Many people regard Peenemünde on the Baltic Island of Usedum as the birthplace of space travel. In 1942, the first liquid-fuelled rocket took off from here into space at the speed of sound, yet it was undoubtedly designed as a long-range weapon. But after its first successful launch, Generalmajor Dr. Walter Robert Dornberger jumped up and uttered the words: Der erste Schritt für Menschen zur Weltraumerforschung. (The first step for mankind to start the world space exploration.) The so-called "Retalliation Weapon" was apparently far from his mind at this moment. From 1932, with Wernher von Braun, Walter Dornberger began to perfect the rocket engine. During WWII he directed construction of the V-2 rocket, the forerunner of all postwar spacecraft. In the U.S. after the war, he worked as an adviser on guided missiles for the Air Force. In the 1950s he participated in the Air Force–NASA project Dyna-Soar, which eventually became the space shuttle program.
Mittelbau-Dora was one of the last concentration camps founded by the National Socialists. The history of this concentration camp clarified paradigmatically the last stage of development of the concentration camp system: At the beginning of the Nazi regime concentration camps were used as improvised sites in order to fight the opponents of the dictatorship. From 1936 it had developed in the context of racial persecution to permanent places of detention. Finally, prisoners were ruthlessly exploited in concentration camps as forced labourers from 1943. Their death toll was factored into this. Mittelbau-Dora was one of the first and ended up by far the largest concentration camps, which was only established with the aim to exploit the labour of its inmates in the defence industry. Due to the forced labour in industrial plants and on construction sites and the establishment of numerous satellite camps the concentration camp system came in the second half of the war more and more openly known to German society, fully aware what was going on, without doing anything about it, just on individual motivation to help inmates, often with dire consequences. Here, the history of Mittelbau-Dora is a typical example of it..
|Original German contract for the production of A-4 rockets.'|
|Entrance to the tunnel road 'A' in Kohnstein, summer 1944|
The name Mittelbau refers to a complex of factories, storage depots, facilities and prisoner camps, some underground, that were used from August, 1943 until April, 1945 to manufacture and test the V-2 rocket near Nordhausen in central Germany. The main V-2 assembly line was located in an underground factory called Mittelwerk that was excavated beneath Kohnstein Mountain, about 2 km south-west of the town of Neidersachswerfen. The Dora concentration camp (later called Mittelbau KZ), where most of the Mittelwerk workers were imprisoned, was located on the south-west edge of the Kohnstein, near the southern portals of Mittelwerk tunnels A and B.
The immediate cause of the establishment of the Buchenwald satellite camp Dora was a heavy British air attack on the Army Research Centre Peenemünde on the Baltic island of Usedom during the night from 17 to 18 August 1943. Peenemünde was since 1936 under the leadership of the young Engineer Wernher von Braun and his military Counterpart General Walter Dornberger which had mushroomed into an extensive research centre for the development of missile weapons from scratch for the Army Ordnance Department (Department Wa Test II). The main point of the development work at Peenemünde was the so-called unit 4 (A 4), a ballistic missile, which under the Goebel's propaganda designation became known as "V 2"in 1944. (Vengeance Weapon 2), [This description is not quite correct, the German terminology was 'Vergeltungswaffe', which translates into 'Retaliation Weapon'.HKS]. In the summer of 1943, the series production of the rocket at Peenemünde and the planned other two production sites in Friedrichshafen and Wiener Neustadt was anticipated to start shortly. At all three assembly cites shall commence with the use of concentration camp inmates who were housed in satellite camps that are located close in proximity or even within the assembly halls.
|Location of Peenemünde at the Island of Usedom as indicated'|
Operation Hydra was a Royal Air Force attack on the Peenemünde Army Research Centre on the night of 17/18 August 1943. It began the Operation Crossbow strategic bombing campaign against Nazi Germany's V-weapon programme. At a cost of 215 British aircrew members, 40 bombers, and hundreds of civilian deaths in a nearby concentration camp; the air raid killed 2 V-2 rocket scientists and delayed V-2 rocket test launches for seven weeks.After Operation Hydra, Peenemünde fabricated signs of bomb damage by creating craters in the sand (particularly near the wind tunnel), blowing-up lightly damaged and minor buildings, and according to Peenemünde scientist Siegfried Winter, "We … climbed on to the roofs … and painted black and white lines to simulate charred beams!" Operation Hydra also included the use of bombs with timers set for up to three days, so along with bombs that had not detonated (e.g., because of the sandy soil), explosions well after the attack were not uncommon and hampered German salvage efforts.
