Surrender of the V-2 Division and the formation of
Versuchskommando Altenwalde (AVKO) for Backfire tests

   The end for V-2 troops of Division z.V. (Division for Retaliation) came in April of 1945. Everywhere in the Germany the fires were burning. It was a signal of the incessant and unstoppable penetration by enemy forces from the east and west. Berlin had been surrounded for days, yet somehow the German war effort continued—even as the Allies rolled across Germany. The retreating Germans formed up to fight against the Allies, having been rallied by fanatical commanders still sworn to Hitler. However, in the end, the soldiers submitted to the overwhelming Allied supremacy, usually without much resistance.

   Hitler had ordered a breakthrough to rescue Berlin from the Russians who were squeezing the city. When the orders were given this plan was already an illusion. The orders received by the German commanders were impossible to carry out, as it was no longer possible to amass effective combat-ready troops. Tasked with this was the German 12th Army under General Walther Wenck. Wenck's forces were piecemealed together using the scattered remains of broken regiments and divisions—including the V-2 Division.

   On the evening of March 23, 1945, British troops under Montgomery had reached the Rhine River, and several days later, the situation for the V-2 troops in Holland became critical. The German High Command ordered the immediate withdrawal of all troops and material related to both the V-1 and V-2 operations in Holland. Battalion 485 (Art. Reg. 902). Protected by low clouds on the rainy Thursday afternoon, they drove in a long procession to Leiden, from there to Utrecht, and then finally to the German border. Equipment removed from the firing sites was littered along the route as fuel ran out and chain of command broke down. They arrived in the area of Fallingbostel on April 1, 1945, and were joined there the following day by the second battery. A few days later, the majority of the battalion’s specialized vehicles and equipment, along with some remaining rockets, were destroyed haphazardly with explosives at a large outdoor storage area for V-2s near Leese, northwest of Hannover in the Hahnenberg Forest.

   The SS Werfer Battery 500 had been firing on Antwerp from sites near Hellendoorn in Holland. During the last days of March, some of the platoons were given a quick course in close-combat infantry training. Being completely cut off from outside news, the soldiers could only guess as to why this training was given. On the nights of March 27–30, the whole battery packed up and withdrew from Hellendoorn because of advancing Canadian forces. Each platoon left the launching area on different nights using different routes, but all went in the general direction of Nordrhein-Westfalen. They took everything, including excess rockets and all battery vehicles, moving under the cover of darkness. As the units traveled through Lingen, Niederdorf, Lemke, and Nienburg, the firing crews thought it was a normal firing position change. The soldiers would only find out days later that the SS 500 had been ordered to move east in defense of Berlin. On April 1, some of the platoons arrived at Dorfmark just north of Fallingbostel, 23 miles north of Hannover.

   In the area of Fallingbostel the men of the SS 500 were split up into new groups. Some received new combat assignments, while most formed the nucleus of several new Nebelwerfer artillery batteries. The 15-centimeter Nebelwerfer 41, or Screaming Mimi as American soldiers called it, was an artillery piece that fired solid-fuel rocket projectiles. The weapon was designed to saturate a target with spin-stabilized smoke, explosive, or gas rockets. A large portion of SS 500 soldiers chosen for the new batteries was previously trained as artillery men prior to their V-2 deployment. The artillery pieces were brought in from the Nebelwerferschule (Nebelwerfer School) at Celle, and a quick training program was instigated by elements of the SS Werfer-Lehrabteilung. On April 5, most of the specialized V-2 equipment and vehicles belonging to the SS 500 were demolished to prevent their capture by the Allies. However, the Feuerleitpanzer halftracks belonging to the platoons were converted into combat vehicles by cutting the armored top section away and fitting them with twin 20-millimeter guns.

   At the beginning of April, Training and Experimental Battery 444 had driven to Lüneburg Heath and the last few test firings took place on April 5. On April 10 Battery 444 arrived at the village Steinhorst where a portion of their equipment was demolished. About nine days latter half the troop went Welmbüttel in Schleswig-Holstein, those that remained were later taken prisoner by the British at or near Steinhorst. Some of the 444 men formed up with orders to join the V-2 Division and fight the Allies as infantry. On May 1 part of 444 men at Welmbüttel were ordered to join a anti-aircraft regiment and were then used as infantry soldiers against the British at Bargteheide/Trittau. On the same day yet another portion of the 444 were used as an infantry unit to hold back the British as an infantry unit. The remaining troops at Welmbüttel destroyed all equipment and important documents—rockets and specialized vehicles, such as the Meillerwagen, were towed into the bog at Welmbüttel and demolished with explosives.The 444 war diaries were burned (this is why so little information exists about this unit today). Some of the soldiers took quarter in nearby villages and reportedly stayed there until the war ended.

