Bomb Damage after a raid.
Peenemunde airfield showing the results of a bombing raid.
Targetting Map, August 1943
The outbreak of war in September 1939 had exacerbated a shortage of labour on the land and in industry in Germany, especially in mining, which suffered a shortfall of 30,000 workers on the Ruhr. A remedy ready to hand was the employment of foreign labour — an inevitable consequence of war and occupation. Polish workers drafted on to the land were at first described as Retter in der Not (saviours in time of need). By 1940 they were being deployed in munitions industries, including the rocket plant at Peenemünde. By the spring of 1941 some 600 Polish workers were joined by 1,000 contract Italians and about 100 French workers. In these early years of highly secret development the numbers of foreigners were limited for reasons of security.
In the years 1942 to 1943, as the A4 rocket project was geared up for production, both at Peenemünde and at the project’s new assembly annexes — the Zeppelin plant at Friedrichshafen and the Rax-Werke plant in Austria — the need for unskilled labour became acute. The key figure was Arthur Rudolph, Peenemünde’s chief engineer, who was originally preparing to use Russian prisoners of war made available in increasing numbers as the Eastern front swallowed up drafted German troops (in the early days Russian prisoners were mostly left to die of starvation and disease). In April of 1943, however, the rocket chiefs were offered another solution in the form of SS concentration camp prisoners.
In the early days, while the camps were principally a means of incarcerating those suspected of real or alleged opposition to the regime, the SS had attempted to profit from camp-based enterprises. By 1942, however, the primary purpose of the camps in Poland was the extermination of Jews. That deadly shift in purpose coincided with a decision by Himmler to begin a new form of slave enterprise whereby the SS provided camp prisoners to private and government industries at an ‘economic’ rate. The SS Economic and Administrative Main Office typically charged four marks per day for unskilled labourers and six marks per day for skilled ones. The SS provided accommodation, minimum sustenance and security. Such was the overcrowding, the harshness of the conditions, especially in winter, the starvation rations, the lack of hygiene, the brutality and the workload, that death was an inevitable consequence of the slave labour regime.
Arthur Rudolph preceded his deal with the SS by a visit to the Heinkel factory in Oranienburg, north of Berlin, in April 1943. There he found 4,000 slave labourers — mainly Russians, Poles and French — living in cramped conditions and kept imprisoned behind electric fences and barbed wire. Rudolph wrote a memorandum noting the advantage of exploiting prisoners especially in view of the ‘greater protection for secrecy’.
The historian Michael Neufeld points out that the memorandum is indicative of the chief engineer’s advocacy (a circumstance well known to Dornberger and von Braun), as well as management, of slave labour ‘months before the creation of the infamous Mittelwerke underground facility’ in the Harz mountains (in other accounts, including that of von Braun, the blame for slave labour in rocket production was put exclusively on Himmler).
On 11 June 1943 Hitler raised the priority of the rocket programme ‘above all other armaments production’, and Dornberger was made a Brigadier-General the next day. Rudolph now asked for 1,400 concentration camp prisoners for Peenemünde. The first arrivals came two weeks later from Buchenwald near Weimar together with sixty SS guards. By one account (that of Willy Steimel, a criminal convict employed as a prisoner administrator at Buchenwald) the regime involved an eleven-hour day with one day free a week. Within four months three prisoners had died of disease and two of injuries. One was shot escaping and four others died desperate deaths by drinking rocket fuel.
As if to seal the importance of the vengeance weapon, Hitler now invited Dornberger and von Braun to visit him at the Wolf’s Lair on 7 July. Once again Hitler was shown film of the A4 in flight, featuring the successful 3 October launch in the previous year. According to Dornberger, Hitler declared that the rocket should carry a 10-ton warhead and that 2,000 missiles should be manufactured every month. When Dornberger explained that such figures were not possible, a ‘strange, fanatical light flared up in Hitler’s eyes. Dornberger feared that Hitler was going to break out into one of his mad rages.’ It was at this point that Hitler uttered his crazed incantation: ‘But what I want is annihilation — annihilating effect!’3 Before the end of the meeting Hitler awarded von Braun a state professorship and signed the necessary documentation on the spot.
