Von Braun: Germany
In the early 1930's, rocket clubs sprang up all over Germany. One
of these clubs, the Verein fur Raumschiffarht (Rocket Society), had
the young engineer Wernher von Braun as a member.
During this same period of time the German military was searching
for a weapon which would not violate the Versailles Treaty of World
War I, and at the same time defend Germany. Artillery captain Walter
Dornberger was assigned to investigate the feasibility of using
rockets. Dornberger went to see the VfR and, being impressed with
their enthusiasm, gave them $400 to build a rocket. Wernher von
Braun worked through the spring and summer of 1932, only to have the
rocket fail when tested in front of the military. However,
Dornberger was impressed with von Braun and hired him to lead the
military's rocket artillery unit.
By 1934 von Braun and Dornberger had a team of 80 engineers
building rockets in Kummersdorf, about 60 miles south of
Berlin. Von Braun's natural talents as a leader shone, as well as
his ability to assimilate great quantities of data while keeping in
mind the big picture. With the successful launch of two rockets, Max
and Moritz, in 1934, von Braun's proposal to work on a jet-assisted
take-off device for heavy bombers and all-rocket fighters was
granted. However, Kummersdorf was too small for the task, so a new
facility had to be built.
Peenemunde, located on the Baltic coast, was chosen as the new
site. Peenemunde was large enough to launch and monitor rockets over
ranges up to about 200 miles, with optical and electric observing
instruments along the trajectory, with no risk of harming people and
By now Hitler had taken over Germany and Herman Goering ruled the
Luftwaffe. Dornberger held a public test of the A-2 which was
greatly successful. Funding continued to flow to von Braun's team,
developing the A-3 and finally the A-4.
In 1943 Hitler decided to use the A-4 as a "vengeance weapon,"
and the group found themselves developing the A-4 to rain explosives
on London. Fourteen months after Hitler ordered it into production,
the first combat A-4, now called the V-2, was launched toward
western Europe on September 7, 1944. When the first V-2 hit London
von Braun remarked to his colleagues, "The rocket worked perfectly
except for landing on the wrong planet."
The SS and the Gestapo arrested von Braun for crimes against the
state because he persisted in talking about building rockets which
would go into orbit around the Earth and perhaps go to the Moon. His
crime was indulging in frivolous dreams when he should have been
concentrating on building bigger rocket bombs for the Nazi war
machine. Dornberger convinced the SS and the Gestapo to release von
Braun because without him there would be no V-2 and Hitler would
have them all shot.
On arriving back at Peenemunde, von Braun immediately assembled
his planning staff and asked them to decide how and to whom they
should surrender. Most of the scientists were frightened of the
Russians, they felt the French would treat them like slaves, and the
British did not have enough money to afford a rocket program. That
left the Americans. After stealing a train with forged papers, von
Braun led 500 people through war-torn Germany to surrender to the
Americans. The SS were issued orders to kill the German engineers,
who hid their notes in a mine shaft and evaded their own army while
searching for the Americans. Finally, the team found an American
private and surrendered to him. Realizing the importance of these
engineers, the Americans immediately went to Peenemunde and
Nordhausen and captured all of the remaining V-2's and V-2 parts,
then destroyed both places with explosives. The Americans brought
over 300 train car loads of spare V-2 parts to the United States.
Much of von Braun's production team was captured by the Russians.
Moving to the U.S.