Bumper V-2 launch, July 1950. Photo: NASA.

“The rocket will free man from his remaining chains, the chains of gravity which still tie him to this planet. It will open to him the gates of heaven.”

Wernher von Braun

 

The world’s first functional long-range ballistic rocket, the V-2, weighed almost 28,000 pounds and could rumble fifty miles up into the crisp unexplored atmosphere. It was so technologically advanced that Nazi Germany became the first country to put an object made by human hands into space. During one particular test in the summer of 1944, launching from an island on the Baltic Coast called Greifswalder Oie, their rocket soared past the “Kármán Line”—which, in marking the boundary between our world and the black void beyond, puts the beginning of space at 100 kilometers above sea level, or roughly sixty-two miles straight up—by almost fifty miles. But the Nazis weren’t interested in setting altitude records. They only cared about height, so that the V-2 could arc over the top of a deadly parabola and then scream its way back down toward earth, where it would punch holes into cities hundreds of miles away. The V-2 was never designed to stay up in the heavens. It was designed to fall.

This Nazi rocket was essentially just an enormous projectile that didn’t require a cannon. A button was pushed, fuel ignited in blinding fury, and off it went into the clouds. The V stood for Vergeltungswaffe, or “vengeance weapon.” For its victims, it blew open the door to the next world. The V-2 was the brainchild of a young man named Wernher von Braun. Quick with a smile, he made parties sparkle with laughter and was known as something of a ladies’ man. Though only in his twenties, von Braun knew how to organize, how to charm, and—most importantly—how to turn blueprints into realities. He was the center of gravity for the V-2 program at Peenemünde: all major decisions orbited around him, and he made sure his rockets hit their intended targets. Von Braun joined the Nazi party in 1937, and three years later, Heinrich Himmler personally invited him to join the SS. Although von Braun accepted this commission, he would spend the rest of his life bending attention away from his involvement with the same organization that ran Dachau, Treblinka, and Auschwitz. 

At first, Hitler was totally unimpressed with the V-2. He saw it as simply a massive artillery shell with an extremely long range. But as Germany began to lose the war, he slowly warmed to the idea. He wanted to punish the Allies by turning their pretty little cities into smoldering wastelands. On a July evening in 1943, von Braun dimmed the lights in an underground bunker and showed the Führer a silent movie of a V-2 taking off. As the film splashed life against a concrete reinforced wall, Hitler sat slumped in a wooden chair, a black cape draped over his shoulders. He watched as, in brilliant color, a rocket shot into the sky on a mute flame, then arced away at three times the speed of sound. Hitler beamed and jumped to his feet. He wanted to know what the “annihilating effect” of the warhead might be, and apologized that he hadn’t believed in the project sooner. Clapping his hands together, he made the young SS officer a professor on the spot. It was a rare honor. Within days, an order was given for thousands of V-2s to be built. The goal was to launch them like locusts towards New York and Washington, D.C. In time, maybe they could even reach Chicago.

After the war, when fame tapped him on the shoulder and he became the smiling face of America’s fledgling space program, von Braun made sure to downplay his involvement in the darker aspects of this effort. He talked instead about blueprints. He focused on gyroscopes, propellant, and lift. It wouldn’t be the last time he would obsess about such things, nor would it be the last time he would help make the impossible possible. In two short decades, von Braun would stand on the Florida coastline, part of another event that would shake the world’s understanding of reality.

*

After American and British bombers pulverized the existing plant at Peenemünde, German rocket assembly moved underground. Rather than rebuild a factory that could be hit again, the Nazis decided that everything should be hidden beneath a mountain. And so it was that they created a secret underground concentration camp. They marched skeletal prisoners into an old gypsum mine and ordered them to make it bigger. The prisoners plugged dynamite into rock, and blasted tunnels into a stubby mountain range called the Kohnstein. SS- Sturmbannführer Wernher von Braun visited the underground factory several times—he worked in an office just eleven miles away—and although he would later say the working conditions were “hellish” in the tunnels, he apparently had no qualms about using slave labor to advance his career. Few Nazis did.

