text © Don Davis
The first V-2 and the dawn of the Space Age
The developments leading to launchers capable of lifting spacecraft have their origins in weapons development. Technology is available, as is much of everything, to destroy or to build. The use of rockets to explore space later became the means of understanding many things formally unknown to us, giving us the insight to ask more questions of the Universe. A historic benchmark on our path to this knowledge was the first successful flight of the 'V-2' rocket on October 3, 1942, the day the rocket graduated from a firework to a vehicle.
Because of a vivid recollection
which Krafft Eriche personally shared with me of that first successful
V-2 launch, while we attended the Apollo 17 launch cruise, I felt
inspired to learn what I could of that great moment. Such an event
is a tangible expression of many underlying causes and trends,
and a brief sketch of some of these is given as the background
to this technological milestone, which approached the atomic bomb
itself as the most significent invention of the Second World War.
In this presentation of the first succesful flight of the V-2 and its historic background, the written accounts of the participants were used whenever possible, particularly the vivid recollections of Dornberger and Von Braun which appeared in 'The Coming Of The Space Age' edited by Arthur C. Clarke. Where Dornberger and Von Braun's accounts differ I defer to Von Braun.
& Von Braun
The romance of big rockets excited
the imaginations of several important Germans who realized what
could be done with enough resources. In a society rebounding from
losing the 'War to end all wars', rockets were adopted as a cause
by many young enthusiasts in the wake of circulation of ideas
of space travel in literature, especially the publication of Hermann
Oberth's 1923 book The rocket In Interplanetary Space.
Fritz Lang's Frau Im Mond ('Girl on the Moon') had appeared in theaters as among the last of the silent movies in 1928. This influential film introduced to the screen many of the elements familiar to space enthusiasts, such as the stage rocket, and the effects of acceleration and weightlessness. The most enduring legacy of this film was the dramatic device of the countdown of the last seconds before the ignition of the rocket. This was later adopted as practice for actual launches as well as for nuclear bomb tests! Oberth was sought out as technical advisor on the film, and he tried unsuccessfully to build a liquid fuel rocket for the premier of the movie.
German Rocket enthusiasts, with networking between them facilitated by Willy Ley, actually built small but functioning liquid fuel rockets which relied on combining fuel elements through complex plumbing to create a controlled combustion. This is fundamentally different from the ancient powder filled tubes invented by the Chinese in the early 1200's A.D. One of these new rockets climbed over 1000 feet in October 1931. The next year the German Army showed interest in their work with Captain Walter Dornberger, head of powder rocket development, visiting their facilities. In 1929 Dornberger had been assigned the task, by Army Ordinance development, of developing a rocket capable of greater range than Germany's legendary 'Paris Gun' which lobbed shells 65 miles during the World War. What Dornberger saw led to his offer to key personnel to work for him in an Army development program. Among these young tinkerers was Wernher Von Braun, most gifted of that generation of German rocketeers.
After spirited debate some of them took the offer, seen as an opportunity to perform the kind of Research and Development they had only dreamed of with the pocket money previously available. After years of doing work in garages it must have seemed miraculous to see buildings, test stands, and manufacturing plants spring up to support their needs. They were defining the essentials of a new technology, as other individuals in other countries were doing, except that one country's government generously funded the crucial research and development and the others didn't. Although obviously a tool for war at its inception, the potential for other uses later on must have been a factor in the motivations in at least some of these people. Rockets were not specified as forbidden by the treaty Germany was bound by following it's defeat in the first World War, so pouring money into developing such vehicles could proceed without raising undue alarm. Within a few years working liquid fuel rockets were being fired from test stands. The many failures were dealt with and the art of rocketry began to mature. The versatility and inventiveness of the rocket team was shown in January 1935 when Major Von Richthofen, a cousin of the famous ace, paid the facilities a visit to express curiosity about using rockets to propel aircraft. Within 6 months a Heinkel fighter plane was modified to carry a rocket engine which was operated by the pilot. This was test fired on a stand for Von Richthofen, who was greatly impressed with the speed with which the work had been carried out as much as it's success. Thereafter money poured into the place, the larger scale of the operation causing the facility to be moved to Peenemunde, an isolated peninsula of land from which significent work could be done without attracting international attention.
