Peenemünde’s Legacy I

Peenemünde’s death was followed quickly by its rebirth elsewhere. Even before the war was over, teams from the major Allied powers began searching for the spoils of the Baltic coast center and its revolutionary technology. In central Germany, U.S. Army Ordnance moved quickly to seize parts for one hundred A-4s, as intact missiles were nowhere to be found. Speed was of the essence. Thuringia was to be part of the Soviet zone of occupation, and the Red Army might move forward as early as the beginning of June. Ordnance’s Special Mission V-2 also managed to ferret out the location of the Peenemünde archive from a former manager who had seen Huzel and Tessmann before they disappeared. Trucks whisked the 14 tons of paper out of the mine on May 27, allegedly just as the British began setting up roadblocks in what was to become their zone of occupation. After some delay, the Soviets occupied the Mittelwerk on July 5. Realizing what they had in their hands, a Soviet intelligence team that included Sergei Korolev, the Chief Designer of the Soviet space program in the 1950s and 1960s, was sent to investigate Peenemünde. What the Russians found was quite disappointing. The evacuation had stripped the center of much of its equipment, the defending forces had blown up many buildings, and the occupying Soviet units had carried off some of what was salvageable. Eventually the Soviets dynamited the rest.

At the Bavarian ski resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, von Braun, Dornberger, and other Peenemünders were interrogated not only by U.S. Army Ordnance but also by numerous American and British intelligence teams, many of which showed themselves to be laughably ill-informed, in the Germans’ opinion. Ordnance officers were well aware that the guided missile interested not only other Allied powers but also other American agencies, such as the Army Air Forces, which everyone expected to become a separate service in the near future. Although the incipient Cold War certainly played a role in Ordnance’s motivations, it was no more important than a “denial policy” that applied to everybody. The American government sought to prevent a repetition of the Weimar Republic’s secret rearmament in other countries, and American services and agencies sought to exploit German achievements to benefit the nation and themselves—not necessarily in that order. (The American tradition of interservice rivalry puts the Third Reich’s internal battles in perspective.) Thus, when the leaders of the German rocket program sought to negotiate with Ordnance, they scarcely needed their document cache as a bargaining chip.

The real questions became, how many Peenemünders would come to the United States, and on what basis would they be hired? Ordnance’s interest in the German Army rocket program was influential in the creation of “Project Overcast” by the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff in July. The official rationale for Overcast was the temporary exploitation of 350 German specialists to help in the defeat of Japan, but the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki soon rendered that purpose moot. Overcast went ahead anyway, and Colonel Holger Toftoy, chief of Ordnance Rocket Branch since late June, moved to fill his quota of one hundred Peenemünders. Von Braun was chiefly responsible for drawing up a balanced list of people and then persuading them to sign on for what was, theoretically, only a six-month commitment. The former technical director decided that he could not do with fewer than 115 or so specialists, and Toftoy went ahead to acquire them. Like many of his colleagues, he did not let the wording of orders get in his way if he could avoid it.

The Soviets were naturally disappointed not to get von Braun, Steinhoff, and other leading engineers of the program, although they did find low-ranking people and much equipment following their occupation of the Nordhausen area. They broadcast offers to Peenemünders to come over to their zone, where they would receive excellent positions at good pay. A few individuals were willing to accept, the most prominent being Helmut Gröttrup, who had been arrested with von Braun and had been Steinhoff’s deputy in guidance and control at the end of the war. Although he was one of the most left-wing members of the rocket group, personal resentments more than political affinities seem to have caused him to cross the line after being evacuated from Thuringia by the Americans. He was not satisfied with the deal that Wernher von Braun was trying to strike with the United States. Besides, other Peenemünders falsely accused him of being the one who revealed the location of the documents. Gröttrup became the head of a rocket institute near the Mittelwerk after the Russians had begun to restore some of its manufacturing capability.

