Click here to view map of the Mittelwerk
The name Mittelbau refers to a complex of factories, storage depots, facilities and prisoner camps, some underground, that were used from August, 1943 until April, 1945 to manufacture and test the V-2 rocket near Nordhausen in central Germany. The main V-2 assembly line was located in an underground factory called Mittelwerk that was excavated beneath Kohnstein Mountain, about 2 km southwest of the town of Neidersachswerfen. The Dora concentration camp (later called Mittelbau KZ), where most of the Mittelwerk workers were imprisoned, was located on the southwest edge of the Kohnstein, near the southern portals of Mittelwerk tunnels A and B.
This chapter explains the history of the Mittelbau complex, the organization of the underground Mittelwerk V-2 assembly plant, and how the V-2 assembly line functioned. It also describes the discovery of the plant by the Americans and their race to remove V-2 parts, people, and papers to the United States.
Immediately after the war, while America was building its own rocket program on the foundations of German technology, the horrible reality of slave labor used during V-2 production was concealed from the public. Only in the past 10 years, as prisoners’ histories have been published, have we begun to understand more. Estimates put the number of prisoners used by the Germans for V-2 production at - Mittelbau at more than 60,000. Over 25,000 of these were killed either by beatings, starvation, and sickness in the complex, or by the brutal efforts of the SS to relocate them before the Americans arrived in April, 1945. We now know that many of the most shocking “concentration camp pictures” that are seared into our common consciousness from this era were taken by U.S. troops as they entered the Mittelbau camps.
Many of us are impressed by the technical achievement of building so many complex new weapons so rapidly under such harsh conditions. As we mull over this achievement, however, we must never forget the scope of the human sacrifice made for each piece and part disgorged from these workshops.
In early December, 1942, Albert Speer, German Armaments Minister, set up the “A-4 Special Committee”, headed by Gerhard Degenkolb, a fanatical Nazi. As a Director of the DEMAG company, Degenkolb had previously succeeded in a remarkably efficient reorganization of German production of railroad locomotives. During 1943, Degenkolb pushed to have production of the V-2 rocket organized more along the industrial model and taken from the control of Army Ordinance (Wa Pruf 11), with its bureaucratic procedures and slow moving organization. Walter Dornberger, chief of Wa Pruf 11, resented and resisted Degenkolb’s attempt to take over V-2 production.
However, manpower was in very short supply. Therefore, in April of 1943 Arthur Rudolph, the Chief Production Engineer of the Peenemünde V-2 assembly effort and a prewar colleague of von Braun, toured the Heinkel aircraft plant north of Berlin and returned enthused about the possibility of using concentration camp labor (mostly Russians, Poles, and French) for production of the V-2. These concentration camp inmates were referred to as “detainees” (Haftlinge) and would supplement the “guest workers” who had already been recruited (and were paid small amounts of wages) by the Germans. So in June, 1943, Peenemünde requested some 1,400 detainees from the SS concentration camps, and initially set the maximum number of these workers 2,500. An assembly line was set up at Peenemünde on the lower floor of Building F1. This line, which opened on July 16th, was the precursor of the rail-borne horizontal transport type of assembly later used at Mittelwerk.
V-2 parts, however, were never designed to be fully interchangeable. Combustion chambers, fuel pumps, and many valves had to be matched up to each other and specifically tested and regulated for each missile. This meant that each V-2's engine assembly had to be test-fired prior to final assembly. Wernher Von Braun was in charge of these final acceptance tests. On August 4, 1943, Peenemünde made the decision that V-2 production would be carried out for the most part using concentration camp labor in a ratio reported to have been set at 10 to 15 detainees to every German worker. The SS, which ran the camps, became the supplier and organizer of V-2 production manpower. A small concentration camp was in fact located in the basement of Building F1 at the base.
