Wernher von Braun was born into the Prussian
aristocracy on 23rd March, 1912, in Wirsitz, Germany. Son of Baron
Magnus von Braun, who was a politician and Agriculture Minister
in the German government. This privileged background gave the
young Wernher von Braun an extensive education, and it was his
Mother that activated his interest in Astronomy. At the age of
13 his parents bought him a telescope and his interest in the
stars was ignited, and it would be this interest that would lead
him wanting to reach for the stars.
In 1925 von Braun, at the young age of 13, discovered
in a amateur astronomy magazine an advert for Hermann Oberth's
book "Die Rakete zu den Planetenr¤umen" (The Rockets Into Interplanetary
Space). The young von Braun sent for the book, and it would be
this book that would shape his destiny. The book captivated his
imagination and at school he would write essays on space travel.
In one such essay he confidently stated that man would one day
walk on the moon.
After he left school von Braun joined an amateur
rocket group, the Verein fur Raumschiffarht (Rocket Society),
which was established in 1927. In the late 1920's and early 1930's,
rocketry had become very popular and rocket clubs sprang up all
over Germany. These amateur rocketeers were already looking toward
the future, the future being liquid fuelled rockets unlike the
solid fuel rockets of World War One. During World War One the
rocket was used as a weapon of war, but during the years after
the Great War rocketry became popular, and the general belief
was that a large enough rocket could venture into space. In 1929,
Oberth was asked to be the technical adviser on Fritz Lang's film
"The Woman In The Moon" (Frau im Mond).
The film included many visions of the future,
and foresaw many of the attributes that would be used in the future
American and Soviet space programs. A liquid fuelled rocket of
multi-stage design, the first launch countdown, and a rocket hanger
similar to NASA's VAB building at the Kennedy Space Center in
Florida, USA. The film also tackled such things as weightlessness.
Von Braun would later admit that Oberth was his
guiding light to his own visions of space travel. The problem
with these amateur rocket groups was finding the funding for these
experiments. There was one source that could help with funding
for their work, and that source was the German army. During this
period the German military had been searching for new weapons,
weapons which would not openly attract attention. Not only because
of The Treaty of Versailles, which was signed at the end of World
War One, which the Germans constantly violated, but for the quest
for new technology and more destructive weapons.
In the spring of 1932 von Braun met Artillery
Captain Walter Dornberger, the officer in charge of the German
army's rocket program, and Dornberger was looking at the military
possibilities that the new rockets held.
In the summer of 1932 a demonstration was organised
by the VfR to show the German army the group's latest liquid fuelled
rocket. The army was not impressed with the demonstration when
the rocket failed. But Dornberger was impressed with their work
and enthusiasm, and promised funding for further experiments if
the group agreed to work in complete secrecy, and for the German
army. The offer was rejected by all the members except one, Wernher
Wernher von Braun was hired and
in 1932 at the age of 20, von Braun worked for the German army
in the Rocket Artillery Unit. The unit was based at a top secret
base at Kummersdorf, about 60 miles south of Berlin. While the
German army sponsored him at University, von Braun built the army
weapons. Von Braun would work at every level of development for
the rocket, from design, building and testing. Three months after
von Braun joined Dornberger, Hitler and his Nazi party came to
power, and with the Nazis desire for rearmament funding would
no longer be a problem for von Braun.
The facilities at the Kummersdorf
base had become too small for the task, and von Braun wanted to
expand his rocket programme, including personnel and facilities.
So a new facility had to be built. Peenemunde, located on the
Baltic coast about 120 miles north of Berlin, was chosen for the
new site. The site was suggested by his mother, who remembered
the location from where von Braun's father travelled to duck hunt.
The location was perfect because of its remoteness, and so the
research centre at Peenemunde was built quickly and in secret.
These new facilities became the most advanced rocket research
development installation in the world, and at the age of only
25 von Braun became its technical director.
Peenemunde was large enough to launch
and monitor rockets over ranges up to about 200 miles, with optical
and electric observing instruments along the trajectory, with
no risk of harming people and property. By now Hitler had total
control over Germany and Hermann Goering ruled the Luftwaffe.
Dornberger held a public test of the A-2 which was a huge success.
Funding continued to flow to von Braun's research team, and von
Braun's dream was slowly becoming a reality as the team went to
work designing and experimenting on the ideas for a liquid fuelled
rocket. The German scientists went onto develop the A-3, and finally
this new technology led to the development of the A-4 missile.
In 1938 von Braun joined the Nazi party, and
18 months later received an officers commission in the SS. SS
Officer Major von Braun, its said, only wore his black SS uniform
once, and that was when Himmler, head of the SS, visited Peenemunde
for an inspection. The A4 missile was designed to carry a 1-ton
warhead over a distance of hundreds of miles, and this project
would need massive funding. It would need the full backing of
the Fuhrer himself.
In March 1939 Hitler met with Dornberger and
Von Braun at the old army rocket development centre to observe
an engine test. Whatever Hitler thought of the test he was not
impressed with the time-scale that Dornberger and Von Braun had
estimated for the A4's completion. They estimated that the A4
would be completed within 5-10 years, but Hitler was already preparing
for war and the invasion of Poland was only a matter of six months
On 3rd October, 1942, the A4 was ready for launch,
and at 4.00pm in the afternoon the rocket ripped into the sky.