   Battalion 836 (Art. Reg. 901) had been idle for several weeks. Having launched their last rocket from the Hachenburg area on March 16, 1945, they spent the last days of the month packing and shipping excess rockets and equipment out of Hachenburg because of the lack of liquid oxygen and the Allied breakthrough at Remagen. They received word to gather at Bramsche, about ten miles west of Osnabruck, for further orders. The deterioration of the basic military situation, however, prevented this. Instead, the battalion was ordered to the area of Visselhövede for the Blucher Undertaking. From there, their remaining rockets were to be fired against the Küstrin Fortress in Poland. Over the previous two weeks, Stalin’s forces had advanced roughly 100 miles from the Baltic, near Kolberg in Pomerania, to the Oder fortress of Küstrin, about 60 miles northeast of Berlin. The plan fell apart because of the total breakdown in Germany. On April 3, 1945, Hitler ordered that no more explosives were to be used for V-2 warheads, thus terminating the offensive once and for all. As a result, all of Group South’s equipment was destroyed on April 7, 1945, in the area of Celle to prevent its capture by the Allies.

   On April 6, 1945, as the British forces approached the Weser River, chaos was everywhere. The German units were disorganized and communications were nonexistent. Near Stolzenau some of the excess SS 500 personnel, along with a battalion of Hitler Youth and a company of inexperienced German engineers, were ordered to fend off enemy tanks with only small-arms fire and a few 88-millimeter flak guns. Tanks of the British Second Army attempting to cross the river were eventually turned back but crossed later at Petershagen, south of Stolzenau. The tanks headed north to meet up with a British commando brigade near Leese, where on April 8, abandoned and demolished V-2s were discovered on flatbed railcars and in the forest just outside a chemical manufacturing plant. Kampfstoffabrik Leese was one of a number of secret plants built in this area of to produce chemicals for the German war effort.

   Since February of 1945, there had been a plan by Gruppenführer Hans Kammler to convert the V-2 launching units into a normal motorized combat division. Many officers in the division thought this would be a senseless waste of human lives. Many recognized the final defeat for Germany was inevitable and saw the only sensible solution as being an organized surrender. On March 10, several division officers, including Colonel Thom, conducted a meeting at Bad-Essen. They all agreed the division should surrender and only sympathetic colleagues should be informed of the plan. Colonel Thom, Chief of Staff for Division z.V., blocked Kammler’s ordered conversion by simply delaying the reorganization of troops for the required battle groups.

   It was understood among all that the idea of surrender should not be mentioned to SS General Kammler. It would have been suicide to do so. Kammler’s fanatical attitude could not be reasoned with, and any suggestion of surrender would bring an immediate death sentence. Kammler had already given the formal order to reorganize the rocket troops into infantry regiments, and a few weeks afterward, he made a speech before the regimental and battalion commanders, giving wild battle orders. Soon after that, Kammler disappeared from Division z.V. affairs altogether. Colonel Thom reasoned that if the division surrendered as a whole, the Allies might be interested in employing some of the highly trained V-2 specialists with their practical field experience for development of rockets of their own. He believed, correctly, the Americans and the British would not want the German rocket troops to fall into Russian hands. Thom was then called back to Berlin at the end of March. It is unknown if his confidence was betrayed after he sought support from higher echelons in Berlin, but for whatever reason, he was relieved of his post. It looked as if the surrender to the Western Allies might not happen.

   On April 10, British forces discovered several V-2s on railway wagons when they captured a large munitions factory eight miles southwest of Nienburg near Liebenau. As the Allied push from the west drew closer, the leftover remnants of the SS 500 began a disorderly retreat to the area near Göhrde on the west side of the Elbe. In the following days, Battalion 836 (Art. Reg. 901) moved to the marshaling areas east of the Elbe River where they were joined with Battalion 485 (Art. Reg. 902) and a portion of Battery 444 near the area of Dannenberg. The V-2 Division, which converted into a Panzer Grenadier Division, was now at the disposal of the German 41st Panzer Corps under Lieutenant General Rudolf Holste (Panzerkorps Holste).