On the night of August 17-18, 1943, the Allies mounted a massive air raid on Peenemünde. This raid forced the Germans to look for hardened underground production locations for the V-2, and for many other key weapons production projects as well. In a meeting on August 26, 1943, a series of pre-existing tunnels under Kohnstein Mountain near Nordhausen were chosen for the new plant, to become known as the Mittelwerk (Middle Works). The Mittelwerk was incorporated as a private company on September 24, 1943, and received a contract for the production of 12,000 V-2s. After meeting with Hitler on August 18th, SS Chief Heinrich Himmler had informed Armaments Minister Speer that he was personally taking over V-2 production and placing SS Brigadier General Hans Kammler in charge of the Mittelbau complex. It was Kammler who had been in charge of building of the extermination camps and gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Maidenek, and Belzec.
The tunnel system at Mittelwerk had been started back in 1934 by another government run mining company (Wifo). The Kohnstein Mountain itself into which the Mittelwerk factory was built is gypsum, anhydrite—therefore fairly easily dug. Later, these tunnels had been used as a storage facility for oil, gasoline, and poison gas. In October, 1940, the Armaments Ministry in Berlin approved expansion of the Wifo site, creating two parallel S-shaped tunnels, connected at regular intervals by cross tunnels resembling the rungs of a ladder. By late 1943, 46 cross tunnels existed, and each of the main tunnels (called “A” and “B”) was wide enough to permit twin regular gauge railroad tracks to run through them.
On August 28, 1943, two days after the choice of the Mittelwerk, the SS delivered the first truckloads of prisoners from the concentration camp at Buchenwald to begin the heavy labor of expanding and completing of the Wifo tunnel system. Dora was the name given to the Buchenwald subcamp that was set up within the tunnels for the laborers. By November of the same year, the subcamp became independant and the surrounding workshops became known as KZ Mittelbau. Later, fbeginning in the spring of 1944, Dora was transformed into a more traditional camp, with 58 barracks buildings surrounded by barbed wire being set up about a quarter mile west of the south entrance to Tunnel B. Camp construction was not completed until October, 1944.
It was during October, November, and December of 1943 that the most physically punishing work was done by the Dora prisoners, who struggled under terrible, inhuman conditions to enlarge and fit out the Mittelwerk tunnels. Prisoners drilled and blasted away thousands of tons of rock. They built rickety, temporary narrow gauge tracks to support the multi-ton loads of rock that were extracted from the caves. If the skips or small rail cars, full of rock fell off these tracks (and this happened frequently), prisoners were kicked, whipped, and beaten until they could re-rail and reload the cars.
The prisoners were made to eat and sleep within the tunnels they were digging. Thousands of workers were crammed into stinking, lice infested bunks stacked four-high in the first few south side cross tunnels at the mouth of Tunnel A, in an atmosphere thick with gypsum dust and fumes from the blasting work, which continued 24 hours a day. Prisoners had no running water or sanitary facilities. Dysentery, typhus, tuberculosis, and starvation were constant causes of suffering and death for these unfortunate people. The Detainees worked atop 30 foot scaffolds using picks to enlarge the tunnels. From time to time, a prisoner would become too weak to continue, fall to his death from the scaffolding, and be replaced by another. Trucks bearing piles of prisoner corpses left every other day for the crematorium ovens at Buchenwald. All of the manufacturing equipment from Peenemünde had to be installed in the tunnels. This was done by hand by prisoner workers using hand-carts, block and tackle, huge skids pulled by teams of prisoners, and the temporary narrow gauge rail lines.
A large network of small concentration camps (said to number more than 40) subsidiary to Dora and of smaller parts depots and related workshops also sprang up around Nordhausen. German war production planners had conceived this area as the hub for Germany's hi-tech weapons development. Fortunately for the Allies, most of these production efforts never got past the site construction stage (in which thousands of prisoner construction workers lost their lives). The V-2 and the V-1 were two of the few production efforts that became operational in reality.