By mid 1937 most of the old rocket crowd had been gathered into Dornberger's group, of which Von Braun was the most important in the overseeing of the work. Von Braun and the other technicians had to join the National Socialist party in order to continue their work, although ironically the Nazi party was largely hostile to intellectual and academic interests. Among the prominent people the gifted engineer Arthur Rudolph was rare in apparantly being an enthusiastic Nazi, joining the party early in its ascendency. Dornberger used his diplomatic and political abilities to protect Von Braun and the others from the predatory bureaucrats lurking in the Nazi government. A few other influential visionaries saw to it the program was nursed through periods of wavering support. Many military development projects were under way in Germany at the time, often redundant but a few truly important. A few of these, such as the deployment of Jet fighters, were subject to irrational delays often initiated by Hitler himself. Adolf Hitler tended to mistrust new technologies evolving since his World War I career, and was slow to grasp their advantages. At times he even seemed to let omens he saw in dreams affect his priorities. By the late 30s the process of rocket development had attracted some influential fans, including Army Supreme Commander Field Marshall Von Brauchitsch, and most importantly the powerful Minister of Armaments Albert Speer. In 1939 Hitler cut off funding for big rockets, however Speer and Von Brauchitsch arranged for hefty production contracts for Peenemunde to keep the facility busy. Speer continued to arrange covert funding for large rockets in what became a 'pet project' for him during the early crucial years of development.
In a sheltered supportive environment the Peenemunde Group labored to quickly develop a large military rocket. Besides having a range considerably greater than that of the shells from the Paris Gun, a design constraint was that the missile had to be able to fit through existing railway tunnels. The final design for their big rocket, called the A-4, was a 46 foot long behemoth which could hurl a one ton warhead up to 200 miles. It's smooth aerodynamic shape and streamlined fins had the exotic look of a space vehicle, it seem like a visitor from the future. Engineers and various ranks of workers of very different status, such as university professors, specialist prisoners of war, and soldiers worked on the project. In those days people had jobs as 'computers', almost all women. These rows of slide-rule wielding ladies at their desks in one building were called the 'measurement girls'. One group of these 'computers' used so much paper to display trajectory data they were nicknamed the 'wallpaper girls'. Recruitments of competent people was done through universities and through a unique device of creating a specialized 'battalion' of military personnel with scientific and technical skills drawn from the general military population. Among the people suddenly finding themselves ordered to Peenemunde was a tank platoon leader who had fought from Dunkirk to the suburbs of Moscow, Krafft Ehriche. In the spring of 1940 Wernher Von Braun was approached by an aid of Reichsfueher SS Heinrich Himmler who urged that he join the SS. After getting Dornbergers advice, Von Braun finally wrote his consent and was promptly appointed a Lieutenant, with yearly promotions.
The year 1942 was an especially
crucial year of World War II. Hitler's conquests had made him
the ephemeral master of Europe. Germany's penetration of Russia
was reaching it's peak, with Stalingrad becoming the focus of
vast resources for devastating attacks by the Germans and unrelenting
defense by the Soviets. The two armored Colossi of Western and
Eastern Europe were locked in a death struggle, as vast as the
rest of the Second World War put together. Some German technical
advancements which could have changed history for the worse if
fully exploited fell victim to fundamental weaknesses in the mentality
of the Nazi ruling elite and the wartime disruption of industrial
production. Jet and rocket propulsion were being tried in fighter
aircraft, but the jets underwent years of delay to satisfy Hitler's
irrational whims. The tiny Komet rocket fighters, admittedly fast
and deadly, were woefully brief in their powered flight after
which they helplessly glided to a touchdown on a ski like skid.
A few of the Komets would blow up suddenly in flight.
On June 13, 1942 the first full scale test flight of an A-4 was attempted. After rising for one second the thrust stopped, causing the giant projectile to settle back to Earth, the fins crumpling as it tumbled on it's side. Smacking into the concrete, the fuel filled body burst like a great water balloon then flashed violently into a billowing inferno. Number 2 was launched August 16, and rose majestically until it spun out of control and exploded about 45 seconds into the flight, about 8 miles high. Unfortunately a lot of VIPs were witnesses to that failure. The pressure was on. The midsection of the missile was strengthened, and ongoing design improvements were incorporated into the next flight vehicle. By this time a 'do-or-die' sentiment made everyone especially careful, knowing the hazards of being an expensive exotic government program unable to produce results in wartime.
