What us children of the '50's remember about Wernher von Braun

He was a regular on the Tomorrowland shows that were part of the Disneyland series (yes friends, it was a TV series before it was an overpriced amusement park). He and Uncle Walt would go on and on, with animations, on the concept of the Three-Stage Rocket. The concept of an ex-Nazi hob-nobbing with Father of the Most Popular Mouse didn't faze us kids in those pre-PC days.

Dr. Wernher Magnus Maximilian von Braun 1912-1977

Not just a rocket scientist, but THE rocket scientist of the 20th century

As inventor of the V-2 missile—and notably its liquid-fuelled rocket engine—during the 1939-45 war, Dr Wernher von Braun made possible all the post-war spaceflight and ballistic missile programmes in the USA, Russia, France, the UK and elsewhere.

Before starting this writeup, I thought von Braun was a Nazi adopted by the Americans to further their spaceflight ambitions. Now I think he was a classic amoral technologist, more interested in seeing his ideas realised than the humanitarian implications of his work. Von Braun insisted that his driving ambition throughout his life was to use rocket propulsion for manned spaceflight.

Just as an aside, part of the reason this WU is so detailed is the wealth of documentation available about von Braun. His life and actions were investigated in great depth by the US FBI as part of the immigration procedure. He also spoke widely about his life and experience. This has led to a huge amount of official and semi-official information about his life and experience. He was certainly a very interesting man.

Highlights (and low points) of a fascinating life

During his time as technical director of the Peenemünde rocket centre in wartime Germany, von Braun was first made an officer in the SS and later arrested and imprisoned by the Gestapo in Stettin (Poland's Sczeczin). It appears the arrest was mostly part of a political power struggle within the German high command, rather than a consequence of von Braun's politics. Either way, von Braun was released only when Walter Dornberger, in charge of the German Army's artillery activities, insisted that he was essential to the war effort, and that Hitler would have the arresting officers shot if they continued to hold him.

The British took a similar view to the Nazis. Churchill believed the research station and test firing range at Peenemunde was a major threat to Britain and in 1943 ordered an all-out attack on the base. The top priority target was the living quarters, based on the idea that the scientists and engineers working on the rockets were the greatest threat to British lives. Second priority was the rocket factory, and third the offices and laboratories. The attack was only a partial success, delaying the German rocket effort by perhaps a few months.

Eventually, in 1945, von Braun realised Germany had lost the war. With Russian troops in danger of cutting off his routes into Germany, and despite direct orders to the contrary, von Braun took his 500-strong team of rocket scientists to find an American soldier to whom they could surrender. He was already thinking of the post-war period and where his work would be best supported. His team were all scared of the Russians, thought the French would crush them and believed England was too poor to support a full rocket programme. He thought only the USA would give them freedom and resources to develop a full scale rocket research programme.

After hiding the team's research notes down a mine shaft, crossing Germany on a stolen train, and avoiding the SS, who were ordered to shoot the rocket scientists on sight, von Braun and his team eventually found a US private soldier to whom they could surrender. Once the US forces realised who they had captured, they sent teams to retrieve what equipment and documents they could, mostly from the Mittelwerk site. These scientist and engineers and their equipment formed the foundation of the US post-war spaceflight programme.

In all, 118 members of von Braun's team travelled to the USA, while many of the others were captured by the Russians—who also overran the Peenemünde base. These workers, together with the captured equipment formed the basis of the Russian post-war rocket effort. It is also worth noting that the British Blue Streak and Black Knight rockets were based on captured German scientists and equipment. Similarly, the French ballistic missile programme was based around technology provided by former Peenemünde recruits, according to Konrad K. Dannenberg, one of von Braun's deputies and former director of rocket motor development in Peenemünde and former director, Redstone Rocket production in Huntsville, Alabama.

Subsequently, von Braun was appointed director of the Development Operations Division of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency and after 1960, the founding director of the Marshall Space Flight Centre. In these capacities, von Braun was responsible for the design of all US rocket systems systems from the Jupiter-C, which launched the first US satellite, the Explorer I, up to and including the Saturn V rocket, which launched Apollo 11 and Neil Armstrong and on his way to the first moon landing. His last government job was head of NASA from 1970-72.

He died in Alexandria, Virginia., on June 16, 1977.

Chapter and verse

Von Braun was born the second of three sons in a high-ranking German family on 23 March 1912. His father, Baron Magnus von Braun, served as Minister for Agriculture during the 1930s in President Hindenburg's Weimar Republic. Together with his wife, the Baroness Emmy von Quistorp, they lived in the town of Wirsitz, Germany, (now Wyrzysk, Poland), near the town of Posen (Poznan).

