Von Braun, the V-2, and Slave Labor

Slave Labor at Peenemunde
and Nordhausen

Prisoners clad in striped uniforms stand in formation.

Work continued at Kummersdorf while facilities were being constructed and expanded at Peenemunde and by late 1939 the entire rocket program was moved north. The need to finalize a fully developed, deployable weapon drove research to the A-4 rocket in 1940 and 1941. Test after test failed, engineers developed modifications, and more testing was accomplished. On October 3, 1942, the first successful launch of the A-4 rocket, also known as the V-2, took place at Peenemunde, with research, development and testing taking on a fever pitch. Due to war constraints labor was increasingly difficult to come by, with Germany now fully embroiled with its occupation of Western Europe while conducting an aggressive war against the Soviet Union. By 1942, Minister of Armaments and Munitions Albert Speer convinced Hitler to place the use of slave labor in armaments and material factories under his jurisdiction, due to a number of reasons.

One of these being that the tools and machines needed for labor were not available in the concentration camps themselves, therefore the “workers” needed to be moved to camps built in concert with factories – “it would have been difficult to utilize the prisoners on any large scale for war production since [Speer] would not allocate to Himmler the machine tools and other necessary equipment.” (Speer, meetings with Hitler on 20, 21, 22 September 1942). Speer agreed that the industries using this labor would pay the SS since Himmler was no longer in direct control of production, and Speer would ensure the SS received the arms and equipment it needed. One of the first locations this occurred at was Peenemunde. In late 1942 a “non-SS contingent” of several thousand Polish and Soviet laborers arrived in Peenemunde to build electrical power stations, missile production facilities, and the liquid-oxygen plant.

In April 1943 Arthur Rudolph, who was now chief engineer of Peenemunde’s production plants, “enthusiastically” embraced an idea from Speer to use SS camp prisoners as slave labor. Rudolph had visited the Heinkel aircraft plant in Oranienberg-Berlin to see how the SS was providing labor from the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. He approved of what he saw and quickly agreed to the same for Peenemunde. In addition to the research and development location at Peenemunde, missile production plants in Friedrichshafen and near Vienna, Austria also made use of SS labor. (In 1985, Rudolf would write that he learned “to my horror” that slave labor would be used at Dora-Mittelbau).

Buchenwald later supplied French and German laborers and, in July, several hundred Frenchmen arrived by train, joining 400 Belgians, Russian, Dutch, French and German prisoners at an SS-guarded facility. Though the decision to use slave labor was not made by Von Braun, he was certainly not unaware of it, as he later claimed. Workers at Peenemunde were treated much better than in many of the camps.

Though they worked very long hours in difficult conditions, they were fed enough to provide sustenance. Survivor Alex Baum was a young man in the French resistance when he was captured and sent to Buchenwald. Not long after, he was part of several hundred sent to Peenemunde; “We had to work very, very hard, constant running, schnell, schnell, [quickly, quickly] but we had soup and we had a decent facility where we could sleep … we worked 12 hours a day and then 12 hours rest, seven days a week.” That would soon change for all laborers involved in rocket production.

Lieutenant-General Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma

The years 1941 and 1942 saw British intelligence gain more insight into what the Germans were doing on the island of Usedom due to a very aggressive intelligence campaign aimed at German technology. Information had made its way to Poland, from Polish partisans who received information from those slave laborers in Peenemunde. In addition, certain officers captured in the North Africa campaign talked about the development of a large rocket in the north of Germany – POW Lieutenant-General Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma was eavesdropped on while in captivity, discussing the rocket and expressing his surprise to another POW, General Ludwig Crüwell, that London was not devastated yet by the new weapon.

By July, mission and targeting plans for Operation Hydra had been developed and the night of 17-18 August 1943 saw the Royal Air Force send waves of bombers over Peenemunde – some 600 bombers dropped approximately three million pounds of explosive and incendiary bombs – the bombing strike killed 735 people, almost all were slave laborers.

A ranging diagram showing the Peenemunde Production Facility, 1943.
An aerial photo of Nordhausen and the Dora-Mittelbau Complex, 1944.

