Field Marshal understanding the power of the army was broken by the criminality of the SS and the Nazi party and ordered his driver to take the Opel Admiral and himself back to Schwedt, the quaint town on the Oder dominated by a great palace.

The Law

Gestapo Headquarters
Zentralbild Berlin 1933 Der preußische Ministerpräsident hat die bisher den Polizeipräsidenten unterstehende politische Polizei zu einer selbständigen Behörde gemacht, und sie als Geheime Staatspolizei dem Reichssicherheitshauptamt unterstellt. UBz: den Sitz des Geheimen Staatspolizeihauptamtes in Berlin SW 11, Prinz-Albrecht-Straße 8.

The next day, however, Dornberger had made the journey to the building whose address filled the fear of all who heard it, Number 8 Albrecht Straße, the headquarters of the Gestapo. The building, like Berlin, was showing the signs of the war. If Dornberger had hoped he was to meet Kaltenbrunner, the Himmler had thrown him another curve ball, that was intended to insult Dornberger and inform him was not as important as he might wish to believe whilst also intimidating, so it was that Dornberger had to meet with SS General Heinrich Müller, the head of the Gestapo.

Müller was a man who lived in the shadows and was therefore perfect for Himmler’s Gestapo organisation. Even today only a handful of photographs of the Gestapo chief exist, and his whereabouts after the war are uncertain, although it is commonly believed he died trying to flee Berlin and his body was disposed of in the Old Jewish Cemetery on Große Hamburger Straße.

Müller wanted Dornberger to feel small and to subtly inform him that he was being watched to enhance the intimidation. His first words to Dornberger were: “So you are Dornberger, I’ve heard, and read, a great deal about you.” Dornberger must have known that the Gestapo had a file on him, it was reasonable to most people within the state who held any office of power were to have a file within the No.8 Albrecht Straße on them.

Müller through the meeting tried to maintain the air of mystique but it settled little with the rage of Dornberger. His anger at the wasteful tools of the Nazi state, the bloated thugs, cut through the shrouds that Müller tried to hang over him and his institution. When Dornberger said his scientists were arrested by the SD, the Sicherheits Dienst or security service, Müller tried to be little Dornberger in stating they were in protective custody and that it was the Gestapo who had arrested them not the SD and that a General should know the difference between the two organisations. Dornberger cut Müller down to size, in stating that the Gestapo, SD and police were all the same, and an arrest was an arrest. Müller was being backed into a corner. In a desperate attempt he tried to lash out like a bull enraged in Pamplona.

“You are a very interesting case, General. Do you know what a fat file of evidence we have against you here?” Müller raised his hand over the desk. Dornberger, seeing the striking out bull for what it was, an injured calf, pushed back.

“Arrest me then!” Dornberger retorted. Müller tried to accuse Dornberger of Sabotage in the A-4 program by way of defeatist remarks, as reported to him a year earlier in March 1943. Hitler had dreamt as reported by Speer that the A-4 would never work, and Dornberger had mentioned Hitler’s dream as such, yet he had pushed his team, as he pointed out to Müller to prove the dreams of the Führer wrong and by October 1943 they were in Rastenburg showing the footage of the A-4 and its success to the Führer. Müller had met his match and more. Defeated he allowed Dornberger to visit von Braun and the others in Stettin where they were being held in the Police headquarters.

In Stettin, within the cells, the rocket scientists stewed. Not understanding the charges brought before them as little information had been given them, only that they were in protective custody, which only a fool in Nazi Germany would ask “from who?” On one day an officer came to the cell and asked for Magnus, Wernher’s younger brother. Magnus was escorted out of the cell and released with the simple explanation “it was a misunderstanding.” Yet the others had to sit and wait.

A few days after Magnus’ released, von Bruan was led from a cell, but unlike his brother he was not released. Instead he was taken to a room where within were three black clad officers, in a uniform he knew well for it hung in his own wardrobe, but these were not just SS officers, these were officers of the Gestapo. They accused him of diverting his energies from the use of the A-4 as a weapon, rather focusing on space flight and therefore contriving against the war effort. Where Dornberger had been prepared for the intimidation tactics of the Gestapo, von Braun, whose mind very rarely wandering from the thoughts of space, not even the death in large numbers of people within the camps that were producing the A-4 weapons by this point, was given a jolt of reality of the intimidation the Gestapo could create.

