Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)


Peenemunde - 1943

In World War I, the Germans had developed long-range artillery and bombarded Paris from the German lines; because of this, the Treaty of Versailles forbade future German development of heavy artillery. The treaty, however, said nothing about rockets. During World War II, German rocketeers under the technical developed "V" weapons. The "V" was short for "Vergeltungswaffen", roughly translated "vengenace weapons".

In 1931, the German military established a rocket research facility at Kummersdorf Weapons Range, near Berlin. The first civilian employee at this facility was Wernher von Braun. In 1937 the German rocket facility was moved to Peenemunde on the Baltic Coast. Starting with about 80 researchers in 1936, the facility comprised nearly 5000 personnel by late 1942.

As early as 1939, British intelligence was aware of secret weapon trials on the north German coast near Peenemunde. The tests focused on long-range weapons but their precise locations were not known.

The V-1 was a cruise missile that employed a gasoline-powered pulse-jet engine that could produce a thrust of about 1,100 pounds. V-1 test flights began in 1941 over the Peenemunde range. The V-1 was originally called the Fieseler Fi-103. The V-1 bore no resemblance to the V-2, which was under development at Peenemunde at the same time.

In May 1942, a lone Spitfire on a routine reconnaissance mission over northern Germany changed this. Flight Lieutenant D. W. Steventon brought back photographs of the Peenemunde airfield along the Baltic coast that revealed evidence of construction activity with circular emplacements on the ground. Photographic interpreters, however, were unable to locate anything out of the ordinary from the photographs. Intelligence reports months later disclosed that rockets at Peenemunde had been test-fired.

The first test flight of a V-2 rocket was made in October 1942.

The connection between the site and rockets would be disclosed from other means. In March 1943, British intelligence analysts secretly taped conversations between two German generals that confirmed the Germans were building rockets. Accordingly, a photo-reconnaissance program kicked off to cover essentially every square mile of the French coast from Cherbourg to the Belgian border. Aircraft from RAF squadrons at Leuchars and Benson and 8th Air Force's 13th, 14th, and 22nd photo-reconnaissance squadrons were slated to fly the first missions.

The first confirmation of rocket building at Peenemunde came in 1943. The film packet returned by Squadron Leader Gordon Hughes revealed vehicles carrying long cylindrical objects that could not be readily identified. Subsequent sorties provided additional detail and finally a mission on June 12 produced imagery of a rocket lying on a trailer located near what was thought to be an emplacement. A thick vertical column judged to be about 40 feet high was also observed. Subsequent reconnaissance missions would prove these to be the rockets themselves, once operationally configured.

But some Allied experts had hitherto thought such a large rocket impracticable, they argued that it was a hoax to distract attention from more important developments. Now if it were a hoax, and it succeeded, the Allies would probably be led to bomb Peenemunde. The Germans would presumably only tempt the Allies to do this if Peenemunde were not a genuine, serious experimental station.

An apparently insignificant piece of evidence gathered in quite another field clinched the case. This was a circular to various German Air Force experimental stations, signed by a petty clerk in the German Air Ministry, giving revised instructions for applying for petrol coupons. Now all the experimental stations were on the list of addresses, apparently in order of importance, and Peenemunde was shown on the list above some other stations of whose importance we were certain. The clerk, who could hardly have known that his little circular would come into our hands, was in fact an unconscious witness to the importance of Peenemunde. The petrol instructions, finished the case. They showed that Peenemunde was genuine.

The photo-reconnaissance coverage of the French coast began to bear fruit. Interpreters uncovered a huge concrete structure at Watten near Calais and two other locations nearby and all three were connected to railway lines. At this juncture the investigation into the German secret weapon threat was codenamed "Bodyline." Duncan Sandys, the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Supply charged with coordinating information about the secret weapons, made the decision that Peenemunde needed to be bombed.

Operation Crossbow attempted to destroy German V-1 and V-2 missile sites, which were terrorizing the British through disruptive and deadly attacks on cities. Between August 1943 and March 1945, the US Army Air Forces and Royal Air Force flew 68,913 sorties and expended 122,133 tons of ordnance in the campaign to destroy German missiles. Indeed, Crossbow was a large-scale counterair and strategic-attack operation that expended substantial effort to delay V-weapon attacks and then limit their effectiveness once Germany began to employ the missiles.

The first Crossbow target hit was Peenemunde. The primary objective of the raid was to kill as many personnel involved in the V-weapons programs as possible, so the housing area was the main aim point. Two lesser objectives were to destroy as much of the V-weapons related work and documentation as possible, and to render Peenemunde useless as a research facility. On the evening of 17/18 August 1943, with the backdrop of a full moon, Bomber Command launched 596 aircraft - 324 Lancasters, 218 Halifaxes, 54 Stirlings -- which dropped nearly 1,800 tons of bombs on Peenemunde; 85 per cent of this tonnage was high-explosive.

Area bombing still required accuracy in marking the target. There were other places where pin-point precision was essential, such as the successful attacks on the Mohne and Eder dams, against the battleship Tirpitz and the rocket development facilities at Peenemunde.

There were several novel features. This was the first occasion the Bomber Command's Pathfinder Force used the technique where one aircraft controlled the progress of the entire raid while orbiting above the target area. It was the only occasion in the second half of the war when the whole of Bomber Command attempted a precision raid by night on such a small target. For the first time, there was a Master Bomber controlling a full-scale Bomber Command raid.

