Sunday 18 August 2019

How Hitler's rocket man took off as a rebranded American hero

On the 50th anniversary of the historic lunar mission, Rebecca Tinsley uncovers Nasa's dirty little secret

As the world marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, spare a thought for the 60,000 slaves who helped make it possible.

French and Russian prisoners of war in Nazi Germany built the forerunner of the Saturn V rocket that put Neil Armstrong on the Moon in July 1969. Much of this was down to the work of Wernher von Braun, a 22-year-old SS officer with a PhD in engineering who, in the early 1930s, was given a grant by the Nazis to build experimental rockets - military hardware that, due to an oversight, had been omitted from the list of weaponry prohibited under the Treaty of Versailles.

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An elaborate facility at Peenemunde on the Baltic Sea island of Usedom was set up to serve von Braun's every need, and he quickly brought together hundreds of Germany's top engineers and physicists. By the outbreak of World War II, von Braun was developing pilotless vehicles capable of delivering a payload of explosives. In 1942, his team launched the world's first long-range guided ballistic missile, the V-2 (short for "vengeance" weapon).

Born in 1912, von Braun was a Prussian aristocrat and child prodigy; by the age of six, he could play Beethoven concertos from memory. He grew up on his family's estate in Posen in the German Empire (now Poland). At 12, his family having moved to Berlin, he was arrested for using fireworks to propel his toy wagon along a busy street. At 18, he informed his tutor: "I plan to travel to the Moon."

He took a circuitous and deadly route. His V-2 cost $40bn in today's money to develop, making it 50pc more expensive than the Allies' atom bomb. Each rocket required as much material as a fighter or bomber plane. Some 3,000 V-2s landed on London and Antwerp, causing 9,000 casualties in total - a comparatively low "kill rate" for such a costly weapon.

The summer-camp atmosphere at Peenemunde - The Baron, as von Braun was known, was given a first-rate chef while his fellow countrymen were eating gristle and boiling roots for coffee, and his engineers played tennis and swam when they weren't searching for a stable rocket propellant - ended abruptly in 1943, when the RAF bombed the site. The RAF raid forced von Braun to find somewhere less easily identifiable to continue his work. He picked a former mine, with shafts drilled horizontally into northern Germany's Harz mountains.

Von Braun and his fellow Nazi scientists used an estimated 60,000 Russian and French prisoners of war to convert the tunnels into two assembly lines, each more than a mile long. The site, named Mittelbau-Dora, was part of the Nazi concentration camp system: 20,000 PoWs were worked to death there, and disposed of in incinerators in nearby Buchenwald.

Russian and French prisoners wore thin, striped uniforms throughout the sub-zero winter months. They worked in 12-hour shifts, sleeping in the tunnels, and were denied daylight for months at a time. There was no running water; typhus, dysentery and tuberculosis were common. The men were so weak that many fell to their deaths while working on scaffolding. If men idled, they were hoisted by the neck from a crane. Each day, the PoWs walked beneath the disintegrating bodies.

Yet, despite the threat of death if the guards caught them sabotaging the rockets, the PoWs urinated on the delicate guidance systems and damaged the mechanisms. As a result, many V-2s never reached their targets. Some 200 PoWs sacrificed their lives to save strangers in Belgium and Britain whom they would never meet.

Towards the end of the war, after the battles of Kursk and Stalingrad, von Braun and his team of 118 scientists set out in trucks filled with research files to negotiate with the first US troops they found. Upon surrendering, von Braun was secretly evacuated to the United States not as a war criminal but as an aeronautics pioneer; the US had a list of Germany's most important scientists, and he was at the top.

Knowing that the American public might object if they learnt men with such dubious war records had evaded justice, the US security services launched Operation Paperclip. Each had a paper clip attached to the exterior of their file, meaning their Nazi past had been expunged.

Von Braun later told American audiences that his leadership of the Nazi rocket programme was merely a means to advance scientific knowledge, putting humankind on the path to its greatest adventure. He claimed he "felt helpless to change the situation" in the death camp. Yet surviving PoWs testified that he had ordered beatings and been present at the hangings.

The military's attempt to bury von Braun's past was not wholly successful. The Jewish American satirist Tom Lehrer mocked him, singing in a German accent: "Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That's not my department, says Wernher von Braun." The Jewish American film director Stanley Kubrick was said to have modelled Dr Strangelove on von Braun.

In America, he rebranded himself as Werner, embracing the church, barbecues-and-ballgames lifestyle. He and his team were installed at a military facility in Huntsville, Alabama, thereafter referred to as "Hunsville" by US colleagues unhappy working with the cream of the Nazi war machine.

Whatever distaste the Americans felt about his past, the 1957 launch of the Soviet Union's Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite, focused their minds. Von Braun was put in charge of the US ballistic missile programme and, within a year, his team had launched Explorer 1, America's own satellite. His V-2 missile formed the basis of the US's response.

Nasa charged the Baron with catching up with Moscow's ambitious space programme and, in 1960, made him its top engineer. He designed the mighty Saturn V rocket, still the largest machine ever made. Sam Phillips, the director of the Apollo programme, claimed America would not have reached the Moon without von Braun.

Eventually, the US Department of Justice and the US Congress began taking testimony from survivors of the death camps. But the past caught up with only one of von Braun's co-workers. The Baron died of pancreatic cancer in 1977, at the age of 65.

So, as the US celebrates the achievements of Apollo 11, it should acknowledge the price paid by thousands of prisoners of war. Neil Armstrong was aware of the Baron's work at the death camp. Perhaps this was the reason that the astronaut emphasised that it was one giant leap for mankind, rather than America alone.

Sunday Independent

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