Although the French also began to contact some rocket specialists, U.S. Army Ordnance’s main competitor for leading Peenemünders turned out to be the British, and that only temporarily. In order to understand better how the A-4 worked, the British Army had created Operation Backfire. After some inter-Allied conflict, the two countries forged an agreement to lend some of the Germans earmarked for the United States to Backfire, which launched three missiles from the German North Sea coast in October 1945. A few other Peenemünders not wanted by von Braun and Toftoy were taken to Britain, most notably Walter “Papa” Riedel, who had been exiled to the Zement project in late 1943. The one person Ordnance could not get back from the British was Dornberger. According to a U.K. interrogator, the former rocket general had “extreme views on German domination, and wishes for a Third World War.” Moreover, the British were determined to try Dornberger in Kammler’s place for indiscriminate V-2 attacks on civilians. They kept him in a POW camp until 1947, but the hypocrisy of such a charge made a trial untenable—roughly 1 million Germans and Japanese had been killed by Allied bombing. Because of the narrow focus of war crimes investigations, the rocket general also avoided trial on the one charge that could have stuck: complicity in the exploitation of slave labor.

While Dornberger sat in jail, U.S. Army Ordnance conveyed across the ocean nearly 120 selected Peenemünders, the essence of a development organization that had once employed six thousand people. Von Braun had already departed for the United States by airplane with six others in September 1945, followed in stages by the rest, who traveled by ship during the winter months. All were eventually assembled in the desert at Fort Bliss, near El Paso, Texas. One of their first tasks was to assist in scientific and military V-2 launches that began at White Sands Proving Ground, New Mexico, in April 1946. The chief role of the von Braun group was, however, to cooperate in planning future rocket development with Project Hermes, which Ordnance had contracted to General Electric in 1944 after the magnitude of the German rocket effort became clear. The Germans, however, were frustrated at their primitive laboratories and the postwar cutbacks that seemed to derail any hope for a return to accelerated work.

Toftoy and the Ordnance Rocket Branch had to struggle to satisfy the Peenemünders in the face of limited budgets and the restrictive boundaries of their ambiguous status. (They ironically called themselves “prisoners of peace”; they were not legal immigrants, and their freedom of movement was limited.) In order to retain a few valued specialists, the Army, like the other services, also had to bend the rules regarding exclusion of individuals with dubious Nazi records. Under Project Paperclip, which had replaced Overcast in March 1946, the long-term use of former enemy scientists and engineers had been provided with a stronger legal basis. But security reports for a number of individuals, including von Braun, had to be revised or fudged to circumvent the restrictions that still existed. Some writers have seen those actions as evidence of a conspiracy in the Pentagon to violate a policy signed by President Harry Truman, but it really reflected a conscious choice by the U.S. government, approved up to the level of the Cabinet at least, to put expediency above principle. The Cold War provided ample opportunity after 1947 to rationalize that policy on anti-Communist grounds, but the circumvention of restrictions on Nazis and war criminals would have gone ahead at some level anyway, because the Germans’ technical expertise was seen as indispensable.

Thus when the Army’s own investigators came looking for witnesses and evidence for the Mittelbau–Dora war crimes trial, which was held at Dachau in 1947, it is no surprise that Ordnance was none too cooperative in granting access to the Fort Bliss Germans. The whole story of Mittelwerk and its prisoners was to be obscured as much as possible, because it would besmirch Army rocket development. Indeed, from the very end of the war, if not before, the Peenemünders had divorced themselves from any responsibility for slave labor; the SS provided a convenient scapegoat for all the crimes associated with the program. It was a position that the American authorities found easy to accept.

With that issue buried rather quickly, von Braun’s group was free to continue to play a historic role in the rise of the guided missile and the space launch vehicle, particularly after the Cold War spurred heavier American investment in the technology. In 1950 the Army transferred the group to Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, where they became the premier rocket development group in the United States. Their arrival in the States had in fact changed the whole balance of Army rocket activities, since the Germans displaced the smaller groups that had begun to flourish in World War II, like the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

At Huntsville, one of the keys to the Germans’ success was the “everything-under-one-roof” approach developed at Kummersdorf and Peenemünde under the direction of Becker and Dornberger. It proved very compatible with the U.S. Army’s “arsenal system” of in-house development. Under von Braun’s leadership, the German-dominated group successfully developed the nuclear-tipped Redstone and Jupiter missiles in the 1950s. The Redstone—which was really just a much-improved A-4—then became the vehicle that put the first American satellite and first American man into space. Finally, under NASA aegis after 1960, the Peenemünders crowned their success with the phenomenally reliable Saturn vehicles, which launched Apollo spacecraft into orbit and put humans on the moon.