|Target 3/Air/389, Attack order on Peenemünde, with highlighted targets|
|Konstein Mountain Ridge'|
The labour, both for the expansion as well as in the field of the underground factory, Kammler ordered prisoners from some 90 miles away Buchenwald concentration camp. Already on 28 August 1943, just ten day after the air raid on Peenemünde, the first 107 concentration camp prisoners from Buchenwald with their SS guards arrived at Kohnstein. Thus the Buchenwald concentration camp received a new sub-camp, the "Lobar Camp Dora" as it was termed in the correspondence of the SS. In the coming weeks and months, there followed almost daily, transports of prisoners from Buchenwald. At the end of September 1943 there were already more than 3,000 and by the end of October 6,800 concentration camp prisoners at the building site.
|'Latrines in the former Sleeping Gallery'|
Note; To view hotspot, click: http://www.v2rocket.com/start/chapters/mittel-map.html
Actually it was planned from the beginning, on a long-term basis, that prisoners to be accommodated in above-ground barracks, but its construction was delayed again and again, the expansion of the missile factory had priority. The working and living conditions in the tunnel exceeded in horrifying shock almost everything that the prisoners have had to experience in their previous prison camps. The wooden bunks were soon completely filthy with vermin and faeces. Washing facilities did not exist, and as to latrines they there were halved gasoline barrels that were placed at the front entrances of the road tunnel A. In the immediate vicinity of the sleeping tunnel work was performed continuously to the completion of the road tunnel A, whivh still had no outlet to the south side of the Kohnstein. Blasting and drilling machines spread a constant noise. High humidity, dense rock dust and toxic fumes made breathing a pain, and there was an unbearable stench of rotting corpses in the dark corners as well as the stink that permeated the air from the latrine tubs.. Working and "resting" was taken in "by turns". The shifts lasted twelve hours after which completed the working day, and rest was allowed, as it says in an inspection report of an SS-doctor dated December 23, 1943, "a consecutive three bedrooms layers (1 bedstead for three men '). Nevertheless, in the chambers there was a narrowness full of urge. Dead lay among the living".
Usually the corpses were stacked at one point in the driving tunnel 'A' and removed after registration. Unlike in other concentration camps, the SS took the daily prisoner strength messages in Kohnstein not too seriously, as prisoners could hardly escape from the tunnel system. For this reason, there were no daily roll calls, and soon the initially Sunday counts carried out in the open in front of the tunnel entrance were not continued, after several hundred prisoners were missing during a "General Appell" in the fall of 1943. Most of them were dead, collapsed and died from exhaustion, hunger and thirst or because of abuse or illness. Somewhere in the dimly lit tunnels were their bodies
|'German civilians preparing a mass grave for camp victims after liberation by the U.S. Army|
Comments by SS-Doctor Kahr inside the Tunnels:
Air choked with dust. The clamour assaulted the eardrums. Shrivelled men coated in white limestone dust squatting in the rubble to relieve their bowels. Pissing in their hands to wash their faces. The rock falls. The screams of the agony. The stony indifference of the SS. The prisoners bunks sprayed with liquid excrement. Blankets mobile with lice. The cannibalistic ritual of the dead being stripped of their clothes and wooden clogs by their friends. Back at his quarters Dr. Kahr with grim irony that day he had returned from the front in Russia, to what he felt was a semblance of civilization...The clothing situation was impossible: thin cotton stripes all year around. No socks. Half the prisoners without shoes. sic
The working conditions were already extremely debilitating. Given the catastrophic conditions in the sleeping tunnels (Schlafstollen), this looked deadly. Sleep deprivation, starvation, overwork and disease emaciated prisoners physically. As to medical care, there was hardly any sign. [Ref.: Tauke, 'Genesung', page 73f]. Depending on the physical constitution and mental defences of an individual, the hard work and vegetating in the tunnel, at the latest after four to eight weeks led to a complete exhaustion. The number of deaths increased from November 1943 steeply. In the winter of 1943/44, the mortality rate reached such an extent that more prisoners died then arrived as replacement transports from Buchenwald. "Remarkable are badly and severely ill patients as well as prisoners dying at work," it said in the report of an SS doctor in December 1943. Up to and including March 1944 died according to SS counts in and around the Kohnstein project almost 3,000 prisoners. More than 3,000 dying prisoners were pushed by the SS in spring 1944 as extermination transports to Lublin-Majdanek and Bergen-Belsen. Of these, only a few have survived. Thus, at least 5,000 of the approximately 17,000 previously deported to Dora prisoners died by the end of March 1944. This corresponds to a death rate of almost one third in a period of only seven months.
|The Dead at Mittelbau-Dora|
"Dear Mr. Kammler, Head of the Special Committees A 4.
