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Rocket Man

In the summer of 1944, the population of London was accustomed to the loud rumbling of a buzz bomb flying overhead, the abrupt silence when the engine stopped and the bomb began its descent to earth, the anxious seconds of waiting for the explosion. Buzz bombs, otherwise known as V-1s, were simple pilotless airplanes, launched from sites along the French and Dutch coasts. As the summer ended and our armies drove the Germans out of France, the buzz bombs stopped coming. They were replaced by a much less disturbing instrument of murder, the V-2 rockets launched from more distant sites in western Holland. The V-2 was not nerve-wracking like the buzz bomb. When a V-2 came down, we heard the explosion first and the supersonic scream of the descending rocket afterward. As soon as we heard the explosion, we knew that it had missed us. The buzz bombs and the V-2 rockets killed a few thousand people in London, but they hardly disrupted our civilian activities and had no effect at all on the war that was then raging in France and in Poland. The rockets had even less effect than the buzz bombs.

To me at that time the V-2 rockets were a cause for joy and wonder. I was a civilian scientist analyzing the causes of bomber losses for the Royal Air Force Bomber Command. I knew that the main cause of our bomber losses was German fighters, and I knew that the Germans were desperately short of fighters. If the Germans had had five times as many fighters, they could have stopped us from flying over Germany, and that would have made it much harder for us to invade their country and finish the war. I knew that the buzz bomb was a cheap and simple device but the V-2 was complicated and expensive. Each V-2 cost the Germans at least as much in skilled labor and materials as a modern fighter aircraft. It was incomprehensible to me that the Germans had chosen to put their limited resources into militarily useless rockets instead of crucially needed fighters. Each time I heard a V-2 explode, I counted it as one German fighter thrown away and ten fewer of our bombers downed. It seemed that some unknown benefactor in Germany was unilaterally disarming the German air force for our benefit. I had no idea then who the benefactor might be. We now know his name. It was Wernher von Braun.

Michael J. Neufeld’s Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War is a meticulously researched and technically accurate biography of von Braun. He was not intentionally working for Germany’s enemies in 1944. He was at that time a patriotic German, working for the Fatherland, producing V-2 rockets for the German army. It was not his fault that V-2 rockets were not what the Germans needed for defending the Fatherland. He was our benefactor only by accident. Von Braun’s primary purpose, from the time he began rocket experiments as an amateur at the age of eighteen until the end of his life, was interplanetary space travel.

In 1932 he was recruited by the German army to develop rockets for military missiles. The army gave him what he wanted: steady funding and freedom to experiment. He pushed hard to develop a rocket that could fly into space, not caring whether or not the army had a reasonable military mission for it. The result of his pushing was the V-2, the first long-range ballistic missile, capable of delivering a one-ton explosive payload with very poor accuracy to a range of two hundred miles. When the V-2 made its first successful flight in October 1942, this was a big step toward von Braun’s dream of walking on Mars. It should have been obvious to German military and political leaders that it was, from a military point of view, an expensive and useless toy.

How did it happen that Hitler gave his blessing to a crash program to produce the V-2 in quantity? Hitler was not a fool. As a foot soldier in World War I he had survived some heavy artillery bombardments. Von Braun demonstrated his plans for the V-2 to Hitler in person in August 1941, and Hitler reacted with sensible objections. He asked whether von Braun had worried about the timing of the explosion, since a normal artillery shell arriving at supersonic speed would bury itself in the ground before exploding and do little damage. This was a serious problem, and von Braun had to admit that he had not thought about it. Hitler then remarked that the V-2 was only an artillery shell with longer range than usual, and the army would need hundreds of thousands rather than thousands of such shells in order to use them effectively. Von Braun agreed that this was true.

After the session with von Braun, Hitler ordered the army to plan production of hundreds of thousands of V-2s per year, but not to begin production until the bird had successfully flown. This decision seemed harmless at the time, but it played into the hands of the army rocketeers. The army leaders knew that the notion of producing hundreds of thousands of V-2s per year was absurd, but they accepted the order. It gave them authority to spend as much as they wanted on the program, without any fixed timetable. In August 1941 the war was going well for Germany. The army had won huge victories in the first two months of the Russian campaign, France was knocked out of the war, and America was not yet in. Hitler did not imagine that within three years he would be fighting a defensive war for the survival of the Reich. He did not ask whether the V-2 might be a toy that the Reich could not afford.

