Wernher von Braun

   Was he a Nazi or was he a scientist? Most would like to believe the later, although many feel von Braun was indirectly responsible for the deaths of thousands. German-born American rocket scientist and “space architect” who served both Adolf Hitler and American presidents with his unique ability to promote and develop rocket technology. Even if one feels his actions (or in-actions) towards slave labor were reprehensible, the fact remains that Wernher von Braun was responsible for the space age becoming a reality in this century. Von Braun was named by Life magazine as one of the "100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century," touting him as the man who "launched the greatest adventure of all, a journey to the Moon" But, others would ask—at what cost?

   Wernher Magnus Maximilian von Braun was born to Baron Magnus von Braun and Emmy von Quistorp on March 23, 1912, in Wirsitz, a town in the eastern German province of Posen. Wernher's father was a wealthy farmer and a provincial councilor and served as Minister for Agriculture during the 1930s in President Hindenburg's Weimar Republic. From childhood, Wernher revealed an interest in both science and music. At age 11 he enrolled in the Französisches Gymnasium that had been established two centuries earlier by Fredrick the Great. There, the boy showed only a modest ability in mathematics and physics, subjects in which he would later excel. In 1928 Wernher's father placed him in the progressive Hermann Lietz schools. Wernher's grades and abilities improved. Hermann Oberth’s book, Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen (The Rocket into Planetary Space) captured the young boy's attention. However, von Braun soon learned that he would have to excel in mathematics to even understand the concepts and principles in the book.

   Even during these younger years of his life, von Braun was experimenting with rockets and propulsion. He once strapped a cluster of solid rocket motors to a wagon and shot it down a crowded street. Many in the crowd were not amused.

    “I was ecstatic,” von Braun later recalled. “The wagon was wholly out of control and trailing a comet’s tail of fire, but my rockets were performing beyond my wildest dreams.” The fire-breathing wagon diverged onto the Tiergarten Strasse, a very crowded Berlin city street. An angry police officer grabbed the young rabble-rouser and threatened to arrest him. “Fortunately, no one had been injured, so I was released in charge of my father.” —Erik Bergaust, Reaching for the Stars, 1960

Audio: Von Braun describes his youth and fasination with Oberth's book
Audio: Von Braun speaks about apprenticeship under Oberth

   The next step for the eighteen-year-old Wernher von Braun was to enter the Technische Hochschule in the Berlin district of Charlottenburg. All the while, his interest in astronomy and space travel kept growing. He had become acquainted with astronautics pioneer Hermann Oberth, writer and spaceflight promoter Willy Ley, and rocket experimenters Rudolf Nebel and Johannes Winkler. He has also followed the exploits of Max Valier who had gained publicity driving autos and rail cars powered by solid-fuel rockets. Von Braun quickly joined the Verein für Raumschiffahrt (VfR, Society of Space Travel) and was soon participating in rocket experiments at the Raketenflugplatz located on a vacant Army proving ground near Reinickendorf. —Frederick I. Ordway & Mitchell Sharpe, The Rocket Team, 1979

   After they were invited to watch a rocket demonstration, members of the Army Reichswehr at Army Ordinance failed to be impressed with anyone or anything other than the young Wernher von Braun. The VfR members had hoped to gain funding from the Army to continue their experiments, but it was 1932 and Adolf Hitler was in power. Nazi Germany was going to ban all rocketry experiments and discussion - outside of the German military.

   On November 1, 1932, von Braun signed a contract with the Reichswehr to conduct research leading to the development of rockets as military weapons. In this capacity, he would work for Captain Walter Dornberger. His association with Dornberger would last for over a decade. In the same year, under an Army grant, von Braun enrolled at the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Universität from where he graduated two years later with a Ph.D. in physics. His dissertation dealt with the theoretical and practical problems of liquid propellant rocket engines.
Even before he graduated, von Braun was busy conducting his first rocket tests at Kummersdorf, an old Army artillery range outside of Berlin. A few of von Braun's colleagues from the VfR days joined him and started work on what would be called the A1 rocket. The A1 would eventually evolve into the A2 and A3. These rockets were successfully tested off the coast of Germany in the North Sea. Frederick I. Ordway & Mitchell Sharpe, The Rocket Team, 1979