   The individual soldiers of the rocket batteries believed their V-2 mission to be an important one. They were disheartened by the rapid retreat and sudden change in their situation. The war diary of the Battalion 836 (Art. Reg. 901) stated on April 8, “With all of our specialized equipment destroyed, the long-range rocket group has lost its character as an elite unit. Time is up for Gruppe Süd and the employment of the V-2. We are now nothing more than an ordinary infantry combat group.”

   On April 10 General Walther Wenck was made the commander of the German 12th Army located to the west of Berlin. The 12th Army was positioned to defend against the advancing American and British forces on the Western Front. But, as both the Western Front moved eastwards and the Eastern Front moved westwards, the German armies making up both fronts backed towards each other. As a result, the area of control of Wenck's army to his rear and east of the Elbe River had become a vast refugee camp for German civilians fleeing the path of the approaching Soviet forces.

   Near Berlin the Soviet forces of Marshal Georgy Zhukov's 1st Belorussian Front were encircling the city from the north. The forces of Soviet Marshal Ivan Konev's 1st Ukrainian Front were encircling Berlin from the south. On April 21 German dictator Adolf Hitler ordered SS-General Felix Steiner to attack the Soviets and drive to Berlin. Steiner declined to attack. With few operational tanks and roughly a division's worth of infantry, Steiner chose the lives of his remaining men over the lives of the German leadershp. Instead, Steiner requested that his army be allowed to retreat to avoid its own encirclement and annihilation.

   On April 22 the V-2 Division and the 41st Corps was subordinated to the command of General Wenck. As Army Detachment Steiner retreated, Wenck's 12th Army became Hitler's last hope to save Berlin. Wenck was ordered to disengage the Americans to his west and, attacking to the east, link up with the 9th Army of Colonel General Theodor Busse. Together, they were to attack the Soviets encircling Berlin from the west and from the south. Meanwhile, the 41st Panzer Corps under Holste would attack the Soviets from the north. Unfortunately for the Germans in Berlin, much of Holste's forces consisted of transfers from Steiner's depleted units.

   The makeup of the 12th Army troops and equipment was to include remnants of various divisions. A portion was Division Hake (without communications and only with small arms), which consisted of two regiments; Infantry Reg. von Hake 1 (under Lieutenant Colonel Jochim Bahr) and Infantry Reg. von Hake 2 (under Lieutenant Colonel von dem Bottlemberg). Another regiment was formed using remaining personnel from the 1st Battalion of Flakabteilung from Hannover, a replacement battalion from Stendal, along with the communication and service dog training personnel from Rathenow. A portion of the 199th Infantry Division was to come from Oslo, but up until April 29-30 only one regiment of the 199th had reached the planned employment area. Other forces included 2,500 young boys of the 1st Tank Destroyer Brigade (Hitler Youth) on bicycles armed with Panzerfäust; the Tank Hunter Brigade “Hermann Göring;” 39th Panzer Division reserves from Hamburg; as well as remainder of the armored division “Clausewitz.” Much of the equipment and heavy weapons for these troops were now missing.

   Also added to the mix of 12th Army units were the 6,000 men of the V-2 Division. The motorized V-2 Division was considered to be well-equipped even though its members may not have thought so. 12th Army commanders were unsure of this "secret unit" and did not know for sure when the V-2 Division would arrive in the employment area.

   Wenck's army made a sudden turn around and, in the general confusion, surprised the Russians surrounding the German capital with an unexpected attack on April 24. Wenck's forces attacked towards Berlin and made some initial progress, but they were halted outside of Potsdam by strong Soviet resistance. Neither Busse or Holste made much progress towards Berlin. By the end of the day on April 27 the Soviet forces encircling Berlin linked up again and the forces inside Berlin were completely cut off from the rest of Germany.

   By the middle of April, the V-2 Division crossed to the east side of the Elbe River near the town of Dömitz. As part of a motorized division, they were assembled in the area of Lenzen, ready for deployment against the Russians. The unit was then positioned in the area northwest of Fehrbellin, northwest of Berlin, east of the Elbe River. Years earlier, this had been the battleground where one of the most crucial victories in Brandenburg history had been achieved. But in 1945, it was the place of a desperate struggle, which saw the end of greater Germany. On April 26, 1945, the acting commander of the division, Lieutenant Colonel Schulz, former commanding officer of Group North, was persuaded by SS Lieutenant Colonel Wolfgang Wetzling to sign an order issuing authority to open surrender talks with the Americans. Before this could occur, once again the division found itself with a new commander when Schulz was relieved by the young Colonel von Gaudecker.