At this meeting Hitler had insisted that foreigners should not be employed on the project for reasons of security. But his order was immediately disobeyed. By early August Dornberger ordered that as a ‘basic principle’ production in all the assembly plants should be carried out by prisoners. Peenemünde was to have 2,500 detainees from concentration camps, the other plants would have 1,500 between them. By the third week in August, however, the carefully laid plans of some eight years were disrupted by an unexpected visitation from the skies.
Through the course of 1943 British intelligence had been gathering information and taking high-altitude photographs of Peenemünde and other secret weapons plants. The photographs gathered on these missions were an important factor in an Allied operation of sabotage and aerial bombing known as ‘Crossbow’.
By the summer of 1943 security had been tightened at every level at Peenemünde; flak batteries were strengthened around the district and SS guards were maintaining strict vigilance at the perimeters. The raid on Peenemünde on the night of 17-18 August was not entirely unexpected. At one o’clock in the morning 600 heavy RAF bombers droned across the night sky, dropping 1.5 million kilograms of explosives on the plant’s facilities.
The raid destroyed most of the residential areas of the East Peenemünde site for the A4 development, including the settlements that housed engineers, and barracks where some 3,000 foreign workers were living behind wire. Walter Thiel, the chief engine designer, was killed along with his family in their air raid shelter. The Development Works buildings were extensively damaged as well as administrative offices: von Braun was seen scrambling around in the ruins trying to recover plans and documents.
There had been about 12,000 workers resident at Peenemünde at the time. More than 700 were killed, 500 of them foreign. The factory buildings where the rockets were assembled were largely undamaged. The destruction looked much worse than the reality and most of the damaged buildings were left in ruins as a kind of camouflage, which discouraged the RAF from carrying out further raids. Historians of the raid, both German and British, claim that the rocket effort was set back by about two months, which meant that some 740 rockets were not launched. The death of Thiel, however, was a significant blow and the anti-aircraft missile Wasserfall lost momentum as well the development of a two-stage rocket that might have reached deep into the British Isles. Martin Middlebrook, whose book The Peenemünde Raid exhaustively chronicles the incident, adds to these consequences the profound effect on German morale.
There were many individual tales of shock, from the young woman with a fur coat over her nightdress who had run away from Peenemünde screaming that she wanted to go home, to the Luftwaffe general for whom the raid on Peenemünde ‘was the one burden too many and who committed suicide’.
Peenemünde had been found: the ‘sleeping beauty’, as some had called it, had been awoken and the incident prompted a fateful decision. Himmler moved swiftly to involve himself in the future of the rocket programme now that its removal and dispersal had become inevitable. A week after the raid Himmler arrived at the Wolf’s Lair and persuaded the Führer to give the SS a share in the management of A4 production and the brief to move the factory underground and draft in concentration camp prisoners. Testing would be moved to a site in Poland. The Reichsführer-SS had apparently persuaded Hitler that the raid had been the result of espionage: secreting the production plant underground would ensure greater security as well as protection from further bombing.
The construction of the new facilities would be in the hands of SS-Brigadeführer (Brigadier-General) Hans Kammler, an individual of remarkable ruthlessness. Himmler was determined to have a role in the complex jostle for power that surrounded the A4 project. And yet, in the light of his rapidly expanding reputation for producing miracles, Albert Speer still remained ultimately in charge.
By 26 August, just a week after Himmler’s talks with Hitler, the site for the underground factory had been chosen: a series of tunnels used as storage for oil and chemical weapons in the Kohnstein mountain near the city of Nordhausen in the Harz mountains: it would be known as Mittelwerke (Central Works). At the time of the decision there were two tunnels, about a mile in length, each large enough for two sets of parallel rail tracks, one of which ran through the length of the mountain. On 28 August concentration camp prisoners were rushed to the site to begin work on the penetration of the second tunnel through the length of the mountain and twenty cross-tunnels between the two.