   By, 1935, von Braun and his team, which had grown to eighty members, were regularly firing liquid-fueled engines with great success. The operation was out-growing the facilities at Kummersdorf. A secure, isolated location was suggested by Wernher's mother. It was called Peenemünde. This wooded, quiet part of Germany was located on the Baltic Sea at the mouth of the river Peene on the island of Usedom. The Army and the Luftwaffe poured money into the co-development of Peenemünde. A huge complex of buildings for housing, testing, manufacturing and development were constructed. The site would eventually be home to over 2,000 scientists and 4,000 other personnel. —Christopher Lampton, Wernher von Braun, 1988

Audio: Von Braun describes early experiments and Reinickendorf and Kummersdorf

   The Peenemünde complex began work on the military weapon, the A-4, with von Braun in charge of technical development. After several tries, an A-4 missile was successfully launched on October 3, 1942. Much was still unfinished though - a successful launch did not translate into a proven weapon system. It would be two years later that the first A-4/V-2s were operationally deployed. 

   During these fast-moving early development stages of Peenemünde's growth, the multitude of German scientists and engineers were well served by the young and resourceful von Braun. His ability to put the right personnel in key positions, the ability to streamline research efforts, head off disputes, secure materials and von Braun's own exuberance for the A-4 project was key in Peenemünde's success.

   Less than a year after the first A-4 success, the British became suspicious of the goings on at Peenemünde. In mid-August 1943, hundreds of RAF bombers attacked the site causing damage. The facilities could be repaired but, it was decided that full production of the A-4/V-2 would have to be moved to a more secure location, away from other potential bomber attacks. Peenemünde would remain as a research center for improved missile designs and Luftwaffe jet powered aircraft. Von Braun was to remain at Peenemünde in charge of testing.

   A frightful event occurred in mid-March 1944 when von Braun was arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned in Stettin. The alleged crime was that von Braun had declared his main interest in developing the A-4/V-2 was for space travel—not as a weapon. Also, since von Braun was a pilot, who regularly piloted his government-provided airplane, it was suggested that he was planning to escape with A-4/V-2 secrets to the Allies.

   It was the personal intervention of Munitions and Armaments Minister Albert Speer with Hitler that gained von Braun's release from jail. It had only been a few weeks earlier that von Braun refused an offer from Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler. Himmler had proposed that von Braun should leave the German Army rocket program and come to work for the SS. It is believed that Himmler was directly responsible for von Braun’s arrest. —Michael Neufeld, The Rocket and the Reich, 1995

   Von Braun had accepted a position of rank in the SS when it was offered to him a few years earlier. Later, von Braun would say that he accepted it only out of necessity and that he only wore the uniform on one occasion. While his statement may be somewhat true, this does show that von Braun was willing to compromise much to keep the research ongoing.

Photos below show on Braun's early years and wartime images.

    In 1943, Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler forced component manufacturing, missile assembly and military deployment of the A-4/V-2 out of the hands of Dornberger and von Braun who wanted to continue improving and testing the rocket before releasing it for production. The underground factory called the Mittelwerk, in central Germany, began producing A-4/V-2 rockets late that year along with other weapons such as the Fi103 or V-1 flying bomb. Several thousand workers from nearby concentration camps, together with thousands of civilian workers began producing weapons. Even after production had begun on the missile, the V-2 systems were not completely ready for mass production. Almost another year of testing was needed to make the weapon reliable. Beginning in September of 1944, the A-4s—now called V-2s—were launched against Paris, London, Antwerp, and other targets.

   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.

Audio: Wernher von Braun describes the evacuation of Peenemünde

   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 man walking on the moon.