The Gestapo followed the same process as Müller had tried with Dornberger, imitating how large a file against him they had and the information it contained within. They were threatening him with treason, the ultimate crime within the totalitarian state. How could one argue against it? They were breaking him down, causing his mind to become erratic in confusion, force him to think when might he had done something that could be misconstrued as treason and then have him incriminate himself. Yet at the end of the interrogation they allowed him to return to a cell, but only to fester for longer before they brought him before themselves once again.

The Gestapo and even Dornberger were surprised by the next twist of events. Dornberger had been appealing to Hitler’s other military dog Jodl for help in the matters, and Jodl had mentioned it. It was somehow through these channels that word arrived at the deathly sick Albert Speer, who after a skiing accident was bed ridden in a notorious SS clinic of Karl Gebhardt and suffered a lung embolism. Speer intervened in the matter directly with Hitler. Even though the charges were almost baseless, instead revolving around the misconstrued rewording of conversations to serve the purpose of Himmler to enact his power, Hitler begrudgingly agreed to allow the rocket scientists a stay of execution of 3 months. Putting his signature to paper he was to allow the rocket scientists to live.

Dornberger practically marched into the room in which von Braun was being interrogated within. Waving the piece of paper before the Gestapo officers first then slamming it upon the table before them. The officers could make no mistake, the scribble on the bottom of the paper had presented itself before them a thousand times, on photographs, documents and postcards, it was that of the Führer. von Braun had to be released, the Gestapo did not have to do it speedily however.

von Braun was left to stew a little while longer, until finally he and the other scientists were released. von Braun was met outside of the police headquarters in Stettin by Dornberger who was carrying a bottle of brandy to celebrate and perhaps also to relax, they had taken on Himmler’s mighty Gestapo and, for the time being, won. But they had only won by the intervention of Speer, who could only gain victory by the highest hand within the land, that of Hitler himself.

Production of the V2

Production of V2 rockets
Production of V2 rockets at Mittelwerk Bundesarchiv_Bild_146-1991-081-15

Reality, as it was before his arrest, was over. Now von Braun operated very much in the knowledge that his movements and the words that may have haphazardly fallen from his mouth over space flight were being monitored by the shadows.

But it was darkness they were all battling over.

Upon his release von Braun returned to work. However, the production and development of the A-4 was falling swiftly from his and Dornberger’s hands. Neither felt that they had power over its production, and faith in the program was falling. The power struggles between the SS, and the Army, between numbers and quality had led to much damage.

The Luftwaffe was arguing for space in the tunnels of Mittelwerk, especially after the air raids in February, the so called big week, had led to much damage. The space occupied by the A-4 production within the tunnels was greatly reduced as space was given to the Luftwaffe to construct the flying bomb, Fi 103, also known as the Doodle bug.

At the beginning of May, a meeting of the Mittelwerk company was held. In attendance was von Bruan, Dornberger, Rudolph, and Camp commandant Otto Forschner amongst others. More men were needed for production to continue. At least twenty on average were dying a day in the tunnels in which the A-4 was being produced, and more labour, labour that also was being diverted to the other projects that the darkness beneath the Kohlstein contained, was required.

Sawatzki had petitioned Kammler for at least 1,800 more men in order to meet the production schedule that Kammler had promised. But at the meeting it was decided that 800 French political prisoners were to be found and brought to Dora, dressed in the striped clothing of a victim of the concentration camp and put to work in the tunnels. Ultimately the SS arranged for 1,000 French prisoners to be brought by train to the Dora camp. Only 300 of them would survive.

In May the production of the A-4 rocket reached 437 units. The highest it had recorded unto this point. Yet as ever the swirling and confusing mud of organisation that existed in Nazi Germany was to cause chaos again.

Dornberger was still pushing to have total control over the rocket program which he had headed for so many years. But as the power and might of the SS had continued to envelope all aspects of Germany, from war production, to security and so on, Himmler’s desires to control the rockets had grown especially due to the rebuke of von Braun, and his release from Gestapo custody.

