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Sunday, March 20, 2016

My Saturday at the Nazi Cape Canaveral - Peenemunde

Peenemunde - Where the Nazis launched
the first object into space
For 33 years - Harry taught that Wernher
von Braun was a hero -
now he is not so sure. Von Braun was
 a Nazi and an SS leader.

We were living in Berlin for 3 months. Lulu insisted that we rent a car and drive to the Baltic Sea. Normally all that she is interested in is visiting the beach - but this time it was different. We are married 45 years - and all that time she has listened to me blab about rockets and space travel. One time in 1985 - I was chosen to work in a movie based the James Michener’s book called - Space. I got to play a German scientist right on the launch pad where three American astronauts burned to cinders.  Our family travels have been to the Kennedy Space Center countless time - Wallops Island VA - White Sands NM - Edwards Air Base - Nordhausen - and every brown sign museum you can imagine in between.  But it always needed up with an arrow pointing to Wernher von Braun and Pennemunde. With every great scientific advancement - there always had to be a first. 

Peenemunde - Germany - is where humans first provided the scientific knowledge to put an object into outer space. Thoughts about it should be a great touchy-feely moment for mankind. I taught Earth and Space Science for 33 years. My parents told me that I was roughly 75% German - so I was proud that the adventure into outer space was accomplished by my ancestors. But my visit to this beautiful Baltic Island has left me drained and with very mixed feelings. 

College student Wernher launching rockets in Berlin. His
rockets caught the Fuhrer's eye
V-2 rocket - 45 feet tall - 6 feet wide - 2000 pounds of TNT
The rocket program started rather harmlessly. Wernher von Braun was a young 20 something student living a privileged life in Berlin. After World War I - the German government was limited on what they could do by the Treaty of Versailles. They were limited by the kind of ships - airplanes - and guns they were allowed to build. But there was nothing in the treaty about rockets. Von Braun was reading books and papers written by Dr Robert Goddard of Cornel University - considered the father 

of modern rocketry. Yes - the Chinese have been making solid fuel type rockets of gun powder for centuries - but the liquid fuel rockets of Goddard showed the promise of control. In Berlin - von Braun as a college student was launching rockets of his own design and construction. Hitler and his staff came to visit. They gave von Braun the money to develop the rockets and eventually realized that they could become weapons of mass destruction. To Hitler - rockets were bigger guns with bigger bullets. These rockets could reach New York City and Washington with a little work.

Von Braun’s grandfather used to hunt along the Baltic Coast - and suggested Peenemunde as a good secret place to test the rockets. So the Nazis set up a base on the island where they could privately launch and track the rockets. Many secret weapons were experimented with at Pennemunde - but they concentrated on mainly two. First the V-1 - for lack of a better term - a low flying cruise missile. Second the V-2 - a real guided missile capable of flying in outer space and carrying a large cargo or warhead - faster than the speed of sound.

The A-4 Rocket was Wernher von Braun’s baby. Hitler quickly changed the name to V-2 which meant revenge weapon. The V-2 was officially a rocket - carrying both liquid fuel and liquid oxygen so that it could fly in the air - under water - and most of all in outer space where there was no air. It was 45 feet long and about 6 feet in diameter. The rocket burned all of its fuel in 65 seconds. At that time it was 52 miles above the surface and above the atmosphere. It was officially in outer space. Then if would fall - hoping where you wanted it to land. We call these ballistic missiles - missiles controlled by the laws of gravity. Maverick - he told me all about the time he went ballistic with Penny Benjamin - the Admiral’s daughter. Now we know what ballistic means.

The first successful launch into space was October 3rd 1942 - almost exactly 15 years before the USSR launched Sputnik. Pieces of that first space traveler were found across the Baltic Sea in Sweden. This was a guided missile. Originally - they planned to guide it by radio - but problems forced them to rely on gyroscopes on board the rocket that steered it by counteracting the thrusters of the engine. Because the V-2 could not be guided to a specific target - they were worthless as a strategic weapon of war. If a rocket landed within a mile of its target it was considered a success. Hitler did not care - he wanted to just rain these weapons down on London to terrorize the people - hoping to get them to surrender. 

When the Allies found out about Peenemunde - they started carpet bombing the island. They aimed at the scientist’s living quarters and severely wounded von Braun - killing several others. Once the weapon was good enough to be able to consistently reach London - the assembly line production was moved to a safer place south of Berlin called Nordhausen. Over 3000 rockets were launched over the English Channel - mostly from France to England. 

Mittelwerks was an old mine in a mountain - near Nordhausen. Using Jewish slave labor - von Braun built 5000 V-2 rockets. The assembly line is still in that mountain - we toured it a few years ago. Thousands of Jewish slaves lived and died in that mountain building those rockets. As a matter of fact - 20,000 Jewish slaves died constructing the rockets - and less than 9000 mostly civilians were killed by the rockets - in England - France - Belgium - and the Netherlands. 


Wernher von Braun was a Nazi leader and a member of the SS. He was a handsome and extremely intelligent man. After the war - his charisma landed him a job with Walt Disney - huckstering space travel. As the war was ending - he surrendered to the United State Army. He offered them 100’s of rockets - all the plans - all the knowledge - and a staff of over 100 scientists. In exchange he would live and not be punished as a Nazi. Because Nazis were banned from America - his group was sneaked into Texas. They were then officially brought across the border from Mexico as immigrants. They were kept in a concentration camp of sorts and we gleaned the knowledge from them. The USSR - England - and France also captured German scientists and weapons experts. In the USSR - in 1957 their “Russian” German Scientists launched Sputnik into orbit on October 4th 1957 - the first manmade satellite. 