The rebirth of Peenemünde in Huntsville was necessarily unique, because the center’s engineering leadership had survived as a coherent group. But the Baltic coast center was also in some sense reborn in the many other postwar missile projects that sprang up in the United States and elsewhere. The transfer of Peenemünde’s technology was crucial to the U.S. Army’s work on anti-aircraft missiles and the Air Force’s early research on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), although personnel and ideas from the smaller German rocket programs had a role as well. In France and to a lesser extent in Britain, Peenemünders played an essential role in the development of missiles and space launchers. Even in the Middle East and China, the transfer of German rocket technology, often through indirect routes, was critical to guided missile proliferation.

But the Soviet Union was the most important heir to German rocket technology outside the United States. After the Soviets had built up Gröttrup’s rocket institute, they rounded up the Germans at gunpoint on October 22, 1946, and shipped them off to Russia, along with thousands of other specialists from the eastern zone. Gröttrup and a few other leaders received reasonably comfortable accommodations near Moscow, while the majority of the rocket engineers and their families were dumped on a rather primitive island in a lake north of the capital. A year later, on October 30, 1947, the Russian military fired the first re-manufactured V-2 (R-1) from a bleak semi-arid site in the south not too distant from Stalingrad.

Gröttrup and some of his assistants were important advisers at those launches, but the Germans soon found, to their frustration, that they would not be fully integrated into the Soviet rocket program. They were set to work designing new advanced missiles that remained paper projects, because Stalin’s military had decided to pump the Germans for their knowledge and then to toss them aside. The Gröttrup group was gradually cut off from contact with regular design bureaus. Beginning in 1951 its members were sent back to their native country. Communist paranoia and traditional xenophobia had prevented an effective integration of German talent such as had occurred in the United States. The Soviets also had many highly capable rocket engineers of their own. Impelled by their inferiority in nuclear weapons and long-range bombers, they pushed ballistic missile development more energetically than did the United States prior to 1954. The result was Korolev’s Sputnik surprise of October 1957, a triumph that rested to no small extent on a rapid and effective absorption of Peenemünde’s technological revolution.

The German Army rocket program clearly had a profound impact on science, engineering, and warfare in the second half of the twentieth century. But that inevitably raises a question that might be called the central paradox of Peenemünde: Why was the Army’s guided missile technology such a bad investment for the Third Reich when it was so valuable to everyone else after the war?

To answer that question properly, a cost-benefit analysis is needed. A systematic accounting of the Nazi regime’s expenditure on Army guided missile research, development, and production does not exist, but it is possible to make a rough estimate. According to May 1945 statements by Dornberger and von Braun, the Army facility at Peenemünde (including, in all likelihood, the ill-fated Production Plant) cost 300 million “gold marks” to build. The center’s mid-1944 monthly expenditure of 13 million marks equaled an operating budget of about 150 million annually, although it would have been less earlier in the war, when Peenemünde was smaller. (Expenditures before 1939 were so small by comparison that they can be disregarded.) The largest single expense was A-4 production. By Mittelwerk’s price list alone, the Reich paid the company approximately 450 million marks for nearly six thousand missiles, but this cost omitted the warhead and the guidance system. There is no reliable data on the total cost of mobile launch vehicles, troop training, construction of bunker sites and liquid oxygen plants, expenditures at Zeppelin, Schlier, Zement, and so forth. Thus 2 billion marks would appear to be a reasonable, even conservative, estimate. If those marks are converted according to the gold standard of that era (4.2 marks to the dollar—a problematic assumption), this amount equals about half a billion U.S. dollars of World War II vintage or about 5 billion current (early 1990s) dollars.

By way of comparison, the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb cost the United States about 2 billion 1940s dollars, or four times as much. Since the German war economy was significantly smaller than the American one at its peak, the Army rocket program imposed a burden on the Third Reich roughly equivalent to that of Manhattan on the United States. Such a comparison makes it almost superfluous to explain why the German Army rocket program was, in military terms, a boondoggle. Even compared with Anglo-American conventional strategic bombing, the V-2’s results were pathetic. The total explosive load of all A-4s fired in anger was scarcely more than a single large RAF air raid! Moreover, the 5,000 Allied civilians killed by V-2 attacks (leaving the prisoners aside) were dwarfed by many tens of thousands of dead in single raids on Hamburg, Dresden, and Tokyo, not to mention Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

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