Position: 54°08’18.4″N 13°45’49.0″E
For reasons I’m about to explain, rockets run deep in my family’s history. Well, as deep as modern rocket history goes. Back to 1912 or thereabouts, when Robert H. Goddard was launching his scientific career through the fog of tuberculosis. This story revolves around my uncles Eric and Hugh, my wife Carol, her dad Bob, and their relationships to Wernher von Braun, Robert Goddard and Tom Lehrer.
My Uncle Eric was Mycroft to my father’s Sherlock. According to Kenneth, his elder brother was the more intelligent and sensitive of their two [great] minds. Eric joined Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service soon after the outbreak of World War II. His piercing intellect, fluency in German, dashing good looks, and quiet sense of humour were all assets the SIS needed, and prized. Despite rising to the rank of Major, he never spoke much about his role in the war effort. Not to his nephews and nieces at any rate.
My father once described Eric’s role as that of ‘M’, James Bond’s spymaster. That his work involved analysing reconnaissance information, aerial photos, spy reports, that sort of thing. From that he determined where special operations forces would be best deployed in the field. As you might imagine, the stress of sending good men and women into dangerous and frequently deadly situations took its toll on him.
He never quite recovered the panache he had before the war, preferring a quiet life as father of my cousin Sarah. He taught at Eastbourne College, a boys (now coed) preparatory school, and was master of Reeves house. My brother attended the school for three years, commuting from Chicago on a BOAC VC10 twice a year. I envied Julian’s jet-setting lifestyle right up to the time I was sent off to boarding school in Canada. That is another story.
One of the few stories of Uncle Eric’s endeavours involved the identification and targeting of the Nazi’s top secret rocket development and testing range in the Baltic Sea coastal hamlet of Peenemünde. In 1943, Peenemünde’s most famous resident scientist was Wernher von Braun, lead designer of the V-1 and V-2 rockets. At the end of the war von Braun, in case you’d forgotten, dropped his Nazi drawers and signed on to help America build ballistic missiles. He eventually serve as technical director for the Apollo space program and helped land the first man on the moon.
The story I heard was at some point in the middle of the war Uncle Eric was handed a pile of intelligence (RAF reconnaissance photos and detailed technical plans of Peenemünde) and immediately recognised the site’s importance. He kicked his analysis upstairs and (I’m surmising here) it eventually resulted in the RAF’s massive air raid on Peenemünde known as Operation Hydra.
Some 596 bombers took off on August 17, 1943, in the largest RAF action against a single target of the war. The facility was badly damaged, delaying V-2 rocket development by about two months. That might not sound like much, but it turns out the delay at that point in the war was just enough to prevent a far worse outcome.
Operation Hydra was intended to decapitate the many headed snake of Nazi special weapons research. In the event, it accelerated the relocation of V-2 development to various sites around Germany. A new, underground manufacturing location called Mittelwerk became the principle research and development site. Located in the caves of Kohnstein, a hill in Thuringia, prisoners of war built the factory at gunpoint.
Thus, when I realised that Wernher von Braun’s secret Nazi rocket lab was only a gyroscope’s throw from Rostock, of course I insisted we visit. What’s left of the site includes an aging power plant and acres of undergrowth covering the forced labour camps, launch pads, and almost all the rest of the facilities.
As soon as we entered the site, I headed straight for the men’s room. That done, we turned towards the three floors of the transformer house annex that houses the historical museum. Each floor charts a stage in the development of Germany’s missile research up through the end of the war. Then it continues more generally through the Cold War and into the 1960s. Wreckage of V-1 and V-2 prototypes recovered from the Baltic Sea demonstrate how far von Braun’s team had come, and how far it had to go. The twisted and shorn chunks of cast iron with their primitive guidance systems would today be most at home in the pages of a steampunk comic book. As comprehensive as the display is, I was disappointed the self-guided tour’s verbiage soft pedals the presence, forced labour, and deaths of thousands of eastern European prisoners of war who built the site.