   Colonel Wetzling did not give up. He discussed the surrender plan with several staff officers of the division. One of them, Major Matheis, agreed to go with Wetzling to see the new commander of the division. During a short meeting on April 29, Colonel von Gaudecker agreed to the surrender. The plan was discussed in detail with the wishes of the division written down. Wetzling and Matheis would act as emissaries accompanied by a signals officer, and the arrangements would be transmitted back from the Americans on a special wireless wavelength. On the night of April 29–30, von Gaudecker gave two signed papers, one in German and one in English, to Wetzling and Matheis. They received an order for fictitious duty in the area of Lenzen in case they were stopped by German security patrols. The three men started off into the darkness to find the Americans.

   The next afternoon, they reached the banks of the Elbe River, close to the small village of Wootz. Despite carrying a large white flag, they were met with mortar fire. Major Matheis was slightly injured by shrapnel. After continued shouting and waving of the flag, they finally got the attention of some American soldiers on the other side. Several hours later, the Americans transported the emissaries across the river and brought them to the local American headquarters. Later they were blindfolded and taken to another headquarters. There, talks began between the German emissaries and 15 officers of the U.S. 29th Infantry Division. American Colonel McDaniel presided over the talks and told the Germans he was authorized to receive their declarations.

   Colonel Wetzling announced the readiness of the V-2 Division to surrender en masse, unconditionally, provided an assurance was given that members of the division would not be handed over against their will to the Russians. McDaniel replied that the unconditional surrender of the entire V-2 troops was accepted and that the members of the division would be treated according to the Geneva Conventions. He was, however, not entitled to give further assurances. The emissaries further declared that the V-2 Division would also bring with their surrender the goodwill to cooperate in the further development of the rocket for the good of the Western Allies. Colonel McDaniel agreed that the surrender of the V-2 Division would be kept secret to prevent reprisals against the families of the division’s officers. The declaration was accepted by the Americans and forwarded on to the higher American authorities.

   Colonel McDaniel said the division should cross at the same point near Wootz. Boats of all kinds, including DUKWs (amphibious trucks), would be in position by the morning of May 1 to ferry the division across the Elbe. It was not known how long it would take for the V-2 Division to arrive, but the Germans were instructed to assemble near Lenzen and to move from there in a line with every tenth vehicle carrying a white flag. At the crossing point, four white flags were to be erected 50 meters apart from each other. The Germans were assured that their movements would be safe from American fighter aircraft. Colonel McDaniel asked for all V-2 equipment, special vehicles, and V-2 documents of any kind to be handed over to the Americans. The Germans stated that all equipment of this kind was destroyed when the V-2 troops retreated from the operational launching sites.

   Without any sleep, Wetzling and Matheis returned to their division headquarters. They arrived late in the morning to find new difficulties had arisen. The situation had deteriorated considerably because of Russian advances nearby. Colonel von Gaudecker and Major Schuetze were in the middle of giving tactical commands to units battling Russian forces. Von Gaudecker said it was impossible at that time to withdraw the division from its positions. The situation became even more chaotic when reports of a Russian tank breakthrough near Fehrbellin reached the headquarters. Wetzling and the other officers convinced Von Gaudecker that the only solution was to move the division as quickly as possible to the river crossing point. As Russian aircraft circled the area, Von Gaudecker quickly signed an order to the regimental and battalion commanders instructing all units of the division to assemble in the area of Lenzen. The units were to stay intact, and anything pertaining to the V-2 rocket and its components, as well as any converted special vehicles, should be brought along.

  While negociations were being conducted, the former rocket soldiers, most of whom had no formal training as combat infantrymen, held the line as best they could. There had been no time for combat training before the soldiers were thrust into the middle of the fight. Nonetheless, even without the benefit of coherent leadership, they succeeded in repelling many attacks. Each man did his best and the division managed to hold each section of the line. In the east the German lines had endured constant Russian attacks. From the west, advancing American divisions caused a critical situation and Division z.V. was challenged from the rear. As the artillery bursts were falling, an order came from regimental headquarters that stated—

   “All troops should immediately disengage the opponent and travel to the area of Lenzen, near the Elbe River. Our surrender to the western Allies is agreed upon. In addition, all existing V-2 material and documents are to be transported and surrendered.”