Late in 1943, slave labor was used to carve the Lehesten facility, or Vorwerk Mitte, out of a quarry site about 128 kilometers southeast of Mittelwerk. This facility was to be used for final test-firing and calibration of V-2 engines, pumps, and valves. There was also a similar facility located in Zipf, Austria called Vorwerk Süd. A third engine test facility was planned in the area of Koblenz (Vorwerk West). The engines tested in the Vorwerk Mitte, were assembled inside the Mittelwerk. The ones in Vorwerk Süd, were assembled in the Rax Werke in Wiener-Neustadt, Austria. Such calibration was an essential part of the Mittelwerk production process, Lehesten had its own small concentration camp called Laura that was located in the village of Schmiedebach. Laura was also a subcamp of Buchenwald. (Two similar test stands also continued to operate at Peenemünde. Von Braun, who later denied knowledge of any prisoner mistreatment in order to enter the U.S., is known to have visited both Mittelwerk and the Lehesten site on numerous occasions.
The Mittelbau complex sheltered other weapons production projects as well. One, called the Nordwerk, was located in the same tunnel system as the Mittelwerk, but was used for the manufacture of Junkers aircraft engines. The Nordwerk used the northern entrances to Tunnels A and B, occupied the cross tunnels up through Hall 20, and did not use concentration camp labor. A small production line for the V-1 flying bomb, later code-named Mittelwerk II, occupied the southern tip of Tunnel A (the first four Halls and the entryway), after these had been vacated as prisoner sleeping quarters.
Project B12, alias Kaolin, was a Kohnstein tunneling project west of the Mittelwerk tunnels, intended to create an even larger underground factory (160,000 sq. meters versus 125,000 for Mittelwerk). This plan for this project foresaw Tunnels C-1, C-2, D-1, and D-2, parallel to Mittelwerk’s A and B, being used for an aircraft factory.
Project B11, alias Zinnstein, was situated on the eastern side of Mittelwerk. It had two galleries connecting with Mittelwerk, at the level of Halls 17 and 43. A checkerboard pattern of underground chambers was planned, with 80,000 sq. meters of usable space. Three factories were to occupy this space—Kuckuck for synthetic fuel production (coal liquefaction)—Eber for liquid oxygen production—and Schildkrote for aircraft manufacture.
A final project was called B3, or Anhydrite, in the area west of Himmelberg, near Bischofferrode. This project included a checkerboard pattern of 28 east west tunnels connected by perpendicular halls. Its 130,000 sq. meters were to house a factory named Hydra—another aircraft factory. It is suggested this plant was intended to handle production of the R4M Orkan, the Taifun, and the Hs-117 missiles, as well as the X4 and X7 wire-guided missiles.
Since the Dora camp could not hold all the prisoner labor needed for all these new projects, SS General Kammler decided, in March of 1944, to create two new concentration camps—Harzungen, on the east side of the project area—and Ellrich, next to the train station in that small village west of the Mittelbau. These two camps had a higher death rate among their inmates than did Dora.
The Mittelwerk tunnel system consisted of two parallel main tunnels, A and B, each roughly 6,200 ft. (1.17 mi.) long, bent in a shallow “S” curve, and connected at various points by a regular series of cross tunnels—like the rungs of a ladder. The cross tunnels (called Halls, or Kammer) were about 600 ft. long (from the outside wall of Tunnel A to the outside wall of Tunnel B), and were numbered from 1 to 46, beginning at the north side of the mountain. Tunnels A and B had a height of 21 to 23 ft., and a width of 29 to 36 ft. The Halls were somewhat smaller in cross section, but still the underground space was vast: estimated to be over a million square-feet.
The southern entry of Tunnel A—Halls 46 through 43—were devoted to V-1 production, in what was called Mittelwerk II. V-2 assembly (Mittelwerk I) occupied Halls 21 through 42, while the northern end of the tunnel complex (Halls 1 through 20) was dedicated to Junkers aircraft engine production in what was called Nordwerk.
Each of the main tunnels had two sets of regular gauge railroad tracks running through it. In general, Tunnel A was used to transport parts and materials for the V-2 into the factory and for storage. The Halls were used for assembling, testing, and stocking subassemblies for the rockets. Tunnel B served as the primary assembly line, which began at Hall 21 and moved south towards Hall 42, covering a distance of some 2300 ft (about four tenths of a mile) and carrying rockets out of the Mittelwerk. Many of the Halls contained offices for the German draftsmen, engineers, and foremen (called Meisters) who directed the detainees. Niches and cul-de-sac chambers were also hollowed out of the main tunnels and Halls for additional storage.
