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He aimed for the stars and often hit London.
February 22, 2010 8:42 AM   Subscribe

Many are familiar with Operation Paperclip - the secret U.S. program that brought Nazi scientists to our shores in order to develop the American space program. However, the details surrounding the Nazi V-2 program has always been a little murky in the eyes of the American people - it turns out that more people were killed building V-2 rockets than from actual V-2 rocket attacks. A new photography exhibit called Dora and the V-2: Slave Labor in the Space Age aims to transform perceptions in one of the American communities most affected by the influx of Nazi scientists...

Huntsville, Alabama - site of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center - became the adopted home of Wernher von Braun and his team of Nazi scientists and now the University of Alabama at Huntsville's Salmon Library has put together an exhibit of photographs and drawings that casts light upon the horrifying origins of the American space program.

(The site is a little clunky and often points to material at other sites that are only available in German or French - but I think its better explored on your own than for me to provide an excessive link collage post here. Also, if you are in the area - the exhibition runs until March 10th and is free and open to the public.)
posted by cinemafiend (56 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
Many are familiar with Operation Paperclip - the secret U.S. program that brought Nazi scientists to our shores in order to develop the American space program.

It looks like you're trying to get to the moon . . .

I had no idea - cool post!
posted by The Bellman at 8:45 AM on February 22, 2010 [7 favorites]


There once was a thing called a V-2,
To pilot which you did not need to --
You just pushed a button,
And it would leave nuttin'
But stiffs and big holes and debris, too.

(Great post!)
posted by Damn That Television at 8:54 AM on February 22, 2010 [3 favorites]


Previously, on Metafilter....


no doublation, just relatnik
posted by CynicalKnight at 9:07 AM on February 22, 2010


the details surrounding the Nazi V-2 program has always been a little murky in the eyes of the American people

yeah, because most american college students could only get up to the toilet / kenosha kid part of Gravity's Rainbow before dropping the class
posted by neustile at 9:07 AM on February 22, 2010 [7 favorites]


This is really interesting; thanks.

Apropos of nothing, I read "Dora and the V-2" and had a mental image of Dora the Explorer riding a rocket like Major Kong from Dr. Strangelove.
posted by maqsarian at 9:08 AM on February 22, 2010 [13 favorites]


I've visited Dora. Those tunnels are bloody cold, and damp. There's extensive flooding, with whole areas that are submerged pools with bits of V2 and rusty machinery. It's spooky as fuck, and must have been horrible to be in. When the exterior barracks got bombed they moved all the workers inside- those poor fuckers never saw daylight, just horrible.

This was on a sunny day as well. The temperature drop going in was phenomenal.
posted by Artw at 9:19 AM on February 22, 2010 [2 favorites]


I've always thought NASA was less than forthcoming about the Nazi origins of the space program so I'm in favor of shining light on this subject.

From their biography of Von Braun (italics mine): "The V–2s were manufactured at a forced labor factory called Mittelwerk. Scholars are still reassessing his role in these controversial activities." Maybe it's me, but controversial is not the adjective I'd use to describe Nazi slave labor factories.
posted by tommasz at 9:20 AM on February 22, 2010 [5 favorites]


Tom Lehrer's little ditty still stings:
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
posted by Doktor Zed at 9:22 AM on February 22, 2010 [9 favorites]


I'd like to just point as proof of the success of Operation Paperclip's assimilation of former Nazis into American society that tickets are now on sale for a show involving Hank Willams, Jr and Lynyrd Skynyrd (with special guest 38 Special) at the Von Braun Center Arena.
posted by Pollomacho at 9:27 AM on February 22, 2010 [3 favorites]


In the end the crazy V2 project even helped the Allies to win the war.

The military advantage of the V2 was close to zero and the project war incredibly expensive. I once read how many ME 262 could have been build instead but I forgot the ratio.

