The Nazi scientist who made the V-2: Wernher von Braun

Von Braun with top Nazi officials in 1941

Von Braun was the father of the rocket technology under Nazi Germany. He surrendered to the Americans and flourished in the US later.

Wernher Magnus Maximilian Freiherr von Braun (March 23, 1912 – June 16, 1977) was a German American rocket physicist and astronautics engineer, becoming one of the leading figures in the development of rocket technology in Germany and the United States. Wernher von Braun is sometimes said to be the preeminent rocket engineer of the 20th century.

In his 20s and early 30s, von Braun was the central figure in Germany's pre-war rocket development program, responsible for the design and realization of the deadly V-2 combat rocket during World War II. After the war, he and some of his rocket team were taken to the United States as part of the then-secret Operation Paperclip. In 1955, ten years after entering the country, von Braun became a naturalized U.S. citizen.

Von Braun worked on the American intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) program before joining NASA, where he served as director of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center and the chief architect of the Saturn V launch vehicle, the superbooster that propelled the Apollo spacecraft to the Moon. In the words of NASA, he is "without doubt, the greatest rocket scientist in history. His crowning achievement ... was to lead the development of the Saturn V booster rocket that helped land the first men on the Moon in July 1969." He received the 1975 National Medal of Science.

Braun in Nazi Germany

Von Braun had been under SD surveillance since October 1943. A report stated that he and his colleagues Riedel and Gröttrup were said to have expressed regret at an engineer's house one evening that they were not working on a spaceship and that they felt the war was not going well; this was considered a "defeatist" attitude. A young female dentist who was an SS spy reported their comments. Combined with Himmler's false charges that von Braun was a communist sympathizer and had attempted to sabotage the V-2 program, and considering that von Braun was a qualified pilot who regularly piloted his government-provided airplane that might allow him to escape to England, this led to his arrest by the Gestapo.

Rockets developed in Nazi Germany. Braun was behind them.

The unsuspecting von Braun was detained on March 14 (or March 15), 1944 and was taken to a Gestapo cell in Stettin (now Szczecin, Poland), where he was imprisoned for two weeks without even knowing the charges against him. It was only through the Abwehr in Berlin that Dornberger was able to obtain von Braun's conditional release and Albert Speer, Reichsminister for Munitions and War Production, convinced Hitler to reinstate von Braun so that the V-2 program could continue. Citing from the "Führerprotokoll" (the minutes of Hitler's meetings) dated May 13, 1944 in his memoirs, Speer later relayed what Hitler had finally conceded: "In the matter concerning B. I will guarantee you that he will be exempt from persecution as long as he is indispensable for you, in spite of the difficult general consequences this will have."

Surrender to the Americans

The Soviet Army was about 160 km from Peenemünde in the spring of 1945 when von Braun assembled his planning staff and asked them to decide how and to whom they should surrender. Afraid of Soviet cruelty to prisoners of war, von Braun and his staff decided to try to surrender to the Americans. Kammler had ordered relocation of von Braun's team into central Germany; however, a conflicting order from an army chief ordered them to join the army and fight. Deciding that Kammler's order was their best bet to defect to the Americans, von Braun fabricated documents and transported 500 of his affiliates to the area around Mittelwerk, where they resumed their work. For fear of their documents being destroyed by the SS, von Braun ordered the blueprints to be hidden in an abandoned mine shaft in the Harz mountain range.

Von Braun after surrender to the Americans

While on an official trip in March, von Braun suffered a complicated fracture of his left arm and shoulder after his driver fell asleep at the wheel. His injuries were serious, but he insisted that his arm be set in a cast so he could leave the hospital. Due to this neglect of the injury he had to be hospitalized again a month later where his bones had to be re-broken and re-aligned.

In April, as the allied forces advanced deeper into Germany, Kammler ordered the science team to be moved by train into the town of Oberammergau in the Bavarian Alps where they were closely guarded by the SS with orders to execute the team if they were about to fall into enemy hands. However, von Braun managed to convince SS Major Kummer to order the dispersion of the group into nearby villages so that they would not be an easy target for U.S. bombers.

On May 2, 1945, upon finding an American private from the U.S. 44th Infantry Division, von Braun's brother and fellow rocket engineer, Magnus, approached the soldier on a bicycle, calling out in broken English: "My name is Magnus von Braun. My brother invented the V-2. We want to surrender." After the surrender, von Braun spoke to the press:
"We knew that we had created a new means of warfare, and the question as to what nation, to what victorious nation we were willing to entrust this brainchild of ours was a moral decision more than anything else. We wanted to see the world spared another conflict such as Germany had just been through, and we felt that only by surrendering such a weapon to people who are guided by the Bible could such an assurance to the world be best secured.”

The American high command was well aware of how important their catch was: von Braun had been at the top of the Black List, the code name for the list of German scientists and engineers targeted for immediate interrogation by U.S. military experts. On June 19, 1945, two days before the scheduled handover of the area to the Soviets, US Army Major Robert B. Staver, Chief of the Jet Propulsion Section of the Research and Intelligence Branch of the US Army Ordnance in London, and Lt Col R. L. Williams took von Braun and his department chiefs by jeep from Garmisch to Munich. The group was flown to Nordhausen, and was evacuated 40 miles (64 km) southwest to Witzenhausen, a small town in the American Zone, the next day. Von Braun was subsequently recruited to the U.S. under Operation Overcast.

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