Peter Frost has found memories in Germany, France and the US of a fascist rocket man and mass murderer who simply escaped justice
THE date: May 2 1945. The Location: Oberammergau in the Bavarian Alps, where the cream of Germany’s rocket engineers are under the protection of the SS.
Allied troops are advancing across Germany. Wernher von Braun, the leader of the scientists, is determined to organise his surrender to US troops. He sends his brother Magnus out on his bicycle to find the US 44th Infantry.
Magnus approaches a soldier, calling out in broken English: “My name is Magnus von Braun. My brother invented the V-2. We want to surrender.”
Wernher von Braun was a nazi war criminal. Unlike some of his compatriots he never had to hide out in South America. His prompt action in Oberammergau meant that he would live a well-paid long public life in the US.
Don’t believe all the US 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.
Von Braun, in SS uniform is partly obscured by Himmler in this rare photograph.
Strangely I’ve been coming across memories of Braun on a number of visits all over the world. His is a fascinating story of how, if you have the right skills, experience and political allies, you can get away with mass murder.
I first became 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 that Braun first developed the V-1 buzz-bombs that terrified Londoners and also the V-2 rockets that were so fast and so silent that Londoners didn’t have time to be terrified and were killed in their hundreds.
Today in reunified Germany those offices and workshops have been swept away along with, the authorities hope, all memories of Braun and his nazi plans for world domination by rocket.
On another later holiday I visited Cape Canaveral, now renamed Cape Kennedy, the US’s main rocket base on the east coast of Florida, where 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.
Braun’s V2 terror weapon — V for vergeltung, the German word for revenge — would become the basis for US space rockets, military intercontinental ballistic missiles and eventually the Apollo moon landing.
Today it’s hard to believe the US 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 a US magazine showed that the vast majority of US citizens believed that their country achieved all those notable space firsts.
The US, it seemed, would forgive Braun and his nazi rocket team anything if they could get the US back into the space race and develop more deadly weapons.
Last 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 1943 until just a year or two ago.
It was dug on the orders of Braun, by 500 Soviet slave prisoners working in horrific conditions, as an assembly factory and launching spot for V-1 and V-2 rockets.
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.
Unlike most of his nazi co-criminals who were hung at Nuremburg, Braun died in 1977 — a rich and famous man much admired in the US.
I think we should simply remember him as the Nazi war criminal who tried to rain death, destruction and mass murder on London, but never crushed our spirit.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 11 May 2015.