It has been said that in a speech later that evening given by
Dornberger, he said : "Today was the birth of the Space craft".
In July 1943, Dornberger and von Braun showed
Hitler a film of an A4 launch in a private theatre inside Hitler's
headquarters. At the end of the film Dornberger and von Braun
placed a caption that read "Wir haben es doch geschafft!" (We
made it after all!). Hitler was pleased with the rocket and demanded
immediate mass production and wanted 200 missiles produced per
month for his war machine.
Hitler had many "Wonder-Weapon" (secret
weapons) projects under development, in the hope that
these "Wonder Weapons" could halt the advancing Allies and turn
the course of the war in the Nazis' favour. Enraged by extensive
Allied bombing of German cities during 1942 and 1943, Hitler sought
revenge in the shape of these terror weapons. He called them "Vergeltungswaffen"
- Vengeance Weapons. It was something that the Nazi propaganda
machine would use to its full advantage. One such project, the
Fi-103 cruise missile, became the V1 (Flying Bomb). Von Braun's
A4 missile became the V2 "Vengeance Weapon 2".
On August 17th 1943, acting on aerial photography,
600 British bombers attacked the secret rocket base at Peenemunde.
Their mission, code name 'Operation Hydra', was to destroy the
threat of Hitler's new vengeance weapons. After the raid the Nazis
moved the testing and production of these weapons out of the reach
of further Allied air attacks. The SS took total control of the
whole operation, especially the Mittelwerk factory that produced
the V2, and used labour from its network of slave
camps and concentration camps.
Fourteen months after Hitler ordered the rocket
into production, the first combat A-4, now called the V-2, was
launched toward western Europe and on 8th
September, 1944, the V2 stunned Londoners as the missile
landed in Chiswick, the London Borough of Hammersmith. The reign
of terror from this new secret weapon had began. When the first
V2 hit London von Braun remarked to his colleagues : "The rocket
worked perfectly except for landing on the wrong planet."
Von Braun was briefly arrested by
the SS and the Gestapo, charging von Braun for crimes against
the state. He was overheard at a party talking about his plans
for after the war, after Germany's defeat. The conversation was
a discussion in how the project could continue in working towards
von Braun's dream of space travel and building rockets, which
would go into Earth's orbit, and perhaps go to the Moon.
His crime was seen as treasonous,
indulging in frivolous dreams when his duty was to supply rockets
for the Nazi war machine. Captain Dornberger convinced the SS
and the Gestapo of von Braun's importance to the rocket programme,
and how the Fuhrer might react to their actions. Von Braun was
released. After his arrest and release, Hitler awarded von Braun
with Germany's highest civilian decoration, for his services to
On arriving back at Peenemunde von
Braun immediately planned for the future, and for the time when
Germany would be finally defeated. In January 1945, the Russian
guns could be heard from Peenemunde, and rather than break up
his team or disperse individually, and even a worse fate of falling
into the hands of the advancing Russian army, von Braun gathered
his team together and evacuated Peenemunde. After stealing a train
with forged papers, von Braun led 500 people related to the rocket
programme south towards the Bavarian Alps.
The German rocket scientists, with
good reason, were frightened of falling into the hands of the
Russians. It was felt that the French and the British did not
have enough money and resources for a rocket programme. Which
only left the Americans.
The Russians, Americans and the
British knew of the V2 rockets, and how important it was to obtain
the German scientists, and as much of the new technology as possible.
The Nazis also realised that this technology was important and
considered it dangerous if it fell into the hand of the Allies.
The SS were issued orders to kill the German scientists and engineers.
The race was on.
The Americans beat the Russians to Peenemunde
and to the Mittelwerk underground factory, both locations later
fell in the Russian zone after the war. The Americans seized parts
and complete V2's, including documentation regarding the project.
Everything was shipped back to the United States, and before the
Russians occupied the zone the Americans destroyed both locations
The day after the announcement of Hitler's death
Dornberger, von Braun and his brother Magnus surrendered to the
US army. Von Braun had broken his arm in a car crash, but he had
achieved his goal in reaching the relative safety of the US army.
The US army then transferred all the German rocket scientists
to Fort Bliss in Texas, USA. They intended to learn all they could
about this new technology from the Germans.
Those voices that were critical about bringing
the German scientists to the United States, at the end of the
war, were silenced in 1949 when the Soviet Union successfully
tested their first Atomic bomb, and fear gripped the US. New frontiers
had been drawn since the end of the war and Americans faced a
new enemy, communism.
The Germans would teach the Americans all about
the V2 rocket, and in the years following the war would launch
over 70 V2's at the White Sands Proving Grounds in New Mexico.
These tests would be a prelude to a new range of missiles that
would be designed and built for a new enemy, in the new war, The
Von Braun's dream of exploring outer space would
be put on hold again because of war. For the time being he would
be a "Cold War Warrior", and again funding would come from a military
Later von Braun's dream would be realised as
The Space Race would be played out as a propaganda war within
the Cold War. Von Braun and his team of German scientists would
spearhead America's reach for the moon, and a life long dream
would became a reality.
These pages at present act as background information
regarding the project 'A Promise Of Peace', based on World War
II. Further information on Dr. Wernher von Braun, and events up
to his death in 1977, will be published soon. These pages will
be part of the background information regarding the new project
based on 'The Space Race'. Bookmark this page to continue the
story of the life Dr. Wernher von Braun.