By the end of 1944, with the development of the above ground Dora camp, the completion of building and mining in the tunnels, and the increase of actual rocket production, the death rate at Nordhausen had decreased dramatically. However, due to the execution of General Friedrich Fromm after the failed July assassination plot, Himmler and the SS now had complete and total control over V-2 rocket production – Dornberger and his rocket development group now reported directly to the Reichsfuherer SS.
By December 1944, with Soviet armies nearing, the labor and death camps at Auschwitz began to be emptied. Many thousands were forced to trudge through terrible weather in forced marches that killed thousands, while other Auschwitz prisoners, as well as those from Gross-Rosen, were transported by rail to Nordhausen. This exacerbated what was already becoming a dire situation, due to increased allied bombing of rail lines, cities, and factories.
With the Soviet push into Silesia, much of the ability to feed and supply themselves – not to mention prisoners – had been destroyed. Many of the prisoners arrived from Auschwitz sick, and sickness and disease quickly spread throughout the camps. With the increase in the population, the execution of prisoners rose dramatically, with 30 – 50 per day being hanged throughout February and March. With the Auschwitz evacuees came many of the SS guards and staff, as well as Auschwitz I camp Commander Richard Baer, who took command of the Dora camp from Otto Forschner. Through March, approximately 16,000 arrived, including women and children, and approximately 6000 died while 1700 V-2’s were built. By now the entire camp complex had increased its prisoner population from approximately 26,000 to over 40,000.
The end of March saw the total collapse of the Western front, with the allies crossing the Rhine in large numbers. The last V-2’s were fired at London and Antwerp at the end of the month, then Kammler’s combat rocket troops began to pull back from their firing positions, became infantrymen, moved east toward Berlin. During this withdrawal, Kammler’s troops encountered a group of slave laborers from the occupied eastern territories who had been released or escaped and were trying to find a safe location. Kammler ordered his troops to fire on them, killing over two hundred. By April 1, the Peenemunders in the Nordhausen area were told to prepare for evacuation to Bavaria, specifically Oberammergau and its environs.
On 3 and 4 April, two waves of bombers from the British Bomber Command’s Numbers 1 and 8 Groups hit Nordhausen, killing approximately 8800 people; not including some 1500 prisoners still alive then at Boelcke Kaserne who also died. The rocket engineers finally departed from their temporary headquarters at nearby Bleicherode by train on 6 April. Due to an automobile crash which seriously damaged his arm and prevented his immediate departure, Von Braun did not finally drive away until 9 April, only 2 days before the Americans arrived.
By then, as the Americans approached Nordhausen, most of the camps had been evacuated by rail to Bergen-Belsen, Sachsenhausen, and Ravensbruck – approximately 25,000 to 30,000 were moved in this manner. In most of the smaller sub-camps the prisoners were forced to flee on foot, with the SS shooting any too sick to keep up. The roads were soon littered with the dead and dying from these forced marches. In the worse single atrocity of these last, hellish, days of evacuation, a group of approximately 1000 were force-marched toward the northeast, eventually mixing with prisoners from the Neuengamme concentration camp. At the small village of Gardelegen, they were locked in a barn which was then set aflame – with those attempting to escape shot.
All that remained in Nordhausen were about 660 sick and dying prisoners at Dora, and just over 400 at Boelcke Kaserne, a former Luftwaffe base prior to the creation of the camp complex in Nordhausen. A complex of walled, stone barracks, it was taken over by the SS in mid-February as the increase in the arrival of Jewish prisoners from Gross-Rosen and later Auschwitz overwhelmed camp facilities. With the arrival of another 3500 from Gross-Rosen, many too weak from starvation and disease to work, the decision was made to use Boelcke Kaserne as a “hospital,” and it became a place to house the very ill – with no water, food, or sanitation – until they died. By this time, the ability to transport the dead and dying to other camps for execution and cremation no longer existed. Boelcke Kaserne solved, temporarily, the problem of what to do with the dead.
On 11 April, advance parties of the US 3rd Armored Division entered Nordhausen with little opposition. They found hundreds of dying prisoners lying amongst more than a thousand corpses, including many children and babies at Boelcke Kaserne. Some had been dead before the air raid; others were killed during the raid, or by neglect afterwards. The American soldiers were outraged; one wrote, “No written word can properly convey the atmosphere of such a charnel house, the unbearable stench of decomposing bodies, the sight of live human beings… lying cheek by jowl with the ten-day dead…” A 15 April report describes the camp as “the most horrifying example of Nazi terrorism imaginable”. The 3rd Armored Division continued eastward and was replaced on the morning of 12 April by the 104th Infantry Division.