The official name of the camp was Dora-Mittelbau, and it was built less than ten kilometers from the city of Nordhausen. Resting in the north of the Thuringia district, Nordhausen was graced with medieval architecture, a fine cathedral, and—before the war changed so many things—it was a proud city that had stood for over a thousand years. It was home to distilleries, breweries, and factories that made transportation equipment. At night, people gathered in restaurants to drink a popular beverage called korn, which is made from fermented rye. Swastika banners hung in the streets and the radio delivered good news about the future that Hitler was bringing to the nation. At first, the good news seemed unending: the annexation of the Sudetenland, the Anschluss of Austria, the conquest of Poland, and through it all, mighty England seemed powerless. And then the Führer truly outdid himself; he conquered France in less than two months. It seemed impossible. Something that years of bloody trench warfare had failed to accomplish between 1914 and 1918 had been achieved in just six short phases of the moon. After the invasion of the Soviet Union, however, the good news didn’t seem quite so frequent. If anything, the war seemed to be turning. Broadcasting from Berlin’s Sportpalast in February 1943, the Reich Minister of Propaganda, Dr. Joseph Goebbels, called for total war and promised that new “secret weapons” would soon be unleashed against the enemy.

Work began on the tunnels on August 28, 1943, when prisoners from the nearby concentration camp of Buchenwald were ordered to dig into a tough sedimentary rock known as anhydrite. It was so hard, in fact, that huge internal spaces wouldn’t need supporting beams. The Kohnstein was a natural fortress and it was obvious that American and British planes would never be able to bomb the assembly line of rockets hidden in its depths. Work on the tunnels accelerated, and by Christmas more than 10,000 prisoners were hammering and blasting their way into the Kohnstein. Deafening cracks of TNT sounded almost around the clock, dust particles filled up the prisoners’ lungs, and their blue-and-white striped uniforms were covered in fine powder.

The emaciated prisoners were ordered to clear away huge chunks of freshly dynamited rock. They tossed broken pieces into stubby rail cars known as grubenhunten. By sheer force of will, they muscled these carts down a track to a narrow-gauge locomotive, which pulled the stones out into the glare of the sun. These men—these expendable tools, these ghosts in waiting—were beaten if the grubenhunten were derailed or if they moved too slowly. There was no plumbing and the prisoners had to walk through streams of excrement. Not surprisingly, tuberculosis, typhoid, and pneumonia spread at fearsome rates. Withered men—husbands and fathers and sons—fell to the ground in unrelenting numbers. Still, the work continued.

To this day it’s unclear how many prisoners died building the tunnels, though the numbers are in the thousands. Their bodies were hauled away to Buchenwald, where they were burnt in a crematorium. As more prisoners were fed into the tunnels, the SS at Dora-Mittelbau requested their own oven for burning the dead; this wish was granted. Once the oven was fitted into place and fired to life, it didn’t take long before human ashes were tipped into a ravine that acted as a garbage dump.

By early 1944, both tunnels were finished, along with rail tracks that curved out from their gaping mouths. In all, some 35 million cubic feet of space had been gouged out of the Kohnstein to make way for the rocket assembly. Each tunnel was a mile long and two stories high. Think of Tunnel A and Tunnel B running parallel to each other with a gentle S curve to both. The two tunnels were linked by smaller tunnels. The world’s largest underground factory was finally ready for use, and the idea of the rocket was about to move from the realm of science fiction into the realm of science fact. What would soon roll out from this concentration camp would not only change the twentieth-century, it would rumble down the decades to come.

