Willing captives

When the Soviet armies swept into Peenemünde on 5 May 1945, they found that the birds had flown - the missile range and factories had been abandoned in mid-February, and explosives deliberately set to destroy as much as possible. Von Braun and his team had moved first to Nordhausen, close to the Mittelwerk factory, and closer to the advancing US troops. On 19 March, orders came from Berlin that all records of German experimental programs were to be destroyed - instead, von Braun had 14 tonnes of material spirited away in the night and hidden in a cave for later recovery.

Since August 1944, the V-2 team had been under the command of SS General Hans Kammler, a former concentration camp commandant who apparently planned to use them to barter for his life. In late March he had the entire team shipped south to Bavaria. During April, Kammler disappeared - perhaps assassinated, perhaps fleeing for his life.

« When the 44th Infantry Division finally reached the village on 2 May, von Braun and his team were able to surrender to their captors of choice.

The soldiers may not have immediately realised the value of their prize, but Robert Staver certainly did. Nordhausen had been captured on 11 April, with huge stores of missile components, but no sign of the scientists or their paperwork. Another problem was that both Nordhausen and Garmisch-Partenkirchen, where the scientists were being questioned, were due to be handed over to Soviet administration in June. In Paris, Toftoy saw the need to move fast. He despatched a team to Nordhausen to collect the parts for 100 V-2s, and

HISTORY FOCUS

ROCKET DREAMERS

"Germany has lost the war, but let us not forget that it was our team that first succeeded in reaching outer space ..."

Wernher von Braun, referring to the V-2 reaching an altitude of 100km (60 miles), 1945

The concentration camps at Mittelbau-Dora were liberated by US forces on 11 April 1945. Conditions here were little better than at other camps, and those who the Nazi state regarded as inferior or criminal were subjected to backbreaking work on starvation rations. When the Mittelwerk V-2 factories were fully operational, they required some 5,000 prisoners. At least 26,500 are thought to have died here during the factory's 20 months of operation - about five lives for each completed missile. It has been rightly pointed out that the V-2 was a unique weapon - the making of it than it actually took in action.

OPERATION BACKFIRE

In the summer and autumn of 1945, the British Army conducted a number of test firings of V-2s (left) captured during their advance through the low countries. Launches took place at Cuxhaven in northern Germany, and rocket team scientists (above) were frequently flown in from their camp in the south to assist.

ship them back to the US zone. Staver also based himself at Nordhaüsen, where he tracked down a number of senior members of the rocket team that had not gone south and located the hidden cache of documents. As the handover deadline neared, Staver and Toftoy arranged a mass evacuation of Peenemünde staff and their families to the US zone.

On 19 July, Operation Overcast (later Paperclip) was given the go-ahead by Washington. Staver and Toftoy were authorized to offer the Germans six-month contracts for work in the US. Most took some persuading - their families would have to remain behind in Germany - and the future beyond those six months was uncertain. The first contracts were finally signed on 12 September, and within days, the initial wave of scientists was flying out of Europe.

Although most of the rocket team had eluded them, the Soviets still had a large share of the plunder. Peenemünde and Nordhausen were now theirs, and a few key scientists, notably Helmut Gröttrup of the guidance and control team, also cast their lot to the east. On balance, then, the superpowers were fairly evenly matched as they began their post-war missile race.

OPERATION BACKFIRE

In the summer and autumn of 1945, the British Army conducted a number of test firings of V-2s (left) captured during their advance through the low countries. Launches took place at Cuxhaven in northern Germany, and rocket team scientists (above) were frequently flown in from their camp in the south to assist.

Von Braun: model American

The most important figure on the American side of the Space Race was to be a naturalized German whose intimate involvement in the V-2 programme would continue to raise awkward questions even as he became a renowned national figure.

THE V-2 ARRIVES

Captured German rockets were transported to the United States aboard aircroft carriers such as USS Midway, before being transferred to Fort Bliss or direct to White Sands.

THE V-2 ARRIVES

Captured German rockets were transported to the United States aboard aircroft carriers such as USS Midway, before being transferred to Fort Bliss or direct to White Sands.

THE ROCKET TEAM

This group photo shows 105 of the 116 German rocket experts at White Sands Proving Ground in 1946. Von Braun is in the front row, right of centre, with one hand in his pocket.

Wernher von Braun arrived at Fort Bliss, Texas, on 29 September 1945, one of an initial group of seven German scientists brought into the United States as part of Operation Overcast. During nearly five months of evaluation in Germany, he had been interviewed by American rocket experts such as Tsien Hsue-Shen, prepared reports for the US Army on the status of the German rocket programme, and helped the Americans round up the rest of his team. If there had ever been any doubt among the US military that von Braun was the man they needed in their new missile programme, his willing cooperation dispelled it.

Von Braun was born in 1912 at Wirsitz in the German province of Posen (now part of Poland), the second son of a noble family. Fascinated by astronomy from an early age, his interest in rockets was fired by reading Hermann Oberth's influential work. At the age of 12, he attempted to imitate the exploits of Wan Hu (see p. 12) by strapping rockets to the back of a trolley and piloting it along the Berlin streets. Keen to master Oberth's theories, the young von Braun applied himself to the study of physics and maths, eventually enrolling at the Technical High School of Charlottenburg aged 18. It was here that he joined the VfR and demonstrated his talent for practical rocket engineering.

Von Braun's Nazi past was a constant source of controversy throughout his American career - even today it continues to cast a shadow over the early days of the US space programme. It is all but impossible to judge in hindsight, but his primary motivation seems always to have been an obsession with the rocket's use in space travel. He joined the Nazi party in 1937 and was made a lieutenant of the infamous SS in 1940, but he always argued that these were politically necessary manoeuvres if he was to keep working on his rockets; that he never paid more than lip service to Nazi ideals; and that his SS position was purely for show - he claimed only to have worn the uniform once. However, von Braun was certainly well aware of the concentration camps around Mittelwerk and of the foreign forced labour used at Peenemünde. Whether his involvement in a missile programme ultimately launched against civilian targets was a war crime in itself is still a subject for debate, particularly as Dornberger was prosecuted after the war for his role in the project. However, Dornberger's support for the Nazi Party was always far more explicit, and even he was imprisoned for only two years before also travelling to the United States.

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