The two tracks in Tunnel B formed parallel assembly lines. V-2s to be assembled would be placed on pairs of 4-wheel railroad bogies connected by a beam and moved from north to south. At each stage of the line, additional parts were added to the assemblies, until the completed rockets arrived at Hall 41 on the south end. This hall, which had been excavated well below the regular floor level of the main tunnels, was over 50 ft. high and contained a huge spanning crane, enabling the rockets to be erected vertically. One whole side of Hall 41 contained a series of multi-level vertical inspection scaffolds for the rockets. This was necessary because final fluid and gyroscopic tests (among others) could not be carried out on a horizontal rocket.
The general assembly process went as follows: First, the center section of the rocket (the fuselage with its two huge alcohol and liquid oxygen tanks) was assembled. Next the propulsion group (combustion chamber, turbine pump, air bottles) was attached. Then the tail section of the rocket with its propulsion ring, rudder servos, and fins was attached to the motor. Finally, the guidance compartment (control amplifier, electrical distribution panel, main time switch, radio equipment, etc.) was attached to the front of the missile and the completed rocket went to Hall 41 for final testing and delivery to the launching batteries. Warheads were transported separately and attached to the rockets in the field.
The rocket’s design demanded close tolerances for parts. Given the diversity of sources and subcontractors for the various components and the state of disruption prevailing in the German economy due to Allied bombing, a lot of the work in the tunnels consisted of inspection and reinspection of parts and subassemblies, as well as adjusting or fitting the parts to each other. Many of the prisoners worked in areas devoted to filing, remachining, or otherwise tweaking various subsystems.
Details of the assembly work, mostly gleaned from the recollections of surviving prisoners, are understandably sketchy, but are reconstructed here as a start on a better description. At the beginning of the assembly line, Hall 20 housed personnel who inspected the tolerances on parts which had been received from subcontractors all over Germany. Also in this Hall was a kommando of draftsmen called the Technical Bureau, housed on a wooden platform. A number of Czech and Dutch prisoners, because of their fluency in German, were used here and elsewhere for clerical tasks, like the accounting and budgeting, or updating the rocket plans (through the many rounds of changes).
Hall 22 was a storage area for tools and equipment. Halls 23 and 24 are reported to have been used for assembly and temporary storage of the shells for the central part of the rocket, while Halls 25 and 26 held storage and inspection areas for rocket subsystems. Lathe operators worked in Hall 27.
Hall 29 is reported to have been used for storage of combustion chambers, as well as the preliminary assembly of the tail assembly of the rocket. Hall 30 is remembered as the site for soldering work, and Hall 31 held sheet metal workers who produced the plates for the rocket’s skin.
The Firnrohr Kommando worked on the rocket’s body, which arrived in two half-shells from the shop at Saulgau. Halls 32 and 33 apparently housed huge machine tools used to stamp out fuselage sections for the V-2. Included here were one or more of the gigantic Weingarten hydraulic presses, each over 20 ft. tall. All this equipment had to be moved into its tunnel location by prisoner workers.
The Haukohl Kommando was the largest in the factory, and worked in installing the motor and the fuel tanks into the rocket. This required a lot of tube soldering. The Heckbau Kommando worked on assembling the tail section, and the Heckmontage Kommando attached the tail to the rest of the rocket. Tail section assembly was done in Halls 34 and 35. This included reinforcement of body ribs by welding or explosive rivets, oxyacetylene welding of some plates, installation of the thrust ring, mounting of the control motors for the ailerons, etc. After the tail left Hall 35, it was bolted on to the rear of the rocket’s body.