Kammler, the renaissance man in Dornberger’s words, had been growing in danger. Since his visit to the test site in November 1943 to watch the failed launch of the A-4 rockets, he had been carefully and quietly gathering the information and power required to slowly but surely crumble the organisational hierarchy on which Dornberger stood. By May, the danger of Kammler, had become fully visible to Dornberger who in a last desperate attempt sent a letter to Colonel General Fromm appealing to put all control within Dornberger in the form of supreme authority. Fromm reprimanded Dornberger for his insolence.

The army had put its own plans into motion without the knowledge of Dornberger. Peenemünde on the 1st of June was made a private company with a managing director borrowed from Siemens as its head.

Kammler meanwhile was continuing with his gathering of information against, not only, Dornberger but also against the young rocket scientist who had pushed the A-4 rocket program, who was according to an account from Dornberger Kammler described as “too young, too childish, too supercilious and arrogant for his job.” And it was not just those of the rocketery group who were in danger. Degenkolb, who had first and unsuccessfully tried to turn Peenemünde into a limited liability company a GmbH to which the army had just done themselves, was described by Kammler as “merely a hopeless alcoholic.”

Britain in June began to suffer from the first use against it of the Mittelwerk manufactured, propaganda named V1 rocket. But Britain and her allies also in that month were to land on the beaches of Normandy and establish a bridgehead upon the continent.

But whilst the squabbling was going on and Britain was being bombed by unmanned flying bombs, von Braun, and when he could Dornberger were continuing the test of the A-4 rockets. Most of the rockets that were arriving for test were proving unsatisfactory in their construction, and many, for unknown reasons were exploding or breaking apart in the air. But one labeled MW 18014 on the 20th of June brought von Braun great glee when, firing vertically to try and determine the reason for the air break ups, the A-4 rocket flew higher than any man made object had ever been. Reaching and breaking the Karman line that stood at 100kilometres. It, in fact, greatly passed this line and MW 18014 reached 176 kilometres becoming the first ever sub orbital space flight.

In July Kammler started to reveal his hand. Dornberger was a danger apparently. Kammler appealed to Generals to try and dislodge the man who had been at the centre of German rocketry for 17 years but it did little. What did change everything however came in the form of a briefcase.

Britain hit by V2

On the 20th of July 1944, at Hitler’s base the Wolfschanze in Rastenburg, Claus Graf Schenk von Stauffenberg placed beneath the long oak command table of Hitler, in a wooden hut in the humid and hot forest, a briefcase. Inside the brief case was explosives primed with a captured British acid capsule fuse. It was supposed to begin the turning of the tide against Hitler, whose death would remove the untouchable man from the hierarchy, and allow the army to seize the Nazi ministries and most importantly take back command from the hands of the SS.

Using the reserve forces, commanded by General Fromm under an operation famously known as Valkyrie to arrest the leaders of the Nazi government, the army would seize the offices of state and begin a transfer of power to a different cabinet of silent dissidents. But it all hinged on Hitler being dead. Unfortunately the plan failed, Hitler survived. Keitel was injured and Fromm was seen as a traitor and executed.

For Dornberger, this 20th of July plot, sealed the fate of the rocketry program. With Fromm gone, Himmler, the head of the SS and not part of the army that was now seen as corruptible and traitorous was put in command of the reserve forces and his other departments which in turn allowed him, to get what he had wanted for so long, control over the rocket program, and place it under one strong leader, a man who knew nothing of science, Kammler. Dornberger was dismayed, and contemplated a transfer but was persuaded to stay by von Braun.

It came to be, under Kammler, that little over a month after the failed attempt on the life of Hitler, that Hitler ordered the commencement of the use of the A-4 now named in Göbbels’ propaganda as the Vergeltungswaffe Zwei, or retribution weapon 2, or V2 against Britain and the territories that were now in the hands of the Germany’s enemies.

The first launched were on the 7th of September but both crashed shortly after they had been launched. Then on the 8th more were fired. The first struck Paris, that had just enjoyed a fortnight of liberation and it caused little damage near the Port d’Italie, then two more were launched from near the Hague. In the air a crack like that of a whip echoed followed by the sound of a heavy body rushing at great speed through the air was heard and shortly after at 18:43 the first V2 hit London. Hitting Staveley Road in Chiswick, 63 year old Ada Harrison, 3 year old Rosemary Clarke and Sapper Bernard Browning on leave would perish. Another hit Epping, but caused little damage and no fatalities. The British tried to hide the fact its home turf had been hit by a missile launched from Europe that need not be piloted from the public, blaming the damage and deaths of gas pipe explosions. And meanwhile Kammler continued to dispatch with those who stood in his way to real power.