*

The V-2 had three different sections: the nosecone, which was packed with explosives and the navigation system; the center section, which held the propulsion system; and the engine, which had four tail fins around a nozzle to aid guidance and provide stability. The V-2s were assembled the same way that Henry Ford made his cars: each rocket moved down the tunnel and prisoners added parts as it inched for the exit. Near the end, the V-2s were painted olive green, laid down onto rail cars, and moved off to different locations across Germany. From there, maps were taken out. Coordinates were set. Countdowns began—five, four, three, two—and each rocket rumbled up into the blue. A column of smoke was all that remained as rocket after rocket curved for London, Brussels, Antwerp, and Paris.

But problems remained that prevented the V-2 from being mass-produced. In particular, Nazi scientists struggled with gyroscopes, turbo pump generators, and servomotors that moved the air vanes. These vanes proved especially tricky, because attempts at controlling something that was going several times the speed of sound were virtually unprecedented. How do you steer a bullet?

Although the missile could be launched from just about anywhere, the men in charge of these sleek messengers of death favored roads that ran through dense forests. After the rocket was placed on a mobile launcher known as a Meillerwagen, it could then be towed into a clearing, where it was propped upright and fired. Shortly after takeoff, the double-crack of a sonic boom could be heard for miles around. Bah-boom!

The V-2 entered English airspace at blistering speeds. No one knew it was coming.

And because the V-2 moved at nearly five times the speed of sound, air raid sirens all across London were suddenly useless. The rocket came straight down like a hammer. Upon impact, the warhead blasted a crater into the earth that was sometimes as wide as a bowling alley. Soil, brick, glass, and other debris fountained up. Moments later, ambulances and fire trucks whined awake. Smoke twisted up into the sky like a ghostly exclamation point. The rocket was no longer something of fantasy or the movies. It was now a weapon of mass murder.

*

A career soldier who had seen action in the Great War of 1914-1918, Walter Dornberger was a brilliant designer who held four patents in rocket development as well as an engineering degree from the Institute of Technology in Berlin. He was appointed to the Mittelbau Advisory Council in late 1943, where he thought up the mobile launch platforms that allowed individual V-2s to be moved around the countryside and therefore avoid detection from Allied bombers. After pacing the tunnels of Dora-Mittelbau himself, and being involved in crimes against humanity, Dornberger would go on to design high-performance aircraft for the United States. He would also play a significant role in the early development of the Space Shuttle. But before that, he and von Braun were honored at what had to have been one of the most unusual award ceremonies of the entire war.

It happened on December 9, 1944, at a place called Castle Varlar. This ancient monastery had been turned into a grand estate, and on this particular evening, the banquet hall was decorated with swastika flags, fine china, and silverware. Ivy was wrapped around a podium. A number of V-2s waited to be launched from the snowy gardens outside. Von Braun, Dornberger, and two other scientists were to be honored with the prestigious “Knight’s Cross,” and they wore tuxedos for the occasion. In between gourmet courses, the lights in the hall were shut off, a tall curtain at the end was pulled aside, and a V-2 was launched. Thunderous reverberations filled up the room as orange light from the exhaust flickered on the faces of the smiling men. The evening proceeded like this, alternating between food and firings.

Another important personality at Dora-Mittelbau was a man named Arthur Rudolph, who was in charge of production. Short and balding, he was von Braun’s right-hand man, making sure the V-2s were constructed properly and were rolling out of the tunnel at a steady clip. He didn’t care about prisoners dropping dead under his command; he only cared about quality control. He strolled through the tunnels to solve tricky engineering problems and, on at least one occasion, ordered production of the V-2s stopped so that all prisoners could watch a mass hanging. This was meant as a warning for anyone who might be thinking about sabotage.

As an enthusiastic Nazi, it was Rudolph’s job to make sure there was a constant supply of prisoners at Dora. His indifference to life is perhaps best exemplified by his reaction to being taken away from a lively New Year’s Eve party to solve a problem at the underground factory. With 1945 looming, a strap used to hold down the rockets wasn’t fitting properly. When he arrived at the tunnels, he realized there was nothing he could do until the morning. He didn’t notice the starving prisoners working around him at a fever pitch, nor did he care about the greasy black smoke that curled out of the crematorium. It’s possible that Arthur Rudolph stood outside Tunnel A on that evening, looked up at the moon, and wondered what the New Year would bring to him. Maybe, as he studied its bright celestial glow, he took long pulls from a bottle of champagne. A Château Lafite Rothschild, perhaps.