A prisoner remembers Halls 36 and 37 as being given over to machine tools, and Hall 38 to assembly of ailerons/tail section. One would suspect however, that by this point on the line, the body assembly was complete and was undergoing final fitting and finishing, since Hall 39 is said to have housed the paint shop.
Hall 40 is reported to have housed maintenance activities. Hall 41, as described above, was the huge chamber used for final inspection of the rockets, and Hall 42 held the heating and ventilating equipment, as well as the other mechanical systems. Chimneys had been excavated from this Hall to the surface of Kohnstein Mountain as flues for the for the fireboxes of the heating equipment.
At present, there is a small Mittelwerk museum in the southern part of Tunnel A that served first as the prisoner barracks and then for the manufacture of the V-1 (Halls 43-46). Since the south portal of Tunnel A was collapsed through demolition by the Soviets in 1948, access to the museum is now gained though a new cross-over tunnel. The Eber works still remain, but the more southerly parts of the B11 complex are gone (due to surface mining). The huge test chamber in Hall 41 on the south side is also half submerged. The complex became a National Historic Site in May of 1991 and has since been protected from further damage by surface mining. There are plans to extend the existing Mittelbau Dora memorial site and to build a new Documentation Center near the former concentration camp.
Click here to view map of the Mittelwerk
Labor on the Mittelwerk assembly lines included both detainees and “free” German workers and supervisors, in the ratio of about two prisoners to one “free” worker. The Engineers who ran the various workshops and production crews were Germans, and Wehrmacht soldiers who were wounded or sick would also be sent to Mittelwerk for duty as parts or process inspectors.
Information provided by Dr. Jens-Christian Wagner indicates that once the V-2 production lines were running at their intended levels (by June, 1944) there were roughly 2,500 “free” workers and 5,000 prisoners employed in the Mittelwerk tunnels. Wagner also makes the case that the primary product of the Mittelbau complex was not weapons at all, but death itself—the death of the thousands of prisoners involved with Mittelbau (but primarily with its construction).
Prisoners were divided into two groups of workers: transport columns and specialists. The former did the often back-breaking work of manually transporting much of the material that entered or left the tunnels, while the latter did other more skilled assembly and testing work. Detainees working in the tunnels were divided into a day and a night shift, each working for 12 hours straight. Every four weeks, the workers changed shifts. Each prisoner work group or kommando was headed by a prisoner leader (Kapo).
There were also many construction kommando, working mostly (after early 1944) on projects not tied directly to the V-2. Prisoners are reported to have been desperate to join the specialist groups, since transport or construction workers had to labor under incredible physical burdens and were beaten more viciously by their SS and prisoner guards. As a result, they were used up much more rapidly than the specialists—the construction assignments killed prisoners more surely than any others.
For example, teams of six transport prisoners were assigned to carry into the tunnels the empty aluminum tanks for the rocket from the outside storage depots. Designed to be lightweight for their size, even so, each tank weighed about 150 kg. (330 lb), or about 55 lb per worker. The workers formed two parallel columns and grasped the hand of their counterpart alongside. The tank was then slung on their joined arms. If a group dropped its tank (not uncommon, since these skeletons of men were often already weak and sick), the SS guards and Kapo were there to kick and beat them with truncheons until they could lift their burden and continue once again. Since much of this work was done in the dead of one of the coldest winters on record, the workers were usually slogging though snow, ice, or freezing rain and mud. It is hard to imagine what is must have been like. On their feet they wore wooden clogs, and had very little protection from the elements.
Different worker-groups tended to have different compositions by nationality. Often the better educated French workers (mostly civilians arrested by the Germans for various crimes or for political infractions in France) ended up at jobs like electrical assembly and testing. Many French prisoners with engineering or other scientific or technical training were specifically culled out of the Buchenwald population by Rudolph’s or von Braun’s staffs, and sent to Mittelwerk/Dora. The transport columns, on the other hand, tended to be disproportionately made up of Russian and Ukrainian prisoners.