More then the V2 the A9/10 were the basis for the moon program.
posted by yoyo_nyc at 9:28 AM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's a good thing that Jimmy Patterson destroyed the V2 program.
posted by Mayor Curley at 9:29 AM on February 22, 2010


When I went for a tour of the Smithsonian Air & Space museum our elderly gentleman tour guide, when taking us past the V-2 they have on display there, made it known that in his opinion Von Braun should've stood trial for war crimes.
posted by PenDevil at 9:32 AM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


yeah, because most american college students could only get up to the toilet / kenosha kid part of Gravity's Rainbow before dropping the class
Holy shit, I tried to read that book earlier this month, and that part is where I gave up and read Shutter Island instead.

Does Gravity's Rainbow get easier to grasp after that point?
posted by sideshow at 9:34 AM on February 22, 2010


that in his opinion Von Braun should've stood trial for war crimes.

And yet the man is credited with perhaps my all-time favorite quote:

"Research is what I'm doing when I don't know what I'm doing."

Most of my life has been dedicated to my research.
posted by philip-random at 9:38 AM on February 22, 2010 [3 favorites]


I'm pretty familiar with the Tsiolkovsky/Goddard -> Von Braun ->WWII Rocketry -> Apollo story of rocket development, which you'll see a board on in just about any aerospace museum and which is now almost a cliche, so I was actually weirded out that at Kennedy Space Centre I didn't see much mention of Von braun and certainly nothing on the V2. Still, I guess the place is basically just Disneyland with rockets.

One bit I did like - the "rocket garden", which is basically a whole bunch of ICBMs standing upright. Sure, some of them might have been modified for satelite payload, but they're still quite blatantly ICBMs.
posted by Artw at 9:41 AM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


Does Gravity's Rainbow get easier to grasp after that point?

More or less (remember that the whole Kenosha Kid/toilet scene is a hallucinatory fantasy of someone under the influence of Sodium Amytal, as are several other scenes in the book).

Near the end, it becomes incredibly hard again for a bit. Then there's a "Soylent Green is people!" moment. Then Pynchon admits that the whole thing is made up.

The second time through is much easier all around.
posted by muddgirl at 9:42 AM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


Oh wait, maybe Pynchon admits that the whole thing is made up BEFORE the Soylent Green moment. Anyway, I was so relieved to finally finish that book with at least a basic understanding of the plot and some of the major themes that I sort of skimmed the hard parts near the end.
posted by muddgirl at 9:44 AM on February 22, 2010


I once read how many ME 262 could have been build instead but I forgot the ratio.

The Me 262 was amazing, but they didn't know what to do with it. They'd keep on getting crazy directives from on high - make it a night fighter! Make it a bomber! - and the advantage was lost.
posted by Artw at 9:48 AM on February 22, 2010


Now, if the nuke programme wasn't fatally flawed (possibly sabotaged), then the V2 gets interesting. Probably still too small though - their bomb delivery system would more likely have to be some freaky Indiana Jones style flying wing thing.
posted by Artw at 9:53 AM on February 22, 2010


I once read how many ME 262 could have been build instead but I forgot the ratio.

Well, the Germans would have needed pilots for those, and that wasn't something they had in large amounts by 1944, when the German command's big idea for air defence was to strap Hitler Youths onto jet-powered He-162 "Volksjäger" (which were also built in Mittelwerk/Dora).

The V-2 didn't lose the war for the Germans, but neither had it any chance of winning it. As its name ("Vergeltungswaffe 2" - Retaliation weapon 2) indicated, its main purpose was to convince Hitler and the German people that something was being done to retaliate against the Allied bombs falling every night on German cities. It was a morale weapon, and moderately effective in that purpose.
posted by Skeptic at 9:57 AM on February 22, 2010


Huntsville is very near to Cullman, Alabama, an extremely ethnically German location. I wonder if this was relevant?
posted by jefficator at 10:04 AM on February 22, 2010


I'd pretty much say that deciding to mess with Russia was the moment they lost the war, however well that initially went.
posted by Artw at 10:05 AM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


Now, if the nuke programme wasn't fatally flawed (possibly sabotaged), then the V2 gets interesting. Probably still too small though - their bomb delivery system would more likely have to be some freaky Indiana Jones style flying wing thing.