   That evening as vehicle after vehicle arrived in Lenzen, the battle sounds were all around the division. Fires were visible in nearby villages, and the V-2 division was running out of time. Major Schuetze was in command, as Colonel Von Gaudecker had traveled to the 41st Army Corps headquarters to inform them of his decision to surrender to the Americans; there he was promptly arrested. Schuetze had not arrived in Lenzen because of car problems, and absent of any divisional commander present, none of the regimental commanders wanted to take responsibility to order the columns forward to the Elbe at Wootz. Already security patrols had passed by and asked about the destination and purpose of the movement. A fictitious explanation was given that seemed to justify the move, but it was evident the patrols were becoming very suspicious. As night fell, it was clear no movement could take place before the early morning hours of May 2.

   The westward-route on which the division had been marching was overcrowded with vehicles, as well as civilian refugees. Everyone had the same goal—to escape from the Russians. The stream of humanity grew larger each hour until it was up to three columns wide at points. Motor vehicles in one column, horse carts in the next, with those on bicycles and on foot in another column. The V-2 Division made up only a small portion of these flooding masses. All along the roads Russian fighter aircraft bombed and strafed the fleeing Germans repeatedly. Some wondered if they would ever escape to safety. On the horizon in the east and south large smoke plumes could be seen rising into the sky. The Russians were advancing quickly following the collapse in German resistance. After the V-2 Division passed the town of Perleberg, the Russian fighter-bomber attacks ended. Subsequently, American aircraft were flying over the roads providing protection to the refugees.

   Major Matheis took charge and ordered the continued advance towards Wootz. On the morning of May 2, 1945, the first units of the V-2 Division arrived. Colonel Wetzling was in the lead vehicle directing the column to the correct crossing location on the river. American posts for disarming the surrendering Germans were set up on the east bank of the Elbe River. The Americans provided translators to help in directing the flow, though the crush of people and vehicles trying to cross the river created chaos. For awhile, it was everyman for himself. The troops of the V-2 Division were mixed in with civilians and other German Army units as the Americans made sure every transport was filled to capacity. Storm boats of the U.S. 121st Engineer Battalion were used to ferry the soldiers, while the Gorleben Elbe ferry moved the vehicles.

   V-2 Division soldiers had no idea if all of their comrades had made it across the river. Only a few of the division’s vehicles were ferried over the river that day, but more would be brought over later. The ferry service ended late that evening, around 11:00 PM, with many refugees remaining on the east bank of the river. The majority of the rocket soldiers had successfully crossed the Elbe, but the members of the division were saddened to learn a few comrades had been left in the rear. Behind them, the smoke pyres were subsiding, signaling the Russians were quickly advancing towards the Elbe. If not for the efforts of these few division officers such as Colonel Wetzling, the whole of the V-2 Division might have been slaughtered or taken into captivity by the Red Army. Thus, with the capture of the V-2 Division, the German A-4/V-2 ballistic missile campaign came to an end. At dawn the next day, word spread among the V-2 troops of Hitler’s death, which was announced overnight.

   Meanwhile, during the night of April 28, General Wenck reported to the German Supreme Army Command in Fuerstenberg that his Twelfth Army had been forced back along the entire front. According to Wenck, no attack on Berlin was now possible. This was even more so as support from Busse's Ninth Army could no longer be expected. In the early morning of April 30, General Jodl sent a message to Krebs: "Wenck's spearhead bogged down south of Schwielow Lake. Twelfth Army therefore unable to continue attack on Berlin. Bulk of Ninth Army surrounded. Holste's Corps on the defensive."

   As his attempt to reach Berlin started to look impossible, Wenck developed a plan to move his army towards the Forest of Halbe. He planned to link up with the remnants of other German forces to provide an escape route for as many citizens of Berlin as possible. Despite the attacks on his escape route, Wenck brought his own army, remnants of the Ninth Army and many civilian refugees safely across the Elbe and into territory occupied by the American Army. Estimates vary, but it is likely the corridor his forces opened enabled up to 250,000 refugees, including up to 25,000 men of the Ninth Army, to escape towards the west just ahead of the advancing Soviets.