The turning point came on the third try.
The morning of October 3,
1942 was clear and beautiful at the Peenemunde complex. Atop one
of the camouflage draped buildings Captain Walter Dornberger stood
with a microphone in one hand, his powerful binoculars in the
other. Near him a small television apparatus provided a tiny pale
picture of the A-4, which was hidden from direct view by a tree
covered low hill. The benevolence written into his features was
starkly highlighted in the bright sun with lines of worry. This
was probably going to be the critical demonstration of the worthiness
of the idea he and his gathered talent had long slaved for. Next
to Dornberger stood his lifelong friend, Colonel Leo Zanssen.
Both men had no love for the Nazis and as a military commander
of Peenemunde Zanssen had assisted Dornberger in keeping the Party
types at arm's length.
The paved facilities around them gave away in the distance to green marshlands and coastal forests. A red brick cathedral stood above the green hills, clear in the sunlight. Nearby other observers were taking their places. On the isolated launch pad stood the results of everyone's best work, eagerly watched through periscopes by engineers in their nearby concrete buildings, others watching through closed circuit television. The tall rocket displayed the graceful tapering contours dictated by the extremes of physical forces it would experience, a vision of the future. Further away, among and atop the buildings, every vantage point was swarming with spectators, There were many people 'in the know' but not really supposed to be there. Tinny voices on loudspeakers barked out the status of the various systems, and engineers were queried on how their part of the process was going. A voice over the loudspeaker called out "X minus three, Counting off".
Swinging his binoculars sideways, Dornberger spied Wernher Von Braun among a small group atop a nearby building. Apart from them sat a pair of professional observers, both peering through special binocular periscopes and giving their own accounts of what they were witnessing, each with a secretary taking down what they independently said. White vapor poured from the Oxygen tank valve near the base of the rocket, with a band of frost encircling the location of the oxygen tank itself well above the middle of the vehicle. The access platforms were moved away, leaving the massive projectile standing alone as Man's newest challenge to the sky.
"X minus one" barked the announcer. The Pennemunde Minute, legendary for it's subjectively great length, had begun. The preparations were over, and the situation was in the hands of the kind of fate people have long prayed to in hopes of influencing it as they stand helplessly by. Dornberger forced himself to stare at the television image of the rocket and not at his watch. A green smoke trail appeared as a flare signaling 10 seconds left was fired. The wind changed it's shape only slightly. "Ignition" was loudly announced as sparks sprayed from the engine nozzle and quickly turned into a violent column of flame roaring against the concrete. Cables fell away from the rocket, smoke billowed around it and the missile was then operating under it's own battery power. The announcement "Cleared" was made as the final buildup of thrust carried it's force past that needed to allow the 13.5 ton machine to overcome gravity. Slowly, magnificently, the pointed tip of the A-4 rose above the smoke and into the view of everyone.
Dornberger saw it seemingly emerge from the treetops through his binoculars, gleaming in the Sun against first the distant green scenery then the blue sky, unleashing a column of bright flame as long as the rocket itself. It rose steadily along it's intended path, straight and true with no spinning. Five seconds after ignition, the thunder of the launch reached the buildings, the waves felt as well as heard while rippling through everything. The roar filled the skies and rolled over the forest and across the oceans beyond. Higher and faster the rocket climbed, becoming lighter as fuel was spent, the continuing engine thrust acting against less weight every moment. Slowly the missile began it's programmed tilt in it's path to achieve the desired 45 degree angle for maximum range. The rocket's roar began to change into a sputtering of slowly lowering tone, with other local noises gradually emerging from the din.
seconds elapsed since the flight began were counted out continuously
on the loudspeaker, but other speakers gave information, such
as a 'measuring tone' of a slowly changing pitch broadcast from
the rocket which gave an audible indication of the speed the vehicle
was traveling due to the sensitivity of the receiver to the 'Doppler'
shift of the rocket's transmitter. The tone was changing from
a low humming to a piercing trill as the speed built up. During
the otherwise monotonous counting, occasional flight milestones
were announced, such as "Sonic velocity". Now supersonic
speed had been reached! Through the binoculars the rocket, shortened
by perspective, spouted it's orange flame brightly against the
dark blue heavens. A half minute had passed, and double the speed
of sound was reached. The rocket now flew higher than any mountain
on Earth. Just after 40 seconds into the flight a vapor trail
appeared, with alarmed murmurs from the crowd expressing fears
that the rocket had exploded. An announcer reassured everyone
what they saw was simply the oxygen vent opening.