The month of September would see hundreds of rockets moved to the front. Three hundred and fifty alone that month were transported to the front in preparation to be fired. Even though the A-4 was not fully developed and in August production of the rocket had, according to Dornberger reached 600 units that month. But it was other bottlenecks that restricted the production of the rockets. Alcohol production as a fuel, which earlier in the year was being produced at an Austrian brewery that had exploded due to a spillage of the highly explosive substance. But also liquid oxygen which was extremely difficult to store as its boiling point was minus 183 degrees Celsius and the plants producing it were now in enemy hands.

Another issue was that the rocket team needed rockets to test new developments on, but Kammler, who was now in charge of all rocket firings operationally speaking would often refuse the team the test bodies, instead wishing for the rockets to be targeted at Britain and other enemy areas.

From September the launching of all rockets was done under the command of Kammler and Dornberger was placed in control of the labour in the Mittelbau-Dora factory. Kammler, neither a soldier nor a technician had managed to place himself in a roll that should have been occupied by someone who was both. But that was the structure of the SS placing the most vicious, vile and loyal of Nazi Germany in the rolls they were only qualified to command by their brutality and expulsion of those capable on merit.

The Plainsman

Cine Rex after V2 strike
Cine Rex after a V2 struck. credit Felixarchief Antwerpen

As the leaves began to turn brown and fall away from the trees, and the only source of life not complacent in the manufacturing of war became skeletal and dark, the V2 rocket launch sites retreated into the Netherland’s as the Allies advanced. From Ocotober the two principal targets were London and Antwerp. London as the symbol of the British Empire and Antwerp as the Allied supply lines predominantly ran through the port. Antwerp had been liberated on the 4th of September by the 11th British Armoured and in order to disrupt the lines Hitler ordered the Vengeance weapons against the city.

For the civilians if they though liberation from the Germans would bring peace they were gravely mistaken as the screeching of the V1 and V2 rockets pierced through the air. From the 7th of October 1944 the rockets rained over the city bringing much death and destruction. Then on the 16th of December a hail of V2 rockets rained down upon Antwerp.

At the Cinema Rex the afternoon matinee had just begun. A showing of Cecil B. DeMille’s ‘The Plainsman’ was to delight the liberated audience as the first festive season not under the Hackenkreuz since 1940 began. In Hellendoorn however, in the still Nazi occupied Netherlands, the SS Werfer Battery 500 were carrying out the final preparation stages for the launch of a V2.

Eleven hundred people were gathered in the cinema. Citizens of Antwerp, officers of the British and US armies and their allies mingled with the towns folk as they settled into enjoy a relaxing atmosphere.

There was little warning. The people in the streets heard it first, that piercing crack followed by the howl of the body sawing through the air. But inside the movie playing drowned out the warning sounds. At 15:23 the roof of the Cinema Rex exploded.

A direct hit from the V2 and the roof collapsed. Rubble caved in on the audience who had been quietly enjoying the relief from the war when the war reared its ugly head once again. Those sat beneath the balconies were lucky, the balconies provided some protection, but not for long as shortly after, the weakened structures began to crumble. There was terror as the people ran for the exits that could be opened.

When finally after a week the rubble was cleared the true death toll came to light. 537 fatalities composing of 297 Allied soldiers, and a large number of children who had been taken to see the film. But what the people who were in the cinema that fateful day, 16th of December 1944, could not have known was that they had been part of the final push of the German war machine, for it was on that day that the Ardennes offensive began, an offensive of the German armies to try and strike at Antwerp and cut off allied supply lines, that after a period of surprise and success would stagnate into the infamous Battle of the Bulge.

As the Ardennes Offensive lost traction and the allies seemingly never ending supply of man power pushed the borders of the once Greater German Reich back towards the Old Reich the rocket scientists and von Braun realised if they were to loose their bases in the Netherlands that the principal target of London would soon be out of range.


