PETER FROST has found memories of a Nazi mass murderer in Germany and France. This one lived a long and prosperous life in the USA.
Wernher von Braun was quite simply a Nazi and a war criminal. Unlike some of his compatriots he never had to hide out in South America he lived a public and long life in the USA.
Don’t believe all the American post-war propaganda about him being a talented but non-political rocket scientist. He joined the Nazi Party in 1937 after bullying his way to the top position in German rocket research. He joined the SS and was promoted every year. He sported a swastika lapel badge and was photographed in full SS uniform with Himmler his boss.
Strangely I’ve been coming across memories of Wernher von Braun on a number of visits all over the world. His is a fascinating story of how if you have the right skills and experience, and the right political allies you can get away with mass murder – literally.
I first got interested in the man and his story when I visited his office, drawing office and workshop at Peenemunde on Eastern Germany’s Baltic Coast some years ago.
It was here Wernher von Braun first developed the V1 buzz-bombs that terrified Londoners and also the V2 rockets that were so fast and so silent that Londoners didn’t have time to be terrified, just killed in their hundreds.
Today in reunified Germany those offices and workshops have been swept away along with, the authorities hope, all memories of Wernher von Braun and his Nazi plans for world domination by rocket.
On another later holiday I visited Cape Canaveral now, renamed Cape Kennedy, the USA’s main rocket base on the East Coast of Florida where Wernher von Braun was set up directly after the war; not as a war criminal but feted, given US citizenship, a good government salary and equipped with an office, drawing office and workshop built as an exact copy of the ones he had used in Peenemunde.
Wernher von Braun’s V2 terror weapon – ‘V’ for vergeltung the German word for revenge – would become the basis for US space rockets and for military intercontinental ballistic missiles and eventually for the Apollo moon landing.
Today it’s hard to believe the American embarrassment at the Soviet Union’s early space achievements. The USSR launched the first artificial satellite – Sputnik in 1957. The first dog to fly in space, Laika took off the same year.
In 1959 a Soviet probe hit the moon. The first man in space was Yuri Gagarin who flew in 1961. In 1965 the first woman in space was Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova. That year too cosmonaut Alexei Leonov was the first to walk in space outside a space craft.
A recent survey by an American magazine showed that the vast majority of US citizens believed that it was the USA that achieved all those notable space firsts. Sadly there was no question about Wernher von Braun’s origins.
The USA, it seemed would forgive Wernher von Braun and his Nazi rocket team anything if they could get the USA back into the space race and to develop more deadly weapons.
This summer in France we visited a wonderful museum just outside St Omer on the road from Calais. La Coupole is a huge man made dome hidden in the French countryside. It’s been secret and unseen since it was constructed in 1943 until just a year or two ago.
It was dug on the orders of Wernher von Braun by 500 Soviet slave prisoners working in horrific conditions as an assembly factory and launching spot for V1 and V2 rockets nearer to their prime target of London.
One of Wernher von Braun’s Nazi rockets did this to a street in Chiswick West London.
Only recently open to the public the museum is also a tribute to the French resistance fighters – many of them French communists who played such an important part in the eventual defeat of the Nazis and their horrific plans for European domination.
There are many fascinating exhibits at La Coupole but the one that horrified me most was a rare and experimental V1 buzz-bomb. This had a tiny single seat cockpit and was designed as a suicide weapon. These devices were only to be flown by women pilots. Fortunately few if any were actually used.
Unlike most of his Nazi co-criminals who were hung at Nuremburg Wernher von Braun died in 1977, a rich and famous man much admired in the USA. As I have discovered his inheritance still lives on in a few places.
I think we should simply remember him as the Nazi war criminal that tried to rain death, destruction and mass murder on London but never crushed our spirit.