Now that this rocket had lasted longer than it's predecessor, each moment was spent in new territory. Other voices expressed fears the rocket was flying erratically, when what they observed was actually the initially straight vapor trail being stretched about by swift high altitude winds. Until that moment only meteors had left trails at such altitudes. At the 54 second mark the engine cut off was announced, and through binoculars only the glowing vanes along the inner edges of the rear fins were seen as a tiny white speck at the end of the faint darker mass of the still climbing rocket.
The A-4 was sailing higher than any human being would go for another 18 years. If one could follow the missile the sky above would be jet black, with brighter stars and a diagonal line of planets visible in the same sky as the brilliant morning Sun. The distance to the horizon would be a thousand miles and growing, with the curvature of the Earth obvious. A fuzzy envelope of luminous sky colored air separates the dark blue seas and lushly forested coastlines below from the eternal empty vastness above. With practically all the air left behind, the rocket arced in a graceful mathematical path unhindered by wind resistance in a sterile vacuum environment. Unfiltered sunlight harshly illuminated one side of the projectile, outlining in crisp shadows every dent and rivet along its length. A painting of a woman sitting on a V-2 looked out from between the fins of the missile towards the actual waning crescent Moon high in the southwestern sky. As the A-4 reached the peak of its arc it skimmed the realm of the rest of the universe.
Dornberger at last put down his binoculars, drawing his breath slowly. It had worked! A decade of work had made a huge mark on History! Turning to Zanssen, who was tearfully laughing, they shook hands, yelled, and gleefully embraced like victorious schoolboys at the end of an important ball game. Atop and between buildings people were shaking hands, clapping, and even dancing. Dornberger descended from his vantage point and grabbed a vehicle, weaving his way through the jubilant confusion. Spying Von Braun, he pulled him into the car and careened to the launch site to join the people gathering there. The scene at the smoldering pad was chaos as everyone babbled their impressions to the senior staff present. The flame's effects on the firing area was worse than expected but would be planned around the next time. By now the rocket was in it's fourth minute of flight, falling with great speed.
Dornberger hushed everyone up to hear the end of the flight take place. The tone broadcast from the rocket still sounded, but the 3000 mile per hour speed of the missile was about to be quickly slowed by one third as it re-entered the dense atmosphere, and the danger of overheating and breakup haunted him, a moment of truth no less than the actual launch. Then, a few seconds short of 5 minutes of flight, the measuring tone abruptly began lowering as the speed dropped during the atmospheric descent, with the word "Impact" cutting off the tone. Now it was an unqualified success! A dye capsule in the rocket would reveal it's location to a search plane. The impact point was some 124 miles distant, with an altitude of nearly half that having been reached.
Professor Hermann Oberth ran out of a building and clasped hands with Dornberger with congratulations while exclaiming "This is something only the Germans could achieve!" The crescent Moon with a lady sitting on it painted on the fin was in honor of the film 'Frau im Mond', for which Oberth was technical advisor. Dornberger replied to Oberth "The day on which we had been privileged to take the first step into space must also be a day of success and rejoicing for you, and that the congratulations must go to you for showing us the way". At the foot of the building Dornberger had witnessed the launch from an engineer had just placed a large boulder with the words "A great weight has fallen from my shoulders" painted on it. That evening a small celebration was held in the officer's club with many key workers on the project addressed by Dornberger, who clearly saw past the immediate use this invention would be put as he said:
"The history of technology will record that for the first time a machine of human construction, a 5.5 ton missile, covered a distance of 120 miles with a deflection of only two and a half miles from the target. Your names, my friends and colleagues, are associated with this achievement"..."Our self steering rocket has reached heights never touched by any man-made machine. Since the tilt was not carried to completion our rocket today reached a height of nearly 60 miles. We have thus broken the world height record of 25 miles previously held by the shell fired from the now almost legendary Paris Gun. The following points may be deemed of decisive significance in the history of technology: We have invaded space with our rocket and for the first time-mark this well- have used space as a bridge between two points on the Earth: we have proved rocket propulsion practicable for space travel. To land, sea, and air may now be added infinite space as a medium of future intercontinental traffic. This third day of October, 1942, is the first of a new era in transportation, that of space travel..." The lecture then turned to the need to develop and deploy the new weapon as soon as possible.