Actually, the whole "Nazi nuclear programme" thing is a red herring. Deploying nukes only makes any sense when the nuked party has no chance of retaliating whatsoever. Retaliating not just with nukes, but with any WMD. Both sides in WWII had plenty of chemical weapons, but they never used them in combat against anybody who could have retaliated in kind. If the Germans had launched a last-chance nuke against London, the very next day Berlin would have choked in a cloud of phosgene.
posted by Skeptic at 10:06 AM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


Cool post. I was born in Huntsville on the base. My sister still lives there (in Huntsville, not on the base). And I have a von Braun joke:

--"Have you read Werner von Braun's memoir?"

--"No."

--"It's called 'I Am For the Stars...but I Keep Hitting London.'
posted by MarshallPoe at 10:17 AM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is how I can mark the passage of time. Make an "Operation Paperclip" reference 15 years ago, and you'd have been flooded with X-Files references.

(You'd have been making the reference on Usenet or your Geocities website, of course.)
posted by ErikaB at 10:27 AM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]



@Artw

I'd pretty much say that deciding to mess with Russia was the moment they lost the war, however well that initially went.


Without the Allied in the west (which bound 30 divisions) and "leasing" 100.000 vehicles to the Soviet Union I think a draw would have been more likely.

Russia 1941 was different from Russia 1914. Stalin managed industrial growth that outperformed the Chinese industrial growth in the last 10 years (with high costs for the soviet population). The economic and industrial strength of Russia was not known in the 40ties. Hitler seem to have never changed his view of Russia from the first world war ("Russia is a rotten house, kick in the front door hard enough and the whole house will collapse").
posted by yoyo_nyc at 10:27 AM on February 22, 2010


The CIA had a similar program.
posted by doctor_negative at 10:33 AM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


Huntsville is very near to Cullman, Alabama, an extremely ethnically German location. I wonder if this was relevant?

I would say that powerful Congressman John Sparkman's home being nearby Hartselle had a little more to do with it.
posted by Pollomacho at 10:34 AM on February 22, 2010


Von Braun is just lucky that it wasn't Lt. Aldo Raine that brought him in.
posted by Artw at 10:36 AM on February 22, 2010


I would say that powerful Congressman John Sparkman's home being nearby Hartselle had a little more to do with it.

When I speculate like that I should probably look all the way at the bottom of my link at the Wikipedia links.
posted by Pollomacho at 10:44 AM on February 22, 2010


Without the Allied in the west (which bound 30 divisions) and "leasing" 100.000 vehicles to the Soviet Union I think a draw would have been more likely.

Better leadership on the part of the Germans would have helped. The German military in WWII was built around something new -- combined arms mobile warfare, and nobody had seen the like. Blitzkrieg was just part of this, mind you -- the entire system was built on mobility and combined arms.

And what were the two most devastating losses to the Germans? Stalingrad and Kursk? And what were they? One was an attempt to reduce a city by siege, the other was an attempt to defend a salient -- both of which throw away the "mobile" in mobile warfare.

At that point, the tactical and moral advantages disappear, and whomever can get the most men on the line wins -- and Germany could *never* win that war against the Soviet Union.

Do not, also, forget that the Soviets weren't always struggling with bad equipment. The M4 Sherman was, in many ways, the wrong tank for the war, and the BT and T-26 were outclassed, but the Soviets then built the T-34, and when that showed up on the lines, the Germans were in for a nasty shock -- the Soviet's had just built what was arguably the best tank of the war. Nothing the Germans had could stop it, and the T-34 is one of the reason why the German rushed the Panther and Tiger into production (leading to the reliability problems).

The Soviets then put an 85mm cannon on it, and while it wasn't a match for the Panther, it was close enough -- and the Soviets could build 1200 of them a month, as opposed to the anemic rates of the Panther, 6000 in 29 months, or about 200 a month over the run.