There were three aiming points - the scientists and workers living quarters, the rocket factory and the experimental station - and the Pathfinders employed a special plan with crews designated as shifters, who attempted to move the marking from one part of the target to another as the raid progressed.

Unfortunately, the initial marking and bombing fell on a labour camp for forced workers which was situated 1.5 miles south of the first aiming point, but the Master Bomber and the Pathfinders quickly brought the bombing back to the main targets, which were all bombed successfully.

Bomber Command's losses were 40 aircraft - 23 Lancasters, 15 Halifaxes and 2 Stirlings. This represents 6.7 per cent of the force dispatched but was judged an acceptable cost for the successful attack on this important target on a moonlit night.

Luftwaffe General Jeschonnek, the Chief of Staff, committed suicide on 19 August after criticism for the Peenemunde and Schweinfurt raids.

On 25 August 1943 the Allies again bombed the German rocket laboratory on Peenemunde,

There was some controversy about the effect of these raids. Unfortunately for the Allies, Peenemunde was attacked too late to inflict a mortal blow to the V-weapons, and the experimental work was unaffected. The V-1 was all but complete and ready to be engineered for production. The V-2 program was essentially complete as well The US Strategic Bombing Survey concluded "The attacks on the V-weapon experimental station at Peenemunde ... were not effective; V-l was already in production near Kassel and V-2 had also been moved to an underground plant. "

The estimate has appeared in many sources that this raid set back the V-2 experimental programme by at least 2 months and reduced the scale of the eventual rocket attack. Approximately 180 Germans were killed at Peenemunde, nearly all in the workers housing estate, and 500-600 foreigners, mostly Polish, were killed in the workers camp, where there were only flimsy wooden barracks and no proper air-raid shelters. The raid killed Dr. Walter Thiel, who at the time was in charge of V-2 engine development, and burned up all the production drawings for the large rocket just as they had been completed for issue to industry. The Germans had duplicated records and stored many at several locations, although the Peenemunde facility retained copies.

The Germans, worried by the damage done to their experimental factory at Peenemunde (and at Friedrichshafen, which had already been bombed) decided to put their rocket production underground and to move their experimental work to Poland. The culminating effect of all this must have meant several valuable months delay: but for this the rocket might well have preceded the flying bomb.

Labor for V-2 production had become a pressing problem in 1943. In April Arthur Rudolph, chief engineer of the Peenemünde factory, learned of the availability of concentration camp prisoners, enthusiastically endorsed their use, and helped win approval for their transfer. The first prisoners began working in June. Hitler's concern for V-2 development after July 1943 peaked the interest of Heinrich Himmler, the commander of the SS, who conspired to take control of the rocket program and research activities at Peenemünde as a means to expand his power base.

The most important V-2 production sites were the central plants, called Mittelwerk, in the southern Harz Mountains near Nordhausen, where an abandoned gypsum mine provided an underground cavern large enough to house extensive facilities in secrecy. Slave labor from Dora carved out an underground factory in the abandoned mine, which extended a mile into the hillside.

At the end of August 1943, the first skilled prisoners arrived from Buchenwald to form a new subcamp with the undercover name of "Dora". Foreign workers under the supervision of skilled German technicians assumed an increasing burden; at Mittelwerk, ninety percent of the 10,000 laborers were non-Germans. Officials estimate that from 1943 until 1945, 60,000 prisoners worked in these factories. Of these, 20,000 had died from various causes including starvation, fatigue and execution.

Attacks on the production plants in Germany from December 1943 through August 1944 had marginal impacts on weapon production.

Months of combat couldn't steel World War II American GI's for the sights they witnessed when they liberated the Nazi death camp at Nordhausen, Germany, on April 11, 1945. Atrocities perpetrated at V-2 production facilities at Nordhausen and the nearby concentration camp at Dora stimulated controversy that plagued the rocket pioneers who left Germany after the war. Arthur Rudolph, who had been a V-2 project engineer, left the United States in 1984 following the Department of Justice's discovery of his role in the persecution of prisoners at the Nordhausen factory.

Wernher von Braun was brought to the United States after the war; he went to work on rocket development for the US at a plant in Fort Bliss, Texas. In a 1948 interview there, a German journalist managed to extract von Braun's understanding of why V-2 production was delayed until it was too late to make a difference in the war.

According to von Braun, while in Switzerland in December 1943, a German industrialist boasted of Germany's forthcoming secret weapons, giving enough details so that the Allies were able to bomb the facilities at Peenemunde, delaying development and production of the V-2. Even in 1948 Braun did not understand what had really happened. [THis account is garbled, since Peenemunde was bombed in August 1943].

The German industrialist, whose name was Eduard Schulte, was actually a dedicated anti-Nazi who gave information to the Allies to help shorten the war. Eduard Schulte, the man who first warned the world about the systematic killing of the Jews, fled to Switzerland on 02 December 1943 after being warned by Eduard Waetjen, an associate of Gisevius, that the Gestapo has ordered his arrest. Schulte's wartime activities and his intelligence about V-2 production were brought to light in the 1986 book Breaking the Silence, by Walter Laqueur and Richard Breitman.

Aerial Imagery Targetting Map, August 1943



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