The second-largest island on Germany’s Baltic Sea coast is a summer vacation paradise. But it once housed a massive secret weapons program that the Nazis hoped would allow them to snatch victory from the closing jaws of defeat.
I made my annual summer pilgrimage to the island of Rügen last weekend — much later than usual in this year of pandemic, but it was still just warm enough to swim.
The weather turned rainy and cold on Sunday, and having already explored most of Rügen on previous visits, we decided to take a two hour detour to the island of Usedom down the coast to the southeast.
I’d wanted to go there for years, but it just seemed so far out of the way. Sure, the beaches likely weren’t any better than Rügen’s. Judging by the traffic, they were probably more crowded. But I’d gone in search of traces of the past.
Between 1936 and 1945, Nazi technicians developed liquid-fuelled jet engines in Europe’s largest secret armaments centre on this island’s northwest tip.
The forests and dunes didn’t look much different from the gentle sandy hills of Rügen’s coastal zones as we approached the village of Peenemünde, but when I looked closer I saw that the road was lined with fences marked with military warning signs. The forest soil at this end of the island is filled with unexploded munitions.
What’s left of the Peenemünde facility had the ghostly look of abandoned places, where the shells of buildings hold memories, and dusty outdated equipment so worthless not even the Russians had bothered to salvage it.
The massive red brick coal fired power station, built in the typical monumental style of Nazi architecture, had been established to provide energy for the research facility, and for the manufacture of chemicals like the liquid oxygen that would fuel the V-2.
Today the abandoned power plant houses the Peenemünde Historisch-Technisches Museum. We accessed the site through the former control room, housed in a bunker behind 2 metre thick walls.
Launch sites and test stands were erected around the forest clearing, within a circular earthwork rampart, providing a secure base for the firing of rocket engines. The associated buildings, housing units, runway and monitoring towers once covered an area of 25km², and involved some 12,000 people.
As the war turned against them and seemingly unstoppable victory became defeat after defeat, the Nazi propaganda ministry promised the development of new Wunderwaffe (‘wonder weapons”) that would turn the tide of the war.
Most remained just prototypes, but the rockets developed at the Peenemünde Army Research Centre would be deployed and fired in large numbers. Never accurate enough for point strikes, these so-called Vergeltungswaffen (vengeance weapons) would be used to conduct “terror bombing” campaigns of Allied cities.
They had their first major success at 3pm on 3 October 1942, when the A4 rocket prototype soared 85km into the sky. Few were aware that this development marked the arrival of The Space Age.
The A4 prototype would go on to become the Nazi’s fearsome V-2 rocket. But before that, the V-1 ‘flying bomb’ rained down terror on London in 1944.
The first V-1 was launched at London on 13 June 1944, just one week after the Allied invasion of Europe (D-Day).
The rockets were developed and tested at Peenemünde, but were never fired on cities from this site. With a range of just 250km, they were launched from the French and Dutch coasts, first at the southeast of England and then at Antwerp and targets in Belgium.
The V-1’s were fired from an inclined launch ramp using a steam-driven catapult, generated by mixing hydrogen peroxide and sodium permanganate. By the time it left the end of the 49 metre (160 ft) long launch rail, the rocket was already traveling at 200 mph, and the engine kicked in.
It could only fly under it’s own power when moving faster than 150 mph, when air flow was strong enough for its pulse-jet engine to operate.
The so-called ‘buzz bomb’ or ‘doodlebug’ came in at 640 km/h, at a heigh of 600m to 900m (2,000 to 3,000 ft), moving too fast for anti-aircraft guns or fighter planes to intercept such a small target.
Residents of London soon learn to recognize the buzzing sound of the V-1’s engine. As long as you could still hear the engine, you knew you were safe. But when it began to splutter and cut out, you knew that terrifying silence meant it had begun its final dive.
Initial casualty rates were high, and citizens fled London for the countryside, which set back work production, but residents returned as defences improved.
The V-1 wouldn’t be effectively countered until the development of gun-laying radar and proximity fuses allowed the Allies to create coastal “gun belts” capable of shooting down more and more of the approaching rockets.
Some 22,000 V-1’s were fired at civilian targets before the last launch sites in the Low Countries were overrun by invading forces a month before the end of the war.
The V-2 was a massive improvement on the earlier ‘flying bomb’.
Wth an operational range of 320 km, the world’s first true long range guided ballistic missile could fly from The Hague to London (200 miles) in 5 minutes. They came in with no warning, traveling at supersonic speeds, and were virtually impossible to stop in flight.
But the V-2 still had an accuracy error of 18km, meaning that 100% of the shots would fall somewhere within an 18km radius of the target. And so they fired it at targets large enough to hit something in that radius, chiefly the centre of big cities.
Some 3,000 V-2’s were fired at Allied targets from September 1944 until the end of the war.
Allied bombing raids eventually destroyed the site at Peenemünde and rocket production was moved to an underground site in the Harz Mountains.
As Nazi Germany collapsed in a mess of broken cities and flames, Allied forces raced to capture key manufacturing sites. As the Soviet Red Army closed in, over 100 key V-2 personnel surrendered to the Americans.
The scientists were spirited away, including project leader Wernher von Braun, a former SS officer who was spared the fate of war crimes trials and allowed to emigrate to the United States.
Von Braun was characterized as politically naive, an egghead with no social skills, but like everyone there, the rocket scientist knew slave labour was used to build the facility; mainly Polish, Russian, French and Czech prisoners housed at the nearby Karlshagen I concentration camp.
Von Braun’s group developed intermediate-range ballistic missiles for the US Army, and the rocket that launched the first US satellite (Explorer 1).
He would go on to lead the Apollo program for NASA, where he was the chief architect of the Saturn V super heavy-lift rocket, fulfilling his childhood dream of sending humans to space, and putting a man on the moon.
While the Americans managed to secure most of the scientists, the Soviets seized the V-2 manufacturing facilities, and were able to re-establish V-2 production and move it to the USSR.
The Red Army took over Peenemünde, and it eventually became a GDR base after the division of Germany.
There isn’t much left today, save the shell of the power station and some dusty boilers and control panels.
The power station was repaired of wartime damage and used to generate electricity for the GDR’s grid, and remained operational until 1990. Today the building houses an exhibit on the industrial development of western Usedom, and its roof offers great views of the base, and the Baltic coast.
The liquid oxygen facility is a gutted ruin, and the remains of test platforms, bunkers and foundations lie fenced off in the surrounding forest, inaccessible due to its status as a nature reserve, and due to the risk of unexploded ordnance that continues to turn up some 75 years after Allied bombing raids.
The transformer house, attached to the old power station, contains a large exhibit on the wartime rocket program leading all the way up to the Cold War nuclear arms race and the space program.
Signs conspicuously placed at the entrance urged visitors to think about how the evils of war led to technology that would ultimately benefit humankind, but their attempt to tie the development of the V-2 to the Moon launch felt disingenuous. A bit like saying that the scientists who invented radar to defend London during the Battle of Britain were motivated by the archaeological potential of ground penetrating radar.
Like jet aircraft, radar, synthetic rubber, and even M&M’s, the technology that put people in orbit was developed for military purposes during the Second World War.
While Wernher von Braun may have been chasing the dream of sending men to space, Hitler’s rocket program was aimed at the total destruction of distant cities, nothing more.
The slashing rain had stopped by the time we left the facility. We walked through a vacant lot around the perimeter fence to the harbour, where a cluster of kiosks lined the quay, next to the faded hulk of U-461, a 1960’s era Soviet missile submarine.
We had just enough time to eat a plate of pan fried herring and potatoes at breezy dockside table before making the long drive home to Berlin.