I'll take 6 T-34-85s against a single Panther any day of the week. In the end, there were 6000 Panthers, 1400 Tigers, and 500 Tiger II tanks -- but there were almost 35,000 T-34 and 22,500 T-34-85s built.

Those odds? Unbeatable, if the Soviets learned anything about mobile warfare. They did (mostly by having the Germans kick them across the Ukraine.) Once the Guards Tank Armies were given reliable T-34s and reliable commanders, it was over for Germany.
posted by eriko at 11:09 AM on February 22, 2010 [4 favorites]


> The CIA had a similar program.

I probably hadn't looked hard enough before, but that second link has the best summary of the impact of the CIA's adoption of the Gehlen Org that I've encountered.
posted by darth_tedious at 11:18 AM on February 22, 2010


- both of which throw away the "mobile" in mobile warfare.

Put on the goggles of Peak Oil and you'll note that both Germany and Japan didn't have a whole lotta oil on their home soils.

And without oil - you don't have a lot of 'mobile' in mobile warfare.
posted by rough ashlar at 11:44 AM on February 22, 2010


Those fancy tanks sure weren't much use once the supply lines went.
posted by Artw at 11:46 AM on February 22, 2010


Without the Allied in the west (which bound 30 divisions) and "leasing" 100.000 vehicles to the Soviet Union I think a draw would have been more likely.

The writing was on the wall when the Germans got started late so they could not get in a quick kill before the Soviets could call up General January and General February.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 11:57 AM on February 22, 2010 [2 favorites]


Oh and Hitler being more than a bit rubbish as a 'no retreat not even tactical withdrawal!' general didn't help a great deal either.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 11:59 AM on February 22, 2010


@eriko

"Those odds? Unbeatable"
I think the numbers are misleading if total G. Reich und SU tank production (and tank losses) are taken into account. But while the high losses were caused by inferior tactics, the thing that is amazing is that the sovjet production system was more efficient.
posted by yoyo_nyc at 12:03 PM on February 22, 2010


The Nazis were unfortunate in having a tank design that was superior in every area they could think of, and therefore more complicated to build, and therefore they had less tanks. German WWII tanks really are wonder tanks, and it ended up counting against them.

There is a lesson here for all software developers.
posted by Artw at 12:08 PM on February 22, 2010 [2 favorites]


Oh and Hitler being more than a bit rubbish as a 'no retreat not even tactical withdrawal!' general didn't help a great deal either.

Nein, nein, nein, nein, nein, nein!
posted by Artw at 12:09 PM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


Interesting aside, the rockets carrying the camera that gets our first photo from space, were produced with nazi slave labor.

Mefi post about it

"Over 60,000 slaves worked round the clock at gunpoint converting the former calcium sulphate mines, the whole place being a vision of Hell to the unfortunate workers - many of whom came from Buchenwald Concentration Camp. Most feared of the caverns was Gallery 39 - the galvanizing shop - where very few lived longer than two weeks, their lungs disintegrating in the toxic fumes from the metal treatment plant."
posted by thisisdrew at 12:12 PM on February 22, 2010


backpack backpack backpack VAMANOS!
posted by msbutah at 12:35 PM on February 22, 2010


And without oil - you don't have a lot of 'mobile' in mobile warfare.

My understanding of Stalingrad as a military objective is that, had the Germans secured it, it would have opened up easy access to the Soviet Union's oil reserves. Add to this the fact that the city bore Mr. Stalin's name and you had some real estate that the Russians were NEVER going to surrender.

Hitler's "Thousand Year Reich" ended right there.
posted by philip-random at 12:48 PM on February 22, 2010


Without the Allied in the west (which bound 30 divisions) and "leasing" 100.000 vehicles to the Soviet Union I think a draw would have been more likely.