Degenkolb, told me that you have managed to transform the underground facility in Niedersachswerfen from the raw state in an almost impossible brief period of 2 months into a factory that is unmatched in Europe and has no approximate example and beyond, in itself it stands unsurpassed [even] for American standards. I therefore take the initiative in expressing my high appreciation for this truly unique fact, with the request to continue to support Mr. Degenkolb in this unique form". [Although he visited the tunnels and, to reduce the mortality rate among the prisoners, recommended building barracks outside the tunnel complex. sic]
Beginning in January 1944 the first finished A4 rocket left the assembly lines in Kohnstein and were taken for experimental purposes to Peenemünde. However, they had to be almost all sent back because they were not functional. As hastily and improvised they went about building the plant, is also evident and reflected only later at the foundation of the Mittelwerk GmbH, as the underground rocket factory in Kohnstein changed ownership and was re-named.
Labour on the Mittelwerk assembly lines included both detainees and “free” German workers and supervisors, in the ratio of about two prisoners to one “free” worker. The Engineers who ran the various workshops and production crews were Germans, and Wehrmacht soldiers who were wounded or sick would also be sent to Mittelwerk for duty as parts or process inspectors. Information provided by Dr. Jens-Christian Wagner indicates that once the V-2 production lines were running at their intended levels (by June, 1944) there were roughly 2,500 “free” workers and 5,000 prisoners employed in the Mittelwerk tunnels. Wagner also makes the case that the primary product of the Mittelbau complex was not weapons at all, but death itself—the death of the thousands of prisoners involved with Mittelbau (but primarily with its construction). Prisoners were divided into two groups of workers: transport columns and specialists. The former did the often back-breaking work of manually transporting much of the material that entered or left the tunnels, while the latter did other more skilled assembly and testing work. Detainees working in the tunnels were divided into a day and a night shift, each working for 12 hours straight. Every four weeks, the workers changed shifts. Each prisoner work group or Kommando was headed by a prisoner leader (Kapo).
There were also many construction Kommandos, working mostly (after early 1944) on projects not tied directly to the V-2. Prisoners are reported to have been desperate to join the specialist groups, since transport or construction workers had to labour under incredible physical burdens and were beaten more viciously by their SS and prisoner guards. As a result, they were used up much more rapidly than the specialists—the construction assignments killed prisoners more surely than any others.
|Skilled inmates on V-2 production 1944, most likely on Gyroscopes assembly|
Different worker-groups tended to have different compositions by nationality. Often the better educated French workers (mostly civilians arrested by the Germans for various crimes or for political infractions in France) ended up at jobs like electrical assembly and testing. Many French prisoners with engineering or other scientific or technical training were specifically culled out of the Buchenwald population by Rudolph’s or von Braun’s staffs, and sent to Mittelwerk/Dora. The transport columns, on the other hand, tended to be disproportionately made up of Russian and Ukrainian prisoners.
|V-2 Rocket in upright position|
Initial V-2s were plagued by bad welds, soldering problems, and faulty parts. At first electrical components were installed and final testing was performed at Degenkolb’s DEMAG facility at Berlin-Falkensee. Later in 1944, these activities were moved to the Mittelwerk.
Many prisoners involved in electrical assembly and testing were required to put slips of paper bearing their unique identification numbers alongside of parts they had produced or certified. Then, if problems were found with these during later inspections, the workers responsible would be punished. Still, minor forms of passive sabotage could be accomplished by the prisoners for example by accepting for assembly subcontractor parts that they knew did not meet specifications. There were instances of prisoner workers knowingly passing along electronic sub-assemblies that contained “cold solder” connections—ones that were likely to produce intermittent or no electrical contact at all, and thus lead to failures. Other prisoners recount making partial arc welds in hidden locations on the rocket (for example, inner welds on fins that would hopefully come apart later under launch stresses).
|Assembly of tail Fin inside a tunnel'|
Since space in the tunnels was limited, only the most delicate parts (gyroscopes, electronics, etc.) were totally stocked underground. Bulky objects like motors, fuel tanks, half-fuselage sections, plates for the rockets skin, and bales of fiberglass insulation were stored above ground in smaller neighbouring depots. One of these was situated at the north end of Tunnel A, in the town of Niedersachswerfen, and was crewed by a Czech Kommando. The second depot was at Rossla, about 21 kilometers east of Nordhausen, in the old Kalkofen factory. The third depot was located at Kelbra. In addition, a small Kommando was located in an old potash mine at Kleinbodungen, near Bleicherode. This crew worked at refurbishing V-2s that had been returned by the field batteries as a result of misfirings, damage during transport, or other factors that made them unusable by the launching batteries.
CONTINUED UNDER PART 2