Meanwhile research and development sites were being dispersed around the Peenemünde district itself, and throughout Germany as far afield as Kochel in the Bavarian Alps, where the wind tunnels were to be reassembled. Despite the difficulties of communication between the separated entities, development on the A4 was resumed within two months; but the involvement of slave labour expanded to an unprecedented level and the brutal treatment of concentration camp workers had few parallels. Four thousand male prisoners were drafted into the Mittelwerke tunnels within six weeks, mostly Russian, Polish and French, but no Jews at this stage (they would be drafted in the summer of 1944). The figure would rise to 8,000 in November. Kammler told his staff: ‘Pay no attention to the human cost. The work must go ahead, and in the shortest possible time.’ The SS accordingly created a living hell.
A French resistance leader, Jean Michel, wrote an account of Mittelwerke as he experienced in mid-October 1943:
The Kapos and SS drive us on at an infernal speed, shouting and raining blows down on us, threatening us with execution; the demons! The noise bores into the brain and shears the nerves. The demented rhythm lasts for fifteen hours. Arriving at the dormitory… we do not even try to reach the bunks. Drunk with exhaustion, we collapse onto the rocks, onto the ground. Behind, the Kapos press us on. Those behind trample over their comrades. Soon, over a thousand despairing men, at the limit of their existence and racked with thirst, lie there hoping for sleep which never comes; for the shouts of the guards, the noise of the machines, the explosions and the ringing of the [locomotive] bell reach them even there.
The work went on day and night and the tunnels were frequently racked with explosions as the rock was dynamited to extend the tunnels, filling the atmosphere with choking dust. Hygiene and washing facilities were non-existent and the men cut oil drums in half to create latrines. Michel writes: ‘Some deportees are too weak and collapse. They have dysentery. They foul their trousers. They no longer have the strength to sit over the barrels, even to get to them.’ In the first seven months of the operation 6,000 prisoners died (including those transported back to the death camps).
In December of 1943 Albert Speer toured the Mittelwerke and subsequently wrote to Kammler praising him for an achievement ‘that far exceeds anything ever done in Europe and is unsurpassed even by American standards’. After the war he took credit for improvements to the barracks, known as Dora, that were being erected for the prisoners outside the tunnels. As in other instances, his self-serving post-war remarks are unreliable.
Speer clearly bore responsibility for the horrors of Mittelwerke, which he shared with Himmler and Kammler. There is evidence that Dornberger and von Braun had also advocated the use of slave labour as part of a productivity calculation. Von Braun, however, was soon to have a curious brush with the SS that would distance him from Himmler and the SS in decades to come, providing him with an alibi of sorts against accusations that he was implicated in slave labour exploitation.
In February of 1944, according to a manuscript article written by him after the war, von Braun received a phone call to report to Himmler’s headquarters in East Prussia. He recollected that he felt scared when he was shown into the Reichsführer’s office. Himmler, who reminded von Braun of a schoolteacher rather than a monster steeped in blood, greeted the young rocketeer politely. According to von Braun, Himmler now said, ‘Why don’t you come over to us?’ It was a plain invitation to leave the service of the army and dedicate his services to the SS. Von Braun replied that in General Dornberger he had the best boss he could wish to have. That seemed to be the end of the affair.
The following month, however, von Braun and his close associates Klaus Riedel and Helmut Gröttrup were arrested and charged with having stated that the main task of their research was to ‘create a spaceship’. They had also been overheard, their accusers alleged, commenting that the war was turning out badly and that the A4 was an ‘instrument of murder’. In addition, and more seriously, they were guilty, it was said, of being associated with communist cells.
Only by the energetic services of Dornberger and, it appears, the direct intervention of Speer with Hitler was von Braun eventually released after two weeks. The others were set free a short while later. Even though von Braun appears to have been in some danger, for he might well have been executed had the charges stuck, his arrest turned out to be a stroke of fortune for his subsequent career as head of space research in the United States in the post-war era. It bolstered his image as a scientist who had doggedly maintained a non-political stance and who was even credited with having been persecuted by the SS. The truth of the matter was that Himmler had perpetrated the allegations in order to take over the A4 project.