As the Russian Army closed in on Peenemünde from the east in 1945, it became apparent to Wernher von Braun and his staff that things were coming to an end at the research center. Von Braun's staff was now under the direct command of the SS, Hitler's elite army, and von Braun feared that SS General Hans Kammler might possibly use the scientists as a bargaining chip or have the scientists killed to keep them from being captured by the Allies.
Von Braun had received several contradictory orders from German High Command which was in mass confusion at the time. As von Braun later stated, "I had ten orders on my desk. Five promised death by firing squad if we moved, and five said I'd be shot if we didn't move." Since he was damned either way, von Braun called a meeting in mid-January 1945 with the other top officials at Peenemünde. The rumor was the Russians were approaching fast from the south and that the path of escape might be closed soon. If the scientists and engineers remained at Peenemünde, they would either be killed in combat or taken prisoner by the Russians. They certainly did not like either of those prospects.
They all decided they wanted to surrender to the Americans. If nothing else, they were more likely to be able to continue their research after the war in the United States. They knew that somehow they had to smuggle all their research papers and important equipment out of Peenemünde. They certainly could not allow a decade's worth of work to be destroyed or fall into the wrong hands again.
As the Third Reich collapsed, there was no chance that Peenemünde would be saved. That is why von Braun was utterly amazed when he received an order from the local army defense commander to become soldiers and fight the Russians when they arrived at Peenemünde. This would almost guarantee their demise. But another set of orders came from General Kammler stating that the engineers and scientists were to move to central Germany, close to the Mittelwerk factory. Von Braun was still wary of Kammler's real intentions. Kammler might be moving the scientists to a location where he would have the ability to turn them, along with the technology at the underground Mittelwerk, into hostages. However, von Braun knew it was the best option for their continued freedom.
Von Braun prepared to evacuate thousands of engineers, scientists and their families to central Germany. It was a tremendous task, but von Braun insisted that it be done in an orderly fashion. He was the consummate leader at this time also. For ten years he had demonstrated his leadership abilities with staff, technical problems, and in dealing with politicians—but this move south really showed the determination of von Braun. German command and society was crumbling all around them, yet somehow the organization held together.
They went to work rapidly. Almost all of the coordination went through von Braun's close staff. Simple things such as procuring boxes became a daunting task at this point in the war. They invented a color-coding system to make it easier to identify the contents of what they were moving. A convoy was organized, in which thousands of workers, engineers, and other Peenemünde support personnel would be transported by train, truck, car, and any method available. Moving this many people was bound to draw attention. Von Braun knew he would be questioned about the move by local authorities. As luck would have it, a recent shipment of stationary from the SS, that identified Peenemünde personnel as a branch of the SS, was badly mangled at the printer. The letterhead was supposed to read BZBV Heer, the name of an organization within the SS. Instead, it read VABV, in initials of a nonexistent organization. Von Braun's staff quickly invented a top-secret agency with the initials VABV, translated in English meaning Project for Special Dispositions.
The initials VABV were painted and marked on boxes, vehicles, and armbands, anything that might be checked by SS inspectors or other authorities. All of the material and equipment was then packed into trucks and cars. The convoy headed south and along the way SS agents stopped the caravan frequently, but the VABV deception worked and they were allowed to continue.
Later, they received word that Peenemünde had been captured by the Russians. A few weeks after that, the Americans captured the Mittelwerk. General Kammler ordered von Braun and 500 of the top scientists to be separated from their families and moved to the village of Oberammergau. They were placed in a small internment camp that was, in von Braun's words, "extremely plush, not withstanding the barbed-wire around it." Kammler was indeed holding the scientists hostage. They were surrounded by SS guards constantly. One day von Braun pointed out to the head of the SS guard that the Oberammergau camp could be easily bombed by Allied aircraft. One attack could wipe out all of the Third Reich's top rocket scientists. Any guard that allowed that to happen would surely be shot.
The guard agreed and let the scientists out of the camp and into the streets of Oberammergau. He also agreed to let the scientists dress in civilian clothing so American troops would not suspect that they were of any importance. Von Braun quickly arranged for vehicles from Bleicherode to come get the scientists. They were really free at this point. Now all they had to do was surrender to the Americans.
On March 15, 1945, midnight, a young civilian was chauffeuring von Braun in a Hanomag truck from Bleicherode to Naumburg, then driving on the Autobahn, with the destination being Berlin. Both fell asleep and the car left the roadway. A few hours later the car was spotted by Peenemünde associates Hannes Lührsen and Bernard Tessmann, who were also traveling to Berlin. Lührsen stayed with the injured while Tessmann drove for help. Von Braun suffered a broken arm and fractured shoulder. He awoke to find himself in a hospital bed. Even though he was in no condition to be up and moving around, von Braun insisted that his arm be set in a cast so he could leave the hospital.
Patton's army was still far away. The meager supply of fuel available to the Allied columns was slowing the advance of the Americans. Needing food and supplies, the rocket scientists again used the VABV ruse to requisition the items from German Army supply posts. The scientists then moved to the resort hotel, Haus Ingeborg, in the border town of Oberjoch, near Austria. There von Braun met up with General Dornberger from Peenemünde. Von Braun's brother Magnus was also there.
There was not much to do except wait for the Americans. The scientists played cards and listen to the radio. They heard of the fall of Berlin on May 1, 1945, along with the news that Hitler was dead. As the Americans finally drew near, it was decided that Wernher von Braun's brother, Magnus, would go out to greet the troops and surrender for everyone. The reasoning for this was that Magnus could speak broken English and it was thought that a large group of German men marching toward the Americans would seem hostile or threatening.
Young Magnus pedaled off on a bicycle to meet the Americans. The first soldier that he encountered was a sentry with the 324th Infantry Regiment, 44th Infantry Division, PFC Frederick Schneikert. Magnus was ordered to drop the bicycle and come forth with his hands up. In a smattering of English mixed with bits of German, Magnus tried to explain his mission. The young American soldier was not really sure what to do with this boyish figure claiming to be a rocket scientist, so he turned the matter over to his commanding officer, First Lieutenant Charles L. Stewart. Stewart at first thought that Magnus was trying to "sell" his brother and the other scientists to the Americans. The communications were soon cleared up and Lieutenant Stewart gave Magnus passes for the Germans, to ensure their safe passage to the American encampment.
Wernher von Braun, General Dornberger, and several other scientists were so excited after Magnus returned that they piled into three vehicles and immediately headed for the American camp. The Americans were struck by Wernher von Braun’s young good looks and his charm. He did not look the part. He did not resemble the imagined image of a top German rocket scientist. The Americans soon realized the importance of their prize. Reporters and newspapers flooded in to see the rocket scientists.
When the Americans questioned the German scientists about their advancements in rocketry and propulsion, they stared back at their interrogators in bewilderment. “We were only expanding on the work of the American scientist Robert Goddard, why haven’t you asked him about rocketry?”
A few months later, von Braun and the other scientists would sign a contract to come to America and detail their work to the U.S. Army at White Sands—just what they wanted all along. It would be a new phase of von Braun's life, one that would climax with an American walking on the moon.
Audio: Wernher von Braun describes the evacuation of Peenemünde
here to view War Department documentation concerning the transfer