Back outside, opposite the main entrance, is the power plant itself. The long arm of a conveyer reaches out towards the railway tracks where dozens of trains a day would have delivered tons of coal. Inside, floor to ceiling windows criss-crossed by muntins dimly lighted the frozen half turbines. The acrid smell of spent coal and lubricating oil permeates everything.
It took a bit of digging, but I eventually learned why this building was so well preserved. After the war, the Russians occupied the site through the 1950s, using the harbour as a naval base. In the 1960s the East Germans took over the naval operations and kept the plant running all the way up to 1990.
Walking the grounds offers a close-up view of a full-scale replica V-2. Nearby is an earlier V-1 atop its much more complex steam catapult launch system. The V-1 flew at sub-sonic speeds, around 400mph, and was nicknamed a ‘buzz bomb’ for the unique sound it made. They were slow enough that a Spitfire could intercept and topple it by flipping the bomb’s wing and sending it off course. However, the V-2’s supersonic speed and extended range was something entirely new. It finally made a convert of Hitler, who had been sceptical of rocket technology from the beginning.
Neither rocket was particularly effective at killing or terrorizing the enemy. However, had the Nazis’ fission experiments in Norway proved successful, it’s not hard to imagine a V-2 bearing an atomic warhead turning the tide of the war back in Germany’s favour. Fortunately, in part thanks to Operation Hydra, that didn’t happen.
I’m sure Uncle Eric’s relationship with Peenemünde surfaced because of Tom Lehrer’s unflattering 1965 musical portrait of von Braun that spun regularly on my parent’s turntable. That my Uncle Hugh’s work designing the Apollo Guidance Computer brought him at times into direct contact with von Braun, no doubt gave the song an additional edge.
But wait. You said Carol was part of this story. She is. Thank you for reminding me. Although I hadn’t really forgotten. Carol, you see, went to Robert H. Goddard High School in Roswell, New Mexico. Goddard, the father of modern rocketry, had moved to New Mexico in 1930 from Massachusetts for the climate. Having secured a $100,000 grant for his research from the Guggenheims, he continued his seminal work on liquid propelled rockets begun four years earlier.
Throughout the 1920s and 30s his work profoundly influenced German scientists. Several of whom later worked at Peenemünde. Regarded as something of a crackpot by the American press, he was grateful someone, someplace shared his vision. It was only when the war broke out that he cut off all communications with the Germans.
New Mexico also served as the crucible for the atomic bomb. The White Sands test range isn’t far from Roswell. About a teenage weekend drive away. Wernher and 127 of his colleagues defected to the United States in 1945. Soon he and a contingent were sent to White Sands to teach the Army everything they knew about rocketry. Goddard had died in August, 1945, only a few weeks before their arrival. The Trinity A-bomb test was completed only a few weeks before that. The Cold War had started and things were moving fast. Eventually, 1,600 German technicians, scientists, and engineers would emigrate to America under Operation Paperclip.
Speaking of the Cold War, missiles, nukes, military intelligence, and history, enter Carol’s dad, Bob. A career army officer, Bob was assigned to the Joint Chiefs of Staff early in 1962. As a major, the lowest ranked officer on staff, he reported to General Ferdinand Unger. At the time Unger was the Joint Chiefs’ Director of Operations. Bob’s role was to parse the flood of intelligence information passing through Unger’s office each day. Liaising with other staff and departments, Bob had to figure out what required urgent attention by Unger, and where the rest of the information should go.
The timing of his assignment meant he had a front row seat to the military’s machinations during the Cuban Missile Crisis. His accidental role as observer, he says, was enough to make him very glad he was not seated at the table.
Peenemünde remains one of those places that combines the best and worst of humanity. There our innate desire for exploration (rocketeers always want to fly to the stars) and our worst instincts on how to achieve the seemingly impossible (by ruthlessly exploiting those weaker than us). It is a story repeated throughout history. Robber baron capitalism, genocidal colonialism, and scorched earth economic growth are a few examples. There are better ways of fulfilling human destiny. To do that we have to honour and respect humanity and value it as much as we do our desire for progress.
 That way I could say with all honesty that I’d had a pee in Peenemünde.