In some ways that day became
the peak experience of the Rocket Team's German days. Never again
would the accomplishments of Peenemunde seem to offer so much
potential, nor would the wartime environment again be so friendly
towards realizing their dreams. But the power of that day's triumph
radiated forth like the sound of a shot in the night.When Speer
mentioned the success of the test to Adolf Hitler, the Fuehrer
at last took an interest in the project. A meeting between Hitler,
Dornberger, and Von Braun took place on July 17, 1943. In
the three quarters of a year since that first successful A-4 flight
(later renamed the V-2 by Goebbel's propaganda ministry) the War
had taken disastrous turns for Germany. Early in 1943, after running
the gauntlet of the fortunes of war, dwindling supplies, and the
freezing weather the remnants of the army trying to take Stalingrad
hobbled in long tattered lined into surrender. This event, perhaps
the most intensely concentrated battle in history, marked the
pivotal turnaround in the war with Russia. The recent surrender
of the famed Afrika Corps during the loss of North Africa was
another alarming loss of territory under German control. July
and August saw the last attempt by Germany to regain the initiative
beaten back in the Battle of Kursk, both the largest tank and
air battles in history.
In March of 1943 the Germans were deprived of the 'heavy water' they needed to pursue their nuclear weapons program in a well directed raid by Norwegian resistance forces. This alone did more to seal the fate of the Third Reich than many of the large scale battles yet to come. The walls were slowly closing in on the Reich, and drastic new weapons seemed more inviting.
As Von Braun and Dornberger waited for their audience, they kept reviewing what would be said. Finally they were admitted to Hitler's presence with pomp and ceremonial announcements. The Fuehrer stepped forwards, from the first moment appearing not quite so 'bigger than life' as he once was. To Dornberger the strain of the recent years on Hitler's appearance showed alarmingly, with an appearance of weariness and a stooped posture the main differences noted from his 1939 meeting. The man who had been able to project a Messiah like persona before millions was turning into the reclusive over medicated tyrant of his last days. Accompanying the harried dictator were Speer and other top officials with their aides.
Von Braun knew his presentation well, leaping into an enthusiastic description of the workings of the rocket and it's effects upon impact. At this point Hitler interrupted, and cautioned that a very sensitive fuse would be needed to assure the warhead didn't bury itself to excessive depth before exploding, thus limiting it's effect. Hitler was never shy on offering his opinion on anything. The rest of the lecture went well, and at the proper moment the lights were dimmed and a color film of the October 3 test was shown. The vision of this streamlined leviathan hurling itself skyward upon a piller of fire transfixed Adolf Hitler. As the rocket roared to life on the screen the fires of the previous decades reawakened in his piercing blue eyes. It was as if the deliverance he yearned for was being revealed to him, and sudden hope animated his further intrigued inquiries. His desperate imagination brought significance beyond rationality to what this weapon could mean to the war. Amid an obsessive tirade on the need to build more destructive weapons of this type, he paused for a moment and reflected "Europe and the World will be too small from now on to contain a war. With such weapons humanity will be unable to endure it."
Hitler than gave the A-4 weapon the highest priority, at least in his mood of the moment. When Von Braun returned to Peenemunde, a check on Hitler's concerns of delayed detonation upon impact proved them to be valid! Hitler had a knack for inspired intuition but often trusted it in inappropriate domains. A funding crisis early in the program was initiated by a dream Hitler supposedly had suggesting the V-2 would be a failure. Similarly reasoned decisions fatally delayed the appearance of German jet fighters and imprudently cut back on arms production while operating under optimistic war scenarios. Germany was to begin fighting a grim 'delaying action' war, especially against the Russians. Although the Germans would inflict lopsided casualties on the Russians, desperation increased as the territory under German control steadily dwindled. In the meantime Allied bombing increasingly disrupted the industries needed to quickly bring about the dreams of the engineers. Only a few projects went anywhere, such as the V-1, a primitive cruise missile, and of course the V-2, forerunner of the ballistic missiles.
