The main German V2 rocket production and assembly facility was at Peenemünde on the north east coast where, since July 1943 the main workforce consisted of concentration camp inmates, a ratio of up to 15 detainees to 1 lowly paid German worker. In order to maintain this workforce the SS set up a small concentration camp within the Peenemünde site.
Following a devastating air attack by the Royal Air Force on Peenemünde on 17th August 1943, it soon became clear to the German High Command that missile assembly would need to be moved to protected underground sites.
One of the sites chosen was the former Wifo gypsum mine in the Kohnstein Hill on the southern border of the Harz mountains close to Nordhausen.
The mine had opened in 1917 and having been abandoned it was commandeered by the Wehrmacht in 1936 for the storage of fuel and poison gas; by mid 1943, the complex was the largest fuel and oil depot in Germany
The site was to be known as Mittelwerk (Middle Works). A private company was established on 24th September 1943 under the control of SS Brigadier General Hans Kammler who had been responsible for building a number of extermination camps including Auschwitz-Birkenau.
A sub-camp of Buchenwald was established within the Wifo mine in August 1943 in order to provide the workforce for the construction of the new underground facility, this later developed into the Dora (or Mittelbau) concentration camp which was eventually sited in more traditional barrack accommodation close to the south entrance; but this wasn’t completed until October 1944. Construction at the Mittelwerk site started in October 1943 with the driving of two parallel ’S’ shaped tunnels right through Kohnstein Hill from north to south
The regime within the tunnels was very harsh with the prisoners working under inhuman conditions to enlarge the mine galleries. Many prisoners were killed by frequent rock falls when the overloaded trucks came off the narrow gauge rail tracks and they were regularly kicked and beaten as they reloaded the wagons.
The prisoners were forced to eat and sleep in the tunnels, crammed into stinking, lice infested bunks stacked four-high in the cross tunnels. There was no running water or sanitary facilities, disease was rife and death was often a relief. Many of the inmates were working on top of 30 foot scaffolding using picks to enlarge the tunnels. As they became too weak to continue they would fall to their death from the scaffolding only to be replaced by another prisoner. Trucks bearing piles of corpses left every other day for the crematorium ovens at Buchenwald. As the facility neared completion all the manufacturing plant was brought from Peenemünde and reassembled by hand by the prisoners at Mittelwerk.
In October 1943 about 7000 prisoners were housed at Dora to work in the tunnels by January 1944 this has risen to 12,000 and by February 1945 the number had risen again to 19,000. Precise figures are vague but it is believed that between 40,000 - 64,000 worked on the construction of the facility at Nordhausen of which 26,500 died, many of them during the evacuation during the American advance when there was a mass slaughter of inmates by the SS.
The Mittelwerk facility consisted of the two main parallel tunnels, A and B, each approximately 6,200 ft. in length The tunnels ran in a shallow ’S’ shaped curve and were connected by a series of 46 cross galleries, each about 500 feet long spaced at regular intervals. The two parallel tunnels were between 21 to 23 ft high and 29 to 36 ft wide. The cross tunnels were smaller in cross section with a total area for the complex of over 1 million square feet. A smaller service tunnel ran through much of the middle of the site between A & B tunnels.
The southern section of Tunnel A and the first three cross galleries were used for V1 production. The middle section of the complex (gallery 21 - 42) was used for V2 assembly while the northern end (gallery 20 - 1) was used for Junkers aircraft engine production. Each of the main tunnels had two standard gauge railway lines running through it.
In general, Tunnel A was used to transport parts and materials for the V2 into the factory and for storage while the galleries were used for assembling, testing, and stocking subassemblies for the rockets. Tunnel B served as the main assembly line and was the main route out of the factory for completed V2 rockets. The two railway tracks in Tunnel B formed part of the assembly process. V2’s to be assembled would be placed on pairs of 4-wheel rail bogies connected by a beam and moved from north to south.