The specialists were organized into kommando or work groups assigned to various workshops, assembly points, or subcontractors around Mittelbau. Some 20 German companies were involved in the Mittelwerk construction and missile assembly process. They included such well known names as Siemens, AEG, Telefunken, Rheinmetall, Ruhrstaal, BMW, Junkers, Heinkel, Walther, Askania AG and DEMAG. Individual companies often had kommando that bore their corporate name (e.g., “AEG Kommando”) and that were used to carry out their subcontracts.
Initial V-2s were plagued by bad welds, soldering problems, and faulty parts. At first electrical components were installed and final testing was performed at Degenkolb’s DEMAG facility at Berlin-Falkensee. Later in 1944, these activities were moved to the Mittelwerk.
Many prisoners involved in electrical assembly and testing were required to put slips of paper bearing their unique identification numbers alongside of parts they had produced or certified. Then, if problems were found with these during later inspections, the workers responsible would be punished. Still, minor forms of passive sabotage could be accomplished by the prisoners for example by accepting for assembly subcontractor parts that they knew did not meet specifications. There were instances of prisoner workers knowingly passing along electronic subassemblies that contained “cold solder” connections—ones that were likely to produce intermittent or no electrical contact at all, and thus lead to failures. Other prisoners recount making partial arc welds in hidden locations on the rocket (for example, inner welds on fins that would hopefully come apart later under launch stresses).
Sabotage was a dangerous undertaking, however. The penalty was death, and the SS guards often carried out individual or group hangings as object lessons to the prisoners. The huge cranes in Hall 41 were used to hoist victims up by their necks and let them slowly strangle, in full view of the members of each of the Mittelwerk shifts, who were called to witness these hangings. The dead were then left to hang there, about five feet off the floor, for a day or so, while the prisoners came and went beneath them. A permanent gallows was also erected in the roll call yard at Dora.
Since space in the tunnels was limited, only the most delicate parts (gyroscopes, electronics, etc.) were totally stocked underground. Bulky objects like motors, fuel tanks, half-fuselage sections, plates for the rockets skin, and bales of fiberglass insulation were stored above ground in smaller neighboring depots. One of these was situated at the north end of Tunnel A, in the town of Niedersachswerfen, and was crewed by a Czech kommando. The second depot was at Rossla, about 21 kilometers east of Nordhausen, in the old Kalkofen factory. The third depot was located at Kelbra. In addition, a small kommando was located in an old potash mine at Kleinbodungen, near Bleicherode. This crew worked at refurbishing V-2s that had been returned by the field batteries as a result of misfirings, damage during transport, or other factors that made them unusable by the launching batteries.
On April 11, 1945, the spearhead of the advancing American troops, Combat Command B (CCB) of the 3rd Armored Division, under Brig. Gen. Truman Boudinot, entered Nordhausen. Here CCB was to pause and link up with the 104th Infantry (Timberwolf) Division before continuing its drive to the east.
Third Armored had been warned by Army Intelligence to “expect something a little unusual" in the Nordhausen area, but they knew nothing of the horrors to be soon discover. One of the first sickening encounters took place at the Boelcke-Kaserne (also called the Nordhausen Camp), a former German military barracks that the SS had used as a dumping ground for prisoners from Mittelbau camps and projects who were too weak or diseased to include in the transports and forced marches out of the area. The dead also included prisoners killed in an Allied bombing raid aimed at Nordhausen. An estimated 1,300 to 2,500 corpses were found here, along with a few survivors, cared for by the 104th Division's medical staff. Then, troops from the 104th and Third Armored discovered Dora and the entrances to the Mittelwerk tunnels. A first person account of this can be found at:
Maj. William Castille, Intelligence Officer for CCB, is quoted as having said that entering the Mittelwerk tunnels was “like being in a magician's cave." The Americans were stunned to discover orderly rows of V-2 parts and subassemblies stretched out through the tunnels. Work had stopped at Mittelwerk on April 10, 1945, but the assembly line was left with its electric power and ventilation systems still running, as if the former occupants had gone out for lunch, and would return after a while.