In Germany as in other countries, the main factor driving acquisition of weapons was interservice rivalry. The army wanted the V-2 because of rivalry with the Luftwaffe. The German air force was leading the world in high-technology weapons, developing jet aircraft and rocket aircraft and a variety of guided rocket missiles. The army had to have a high-technology project too. The V-2 was a high-technology version of artillery. It gave the army the chance to say to the air force, our rockets are bigger than your rockets.

Although Hitler was nominally a dictator, he was no more successful than political leaders of democratic countries in keeping rivalries between different branches of the military under control. He could fire military leaders, and did so from time to time, but he could not make them do what he wanted. The army leaders, with the help of von Braun, launched a crash program to produce the V-2. They produced a few thousand V-2s altogether, enough to outshine the air force but not enough to be militarily useful. Hitler could not force them to produce as many as he thought necessary, and he could not force them to stop the program and transfer its resources to the air force. The army and the air force continued to operate as independent principalities until the day Hitler died.

Von Braun’s career as a rocket-builder was divided into six periods in which he worked for six different masters. From age eighteen to twenty, he worked as an amateur in Berlin with the Verein für Raumschiffahrt, the German Space-Travel Society, a private group of rocket enthusiasts. He was technically the most competent member of the group. In the years 1930–1932 he built and successfully launched at a small airfield near Berlin a series of liquid-fueled rockets. Rockets are of two kinds, solid-fueled and liquid-fueled. Both kinds are driven forward by hot gas escaping from the back when the fuel burns. Solid-fueled rockets are simpler and cheaper. They were used unsuccessfully by the British navy attacking Fort McHenry in 1814, as recorded in the US national anthem. Liquid-fueled rockets fly faster and farther, but are much more complicated and difficult to handle.

From age twenty to twenty-eight von Braun worked as a civilian for the German army. The army acquired a large area of land at Peenemünde on the Baltic coast of Germany, and built facilities there for large-scale development and testing of rockets. Von Braun’s mother had lived nearby as a child and suggested the place as suitable for her son’s activities. Von Braun’s friend Walter Dornberger, an army major, was in charge of the program. Von Braun served under him as technical director of the Peenemünde establishment.

From age twenty-eight to thirty-three, during the years of World War II, von Braun continued to work at Peenemünde as a civilian for the German army, but he was legally an officer in the SS. This meant that he was under SS discipline. He wore his SS uniform as little as possible, and only on formal occasions. He disliked and distrusted his SS colleagues. But when, toward the end of the war, the SS took over the manufacture of V-2 missiles from the army, he had to do what the SS ordered. During the final weeks of the war, when he was evacuated with the remnants of the Peenemünde staff to the southeast corner of Germany, he was escorted by SS guards to keep him in line.

From age thirty-three to forty-eight he worked for the US army at El Paso, Texas, and Huntsville, Alabama, as leader of a large group of German rocket experts. These experts were hastily recruited in 1945 by the US forces occupying Germany to keep them out of Soviet hands, transferred to the United States, and then employed in developing Redstone missiles for the army. From age forty-eight to sixty, von Braun worked for the newly created NASA, first at Huntsville and later in Washington. The Army Ballistic Missile Agency at Huntsville became the NASA Marshall Space-Flight Center in 1960, with von Braun in charge of the development of the huge Saturn booster rockets that safely carried twenty-one Apollo astronauts to the moon and back. From age sixty until his death at sixty-five, he worked for the Fairchild Industries corporation in Washington. At Fairchild he worked as hard as ever, supervising a variety of technical projects, helping to develop new airplanes and satellites for military and civilian missions.

The central concern of this book is the third period of von Braun’s life, the five years during World War II in which he realized his dream of shooting rockets into space and accepted a position of responsibility in the SS. The SS was the most criminal part of the Hitler regime, directly responsible for the administration of the concentration camps in which millions of prisoners were either murdered, starved to death, or used as slave laborers. Von Braun knew at first hand the dark side of the SS. After the Peenemünde complex was seriously damaged by an RAF bombing attack in 1943, the SS took over the production of V-2 rockets, and the main production line was moved to an underground factory called Mittelwerk that would be safe from air attacks. Mittelwerk was conveniently located near the Dora concentration camp and the town of Nordhausen in central Germany. Dora prisoners became a large part of the workforce at Mittelwerk, with SS guards to control them. Thousands of prisoners were confined in the tunnels where they worked under horrible conditions and slept on straw or bare rock. A large number of them died of hunger and disease. A smaller number were publicly hanged for disobedience or alleged acts of sabotage.

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