   The V-2 Division's escape was later looked upon as selfish and possibly even cowardly to some. The mobility of German 41st Panzer Corps was severely restricted because of the lack of motor vehicles—many of which were taken by V-2 Division during their retreat. One of the locations where the Russians broke through was the spot where Division Gaudecker should have occupied. After April 28 the area was loosely held by RAD Abteilung 1/91 (Reichs Arbeits Dienst, CT) and Battallion Mecklenburg of the 1st Panzer Vernichtungs Brigade Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth). On April 30 the area was defended by the retreating 3rd Marine Infantry Division and units of the 25th Panzer Grenadier Division. After the Division Gaudecker left its place in the frontline, only a small Grenadier regiment of Division Ulrich von Hutten witheld the Soviets from breaking through. The 5,000 men of Division Hutten lost a considerable amount strength because of casualities.

  Of course, given the situation, the move of the V-2 Division to the Elbe River was very difficult. Confusion was everywhere, and the constant threat of air attacks made any movement extremely difficult. Nevertheless, the majority of the division made its way to the crossing point in good order, arriving on the night of May 1-2. During these last few days, it appears the remnants of the former SS Werfer Battery 500 were not among the V-2 troops surrendering at the Elbe. During the last days in April, most of the former SS 500 units were cut off by a Russian attack in the area of Friesack. Assigned to fight with another German division to the south, the Nebelwerfer batteries expended most of their ammunition in skirmishes against Russian forces. However, some of the fractured SS 500 groups, instead of joining in the useless fight against the Russians, intentionally remained “lost” in an attempt to survive the last days, until they finally surrendered in small groups at various locations. Only a few of these men managed to make it through to the crossing at Wootz.
   Units of the V-2 Division marched in perfect order into captivity. Led by their officers, the men were allowed to carry only hand baggage and blankets. Further up the west bank they were again checked for weapons and a portion of their personal property was removed before marching again to a collecting station. The rocket soldiers queried each other about their comrades. When a straggler came in, he was greeted and stories of the terror were recounted. All were thankful to have achieved relative security. American trucks arrived intermittently, beginning on May 2 and ending on May 4, to transport the V-2 Division members to the rear. The roads again were swamped with traffic and movement was slow at first. After the Americans ceased to translate for the Germans, there were rumors circulating that reported the Russians had demanded the return of the V-2 Division. Urgency was needed and the convoy soon raced along the roads. The trucks were dangerously close to one another; nevertheless, the black American truck drivers were experts at navigating the overpopulated roads and stopped only once before arriving at Camp Herford after nightfall.

   As the trucks pulled up and stopped, the headlights lit up a large field in the middle of a sports stadium. The American soldiers then barked commands. The trucks were emptied and the Germans were herded like cattle in a line towards the field. Scattered over the field were humans of all categories. People of all ages, all military ranks and services—even civilians, including women and girls—were seen huddled in groups.

   Even though it was so crowded that there was no place to sit, continuous throngs of prisoners were pushed into the area. There was nothing to eat or drink and the existing latrines were in sufficient. The conditions were abhorrent. After nightfall it was easy to hear the despair. The lunatic calls echoed into the night. Spotlights scanning the crowds and machine gun bursts would wake those fortunate enough to find sleep. The Military Police used brutality—fists and batons—to control the crowd. The remaining property of the captured Germans, such as compasses and watches, was confiscated.

   Divisional Judge Wetzling began inquiring with American authorities as to the whereabouts of the members of Division z.V. He also sought to have the rocket troops removed from their current circumstances at the camp. Wetzling was asked by the authorities to locate and select about 100 V-2 guidance specialists, crews and technicians, but given the current state of the division, this was extraordinarily difficult. Those selected would be removed from the division for an indefinite period. On May 7, 1945, the chosen specialists were moved from the masses at Herford into a nearby public swimming pool. That evening one of men cooked a magnificent pea soup, their first warm meal in days. On May 9 the Germans were placed again on trucks. The men wondered—what was their destination? Were they going to America?

   The trucks rolled on past the Dutch border towards Belgium. In many villages the streets were full of citizens, many still celebrating V-E Day. As the convoy of trucks drove through the many towns along the route the Germans were jeered and pelted with all varieties of projectiles. Flowerpots, along with beer and wine bottles, rained down on the men in the trucks. The worst of this abuse occurred as the convoy passed through the dense streets of Brussels. As the drunken crowd screamed their insults, the Germans remained expressionless. After driving around Brussels for hours, the convoy finally rolled to a stop at another camp. This former brickyard was a British camp and the rocket men wondered if they were brought to this new location intentionally or by mistake. They were not given a reason. Over the next few days the Germans formed together the basic command structure of their new guidance group. Made up of the existing men of the former V-2 battery, the new troop was commanded by its oldest officer, Lieutenant Colonel Weber, along with two staff officers and the Divisional Judge.