Ooh, 30 divisions, is that a lot? On June 22, 1944, the Red Army launched an offensive "involving 1,245,000 men, 14 combined-army armies, one tank army, 124 out of 168 rifle divisions committed to the attack, 2,175 tanks supported by 1,355 self-propelled guns, 24,000 guns and mortars, four "air armies" with 5,327 aircraft, plus a further 700 heavy bombers of Long-Range Aviation." The offensive obliterated 25 to 28 German divisions. The Red Army had kicked the Germans out of Russia by the time of the D-Day landings.
posted by kirkaracha at 12:50 PM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


My cat is named Wernher von Braun. True story.
posted by spamguy at 12:55 PM on February 22, 2010


Between this "the details are murky about the origins of the American space program", and the other week's "it may surprise Americans to learn that the top fighter aces weren't American", I wonder what it is that they do teach in modern history classes in the US. It feels like "shock horror, Captain America didn't beat down Hitler in a duel, and then single handedly fly to the moon - bet you didn't know that...".

(though, I suppose when I did American history we didn't get as far as the Civil War, and there was one girl in the class who thought the Treaty of Vienna was about an ice-cream...)

Also, oblig:

"'Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?
That's not my department' said Wernher von Braun"

posted by pompomtom at 1:02 PM on February 22, 2010


My cat's breath smells like gypsum.
posted by Pollomacho at 1:05 PM on February 22, 2010


I once traveled to both Peenemunde (on the Baltic, where the Germans developed the V-2) and Dora, where slave laborers built the rockets, for a magazine article. This was back in 1992, shortly after reunification, so it was a very interesting experience. At Peenemunde I was introduced to a woman who was being shown around the place. It was July 20, and I was told this was the anniversary of the date on which this woman's father had tried to kill Hitler. Much later I realized that she must have been the daughter of von Stauffenberg. I also read the National Archives' transcripts of the Nordhausen war crimes trials, which is where the men who ran Dora were tried. Von Braun testified, but not in person. I think he submitted a statement. The reasoning was supposedly that the Americans feared the Russians might try to kidnap him if he went back to Germany, but I understand that U.S. authorities also feared that prisoners who were testifying at the trials might recognize him. At least one prisoner testified that he saw Von Braun at Dora, when he came to inspect the work on the V-2s. I recall testimony that Von Braun walked past piles of corpses without acknowledging them. There were many horrible stories, including mass hangings inside the tunnels, just outside the office of Arthur Rudolph, who later worked on the American Saturn V project and was later, much later, deported back to Germany. (I wrote to Rudolph in Germany and asked for an interview but got a note back in which he declined.) Horrifying and fascinating.
posted by Man-Thing at 1:51 PM on February 22, 2010 [3 favorites]


When I went to Peenemunde there were actual real nazis outside, protesting this.
posted by Artw at 2:01 PM on February 22, 2010


Man, I love talking about tanks, but I think too much and you start getting into the unfortunate discussion which happened in this thread.

In the effort to get Speer's rockets and Milch's jet fighters into massive production, a brutal cooperation emerged between German industry, the Armaments Ministries and the SS. Immediately following the RAF's highly successful bombing raids on the Peenemuende rocket facility on 18 August 1943, Speer raised the issue of transferring production of the A4 to underground tunnels. To carry out this Herculean construction task, Speer and Hitler quickly agreed that the SS, with its captive workforce of concentration camp inmates, was the obvious contractor ... by the end of the month, Kammler had a detachment of concentration camp inmates from Buchenwald at work on the new facility. By the end of the year his slave labour workforce had swollen to such an extent that the 'Dora' concentration camp was spun off as a separate operation ...

Since 1942 it had been the Luftwaffe that had led the way in the employment of concentration camp labour in armaments production ... When Milch ordered BMW and Junkers to begin preparations for the mass-production of jet engines at the end of 1943, he did so on the assumption that they would deploy labour from the Dachau and Oranienburg concentration camps ...

