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, whose Eighth Guards Army was part of Marshal Georgy Zhukov’s First Belo­russian Front. The Soviets claimed to have killed at least 100,000 enemy soldiers, 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, robbery, 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, a time to settle scores, and a pen­chant for plun­dering. Some of the worst rapists and looters were second-wave Soviet sol­diers, often freshly released from German POW camps. Ten per­cent of those raped com­mitted sui­cide. Young girls espe­cially suffered atro­cious injuries. (Victims were as young as 8-year-olds but included pregnant women and women in their 60s.) Fathers killed their daughters and their wives rather than sub­ject them to despo­li­a­tion by Soviet soldiers. Some women in families suffered repeated rapes at Soviet hands. In the days when no anti­bio­tics or contra­cep­tives were avail­able, cases of vene­real dis­ease and preg­nan­cies spiked alarmingly. Abor­tions, normally illegal in Germany, were per­formed for months after the war, though their number is unknown. 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, near Stettin, on the Ger­man Baltic coast. At Mittel­werk thou­sands of pri­soners were put to work building death-dealing 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, the birthplace of U.S. rocket technology and space science.

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

Wernher von Braun and captured German rocket scientistsEntrance 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, just over the Bavarian border in Reutte, Austria. 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. (It was largely because of Albert Speer’s role as Nazi Minis­ter of Arma­ments and War Pro­duc­tion in supplying slave labor to V‑1 and V‑2 pro­duc­tion facil­i­ties that he received a 20-year sen­tence at the post­war Nurem­berg Trials.) Wernher 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 above-­ground Mittel­bau-Dora con­cen­tration camp, where death stalked von Braun’s V weapon workers.

V-2 on assembly lineNordhausen camp corpses

Left: A GI (right frame of photo) inspects a V-2 bal­listic missile at the under­ground Mittel­werk facil­ity. The 46 ft tall V‑2 bal­listic missile, which carried a one-ton war­head, was Nazi Germany’s secret wea­pon developed under the direc­tion of Wernher von Braun by German scien­tists in an attempt to reverse the course of the war. About the time the Germans kicked off their V‑2 rain of terror wea­pons, they unleashed a pro­pa­ganda leaf­let cam­paign over England. “It’s time for the British people to listen to the words of reason of the Fuehrer,” the flyer read. “Give up this war. It is one you cannot hope to win.” British counter­mea­sures con­sisted mainly of bombing V‑2 launching sites and supply depots. Roughly 250 V‑2s were found on the Mittel­werk assembly line in mid-1945 in various stages of completion when it was overrun.

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. Skip first 45 seconds. (WARNING: Some scenes are disturbing.)