Corporal Fred Bohm, of the 829th Combat Engineers, 104th Infantry Division, recalled that his fellow soldiers”…had no particular feelings for fighting the Germans … and it did not sink in, what this was all about, until we got to Nordhausen.” He continued,
“I think they felt all of a sudden that the war had a meaningful purpose, that there was almost a reason for being over there.”
W. Gunther Plaut, 104th Chaplain, who had fled Nazi persecution in 1935 recalled “On April 11, 1945, the 104th overran the Dora-Nordhausen Concentration Camp. The countless dead were still lying about and the few survivors were barely alive. I made the burghers of Nordhausen bury the dead, while they objected that such a request was clearly ‘inhumane.’ Although the survivors had not eaten for a long time their first request was not for food but for Jewish religious items, and for our troops to get in touch with their relatives in the United States or somewhere in the world.”
On 15 April, the 238th Engineer Combat Battalion (ECB), 104th Infantry Division, entered the area with orders to repair roads and bridges; many of the men immediately noticed a “peculiar odor” in the air. They soon came across a small sub-camp of approximately 4 – 5 barracks buildings which contained the bodies of 1000 Messerschmitt factory workers. Lieutenant Ernest James, Company A, 238th ECB, described the same “terrible stench” at the railyards, where residents were seen breaking into all of the railcars in the yard – except one. This car was alone on a siding and dripped a dark fluid through the floor, onto the ground. “Upon breaking one of the doors open, we saw a gruesome sight, it was full of dead bodies … jammed in the car with no room to spare.”
The people of Nordhausen were forced from their homes and businesses to help dig trenches and mass graves for the dead, then pick up and carry the bodies for burial, a process that lasted until 16 April. All of this was documented through video and still photography by the allies, much in the same way as was done at Bergen-Belsen, then distributed worldwide.
French survivor Michel Depierre again, “On April 11, 1945, The American Army investigated the tunnel and the Camp of Dora. Shocked, they discovered about a hundred men dying in the Revier (nursery). The first military man that I saw was a Canadian Captain who spoke French. They distributed some food. It was so good, since we were dying of hunger for the last nine months. Only skin was left on our bones. April 19th, 1945, we had gained a little more strength so they walked us to the airfield of Nordhausen. There Dakotas (Airplanes) brought supplies to the Front. American military set up tents. There is on tables some beautiful white bread, but nobody to care for us. Maybe to avoid diseases? But also because of the war they didn’t have time for us. They let us sleep outside, fortunately, it didn’t rain. I lay down on the workshop of a demolished building. On April 20th, 1945, a Dakota took us from Nordhausen to ‘Le Bourget’ Airport near Paris, where Parisian people discover what deportation is.”
Out of approximately 60,000 inmates who passed through the camp system in Nordhausen, roughly 20,000 – or one-third – died there. Some of the rocket team did, indeed, make their way south, with SS guards slowly disappearing along the way. Von Braun and his small group found a rather comfortable hotel to stay in until such time they could surrender. Dieter Huzel and Bernhard Tessman joined the group after locating a suitable location to hide the blueprints and other documentation relating to rocket development. The majority of the group had remained in Thuringia, however, and US Army Ordnance teams located them and brought them into custody.
On 2 May, Wernher von Braun’s brother Magnus von Braun approached an anti-tank platoon of the 44th Infantry Division, where he convinced the Americans of their importance before being escorted to Reutten and an army counter-intelligence group. Given passes, the younger Von Braun returned for the rest and brought them all in.
Wernher von Braun was flown to the United States, eventually to Ft. Bliss in El Paso, Texas, as part of Operation Paperclip – the program which brought 130 of the German rocket team to the United States and their “new” lives and work at White Sands Proving Ground, New Mexico, and later Redstone Arsenal, Alabama. Only one of the group – Arthur Rudolph – would ever be held in any way accountable for what had happened in Peenemunde and Nordhausen. Wernher von Braun would become an American hero – the face of space exploration and, with the help of Walt Disney, a television personality. SS General Hans Kammler simply vanished, never to be seen again.
In 1947, the Dora trials were held at the former Dachau Concentration Camp near Munich. Nineteen defendants included mainly SS personnel, but three kapos, and one civilian – George Rickhey – head of the Mittelwerk Corporation, were also on trial. All were accused of neglecting, torturing or killing prisoners, with some accused of specific offenses that occurred during the evacuations and forced marches. Of the nineteen defendants, only SS Obersturnfuhrer Hans Moeser, convicted for murders in reference to the hangings in the camp and killings on the death marches, was executed. Seven received life imprisonment, and seven received prison sentences of from 5 to 25 years. Four of the men, including Rickhey, were acquitted. No others were ever charged for crimes at Nordhausen.