At each stage of the line, additional parts were added to the assemblies, until the completed rockets arrived at gallery 41 at the south end. This cross tunnel, which had been excavated well below the regular floor level of the main tunnels, was over 50 ft. high and contained a huge spanning crane, enabling the rockets to be erected vertically. One whole side of gallery 41 contained a series of multilevel vertical inspection scaffolds for the rockets.
Labour on the Mittelwerk assembly lines included both detainees, German workers and supervisors, in the ratio of about two prisoners to one worker. The Engineers who ran the various workshops and production crews were Germans and Wehrmacht soldiers who were wounded or sick would also be sent to Mittelwerk for duty as parts or process inspectors.
The V2 production lines were running at their intended levels by June 1944; there were roughly 2,500 German workers and 5,000 prisoners employed in the tunnels with 4,575 V2 rockets completed between August, 1944 and March 1945.
On April 11, 1945, the spearhead of the advancing American troops of the 3rd Armored Division entered Nordhausen where they were to link up with the 104th Infantry Division before continuing its drive to the east.
The liberating troops had been told to “expect something a little unusual” in the Nordhausen area but they weren’t prepared for the horrific sight as they entered Dora camp where they found 1,300 to 2,500 corpses along with a few survivors. They soon discovered the entrances to the Mittelwerk tunnels where they found rows of V2 parts and subassemblies stretched out through the tunnels. Work had stopped at Mittelwerk on April 10, 1945, but the assembly line was left with its electric power and ventilation systems still running, as if the former occupants had gone out for lunch, and would return after a while.
100 V2’s were eventually shipped back to New Mexico for further study much to the annoyance of the British government who had been promised half of the captured V2’s by prior agreement. By offering immunity, the Americans were able to entice some 1,000 German V2 personnel and their families to come to America to work on the US rocket programme, this included the head of operations Werner von Braun who was later to head the US ICBM & Saturn V programmes, eventually becoming Director of NASA. The personnel were evacuated from the area 24 hours before the Russians arrived to occupy the Nordhausen region which had been scheduled for 21st June 1945. The first reassembled V2 was successfully launched on June 28, 1946.
After its liberation the site remained derelict and unused although on the first anniversary of the liberation (1.4.1946) a commemorative celebration took place at a monument erected by the Soviets at the crematorium. Having plundered any remaining plant and V2 component parts the Russians attempted to blow up the interior of the tunnels but finding this impossible they sealed the complex by blowing up the four entrances in 1948. In 1954 the crematorium was designated a ‘site of honour’ at a ceremony attended by thousands of people.
It was not until 1966 that the memorial officially, now designated the ‘Gedenkstätte Mittelbau-Dora’ was established; by this time the crematorium and fire station were the only buildings still standing on the site.
The memorial was expanded in the 1970’s with the construction of an administration building on the foundations of the former Political Department barrack with a typical East German exhibition overemphasising the antifascist resistance struggle of the political inmates while more or less ignoring the hardships suffered by the other inmate groups. The exhibition was not accessible to anyone from the west.
After reunification in 1989 the essential elements of the East German memorial were preserved although the permanent exhibition in the crematorium was replaced in 1995 on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of the Dora Concentration Camp by a new permanent exhibition in a reconstructed accommodation barrack. This event was accompanied by the opening of a section of the tunnel system up to the first crosscut gallery (No. 46) to visitors after a new entrance tunnel had been dug to former rail Tunnel A from a point near the original southern entrance to Tunnel B.
A safe raised walkway was constructed along Tunnel A to Gallery 45 with many of the minor rocket parts still clearly visible littering the floor below including propellant tanks, nose cones, and gyroscopes which are all still recognisable. A V2 engine assembly can also be seen in Tunnel A.
At present, there is a small Mittelwerk display in the southern part of Tunnel A that served first as the prisoner barracks and then for the manufacture of the V1. Much of the remainder of the tunnel complex is still intact but is now partially flooded and dangerous to enter due to ongoing surface gypsum extraction.
The complex became a National Historic Site in May of 1991 and has since been protected from further damage. There are plans to extend the existing Mittelbau Dora memorial site and to build a new documentation center near the former concentration camp.
- Tracy Dungan V2Rocket.com