News of the discovery of Mittelwerk was passed back to Col. Roger Toftoy, Chief of Ordinance Technical Intelligence in Paris. Toftoy had already been requested by Col. Trichel, Chief of the Army Ordinance Rocket Branch at the Pentagon, to acquire 100 V-2s and ship these back to White Sands Proving Ground (WSPG) in New Mexico for further study. Col. Toftoy reported to Col. Joel G. Holmes, and thence to Maj. Gen. Henry B. Taylor, Chief of Ordinance, European Theater of Operations.
To support his mission, Col. Toftoy had organized special rapid response ordinance technical intelligence teams attached to each Army Group. These teams were equipped with cameras, radios, transport, and qualified personnel whose job it was to ferret out interesting weapons technology and record it. There was also a gypsy team—a sort of roving band—that Toftoy himself could deploy to check-out any interesting discovery.
The team designated to investigate the Mittelwerk tunnels (Special Mission V-2) was headed by Maj. James Hamill of Ordinance Technical Intelligence. He was assisted by Maj. William Bromley in charge of technical operations and by Dr. Louis Woodruff, an MIT electrical engineering professor, as special advisor. The team was head quartered in Fulda, about 80 miles southwest of Nordhausen.
Trichel had also designated Maj. Robert Staver (from the Rocket Section of the Research and Development branch of Gen. Sayler’s Ordinance Office) to direct the effort to find and interrogate the German rocket specialists who had built the V-2. On April 20, 1945, Staver flew from London to Paris and prepared to leave for the Nordhausen area. Before leaving Paris, Staver left word for Dr. Richard Porter, a young electrical engineer who worked for General Electric and headed up an effort called Project Hermes, intended to find and catalog German rocket technology and personnel.
By April 20, however, things were moving quickly—the Russians were attacking the suburbs of Berlin—it was Hitler's 56th birthday and he was immobilized 50 feet underground in his Reich Chancellery Bunker. Shortly thereafter, on May 1 Hitler's death was announced to the German people. Prior to that, however, the Germans in charge of the V-2 program had been maneuvering for leverage in the end-game of the war. Late in March, SS General Kammler had selected from the 5,000 or so German rocket scientists and engineers who were living and working in the Mittelbau area a group of about 500 key workers. These workers, including von Braun and Dornberger, were rounded up by the SS, loaded on a special Kammler train, and sent 400 miles south to the Bavarian Alps, where a “Bavarian Redoubt” was rumored to be being established for the last stand of Nazism against the advancing Americans.
Von Braun, however, correctly suspected that Kammler has preparing to hold him and the Nordhausen evacuees hostage as a bargaining chip with the Americans, and sought to create some leverage of his own. On April 3, 1945, he sent a convoy to carry 14 tons of the most important V-2 plans and documents and conceal these in an abandoned salt mine in the tiny village of Dornten. The roof of the mine was then dynamited, concealing the cache.
On May 2, 1945, the antitank company of the 324th Infantry of the 44th ID was patrolling in the area of Reutte, just over the Austrian border from southern Bavaria, when Magnus von Braun, Wernher’s brother, came pedaling down the road to announce that the leaders of the V-2 team, who were holed up just ahead in a small hotel, wished to surrender to the Americans. These included the von Brauns, Gen. Dornberger and his chief of staff, Hans Lindenberg, Bernard Tessmann, and Dieter Huzel, the last two of whom had been the ones who had stashed the V-2 documents in Dornten. After the general German surrender on May 7, 1945, the V-2 entire group of V-2 scientists and engineers was moved to a prisoner enclosure in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, where a variety of Allied interrogators questioned them.
Meanwhile, Army Ordinance’s Special Mission V-2 was busy doing an inventory of the Mittelwerk tunnels and trying to figure out how to disassemble, pack, and move a huge quantity of V-2 parts and subassemblies to the port of Antwerp, and thence to WSPG in the United States. One of their first moves was to call for some U.S. troops with basic mechanical skills—in this case, the 144th Motor Vehicle Assembly (MVA) Company, which had been working the docks in Cherbourg. This unit arrived at Mittelwerk on May 18th, and joined the 319th Ordinance Battalion for the task of moving V-2 parts out of Mittelbau.
