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 enemy 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 murder and looting, num­bered between 95,000 and well past 130,000 and fea­ture as one of the most hor­ri­fic aspects of the Berlin battle. One Soviet war reporter recalled the Red Army as “an army of rapists,” whose moti­vation stemmed, in part, from hatred, revenge, and a time to settle scores. Ten per­cent of those raped com­mitted sui­cide. Young girls espe­cially suffered atro­cious injuries. (Victims were as young as 8-year-olds.) In the days when no anti­bio­tics or contra­cep­tives were avail­able, cases of vene­real dis­ease and preg­nan­cies spiked alarmingly. 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 his 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. About 60,000 pri­soners from 21 nations passed through Mittel­bau-Dora in an 18‑month period. An esti­mated 20,000 in­mates died in the camp: 9,000 from exhaus­tion and collapse, 350 by hanging (200 for sabo­tage), while the remainder succumbed to disease and star­va­tion. Von Braun visited the under­ground pro­duc­tion facilities in the last months of 1943, when pri­soners were engaged in building the tun­nels, then twice between January and May 1944. “An extraor­di­narily depressing impres­sion [swept over me],” von Braun told his German bio­grapher in the late 1960s, “each time that I went into the under­ground plant and had to see the pri­soners at work. It is repul­sive to be suddenly surrounded by pri­soners. The whole atmos­phere was unbear­able.” SS camp guards spared him an even more depressing sight seeing the above­ground Mittel­bau-Dora con­cen­tration camp, where death stalked von Braun’s V‑weapon workers.

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 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 bombs 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.)

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