   During the summer of 1945, interrogation by the Allies continued. The Americans soon offered von Braun and some 120 key members of his team a six-month contract to work for Army Ordnance in the United States. The offer was accepted. Soon von Braun and six colleagues were on their way to the United States. After briefings in Washington, D.C., they were sent to Fort Bliss near El Paso, Texas. Six months later, many more Peenemünde scientists were sent to the U.S. to join them. 

   It was at the new U.S. missile proving grounds in White Sands, New Mexico that von Braun set about training and testing rockets for the U.S. military. For the next five years hundreds of captured V-2s were sent skyward carrying a multitude of payloads. Von Braun and his men were transferred to Huntsville, Alabama in April of 1950 to start development of an Army tactical ballistic battlefield missile. At the Redstone Arsenal, von Braun helped develop the Redstone missile. 

   It was in Alabama that the Germans eventually gained their American citizenship. Soon, the space race with the Soviet Union created an urgent need for von Braun's help. America's first satellite was launched from a Wernher von Braun design, the Redstone-based Jupiter-C.

   In the Fifties von Braun started writing for science and cultural magazines with his vision for manned space programs. In the winter of 1952 he wrote a series of articles for the popular magazine Collier’s. For those Collier’s reports, von Braun stressed the importance of “establishing a ‘node’ in low Earth orbit,” and so first introduced the modern version of a space station and many other technical aspects of space flight that later became a reality. For instance, von Braun wrote in Collier’s Magazine from March 1952 that the space station would be constructed using rockets with recoverable and reusable ascent stages, with a “toroid structure." Along with Willy Ley, von Braun has been called the Einstein of rocket and space technology after writing that man will venture into space with "spinning space stations, lunar landings and culminating in a massive expedition to Mars."

   Von Braun wrote that the space station that he was dreaming of and planning would be "an assembly point for expeditions to the Moon and Mars," his goal. He also wrote that it’s much more economically sound to launch his rockets from Earth orbit than "from a deep potential well,” since he viewed an orbiting station as having an obvious advantage as "a fuel depot and starting point."

   Von Braun was called “instrumental,” by NASA history, in the development of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. There he helped develop the Saturn V rockets—his visionary rocket, the Saturn 5— that carried man to the Moon. On March 1, 1970, von Braun and his family relocated to Washington, D.C., where he was given another top space job of being NASA’s Deputy Associate Administrator for Planning at NASA Headquarters. But, after a series of conflicts termination associated with the of the his favorite Apollo program, he retired from NASA on May 26, 1972. Wernher von Braun died of cancer at the age of 65 on June 16, 1977, in Alexandria, Virginia. He is buried in a small grave at the Ivy Hill Cemetery in Alexandria.

   Recently, some critics have made a moral judgment and implicated von Braun with the use of slave labor. Many believe that von Braun should not have been celebrated as a hero. They feel he turned a blind-eye toward what was happening to slave laborers in Germanyas if, ridiculously, he could have refused to continue his work on the V-2 for Himmler and the SS unless this practice was ended. This was not an option, for it would have lead to his own persecution. Whether or not von Braun felt compassion over the abuses suffered by the slave laborers, he was in no position to negotiate the terms of his service to the SS or Hitler.

   The slave laborers at the underground Mittelwerk factory were also forced by the SS to build V-1 flying bombs, jet engines and various anti-aircraft missiles. Von Braun’s V-2 missile made up only a portion of the factory’s production. The Mittelwerk was used for final assembly of the missiles, yet the manufacturing of V-2 components (over 17,000 individual parts) was spread out all over German industry.

Then again, there is not much evidence in official records to indicate that he was disturbed by the use of slave labor. The means through which his experimentation could continue was the vehicle of the Wehrmacht’s war machine. Von Braun’s work on the rocket was his passion throughout his whole life, not just during the war. His crime was one of success through available means or the greater evil of complacency, which infected so much of the German population during World War 2.

Click here to view War Department documentation concerning the transfer
of German scientists to the United States

Photos below of von Braun during his time at Huntsville, his family life and later during the NASA manned spaceflight program.


Below are a few videos of von Braun following WW2, during the period
when promoting
his vision for manned space programs.