   Their stay in Brussels was short. On May 11, 1945, the Germans were rousted from their meager accommodations and again packed onto trucks in the hot midday sun. After driving west for several hours they arrived at another POW camp near Brügge. The rocket troops were housed with the regular prisoners of war, but were not separated from one another. The long days at Brügge were very monotonous. The Germans occupied their time in camp by attending lectures concerning art, literature and music. The soldiers attended theatrical plays put together by the prisoners of the camp. They retained the impression that the British had no future plans for them. However, on May 13, 1945, a British officer arrived at the camp and began asking technical questions about the V-2. Per his request, the Germans prepared a memorandum describing the general overview of the rocket and its operation. The papers were given to the officer along with an organizational chart of the V-2 Division. After British interrogators returned several more times, the Germans began to realize that the Allies were greatly interested in the V-2.

   On June 1, 1945, the men learned that they would be transferred once again to a new camp. The following morning the men of the V-2 command were served a large breakfast of milk and fruits. After formalities, several trucks arrived to transport the Germans—trucks that were much more comfortable than the ones previously. Two days supply of food was brought with them. The men questioned again, what would be their destination? There was a rumor of going to Germany, namely Koblenz. Around noon the convoy passed again into Brussels. This time the drivers took a more discreet route and they entered substantially unimpaired. Near the outskirts of the city the trucks came to a stop at another POW camp. The Germans hoped that this would be just a short stay for food, supply and rest, but they were soon disappointed. After being ordered from the trucks, an NCO barked the roll call. Then, as they marched into the fenced-in internment camp, the men were shocked to see tattered tents sprawled in the middle mud covered field. The dejection felt by the men, who only the day before had been well situated in the Brügge camp, was indescribable. As the men received their evening meal, which was only a thin marmalade soup, they felt like they were once again being treated as criminals.

   A meeting was called, led by a British major, who informed the Germans of British plans to launch V-2 rockets near the German town of Cuxhaven. A few days later, a certain British general traveled to the camp to ascertain the technical abilities of the captured German rocket troops. The British were also interested in the specific requirements pertaining to preparation of a firing position. It was suggested that the specialists of V-2 Division, which had all been selected earlier based upon their technical and field knowledge at the Herford camp, would be used to conduct the firings while under British supervision. The Germans offered a delegation of men to travel to the launch area for inspection, but this was denied.

   On June 30, 1945, all of the men were marched from the camp to a transit store. There was a rushed, but thorough, medical examination before the Germans were loaded again onto trucks. The convoy traveled through Antwerp, into Holland, passing Tilburg and then on to Arnhem, where the men were given temporary accommodation for the evening in a Dutch schoolhouse. When they arrived a rowdy crowd of Dutch citizens surrounded the trucks, but the British soldiers of the convoy took control of the situation and quickly dispersed the crowd. The next morning they traveled on towards the German border and crossed at Oldenburg. Near Bremen the British transport officer had to ask some American soldiers for directions, but finally they arrived at Cuxhaven after midnight, and the Germans were billeted for the night inside an old fishery. On the morning of July 2, 1945, the Germans were brought to the British camp nearby at Altenwalde.

   The complex of buildings and shops was all that remained of the former Krupps gun testing range. After a good cleaning, the former barracks of the Kriegsmarine provided friendly and comfortable accommodation, particularly when compared with the previous camps in Belgium. In the surrounding sheds they found some badly demolished tools and equipment which had belonged to the previous facility. The Germans had already been told of the plans to refurbish the shops and equipment in preparation for the upcoming British tests, but it was certainly clear—new procurement would have to come before any visible work could be carried out. With great difficulties, Major Matheis organized the operating administration of the V-2 troops. There was literally nothing available to them. Only a few pencils existed and the men were forced to create their own rulers and compasses.
   However, the Germans wanted to begin quickly, thinking the sooner they conclude their tasks, the sooner they might be released to check on their families. Using the former jargon of the wartime operational batteries, the group took the name Versuchskommando Altenwalde (AVKO). The group is commanded by German Lieutenant Colonel Weber, former commander of Artillery Regiment (motorized) 901 (Battalion 836), Division z.V., Group South. The name of the British project is given as Operation Backfire. The V-2 men were supplemented by necessary numerous auxiliary workers who came over from the 736th Labor Camp. At the end of July the command was substantially expanded with the addition of a large number of civilians. AVKO had requested numerous scientists and skilled workers from Peenemünde and the Mittelwerk to supplement the existing workforce.