In a construction effort that combined ruthless brutality and speed, Hans Kammler got the Mittelbau tunnel complex into production by the end of the year. To honour this remarkable feat, Speer and his staff visisted the site on 10 December. What they saw left a deep impression. In the dock at Nuremberg, Speer denied ever having seen the true conditions in a concentration camp. But in his memoirs he no longer hid from the horror that he had witnessed at the Mittelbau. To meet the timetable set by Speer's Armaments Ministry, Kammler had sacrificed the lives of his inmate workforce. No time had been wasted in building housing. The labourers slept on site, inside the tunnels, seeing daylight at most once a week, deprived of access to clean water and sanitation. They died in their thousands. To encourage those still alive, Kammler strung recalcitrants from the rafter. Speer and his staff saw a factory littered with corpses ...


Tooze, "The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the German Economy."
posted by Comrade_robot at 4:01 PM on February 22, 2010


I'd actually really recommend The German Trauma by Gitta Sereny for some insight into what happened with Germany in WWII. Actually I'd pretty recommend anything by Gitta Sereny on WWII.
posted by Artw at 4:16 PM on February 22, 2010


Great post. From a digital history perspective one thing that interest me about the site is the way it does not try to host every file but liberally links to and incorporates relevant content from stable sites such as Archive.org. That may sound like no big deal but it is pretty unusual in a big digital history project like this one. A case in point are the newsreels hosted at Archive.org. This one: "“Nazi Murder Mills,” April 4th 1945 Newsreel based on Army footage, includes Nordhausen and reference to work on V2s" is chilling.
posted by LarryC at 6:50 PM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


Put on the goggles of Peak Oil and you'll note that both Germany and Japan didn't have a whole lotta oil on their home soils.

Exactly. Now imagine that Hitler shuts the fuck up and lets his combat commanders -- who count such brilliant guys as Hans Guderian in their ranks -- call the shots. Stalingrad gets invested with a few low grade infantry units, and the Wehrmacht sends 6 Army and 4 Panzergruppe slicing towards Novograd, cutting the Soviets off from the Ural Mountains.

Instead, Stalingrad must fall, and it doesn't -- and Germany loses almost 850,000 men on the project. That's not a division(20K), or a corp (80K) or an army(240K) That's an army group -- three entire armies worth of the best soldiers the Wehrmacht could field, and they were slaughtered at Stalingrad.

Truly, that was the victory. The Soviets sent conscripts. The Germans sent high quality troops, and they, basically, lost all of them.

In any honest assement of WWII, Japan lost at Midway, and Germany lost at Stalingrad. The rest was simply a painful, bloody, and expensive denouement.
posted by eriko at 7:56 PM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


I remember reading somewhere that while we picked up all the V-2 guys at the end of the war, the Russians got most of the guys working on air-to-ground and surface-to-air missiles. They maintained a lead in those areas for decades.
posted by atchafalaya at 7:57 PM on February 22, 2010


The Soviets already had a rocket program in place before the German invasion.
posted by Pollomacho at 4:28 AM on February 23, 2010


Tank production and losses in WW2.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_armored_fighting_vehicle_production_during_World_War_II

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soviet_armored_fighting_vehicle_production_during_World_War_II

The SU lost about 85.000 tanks in the war.
http://forum.axishistory.com/viewtopic.php?t=50139

But it boils down to the questions: What is considered a tank and what is considered a "loss of a tank". Both questions can not be easy answered. Towards the end of the war it helped the Russians that you could recover "lost" tanks and "recycle" or repair them.

Interesting book: http://www.amazon.com/Lost-Victories-Erich-Von-Manstein/dp/0891411305
posted by yoyo_nyc at 7:16 AM on February 23, 2010


German casualties on the Western Front: 339,957.
German casualties on the Eastern Front: 3,985,009.

The writing was on the wall when the Germans got started late so they could not get in a quick kill before the Soviets could call up General January and General February.

The Battle of Moscow turned in early December 1941, and the Soviet counterattack started on December 5. /nitpickery General Mud also assisted.
posted by kirkaracha at 10:38 AM on February 23, 2010


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