The Olympian days of German rocket development were over. It was time to turn the missile into a weapon. Long gone were the days of public exposure to ideas of space travel in Germany. In the meantime German news media had been forbidden to use the word 'rocket' at all, and every copy of Lang's film Frau im Mond within German reach was quietly confiscated and destroyed. With success at Peenemunde came interest from the dreaded Heinrich Himmler, with his overtures followed by heavy-handed measures to move the SS into the rocket game. In a meeting called by Himmler in February 1944 at his East Prussian headquarters, Von Braun found himself being invited to join the inner staff of the man he described as being "as mild mannered a villain as ever cut a throat". In his polite delivery Himmler assured him of greater access to the Fuehrer and the end of delays caused by Army red tape. Von Braun quickly reiterated his loyalty and admiration for Dornberger, emphasizing the delays were primarily due to technical and not organizational causes. Von Braun then faced down Himmler, telling him that the V-2 was like a fragile growing flower which needs sunshine, a gentle gardener, and a measured amount of manure. What Himmler was proposing, he then said, was like a jet of liquefied manure which could kill the little flower! The leader of the SS stared at Von Braun, by then a Major in Himmlers paramilitary empire, and regarded him sternly with squinty steely eyes behind those wire rimmed glasses.
Two weeks later Von Braun and others were arrested by the Gestapo, facing a treason charge which in wartime Germany was courting a death sentence. Athough they were evidently spared the brutality most others similarly charged went through in the hands of the SS, they were indeed being taught a lesson! After two weeks they were rescued by Dornberger successfully appealing to Speer and even Hitler for his rescue, on the grounds that without Von Braun there would be no V-2. By this time, however, the introduction of such a weapon was of declining importance to the outcome of the war.
Continuous high priority status
may have led to the missile being available close to a year earlier.
Allied bombing and shrinking frontiers steadily pinched off necessary
supplies for this and other new weapons. In a way the very pursuit
of the V-2 project sapped the efforts of rocket specialists who
might have developed better air defense methods which, along with
the jet fighters properly deployed, may well have defeated the
allied air offensives. Speer later actually regretted his going
out of his way to push the V-2 rockets, each one of which used
nearly enough resources to build a fighter plane. It was yet another
fatal error in the conduct of the war which saved the world from
a German plunder based slave empire. Within Hitler's shrinking
realm, suffering beyond precedent continued, largely due to the
activities of the dreaded SS carrying out Hitlers agenda. From
the sheltered enclaves of the laboratories rocket production shifted
to the dank realms of the new massive underground facility near
Nordhausen in the Hartz Mountains, prepared to foil bombing raids
such as one which had devastated Peenemunde in August 18-19, 1943.
The failed attempt to kill Hitler on July 20, 1944 caused a violent purge of the German Army officers, including the head of Army armaments Friedrich Fromm, who had the misfortune of being the commanding officer of Lt. Col. Klaus Von Stauffenberg, the man who left the briefcase bomb in the conference room. Himmler assumed the imprisoned Fromm's duties, and the leadership of the Rocket program soon passed from the best of Germany's Prussian military tradition, represented by Dornberger, to it's worst represented by the SS. Himmler soon appointed a favorite 'rising star' in the organization, SS Major Hans Kammler, to run the rocket program. Things really got ugly under his influence.
Kammler was an icily calculating man whose ambition was matched only by his cruelty. His grim career included the demolition of the ruins left by the bloody suppression of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and the overall architectural layout of the Auschwitz death camp including the fabrication of the gas chambers and crematoria. His new project was the 'Mittlework' V-2 factory tunneled within the Harz Mountains. Kammler would gather a work force by the expedient method of mass arrests, boasting openly about the 'protective custody' his workers toiled under. Early in one morning he awakened officers by firing a machine gun, yelling that if he couldn't sleep no one else would! In the deteriorating conditions of the later months of the war he assembled a sizable slave empire, and desperate projects were undertaken with no regard to the human cost. A few of the Peenemunde group who were assigned to work with him were later to regret that association, most notably Arthur Rudolph, a brilliant engineer who, after his work on Apollo's leviathan Saturn V rocket a generation later, would be hounded by reports of his working at the 'Mittelwork' plant. While searching for specialists in various critical fields among those caught up in the SS roundups, Von Braun once visited the Buchenwald concentration camp and transferred prisoners from there to Mittlework. He is known to have tried to be protective of his immediate workers. Thousands nevertheless died at Mittlework under hellish conditions. Kammler and his underlings worked masses of people to death in dank noisy tunnels. Shafts being tunneled by prisoners using hand tools often collapsed, burying in one case hundreds. Explosions killed more, with subsequent manufacturing improvements geared towards efficiency rather than safety. Under Kammler's direction over 1300 rockets would strike England, 518 on London.
