GERMANY. On the rocket trail

ON THE WINDSWEPT Baltic coast, three hours north of Berlin, is the small town of Peenemünde. It is at the northern end of Usedom, a large sandy island very close to the mainland. In the summer the area is a major holiday resort for vacationing Berliners.

But some people go there for other reasons. Peenemünde is also home to two important museums: the Historical Technical Museum and the Maritime Museum.

Peenemünde has a special, if sinister, place in the history of technology. It was where many of the V-1 and V-2 missiles were built, and where the V-2 was developed. These were the wonder weapons that Hitler hoped would win the war for Germany.

The V-1 was the world’s first cruise missile. The V-2 was the first ballistic missile, developed at Peenemünde by legendary German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun. The ‘V’ stood for Vergeltungswaffe or ‘vengeance weapon’.

The Historical Technical Museum concentrates on the history of rocket science, including everything that went on in Peenemünde. One of the exhibits at the museum concentrates on the development of the V-1 and V-2, on the people who built them, and on some of the people who were affected by them.

Dr Phillipp Aumann in front of the Museum (Ostsee Zeitung)

“They were what you might call terrorist weapons,” explains museum curator Dr Phillipp Aumann. “They were mainly to frighten people. That is one of the messages we try to get across in our museum exhibits. The V-1 and V-2 were designed to kill and to terrorize the population.”

The new exhibition contains many of the personal stories of the prisoners of war and slave laborers who worked on the construction of the V-1 and V-2. Thousands died in the horrific working conditions, at Peenemünde and at the underground Mittelwerk site near Buchenwald concentration camp in central Germany, where much of the construction took place.

“We interviewed some of the survivors,” says Dr Aumann. “This gave us real insights into the history of the Peenemünde facility, which only people who lived through it could really properly explain. There aren’t many eyewitnesses left, so it was important for us to find them.”

Peenemünde is the largest museum of rocketry in the world. It is housed in the former power station of von Braun’s development center. During the war the power station was the world’s first emissions-free generation facility. Everything was recycled so that there would be no smoke or flames to attract Allied bombers.

Now it has been gutted and is home to three floors of displays, tracing the history of rocket technology from the ancient Chinese through the pioneering work of 19th-century Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, to von Braun’s work in Peenemünde and America, and to the present day.

Peenemünde comes to America

After the war Wernher von Braun surrendered to the Americans. He said he was aware of the slave camps, but could do nothing about them. The Americans didn’t dig too deep into his Nazi past, though he held the rank of a major in the SS. He was quickly forgiven, because they wanted his expertise.

Von Braun in America (Wikimedia Commons)

Von Braun was taken to the US, where over a thousand of his development team eventually joined him. They built a second Peenemünde in the green rolling hills of Huntsville, in northern Alabama. There they developed the Redstone rocket, based on the V-2. The Redstone powered America’s early space program. German scientists put America into space.

But the Peenemünde manufacturing facility itself fell into Russian hands and enabled the communists to take an early lead in the space race. The Russian built their own V-2 rockets from the German designs, using the German manufacturing equipment shipped to a Russian factory in the Urals, for their first space shots.

The V-1, by contrast, was a bit of a technological dead-end. The Americans experimented with their own version, but gave up on it. But the idea was translated into today’s cruise missiles.

The Allies called the V-1 the ‘Doodlebug’. Some people call it the buzz bomb, after the noise it made. It was powered by a primitive jet engine called a pulsejet which blew gasoline into a tube, ignited by a conventional automobile spark plug every second or so. The pulsations gave it its distinctive insect-like sound.

Nearly 10,000 V-1s were launched from northern France and the Low Countries against England in the second half of 1944, killing thousands. At their peak over a hundred were launched each day. After the launch sites were overrun by the invading allies another 2500 were launched from Germany against Belgium, mostly aimed at the port of Antwerp, in 1945.

The V-1 could not be properly aimed. Each missile was sent in the general direction of its target guided by primitive gyroscopic direction finding system and a wind-driven odometer, which sent it into a dive when it reached the general vicinity of its target. It would detonate nearly a ton of high explosive when it hit the ground.

You could hear a V-1 coming. They didn’t fly very fast – around 350 mph. Allied pilots worked out that the best way to bring them down was to fly alongside them and clip their wings to send them off course.

The V-2 was bigger, more advanced and much more fearsome. It had a sophisticated guidance system using a gyroscope and an early analog computer. Some models used radio beams. It traveled through the edge of space at a height of more than 60 miles, which meant it could not be intercepted.

Its supersonic speed meant there was no warning of its arrival – just a sudden massive explosion. Over three thousand were sent against England and Allied forces in Europe after D-Day, a remarkable number given Germany’s constrained resources at the time. All the V-2s were launched from Peenemünde until the Russians overran it shortly before the end of the war. They carried a bigger explosive payload than the V-1.

A V-2 on the Museum grounds (Wikimedia Commons)

The V-2 stood 45 foot high on the launch pad. Its distinctive cigar shape, with its four tail fins, provided the archetype for the popular image of interplanetary rockets in the science fiction comics and films of the 1950s.

Also on display in the new exhibition in Peenemünde is an intact original V-2 rocket engine. “This particular rocket was sent against London in October 1944,” explains Dr Aumann. “But it crashed in a farm east of the city owned by the Pavelin family.

“A couple of years ago John and Bill Pavelin, who were just boys when the rocket crashed on their farm, brought the engine the Peenemünde and donated it to us. They said it had crashed into their pigpen, and their grandfather was most upset that it killed three pregnant sows.”

On a clear day you can see Poland

On a warm summer day Peenemünde would be a pleasant place, if it weren’t for the constant reminders of what went on there three quarters of a century ago. And afterwards – until 1989 it was also the headquarters of the East German Navy and Air Force.

There are quite a few old MiG fighters on the grounds of the Museum, and reconstructions of the V-1 and V-2. The nearby Maritime Museum houses a 1960s Soviet submarine, the U-461. It was not decommissioned until the late 1980s, and housed four intercontinental ballistic missiles – descendants of the V-2.

It is not difficult to visit Usedom from Berlin. There is no direct train service, but it can be done in about four hours with a connection. There are buses, but the best way to get there is to drive, which takes about three hours. The route takes you through the dull Pomeranian countryside, the least populated part of Germany. Everywhere you look there are windfarms and flat empty landscapes to the horizon.

Usedom itself is a nice enough place. The island has many waterfront boutique hotels, dating from the days of Kaiser Wilhelm more than a hundred years ago. Most are now restored and are wonderful places to stay. We chose the Hotel Atlantic, an impressive establishment in the resort village of Bansin near Peenemünde. It wasn’t overly expensive. The dining room there contains one of the largest chandeliers I have ever seen, and our degustation dinner was superb.

Peenemünde is close to the Polish border. The island of Usedom is actually shared between the two countries. There is no vehicular crossing, but you can walk across the border into the Polish town of Swinoujscie (formerly the German Swinemünde) and pay only half as much for a beer.

Usedom is a great place to spend a few days, especially when the weather is warm. The Trassenheide butterfly farm is the largest in Europe. The beaches are wide and sandy, but even in summer the Baltic is too cold to swim in. Most people go there for the relaxed holiday lifestyle. And as we discovered, there is great food in the fine restaurants of the grand hotels.

But for many people the rocket museum is the main reason to go. Last year it attracted more than a quarter of a million visitors. It is a little off the international tourist track, and the explanatory notes in the museum are only in German.

There is nowhere else like it on earth. The V-1 and V-2 were evil devices from a demented and malevolent regime, but they were a significant step on man’s journey to the stars.

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