While we don’t know what Rudolph was thinking on that particular night, we do know that in the decades to come he, von Braun, and Dornberger would all become indispensable to America’s aerospace program. They would receive awards, honors, and ticker-tape parades. Their new country would welcome them. They would be showered with riches.

*

When the Americans discovered what was hidden at Dora-Mittelbau in April 1945, they packed up everything they could lay their hands on. Some 300 rail cars were loaded down with fuel tanks, fins, nosecones, servomotors, and engines. These pieces of the future were sent across the Atlantic to another secret camp: The White Sands Proving Grounds in New Mexico.

The V-2 was studied, examined, copied, and made better. On October 24, 1946, a camera was bolted to the side of the rocket and, as it roared up into the clear blue sky, snapped a photo every other second. It climbed to sixty-five miles (three miles above the Kármán Line) and took the very first photograph from space. The rocket tumbled back to Earth and smashed into the ground at a blazing 500 feet per second. Although the camera was destroyed, the film—encased in a heavy steel box—was not. The photo taken that day was grainy, yet the curvature of the earth can be seen clearly, along with a smudge of cloud. Scientists called it a “Rocket-Eye View” of the world. Nothing quite like it had ever been seen before.

The U.S. Army didn’t want the world to know about the technological wonders that had been found inside the mountain, so they kept the crimes against humanity that occurred at Dora classified. They believed the need for military secrecy was greater than the horrors that were committed. Propellant and sheet metal were given priority over blood and bone; certain numbers were given priority over others.

 

Design Specifications of the V-2:

Length: 45 feet, 11 inches

Diameter: 5 feet, 5 inches

Weight: 13.8 tons

Propellant: ethanol/water mixture and liquid oxygen Propellant Weight: 8,400 lbs.

Range: 200 miles

Peak altitude: 55 miles

Speed: 3,580 miles per hour Warhead: 2,200 lbs. of amatol

 

Number of Attacks:

1,696 on Belgium

1,403 on the United Kingdom 76 on France

19 on Holland

 

Number of Deaths due to V-2 Attacks:

5,500 (estimated)

 

Number of Deaths at Dora-Mittelbau:

20,000 (estimated)

 

Within months of World War II ending, a secret program called “Operation Paperclip” brought hundreds of Nazi administrators, chemists, and engineers to the United States. The numbers these men had locked in their heads were keys to new frontiers and new possibilities. And because their knowledge was in danger of falling into Russian hands, a blind eye was cast upon the crimes these gifted men may have committed. As they went about building jets and rockets and high-performance aircraft, any sticky questions were made to disappear. The dead were dead, the Cold War was turning hot, and it was a time for practicalities. America opened its arms to these men. They enjoyed barbecues and baseball. They tended gardens. They worked hard, and they got us to the moon.

The image Americans had of Wernher von Braun in the early days of the Space Race was that of an enthusiastic rocketeer, a genius. In a six-part series called Man in Space, which was made by Walt Disney and aired in 1955 on primetime television, cartoons about zero gravity appeared on the screen as von Braun cheerfully held up model rockets. He smiled and said that a space station could be built. It would be a floating city in the stars.

A few years later, von Braun launched America’s very first satellite. He made the cover of TIME magazine and was hailed as “America’s Missileman” for getting Explorer 1 up into the heavens. Von Braun’s problematic past with the SS and the Third Reich had been bleached clean. There was no mention of the tunnels, the V-2, or a ravine full of human ash at Dora-Mittelbau.