   Director Lindenberg and Professor Wierer headed the technical shops, while Arthur Rudolph directed the manufacturing department. Eventually, an almost identical arrangement was achieved, which mirrored the wartime technical, manufacturing, and operational procedures. Difficulties between the shops were worked out quickly, as the Germans realized the necessity of reaching the common goal.

   When the members of the V-2 Division arrived in Altenwalde they came as POWs. But on July 20, 1945, the kommando received the status of “Disarmed German Personnel” and were subordinated to the instruction of their own commanders. They were allowed to move about freely and received military pay from the British for their services, with extra pay promised on the completion of their work at Cuxhaven. Even though their work had begun under the poorest of conditions, it wasn’t long before conditions improved. A spacious assembly shop and an impressive testing tower were just a few of the improvements built by Royal Engineers. New concrete roads were constructed with extensive work near the actual firing position, which is situated in the forest just offshore. At this location large concrete bunkers for firing control and observation are also built.

   Each day at 5:00 PM, after a rigorous day of work, the siren announced the end of the shift. The men flowed out of the offices and shops and walked the road to their quarters. The camp became “home.” This sentiment was reinforced in those who were allowed to travel on official business to other areas of war-ravaged Germany. At Altenwalde, a place untouched by the storm of war, they felt a sense of community. In September the work of the Germans was coming to a conclusion with a total eight V-2 rockets being produced. The date of the first firing was announced as September 27, 1945. A nervous tension was felt experienced by everyone as the day approached. The first rocket was towed to the firing position a few days prior to launching. It was under a storage tent and protected by a British special guard.

   Beginning a few days late, the first rocket was finally ready. October 1, 1945, dawned with gray skies and increased tension in the camp. Everyone questioned whether of not the launch would occur this day. The English officers express their doubts, but an attempt was mounted anyway. The results were not satisfactory. After two failed ignition attempts, the rocket had to be defueled. However, in the face of this the German firing crews were not discouraged. Many delays such as this had been experienced by the firing crews during wartime operations; nonetheless, some of the British officers condemned the device as too complicated.

   October 2, 1945, presented a fair day with sunny skies. Confidence was high and the launch went off perfectly. The rocket was seen rising into the blue sky all the way through Brennschluss. Rejoicing and emotional release swept through the German command. This was matched by the enthusiasm of the British soldiers. Sincere words of the acknowledgment were given to the V-2 Division soldiers.

   During the summer of 1945 British authorities first anticipated that at least thirty V-2 rockets would be assembled for the Backfire tests near Cuxhaven in Germany. However, because of scarcity of materials, only eight rockets were assembled, and of these, only three were launched. If one can believe the rumors that were circulating in July of 1945, more than 200 V-2 rockets were transported to Altenwalde and the excess material was sunk in the bay at the conclusion of the tests, but documents confirming this have not been found so far. At the conclusion of the tests the former men of the V-2 Division filtered back into German society to begin new lives.

  • Crossbow & Overcast, James McGovern, 1965
  • V-2: A Combat History of the First Ballistic Missile, T. Dungan, 2005
  • PRO WO.208/3121
  • Ordway & Sharpe, The Rocket Team, 1979
  • Basil Collier, The Battle of the V-Weapons 1944-45, 1964
  • Michael Grube, 2002
  • Michael Keuer, 2003
  • Carlo Tinschert, 2009
  • Dieter Hölsken, V-Missiles of the Third Reich, 1994
  • John Russell, No Triumphant Procession, 1995
  • Die Geschichte des Sonderkommandos der Div. z.V.; von Fehrbellin bis Altenwalde, Wolfgang Weber, 1985
  • PRO WO.208/3153, Surrender of the V-2 Division, SS Lieutenant Colonel Wolfgang Wetzling, 1945
  • After the Battle #6, 1974
  • The Army Wenck; Hitler's Last Hope, Günther W. Gellermann, 1997
  • Berlin; The Downfall 1945, Antony Beevor, 2002
  • Ministry of Supply, Report on Operation "BACKFIRE", The War Office, London, 1946
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