By the age of ten years, young Wernher had decided his life's work would be to 'help turn the wheel of time.' He was a practical young man, and spent too long trying to build a car with a diesel engine: then a new and exciting invention. This diversion led him to fail his maths and physics exams at the French Gymnasium school in Berlin. As a result von Braun senior transferred the young Wernher to the Hermann Lietz School in Ettersburg Castle near Weimar, which emphasised practical and engineering skills.

By the age of 16 Wernher had inspired a group of friends and schoolmates to build an observatory to house a telescope bought for young Wernher's 14 th birthday by his mother. Wernher himself was inspired by the book, Rocket into Planetary Space (Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen) by German rocket pioneer, Hermann Oberth. The book was heavy on theory and Wernher was forced to re-learn his maths in order to understand the book. Young Wernher was also reading H.G. Wells and Jules Verne.

By the age of 17, he had joined the local rocket club (Verein für Raumschiffahrt) in Berlin, part of a craze sweeping through Germany and Russia at the time.

Through the rocket club, von Braun was introduced to his childhood hero, Hermann Oberth. He worked as a garage mechanic during the day, but in the evenings, helped Oberth with his research at the Berlin Chemical and Technical Institute.

Here is what von Braun said of that time:

Our equipment was elementary, and our ignition system was perilous. Klaus Riedel (another assistant) would toss a flaming gasoline-soaked rag over the gas-spitting motor, and then duck for cover before Oberth opened the fuel valves and it started with a roar. We were temporary guests on the proving grounds of the Chemical and Technical Institute, the German equivalent of the U.S. Bureau of Standards.

In August 1930, Professor Oberth's little rocket engine succeeded in producing a thrust of 7 kilograms for 90 seconds, burning gasoline and liquid oxygen. An official of the Institute certified the demonstration. The liquid-fueled rocket motor was thus recognized for the first time in Germany as a respectable member of the family of internal-combustion engines.

This was a tremendous forward step. But because he had to eat and support a large family, Professor Oberth was forced to return shortly thereafter to his teaching job in Romania.

At age 18, von Braun took a place at the Berlin Institute of Technology. However, he continued his unofficial research by founding the Raketenflugplatz Berlin (Berlin Rocket Field), a field 'borrowed' from the city of Berlin. Von Braun and the two of Oberth's former researchers Rudolf Nebel, Klaus Riedel begged and borrowed all their equipment and supplies and eventually (early 1932) built a rocket capable of regularly reaching an altitude of 300m.

Von Braun spent the summer of 1931 studying at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland

By the Spring of 1932, he graduated from the Berlin Institute of Technology with a bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering. He went on to study for a Ph. D at University of Berlin and won the higher degree in 1934 with a German Army-funded thesis on liquid rocket propulsion. His sponsor at the time was Captain (later, Major General) Walter Dornberger. Meanwhile, in the summer of 1933, the young von Braun won his private pilot's licence.

Joining the German military (sort of)

Almost all previous rockets, from the ancient Chinese up to Goddard's early work in the USA, had been powered by solid fuel. Although Goddard and later Oberth had built small experimental liquid fuelled systems, Von Braun's work on liquid fuels required a great deal of research into combustion of droplets and other technologies. This required a great deal of money and resources. Von Braun himself admits that in 1932, he received funds from the German Army Ordnance Corps and went to work at the Kummersdorf Army Proving Ground. as a civilian employee of the German Army. He became technical director of the Peenemunde Rocket Center in 1937, but quite how that happened, and how much emphasis the Nazi regime placed on the technology, is not clear. As NASA diplomatically puts it,

Von Braun is well known as the leader of what has been called the "rocket team," which developed the V-2 ballistic missile for the Nazis during World War II. The V-2s were manufactured at a forced labor factory called Mittelwerk. Scholars are still reassessing his role in these controversial activities.

What is known is that the German High Command was very keen to find a way to deliver high explosives at a distance, but without breaching the Treaty of Versailles. This prohibited the use or construction of heavy artillery and was imposed on Germany after the 1914-18 war. Rocketry seemed a good way of by-passing the prohibition. The German military, having noted the work of Oberth, von Braun, Nebel, and Riedel in Berlin, set about attempting to recruit them and was anxious to offer funds for their work.

In the mid-1930s, the rocket research was transferred form Kummersdorf to Peenemünde. This remote village on the island of Usedom, at the mouth of the Oder on the Baltic coast was apparently suggested by von Braun's mother. By 1935, the team had grown to 80 or more people and was regularly firing liquid-fuelled rockets. At its peak in 1943, the Peenemünde site would house over 2000 scientists and 4000 other personnel.