*

The Saturn V was monstrous. Colossal. It towered up thirty-six stories. And when it was filled with super-cooled fuel, it creaked and groaned like a living creature. It strained for ignition. What made the Saturn V particularly special was its engines. They were a masterwork of design. Thanks to an elaborate twisting and coiling of metal, liquid oxygen cooled the engine bells and kept them from melting; it acted like icy fingers moments before being funneled into the pathway of kerosene, also known as RP-1. In a thrust chamber, these two volatile gases flashed into an inferno. Thus, the fuel itself was used to cool the engine bells hundredths of seconds before it became flame. It was ice then fire, coolant then propellant, a dance of chemicals. Von Braun knew that a great deal of weight was needed to go to the moon, and his Saturn V lifted it all into the stratosphere in less time than it takes you to load the dishwasher.

See it. Hear it. Feel it.

That’s how people in the viewing area described what it was like to watch a Saturn V lift off. First, there was a silent scorching orange plume from the launch pad, which was quickly followed by mighty shockwaves that rippled across the swampy waters of the Kennedy Space Center. Birds fell dead from the sky. Crackling thunder filled the air. A moment later, reverberations hit people’s chests. Neckties vibrated. Quarters and dimes jingled in back pockets. Bracelets danced. And as the rocket continued to climb, it got louder and louder. People had to plug their ears. 

Compared to that, the V-2 was little more than a bottle rocket.

*

Today, rusted out parts of V-2s are still buried in the tunnels of Dora-Mittelbau, and an entire Saturn V in pristine condition is on display at the Kennedy Space Center. Wernher von Braun was in charge of both. But who thinks of the Dora camp when stock footage of a Saturn V lifts off for the moon? As the letters U…S…A trail before the camera, who wants to be reminded that the ghostly blueprint of a Nazi V-2 lives in the genes of America’s most famous rocket?

As for Dora, little remains of the camp today. Few people come to walk the grounds or climb the low hill up to the crematorium. The chimney, however, once roared with fire. At night, hellish flames once spilled up to the stars and, as they did so, the plume must have looked like an inverted rocket, a V-2 turned upside down. The building rumbled with the fuel of flesh and bone.

The camp was torn down by the Soviets after the war, because they needed the barracks elsewhere to house the homeless. They blew up the tunnel entrances to keep adventure seekers out. In 1995, the German government dug into the Kohnstein so that visitors could see the underground factory deep beneath the mountain with their own eyes. Inside, it is dark, cold, and littered with rusty debris. Although the water table has risen and flooded several areas, it is still possible to see painted numbers on the walls. Several desks, smashed toilets, and engine nozzles can be seen in the cone of a flashlight. Everything is waste and rubble and twisted metal. At this very moment, rusting parts of V-2s are hiding in the dark.

Also at this very moment, there are undisturbed boot prints on the surface of the moon. They are up there, dusty, powdery, and bathed in perpetual sunlight. The American flag planted by Apollo 17, the very last mission to the moon, has been bleached white by the never-ending glare of the sun.

To some people, the Holocaust and walking on the moon both seem impossible. It is easier to trust that human beings are not capable of such raw evil and such brave ingenuity. These people use the word “hoax”. They create elaborate reasons to undermine reality. It is no accident that some want to believe the two most profound events of the twentieth century never happened.

But they did happen. They both happened.

Their stories are not only about shadow and sunlight, but about who we are, and what we might become. These rockets we made can lift us up, or carry the payload of our undoing.

Patrick Hicks

Patrick Hicks is the author of The Commandant of Lubizec: A Novel of the Holocaust and Operation Reinhard, The Collector of Names, Adoptable, and This London. His poetry has appeared on NPR, PBS NewsHour, and American Life in Poetry, and his first novel held company among only 20 books selected for National Reading Group Month. He is the recipient of a number of grants and fellowships, including awards from the Bush Artist Foundation, the Loft Literary Center, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. A dual citizen of Ireland and America, he is the writer-in-residence at Augustana University, as well as a faculty member in the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College.

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