After rounding up captured German rolling stock and clearing a way into the tunnels, Special Mission V-2 succeeded in loading up and sending off its first 40 car trainload of V-2 parts On May 22, 1945. Shipments like these reportedly continued for the next nine days, and on May 31st, the last of the 341 rail cars left Nordhausen for Erfurt, and then Antwerp. Although the British properly protested that by prior agreement half the captured V-2s were to be turned over to them, the Americans ignored these protests. Sixteen Liberty ships, bearing the parts for 100 V-2 rockets, finally sailed from Antwerp, bound for New Orleans and WSPG. But the V-2 documentation hidden by Von Braun’s staff was still unaccounted for, and without it, the Americans would have had a hard time making operational V-2s from their boxes of parts.
Since April 30th, Major Staver and Ed Hull, a GE engineer from the Hermes Project, had been in the Nordhausen area searching the plants and smaller laboratories for V-2 technicians. On May 12 Staver located his first V-2 engineer, Karl Otto Fleisher, who began to put him in touch with other Mittelbau engineers who had not been part of the caravan to Bavaria. Then on May 14 Staver found Walther Riedel, Chief of the rocket motor and structural design section, who was interrogated through May 18. Riedel emphasized the use of the V-2 for space travel, and urged the Americans to import perhaps 40 of the top V-2 engineers to America. As it turned out, Fleisher was the only person remaining in the Nordhausen area who was aware of the general location of the V-2 documents hidden by von Braun’s group. Staver succeeded in tricking him into believing that von Braun had already authorized him to reveal the location of the papers, and on May 20 Fleisher named the Dornten tunnel.
But by this point, the Americans had only one week to go before the Dornten area would fall into the hands of the British, who would then remove the documents themselves. There followed a frantic scramble to locate sufficient manpower to excavate the demolished tunnel and enough transport to move the document crates back to Nordhausen. On May 27, with only a few hours to spare before the British occupied the area, the Americans succeeded. The stolen documents were quickly shipped to Paris and then back to the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.
On June 8, 1945, senior Mittelbau engineers who had been part of the von Braun contingent arrived back in the Nordhausen area at Staver’s request, to assist him in identifying which of the thousands of German technicians and their families should be offered evacuation to the American Zone, in advance of the Russian occupation of the Nordhausen area, which had been finally scheduled for June 21. Then, less than 24 hours before the Russians arrived, some 1,000 German V-2 personnel and their families were gathered up and placed aboard a 50 car train, which finally made it to the small town of Witzenhausen, 40 miles to the southwest and just inside the American Zone. Months later, at White Sands in the New Mexico desert, the first reassembled V-2 was successfully launched on June 28, 1946.
In 1979 the U.S. Congress opened a special investigation to uncover Nazi war criminals living in the United States. One of von Braun's colleagues, Arthur Rudolph, former Saturn V project director, was implicated in a report describing the use of slave laborers at the Mittelwerk. Rudolph was accused of prisoner exploitation during the war, however, at the time the OSI had no evidense (it was years later that a 1943 report came to light in which he seems to have suggested the initial use of forced labor at Peenemünde). The main body of evidence they had against Rudolph was his own testimony which he gave voluntarily without legal council. Rudolph didn't want any publicity and quietly left the United States after he was coerced into renouncing his citizenship through threats and intimidation against his NASA pension and family. Later, the German government asked the OSI for its evidense and received nothing. They launched their own investigation and found nothing against Rudolph that warranted prosecution. After helping the United States win the moon, Rudolph felt betrayed.
The tunnels of the Mittelwerk languished in obscurity for almost 50 years, remaining buried in history until the German reunification in the early 1990s. By 1995 the Dora concentration camp memorial had opened, finally revealing the horrors and suffering, commemorating the prisoners who died to build Hitler's ballistic missile.
Thanks to Paul Grigorieff.
Also thanks to: Ed Straten, Michel van Best and Jirzy Komprda.