The war years

Work progressed on the rockets and advanced quickly, with the launch first of the A-3 rocket. and then the A-4 (See also V-2 for an outstanding history of this weapon). This was later re-christened the V-2 by Hitler's propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. However, it required a further two years of testing and improvements before the weapon could be used in anger by the military.

By 1943, British Intelligence had identified Peenemünde as a rocket research base and ordered an air raid for the night of 17/18 August of that year. Although almost 600 bombers struck a poorly defended target, the damage was not terminal. About 180 Germans and 700 foreign slave workers were killed in the raid. The British lost 40 aircraft and crew—significantly less than expected, thanks to poor defences and some clever diversionary tactics. Production of the V-2 systems was moved to Blizna in occupied Poland, out of bomber range. Peenemünde remained the main research base.

By this time von Braun was an officer in the SS. He later said he only wore the uniform once, and accepted the position only out of political necessity. Also, Reichsfuhrer SS Heinrich Himmler changed the manufacturing site for V-2 rockets and components from Blizna to the forced labour camp in Mittelwerk. It is reported that Himmler was behind the Gestapo's arrest of von Braun in mid-March 1944, after von Braun repeatedly declared his interest in using the V-2 for space travel. The arrest came just a couple of weeks after von Braun declined a request from Himmler to come and work directly for the SS. Von Braun was reportedly released only after the Reich's armaments minister, Albert Speer intervened on the personal authority of Hitler.

In September 1944, the A4 missiles (now called V-2) began falling on London, Antwerp, Paris and other targets.

As the war ends

During 1945, with thousands of V-2 rockets in production and being launched against Germany's enemies, von Braun realised Russian troops were closing in on Peenemünde. Meanwhile, the Peenemünde base was under the direct command of Himmler and the SS, and at best was likely to have become a political bargaining counter in the surrender negotiations. At worst, the Waffen-SS would have been brought in to slaughter the scientists.

Von Braun said he had five direct orders telling him he and his team would be shot if they stayed in Peenemünde and five contradictory orders saying they would be shot if they moved from the base.

In Mid-January 1945, von Braun called his team together and agreed that the only sensible option was to surrender to the Americans. Despite Germany's infrastructure and command structures crumbling around them, von Braun was able to get his 500-person team south to central Germany, together with their families. A task involving thousands of people mobilised within a fragmented and scared society.

He forged papers and comandeered a train. He procured boxes in which people could store and transport their belongings. He organised a convoy of trucks cars and buses. He prepared papers and plans in anticipation of close questioning by the authorities. It was a thorough plan, worked out in a short time amid complete chaos. And it was successful. Despite frequent questioning by military authorities, the convoy and train managed to move to its destination, Bleicherode

von Braun left Peenemünde for the last time on February 27, 1945 in a truck. However, after the panic and heavy workload, both he and his driver fell asleep while driving through the mountains. The truck plunged over a cliff. Von Braun suffered a broken arm and shoulder, but his driver was killed. When he awoke in a hospital bed, he insisted his arm be put in a cast and carried on straight away, in command of his team.

At this point, von Braun was still partially within the German system and he and 500 of the top scientists were separated from their families and sent to an internment camp near Oberammergau. They expected to be used as hostages.

Although the camp was luxurious, it was not well guarded—these being the Reich's top scientists and engineers—and von Braun was able to persuade the camp guards to allow his men to visit the town in civilian clothing. Once von Braun achieved this, he and his men were effectively free of the German army.

Using the same plan as in the January escape from Peenemünde, they tricked their way to getting fuel, food and supplies and made their way to the holiday resort of Oberjoch, on the Austrian border. There, at the Haus Ingeborg hotel, von Braun met up with General Dornberger from the German artillery and von Braun's brother Magnus.

There they waited for months as Berlin fell and Hitler killed himself, until General Patton's army approached. Magnus von Braun was chosen to find the Americans, as he could speak a few words of English. He rode out on his bicycle to meet them. He found Private Frederick Schneikert, a sentry with the 324th Infantry Regiment, 44th Infantry Division, and was ordered to drop his bicycle and approach with hands raised. When the young Magnus explained he was a senior rocket scientist, Schneikert passed Magnus over to his Commanding Officer, First Lieutenant Charles L. Stewart. After some initial misunderstandings, Stewart arranged passes and documentation for the German scientists.

After a few more months, von Braun and over 100 German engineers and scientists as well as families arrived in the USA.

Now in the USA

The key words here are operation paperclip, or Project Paperclip (depending on your preference). So-called because of the paperclips which marked the files of those Germans who would eventually be admitted to the USA. Wernher von Braun was one of the stars of that project.