On August 26, Speer, Dornberger, SS General Hans Kammler, Gerhard Dagenkolb (head of Special Committee A-4) and Karl Otto Saur (Speer’s Deputy) met to discuss the need for a more secure location for V-2 war production and the decision was made to relocate to the Kohnstein. By 1943, the location was examined again – this time for its potential as a rocket and aircraft factory, primarily for the A-4 rocket. Speer’s Armaments Ministry took over the facility, with the Mittelwerk Corporation leasing it from WIFO and, by fall, work began on converting the tunnels as needed for rocket production. The concentration camp of Buchenwald was close by and could provide the initial construction and mining labor. SS General Hans Kammler, Chief of SS Construction, created a system of labor camps known together as the Dora-Mittelbau complex, which would eventually number some 40 locations. At the end of August over 200 prisoners arrived from Buchenwald, with Kammler shipping in over a thousand more on September 2. Soon, hundreds a day were arriving and going underground, many to never see the outside again.

Until the spring of 1944, almost all prison labor lived underground. Galleries and tunnels were set aside for sleeping quarters, with straw spread on the cold stone floor provided. The tunnels were damp and cold, with the temperature remaining just below 60 degrees F, with inadequate food, water, and toilet facilities. In addition, many of the prisoners who arrived during the period were already malnourished and sick – the Mittelwerk had the highest mortality rate of all concentration camps during this time. Werner von Braun visited the site in August, September, and again in October.

French resistance leader Jean Michel was arrested and sent to the camp; he began work in mid-October and later described his first day:

“The first day is terrifying. The Kapos [prisoner bosses] 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.”

A concentration camp survivor shows a Soldier the ovens used to cremate the dead.
A group of SS doctors. The left side of their white gowns are emblazoned with the SS double lightning bolt insignia.

In late fall, Dora-Mittelbau also became its own camp, not a subsidiary of Buchenwald. As winter approached, the men had been able to build rudimentary bunks stacked 4 high for sleeping but continued working in the cold, damp tunnels. Before the year ended, almost 12,000 of them died – their bodies send back to Buchenwald for cremation. Dora later received its own ovens but could not keep up, and the very sick and dying were shipped off to Bergen-Belsen or Majdanek death camp for killing and cremation.

During this first fall, medical supervisor for the Ministry of Armaments, Doctor A. Poschmann, visited the site. Later, at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials, he recalled:

The men “worked a minimum of 72 hours a week, they were fed 1,100 calories per day. Lung and heart disease were epidemic because of the dampness and intense air pressure. Deaths averaged 160 a day. When a deputation of prisoners petitioned for improved conditions, SS Brigadefuhrer Hans Kammler responded by turning machine guns on them, killing 80.”

Throughout the first few months of 1944, transports of slave laborers continued to arrive, while those too sick to work were evacuated to Majdanek. Early January saw 1000 prisoners sent away, the following month another thousand followed, with yet another thousand sent to Bergen-Belsen at the end of March. Through all of this, German civilian employees continued to arrive, as well, to work alongside the prisoners. One German worker recalled being give specific instructions that they were not to abuse them “too much.” However, by June 1944, many of the civilian employees were punishing the prisoners – rather than filing reports with the managers and SS, as required – and in some cases beating them for “sport.” Wherever civilian employees managed prisoners this became common.

Dora’s camp doctor reported that an increasing number of prisoners were being sent to the hospital due to abuse by their civilian bosses and counterparts, and approached Georg Rickhey, the Mittelwerk’s general director. Rickhey and the SS warned Rudolph and other personnel that they were in charge of production only – the SS had sole responsibility for punishment. Albin Sawatzki, chief of production planning in Nordhausen and Rudolph’s boss, was “feared in the tunnels for personally beating and kicking prisoners he considered lazy.”

Beginning 1 April, the Zigeunerfamiliienlager, or Gypsy Family Camp, at Auschwitz-Birkenau was being dismantled. Unlike normal procedure at Auschwitz, families stayed together and many Roma and Sinti – men, women and children – were sent to Nordhausen. These transports continued until August, when the remaining Auschwitz survivors were gassed. By June, an increasing number of Jews were also being sent to Nordhausen – a population that would increase greatly in 1945.

Imprisoned Roma from Hungary.