Ironically - von Braun was quietly put in the background in our space program - until the Russians beat us into space. Then President Eisenhower called on von Braun for help. In his broken English - von Braun said - I will have something in orbit in 90 days. In January of 1958 - Explorer was launched. The Space Race was on. Von Braun was sold as a hero.

Von Braun moved to Cape Canaveral - later called Cape Kennedy. In 1969 - he and his team of German immigrants successfully landed men on the moon - and safely returned them home to the earth. Communist hater President Richard Nixon used the landing to make his “first telephone call from the earth to the moon.” We won. 

Meanwhile after the war - the Soviet army occupied the empty Peenemunde. In 1952 - they turned it over to the East German Army. They had a presence there until 1989 - when the wall fell - West and East Germany were united again into one country. Peenemunde was abandoned.

Not much is left at Pennemunde. The town which once ballooned to 10,000 people now has a couple hundred residents. Immigrants from Syria are now occupying some of the abandoned houses. Most of the rocket test facilities are destroyed or recycled. One large brick blockhouse remains intact. It was used as a bomb shelter during the war - and now houses the gift shop of the museum. The main building of the museum is the old power plant. The power plant burned anthracite coal to turn water to steam - which turned the turbine/generator to make electricity - just like the Hauto plant near Tamaqua. The plant used that electricity to make liquid oxygen for the rocket engines.

The power plant is being restored with unification money - about $80 billion a year is spent bringing East Germany up to the standards of West Germany. They are making Peenemunde into a first class tourist attraction and cultural center. 

They like to sell Peenmunde as a place where science and technology clashed. They are not too quick to praise the wonderful science that was accomplished here without admonishing the Nazis for using the technology to destroy fellow mankind. Meanwhile both Russia and the USA have over 3000 missiles with nuclear warheads on them. 

The German rocket program was built on the back of Jewish slave prisoners. In 1934 - when Hitler rose to be the leader of Nazi Germany - he was a monster that unilaterally led that country down a horrible path. He systematically planned to kill every Jew - gay - handicapped person - political prisoner - and on and on. Over 60 million people died in World War II thanks to Hitler. He supposedly shot himself to avoid facing the music. 

For Christmas - Lulu bought me a DNA genetics test to determined my ancestry. All my life I have been told that I am 75% German and 25% Welsh. The test should come back soon - I am hoping a large portion of that 75% is Jewish. 

Nazi wonder weapon - V-2 Rocket. It was
not much different than the models we launched.
You take some baking soda - and mix it with vinegar.
Mentos and Coke anyone?
Lulu and our 2016 Skoda Fabia - commie car - made in
Czech Republic - owned by VW now. It was selected in the UK
last year as the most dependable car
The Baltic Sea - Nazi Cape Canaveral
Beautiful sunny day - temps reached 54. Nazis had
cameras on coast to film rockets. The first rocket in space
landed across the Baltic in Sweden
Today - Germany produces more renewable energy - solar and wind -
than anyone
The gift shop was in the block house - which was used for
launching rockets and also monitoring the power plant.
Note gauges on the wall.

The conveyor in the background
carried anthracite coal to the power plant from ships and trains

The new elevator to the roof reminds
one of the rocket assembly tower.

The museum received an award for honoring peace heritage -
say what?

An original Sputnik satellite hangs in the rafters

Many experimental weapons were designed here

This launch facility looked like a stadium - to protect
against the many explosions

If you have seen the vehicle assembly building at
Cape Canaveral - you see the likeness.

They took the rockets from the VAB to the pad on rails


Each V-2 rocket used drinking alcohol that took
40 tons of potatoes to produce. The prisoners and
people went hungry.

The V-2 warhead held 2000 pounds of TNT

This furnace burned anthracite coal to make electricity
 and LOX to fire the rockets

These giant gauges measure steam pressure in the turbine

From the roof you can see the rocket and the coast

The harbor served the army rocket base.
Later - the Soviet army and navy were based here.

Inside the old power plant - now a museum

This steam powered catapult launched the V-1 Flying Bombs.
The catapult pushed them to 200 MPH - fast enough
for the pulse jet engine to jump start. This is similar to
a catapult on an aircraft carrier.

What a simple launch pad for a V-2 rocket



In the blockhouse - scientists lined those little windows
to watch the rockets lift off. The walls were 6 feet thick

Scientists watched the launches from this block house.
Today - it is a gift shop

This power plant made electricity and liquid oxygen for the rockets

The Nazis built 5000 V-2 rockets. Most of them
rained down on London just to terrorize the people.
There was no way to pick out a single target. They killed
20,000 Jews in the process to make the rockets
that killed less than 9000 British.

2 comments:

Tom Taylor said...

Thanks for the interesting piece of our shared history.

Elinor Florence said...

I really loved your photos and description of Peenemunde, Harry. Thanks for posting. My father-in-law worked there during the war. If anyone is interested, they can read my blog post about him here: www.elinorflorence.com/blog/peenemunde.