Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

German Missiles

By 1934 von Braun and Dornberger had a team of 80 engineers building rockets in Kummersdorf, about 60 miles south of Berlin. Von Braun's natural talents as a leader shone, as well as his ability to assimilate great quantities of data while keeping in mind the big picture. With the successful launch of two rockets, Max and Moritz, in 1934, von Braun's proposal to work on a jet-assisted take-off device for heavy bombers and all-rocket fighters was granted. However, Kummersdorf was too small for the task, so a new facility had to be built.

Peenemunde, located on the Baltic coast, was chosen as the new site. Peenemunde was large enough to launch and monitor rockets over ranges up to about 200 miles, with optical and electric observing instruments along the trajectory, with no risk of harming people and property. British intelligence discerned that rocket research was underway at Peenemünde as early as May 1943. On the night of 17 August, British bombers staged a large raid that killed 815 people, destroyed test stands, and disrupted transpor-tation. The raid did little to disrupt V-2 production plans, but nonetheless pre-cipitated changes in plans-most significantly the decision that no production would take place at Peenemünde.

The V-2s were manufactured at a forced labor factory called Mittelwerk. Labor for V-2 production became 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. Scholars are still reassessing his role in these controversial activities. Von Braun's relationship to the Nazi Party is complex; although he was not an ardent Nazi, he did hold rank as an SS officer. His relationship to slave labor is likewise complicated, for his distance from direct responsibility for the use of slave labor must be balanced by the fact that he was aware of its use and the conditions under which prisoners labored.

Atrocities perpetrated at V-2 production facilities at Nordhausen and the nearby concentration camp at Dora-where some 20,000 died as a result of execution, starvation, and disease-stimulated controversy that plagued the rocket pio-neers who left Germany after the war. 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. 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.

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