SHAEF HQ, Versailles, France · May 2, 1945

On this date in 1945, a rain-sodden but peace­ful day in Berlin, the battle for the war-ravaged Reich capital ended when Gen­eral of the Artil­lery Helmuth Weid­ling sur­ren­dered his garri­son to Soviet Lt. Gen. Vasily Chuikov. The Soviets claimed to have taken 480,000 POWs, cap­tured 1,500 tanks and self-propelled guns, 4,500 air­craft, and 11,000 guns and mor­tars during the half-month offen­sive, the fourth largest of the war. An estimated 100,000 civil­ians perished in the Battle of Ber­lin; nearly 4,000 were regis­tered sui­cides (April’s num­bers), with count­less more going unregis­tered. Rape vic­tims, the flip­side of the Soviet orgy of looting, num­bered between 95,000 and well past 130,000 and fea­ture as one of the most hor­ri­fic as­pects of the Ber­lin battle. Ten per­cent of the rape vic­tims com­mitted sui­cide. One Soviet war reporter recalled the Red Army as “an army of rapists.” An esti­mated five per­cent of the child­ren born in Ber­lin in 1946 were so-called Russen­kinder. South­west of Ber­lin, in south­ern Bavaria, while peddling his bicycle with a white hand­ker­chief tied to the handle­bars, Magnus von Braun, Wern­her von Braun’s brother, encoun­tered a shocked Amer­i­can private in the U.S. Seventh Army. Wern­her von Braun and his team of V‑2 Peene­muende rocket engi­neers had just learned of Hitler’s death and sent the Eng­lish-speaking younger von Braun to scout for some­one to surren­der to. With­in days roughly 50 mem­bers of von Braun’s team were in U.S. custody. Three weeks earlier Amer­i­can troops had over­run the under­ground V‑2 pro­duc­tion facili­ties and the adja­cent but nearly empty Mittel­bau-Dora forced labor camp. Mittel­werk, as these pro­duc­tion facili­ties were called, had been set up in cen­tral (now east­ern) Ger­many for V‑2 pro­duc­tion after the August 1943 bombing of the V‑2 Army Research Cen­ter at Peene­muende on the Ger­man Baltic coast. At Mittel­werk pri­soners were put to work building V‑2 rockets under the direc­tion of von Braun senior. GIs secured nearly 350 rail­way cars to cart away as many V‑2 rockets, parts, machine tools, and engi­neering drawings as pos­si­ble before the area passed into Soviet hands under the agree­ment estab­lishing Allied zones of occu­pa­tion. Under tight secu­rity, the rockets—and von Braun and his rock­eteers—even­tually wound up, via Ant­werp, Bel­gium, and New Orleans, at the White Sands Proving Ground in the New Mexico desert.

Wernher von Braun, Mittelwerk V‑2 Production Plant, and Slave Labor

Captured German rocket scientists Entrance to Mittelwerk V-1/V-2 Production Plant

Left: German rocketeers shortly after being taken pri­soner by units of the 44th In­fantry Divi­sion, U.S. Seventh Army, May 3, 1945. Wern­her von Braun, age 33, stands in the cen­ter of the photo, suffering from an arm broken in a car acci­dent. His brother, Magnus von Braun, is seen at left edge of photo. Oper­a­tion Paper­clip, a decades-long co­vert pro­ject, brought many of von Braun’s team mem­bers (and their fami­lies) to the United States, where the scien­tists worked under con­tract with the U.S. Army Ord­nance Corps.

Right: The Mittelwerk V‑1 and V‑2 factories occupied large tun­nels under­neath Kohn­stein Moun­tain sev­eral miles north­west of the town of Nord­hausen in what is now east­ern Ger­many. The fac­tories used slave labor from the Mittel­bau-Dora con­cen­tra­tion camp, a sub­camp of Buchen­wald. Von Braun visited the under­ground pro­duc­tion facili­ties twice between Janu­ary and May 1944.

V-2 on assembly line Nordhausen camp corpses

Left: A GI inspects a V‑2 bal­listic missile at the under­ground Mittel­werk facil­ity. About 250 V‑2 missiles were found in various stages of com­pletion on the Mittel­werk assembly line.

Right: Rows of dead inmates fill the yard of the Boelcke Bar­racks at Nord­hausen Camp, April 12, 1945, one day after the camp’s lib­er­ation. (Nord­hausen and Dora were sep­a­rate camps with­in the same 40‑plus Konzen­tra­tions­lager Mittel­bau com­plex.) Used as an over­flow camp for sick and dying in­mates from January 1945, Nord­hausen saw its num­bers rise from a few hun­dred to over 6,000, when up to 100 in­mates died every day. Around 1,300 in­mates died on the night of April 2, 1945, when Brit­ish bombing raids destroyed sub­stan­tial parts of the bar­racks during raids that destroyed three-quarters of the town of Nord­hausen.

Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp and Underground Mittel­werk V‑2 Production Plant. Start 45 Seconds into Video. (WARNING: Some scenes are disturbing.)