Earlier in the rocket program the scientists had played around with the winged form of the A-5 a rocket that was to glide, and now the the team, knowing that if they were to look as if they were not producing more designs and carrying out tests might look complacent to the ever watching eye of Kammler and the SS, a charge of defeatism could easily be levied against them. So it was decided that a winged version of the A-4 might, as a gliding rocket, provide the distance and range to continue the aerial bombardment of England from locations further within the Reich. The project designs, with swept back wings, looked like the rocket designs of the dreams of a young Wernher. However, with the constraints of war, the rocket, in the end, was an adapted A-4, with more conventional wings, and quite aptly carrying the monocle A-4b.

Tests were less than successful. There was little time. They had to prove that they were continuing with research with all their might so that the enemy of the German Reich might still be quashed by its technical prowess, but it was placing a bandage on a bullet hole. The first A-4b did not have the complicated electronics to manage the wings and flight, instead it’s stabilisers were beefed up in power. It crashed shortly after take off. The second proved the adaptation of a previous design, when supposedly dealing with high technology, was riddled with faults when one wing fell off during flight. However it had flown steadily prior to this problem at both sub and super sonic speeds, passed over 4,400 kilometres an hour, travelling far faster than a bullet. Dornberger, very appropriately called it, the A-4 bastard.

If the A-4b could be put in production would it change the war? That was a question those at the top asked themselves, but for the rocket scientists they knew it was too late. The Nazi elite could only see potential when disaster was on their hands. It had proved so when Dornberger had proposed a anti-tank weapon, powered by a small rocket, it could be carried by a singular man who might then later be able to destroy a whole tank. He was laughed out of the meeting, the reason given that the device would make the troop too obvious, the American Bazooka proved them wrong and the Panzerfaust would eventually be hurriedly developed. There was also Operation Wasserfall and a similar idea that von Braun had put forward in 1939. The idea was to have a rocket that could be prepped, launched and climb to 35,000 feet in just 60 seconds and destroy enemy bombers. Guided by radio control by pilot on the ground, it would blow up in the vicinity of enemy aircraft destroying multiple planes. This plan was rejected in 1941 when the Luftwaffe said that their pilots and fighter planes would do this. Later, as Germany was increasingly bombed, the plan was given the go ahead for research, but all too late, for in 1943, in the raid on Peenemünde the head of the operation Thiele was killed along with his entire family. Now the A-4b, that if research had not been interferred with by the meddling hands of Himmler, the SS, and other members of the Nazi government it might have been able to be produced in a way that might have allowed for targetable super long range weapons to be created, instead, just a few days after the launch the sounds that those on Peenemünde were hearing, were not the sounds of rocket engines but of Soviet Artillery.

Soviet Assault

The great Soviet assault had begun on the 12th of January, the day that Dornberger had finally been given the power over the rocket program that he had desired since Becker’s suicide, but had been stollen from him by the hands of Himmler and Kammler, yet as ever it was too late. He was now head of “Working Staff Dornberger” and Kammler did not receive an invite. However, Kammler still hide much authority, especially with the immediate powers of the SS to threaten and do-away-with those they believed were a threat.

As the Soviets advanced news reports came in daily of their positions and it seemed as if Peenemünde might be over run at any moment by the troops of the Red Army. However, what they did not know was that the main brunt of the Red Army was to be diverted towards Berlin. However, with the perceived threat of the Red Army, the decision would shortly have to be made to relocate and as von Braun would tell his biographer later:

“Ten orders lay on my desk… Five threatened me with immediate execution if we moved ourselves from that spot, five state that I would be shot if we did not move.”