With production at Nordhausen slowly taking shape, research continued at Peenemunde and at a new research center at Blizna, Poland called the “Heidelager.” The reliability of the A-4 was far below expectations, with tail explosions and premature fuel cutoff at launch a major issue. Also, up to 70 percent of rockets were breaking up prior to impacting in the target areas. As these issues were addressed and repairs made, these required modifications were send to the staffs at Nordhausen to be properly made to the blueprints and added to the assembly lines. By late summer of 1944, combat rocket units were being deployed to Belgium and Holland – the rockets needed to work successfully; in September they were first fired at London. Such were the technical modifications that by wars end, some 65,000 changes had been made to the A-4 blueprints. This also resulted in the fabrication of a tremendous amount of poor quality parts and material. These poor quality materials, combined with poor workmanship, were often seen as sabotage attempts by the SS and members of the staff who inspected the rockets as they came off the assembly line. From August 1943 to March 1945, some 350 workers were hanged at Nordhausen – 200 for sabotage.

A V-2 on transportation rails at the Blizna Test Site, Poland.
A mugshot of Arthur Rudolph.

The rockets were quite vulnerable to sabotage during production. All it took was a screw left loose, a bad weld, an incomplete circuit connection – prisoners even urinated on electrical components – and a rocket would fail. Rudolph, being in charge of the physical production of the rockets under Sawatzki, received all reports of potential sabotage. In November, 1944, Dieter Grau was sent from Peenemunde to the Mittelwerk to investigate why the rockets kept failing and found numerous instances of sabotage – which led to his filing a report. As was normal procedure, the report was submitted to Rudolph, who signed all such reports before turning them over to the SS. On 4 November, Rudolph received directions to stop all production work and have his department chiefs and SS gather the prisoners in the main assembly tunnel – Hall 2. Twelve men, their hands tied behind their backs and pieces of timber tied in the mouths, had ropes placed around their necks before being slowly hoisted into the air by the overhead cranes as they were strangled to death. Rudolph made his way to the hall, noticing that at least one of the men appeared to still be alive, and later informed Hans Friedrich, a civilian manager, that the men would hang for the next twelve hours, so two shifts of prisoners could see them and be warned. Rudolf was one of the 130 engineers brought to the US under Operation Paperclip, working at White Sands Proving Ground. He later moved to Redstone Arsenal, Alabama and worked for the army on the Pershing missile program before joining his colleagues at NASA and becoming the Project Director for the Saturn V rocket program. Retired and living in California in 1984, his past eventually caught up with him and he was forced to leave the US to avoid a war crimes trial.

Map of the underground workings at Nordhausen.
A part of the underground facility at Nordhausen.

“Toward September 10, 1944, I was sent via ‘Transport Train’ towards the Dutch border. We crossed Cologne (Koln), went down the Rhine towards Koblenz. The Allies are progressing so fast that we could not leave the wagons and the train was forced to return to Buchenwald. The Germans only took food for the one way trip so, on the way back we traveled three days without anything to eat.

Two days later I got really depressed when I learned that I’m leaving For the Camp of Dora (Nordhausen) to work in the underground Factory of the ‘Mittelbau where we built the VI and V2 rockets. Only dead comes back from Dora in Wagons and trucks to be burned in the crematorium of Buchenwald.

From September 15, 1944, to the beginning of April, 1945, I was in the most cruel hell. Twelve hours per day or night (eighteen hours when we rotate team) we must carry on our back extremely heavy equipment in and out of the tunnel With almost nothing in our stomach, under the rain, snow, mud, in extremely cold weather, clothed in a poor outfit, wood clogs with fabric on top which get hooked in everything and under the beatings of the ’55’ and ‘Kapos’ (Often ex criminals just out of jail).

I touch the bottom of misery and mental distress. Although, I had a strong constitution from a very athletic life, my health declined rapidly. I was admitted at the ‘Revier’ (nursery) toward March 15th 1945 for complication to a wound received in the temple by a kapos. From then on, my health became worse with numerous diseases one after the other: Pleuresie, Lymphangite, dysentrie, etc… (I don’t know the English translation of those diseases).”

-French survivor Michel Depierre

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