He, together with some of his family and 118 of the engineers from Peenemünde arrived in September 1945. They transferred to the Army base at Fort Bliss, (near El Paso) Texas where they spent the next five years or more teaching the US army personnel—and employees of the General Electric company—all they knew about designing, building and testing rockets and rocket motors. Much of the material—sufficient for about 100 V-2 rockets—from Mittelwerk was also shipped to Fort Bliss, and the firing range at White Sands, New Mexico. So the first five post-war years were spent showing the Americans how the V-2 worked. In the later years, the team modified the V-2 rockets significantly, and the last two heavily modified rockets were fired from the test site in Florida now known as Cape Canaveral

As this process came to an end, in the summer of 1950, the team still led by von Braun was transferred to the US Army base at Redstone/Huntsville in Alabama. The government set up a new agency there, the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, and appointed von Braun as Director of Development Operations. The team built on their research in Germany and the USA to design and build the first US ballistic missile launch vehicle, the Redstone.)

The Space race (see also Missiles to Manned Ballistic Satellites)

The V-2 had routinely travelled to the edge of space in its normal trajectory. With the extra resources of the USA and more time, von Braun now embarked upon his dream: to put objects and men into space. The year 1957 was dubbed the International Geophysical Year, and both Russia and the USA had agreed to put artificial satellites into low earth orbit to mark the year. The Russians used one of their military launch vehicles to put Sputnik into orbit on October 4, but a decision by President Eisenhower to develop a separate non-military launch vehicle delayed the US launch. Unfortunately this Vanguard rocket did not work, and suffered two consecutive launch failures. After some further delays, the USA finally launched its first artificial satellite, the Explorer I on a modified military Redstone launcher.

The same launcher was used to put Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom into space, and later John Glenn as the first American to orbit the Earth. These technical successes brought fame to von Braun and prestige to the spaceflight programme. In 1960 von Braun was named as the first director of the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center, also based at the Redstone Arsenal but was for the first time under a civilian authority: NASA, rather than the military organisations he had served previously.

Shooting for the moon

The 1960s were, of course, the heyday of US spaceflight research. They started with John F. Kennedy's promise to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, and finished with the Apollo 11 launch and Neil Armstrong's 'Giant leap for mankind'

As director of the Marshall Spaceflight Center, von Braun was intimately involved with the whole Apollo project.

Finally, in 1970, von Braun was persuaded to move to Washington as head of NASA, but quickly tired of the politicking and became a director of Fairchild Industries of Germantown, Maryland. He died aged 65 on June 16, 1977.


Sources and further information:

  • http://www.v2rocket.com/start/chapters/vonbraun.html
  • http://motlc.wiesenthal.com/text/x20/xr2051.html
  • http://www.nasm.edu/nasm/dsh/peenintro.html
  • http://www.elshamwolds.50g.com/peenemunde.html
  • http://www.v2rocket.com/start/chapters/vonbraun.html
  • http://hometown.aol.com/SatrnPress/retro.htm
  • http://www.redstone.army.mil/history/vonbraun/welcome.html
  • http://history.nasa.gov/sputnik/braun.html
  • http://www.meaus.com/totheMoon.html
  • http://history.msfc.nasa.gov/vonbraun/bio.html
  • http://history.msfc.nasa.gov/vonbraun/recall.html
  • http://www.v2rocket.com/start/chapters/flight2.html

Song by Tom Lehrer. Let me say it again: the best bit of these works is the tune. This one is a strong piece of satire about NASA's reliance on a man with a Past; someone who was more interested in the technology than its applications. Here are the words:

Spoken Intro

...And what is it that put America in the forefront of the nuclear nations? And what is it that will make it possible to spend twenty billion dollars of your money to put some clown on the moon? Well, it was good old American know how, that's what, as provided by good old Americans like Dr. Wernher von Braun!

Song Begins

Gather round while I sing you of Wernher von Braun
A man whose allegiance
Is ruled by expedience
Call him a Nazi, he won't even frown
"Ha, Nazi schmazi," says Wernher von Braun

Don't say that he's hypocritical
Say rather that he's apolitical
"Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down
That's not my department," says Wernher von Braun

Some have harsh words for this man of renown
But some think our attitude
Should be one of gratitude
Like the widows and cripples in old London town
Who owe their large pensions to Wernher von Braun

You too may be a big hero
Once you've learned to count backwards to zero
"In German oder English I know how to count down
Und I'm learning Chinese," says Wernher von Braun

© Tom Lehrer- lyrics appear with his written permission. First appeared on That Was the Year That Was (1965). CST Approved.

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