Kammler had ordered that the Peenemünde facility be evacuated to the slopes of the hills around Bad Sachsa. He was hoping for another 6 months at least of the war to get some of the projects into action, Dornberger was certain that this would not be enough even to get through preliminary phases of developement. Either way, the small towns of the Harz presented less danger than staying on the Baltic coast of moving to a larger city. But the bombing still had an effect. It was destroying the German means for war slowly, and the equipment needed to develop the rockets could not be found in a Germany that was smouldering in ruins. Kammler however was whipped into a frenzy. Firing machine guns to wake sleeping staff members to push them on in the hopes of a victory. Perhaps he knew that if Germany were to loose he had little chance of holding onto his neck.

von Braun in a fury to hopefully save his family was travelling to Oberwisenthal as the Russian front advanced, roughly around the same time to which the equipment was being evacuated from Peenemünde during which much of von Braun’s personal belongings were misplaced.

von Braun’s final visit to the Peenemünde estate came on the 27th of February 1945, the 12 year anniversary of the burning of the Reichstag that catapulted Hitler into dictator. With the trucks, cars, personal all gone the facility was a ghost of its once vibrant self. Where 4,000 people had been employed in developing rockets that von Braun had designed and had hoped would be a stepping stone to space but he had developed for war in order to nurture his dream now only the gulls occupied the tall test sights. Kicking the stones on the drive way he could only contemplate of what was to happen to his rockets and himself.

But on returning to the Harz he threw himself with great gusto into the work of still pursuing the continued German development of rocketry. The lamenting of Peenemünde would soon be forgotten as he drove around the region confiscating mines and areas where rockets might be produced, naturally by slave labour, and fired from. But could it all have been a ruse?

Even though the trucks had taken much equipment from Peenemünde much had also been lost. Even the equipment that had arrived could not be just dropped into place and the work could continue. Calibration was needed, clean buildings and facilities, not horse stalls and stone floors.

Work in the mines continued. Bodies of those enslaved littered the ground as multitudes of perished could no longer be burnt in the Dora camp crematorium due to the sheer number. But as many fell there were many more, who had been evacuated from Auschwitz, to replace them. The work load was intense the food little and the chance of surviving diminishing with everyday that passed. It wasn’t just food and over working however that was killing the workers. Kammler’s incisive drive to continue production had led to 58 prisoners hanged on the 12th of March, 30 on the 20th and 30 more on the 23rd. von Braun must have known.

Car Crash

On the 16th of March, as the bodies of the first 58 people hung still in the tunnels at Mittelbau-Dora, von Braun was on the road with a civilian driver towards Berlin. Travelling at night to avoid the ever present and menacing fighter planes of the Allied air services that might at any point target a passing car with their guns, like they had done the previous year with Field Marshal Rommel, the car, followed by another, slowly cut through the dark.

In the rear car was Hannes Lührsen, architect of the rocket facilities and Bernhard Tessmann, Lührsen’s chief designer. The driver of von Braun’s car was exhausted having been used by many an officer to ferry them as Germany collapsed and at some point during the night, Lührsen and Tessman watched on in horror as the car carrying von Braun left the road suddenly with both von Braun and the driver asleep.

When von Braun awoke he was in the wreckage of the car, his driver still unconscious, he was able to open the door despite the immense pain in his arm. With the door open he pulled at the clothes of the driver and heath him from the automobile. Soon after Lührsen and Tessmann arrived. An ambulance was called and for four hours in the night von Braun had to sit, his arm broken, his shoulder shattered and await a journey to a hospital but he, and the driver, were lucky to survive.

The next day von Braun was laid out in a hospital bed with his chest and arm in a giant plaster cast. It was the 17th of March and it was to be the day that the V-2 rocket would be turned against Germany.

At the beginning of March, the 7th, the battle of Remagen had begun with the capture of the Luddendorf bridge over the Rhein. German explosives had failed to fully detonate and the bridge had been left damaged but in tact. Hitler was furious. Troops had to be with drawn from southern and northern sectors to try and stem the American break out on the east bank of the Rhein and in doing so allowed the armies of Patton and Montgomery an easier advance. On the 14th Hitler ordered Kammler to destroy the bridge with the V-2 rockets after the frogmen of the SS had failed when they were spotted by the secret British weapon of the war the Canal defence lights, that highlighted the divers in the water allowing them to be easily shot and killed. Eleven V-2s were fired on the 17th at the bridge, but all missed, the closest just by 250 meters. Nevertheless, the same day, the bridge collapsed.

For Germany, the war was all but lost. For the Scientists Kammler gave the order to evacuate them all to the Oberammergau. For the V-2, the final rockets would fall on England on the 27th of March 1945, one of which killed Ivy Millichamp, 34 of Kynaston Road, Orpington, Kent.

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