In February 28, 1945 Kammler placed a pilot inside a 'Natter', a small piloted missile. This man, Luftwaffe Lieutenant Lothar Siebert, became the first person to be launched vertically in a rocket. The honor was a brief one. After climbing 330 feet, the cockpit bubble tore loose, abruptly decapitating the pilot. At 1600 feet the Natter faltered and dived, ending this inglorious debut for manned vertical rocket flight. In the end, Kammler plunged to the depths of depravity, shooting groups of prisoners himself just for the hell of it. Once over 200 inmates fell victim to one of his blood orgies. Finally he retreated to his special train, the 'Vengence Express' and issued a flurry of orders fewer people each day could hear much less respond to. Probably realizing his diminishing career potential, he finally ordered an aid to shoot him before the approaching Russians could capture him. Another story has him meeting his end in Czechoslovakia in an April gunfight with partisans. His boss Himmler, after years of a pampered life, had an especially brutal awakening. Within Himmler's SS empire Hitler's darkest visions were realized as several groups, especially the Jews, Russian prisoners of war, and the Gypsies were worked to death, starved, and murdered by the millions in secluded concentration camps. The collective list of death and POW camp victims of the above categories probably approaches 10 million, about 6 million of that number being Jews, which Hitler vowed to exterminate above all others. Shunned in his pathetic diplomatic overtures to the West, Himmler, once among the most feared men in Europe, spent his last days hiding until his capture and suicide.
On April 30, with the walls of his underground
bunker shuddering from Russian shells, Hitler shot himself in
the temple while biting on a poison vial, his new bride Eva Braun
at his side. The blanket wrapped bodies of the newlyweds were
carried upstairs and lowered into a shell crater outside the bunker's
conical roofed emergency exit. Precioius cans of gasoline were
poured over them, then ignited with a tossed blazing rag. The
battle taking place around the small Viking funeral thundered
among burned out facades of once gleaming edifices like the rumblings
of fierce thunderstorms across jagged granite peaks. The small
gasoline fireball briefly flared, then after initially retreating
the small group of officers stepped forward from the shelter entrance
to face the pyre and raised thair right arms in a final Nazi salute.
As the bodies burned the city of Berlin around them blazed from
one end to the other. The sparks rolled skywards in twisting forms
as if a malevolent demon was glimpsed in its retreat from its
The bulk of the Peenemunde group migrated amid the chaos of collapse toward the Americans and away from the Russians. The story of the archiving of their engineering data and the exodus Westward, culminating in the surrender to the Americans and their subsequent adventures essentially continuing their previous work, has been well described elsewhere. They were fortunately regarded as valuable by the country the group knew they had the best chance to continue their work in.
Many of the Peenemunde group ended up crafting the near mythical behemoths of the Apollo program, the greatest peacetime project in history. The German rocketeers were able to finally fulfill their lifelong dreams with the spectacular Saturn rockets which carried men to the Moon. In two developmental 'windows of opportunity' a generation and an ocean apart, two very different charismatic leaders important in world history, Adolf Hitler and John F. Kennedy, sponsored the vital work which in one case began, and in the other matured, the means to spread human presence far beyond the reach of those who came before.
In both of these efforts substantially the same German rocket team worked themselves into the right place and the right time to assume a pivotal role in fullfilling a grand vision. The accomplishment of the Moon landings will beam forth like a lighthouse across the ages as a noble use of a great nations scientific and technological prowess.
Books referenced for this account:
Clarke: The Coming Of the Space Age. Meredith Press, 1967
Ordway, Sharpe: The Rocket team. Thomas Y. Crowell, 1979
Speer: Inside the Third Reich. Macmillian Company, 1981
Piszkiewicz: Wernher Von Braun The Man Who Sold The Moon
Yves Bon : Planet Dora