Wernher von Braun
The Pioneer of Nazi and American Rocketry
Wernher von Braun grew up in a Prussian Junkers family, the son of a civil servant. As such, he was afforded a certain privilege that many of his later colleagues didn’t have. As a young man, this privilege may have been part of what led him to be welcomed into the VfR – the Verein für Raumschiffahrt, or Society for Space Flight. Both Rudolph Nebel and Hermann Oberth, founding members of the VfR and important leaders in early German rocket development, remembered Von Braun as rather “clumsy,” rather than as the “wunderkind” that many historians and others later called him. He brought a sense of respectability and prestige to the project, however, as well as – possibly – some needed funding which always seemed to be in short supply. In addition, his father was the Minister of Agriculture under both the Franz von Papen and Kurt von Schleicher chancellorships.
During 1931 and early 1932, Von Braun took a “sojourn” in Greece before returning to Berlin, where Arthur Nebel and Klaus Riedel had prepared to fire the new “Mirak” rocket at the ordnance proving ground at Kummersdorf. Though the test was unsuccessful, more support was given by the army for continued research. By the mid-1930’s, Von Braun had risen to a leadership position in the group, which was now receiving better funding from the German army, and building larger, more powerful rockets at the airfields of Kummersdorf, outside Berlin.
In 1934, he received his PhD in Physics from Friedrich Wilhelm University (now Humboldt University) in Berlin. Not known to be a particularly brilliant scientist or engineer, he was the perfect administrator for the burgeoning rocket program. His ability to understand the various technical difficulties his colleagues encountered, as well as his personality and demeanor, were quickly noticed by the leadership of the German army and the SS. Facing the need to develop much larger rocket motors, in December 1934, Arthur Rudolph was recruited to join the team and by early 1935 progress was being made relatively quickly. In April, a meeting consisting of Generals Karl Becker, Alfred Kesselring, and Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen, with Colonel Walter Dornberger and Von Braun attending, set the wheels turning for the development of a large rocket test facility on the North Sea – Peenemunde.
In 1936, General Dornberger took over as chief of the rocket program for the army, with the sole purpose of the work at the new location on the North Sea being weapon development. Klaus Riedel designed larger, more powerful rocket engines, and Arthur Rudolph built them. The new Aggregat 3 (A-3) rocket incorporated gyroscopes for steerage, with Johannes Maria Roykow, of the Kreiselgerate gyroscope equipment company, providing the first gyros for the 22 foot long A-3. Rudolf Hermann was brought in for wind tunnel development, and Walter Thiel, a chemical engineer, came aboard for research into combustion and rocket motor design.
On 1 May 1937, Dr. Wernher von Braun officially joined the Nazi party and was given party member number 5,738,692. (He would spend almost the rest of his life insisting that he was “never a Nazi.”) In November 1937, before numerous dignitaries, three A-3’s were fired at the Greifswalder Oie test stand. All three failed. The Aggregat 4 (A-4) was a larger rocket which came to incorporate numerous ideas developed during testing, but the group moved on to the larger Aggregat 5 (A-5), which flew successfully in October 1939. By this point there was no doubt about the work being done for weapon development – Germany had invaded Poland the previous month, and more scientists and engineers, such as mathematician Paul Schroder, were brought in for guidance and control work. Schroder would be the only “Peenemunder” to later publicly attack and criticize Von Braun.
In April and May of 1940, Von Braun was urged to join the Schutzstaffel (SS) by a Colonel of the SS on Usedom – the island on which Peenemunde was located. More than likely, this was at the insistence of Reichsfuhrer-SS Heinrich Himmler who was, even at this early date, looking to consolidate power as much as possible and “ease” programs away from the army. Dornberger realized it would be detrimental to the rocket program to refuse, so Von Braun joined at the rank of Lieutenant. Two quick promotions, in late 1941 and, again, late 1942 made him a Major (Sturmbannführer) in the SS because of Himmler’s appreciation of the work being done at Peenemunde. SS troops at Peenemunde attended monthly meetings, with Von Braun attending about 50% of such meetings – always in uniform. During a June 1943 visit by Himmler, Dornberger ordered Von Braun to wear the uniform, and – though not seen clearly – a photo taken at this time is the only one extant showing Von Braun in his black SS uniform.