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The author will appreciate receiving eyewitness accounts, recollections and documents related to the involvement of German citizens in the Soviet rocket program, as well as comments on already published material. Please contact Anatoly Zak.

In the meantime:

(Historical context for the events described in this section)

1949 January 5-10: A session of the USSR Academy of Sciences in Leningrad calls for a struggle against "kowtowing to the West" and for affirmation of the primacy of Russian Science.

1953 March 5: Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin died, ending the most tragic chapter in the Russian history.

1953 July 9: Lavrenty Beriya, Stalin's top henchman, who supervised the Soviet nuclear program, is arrested and executed.

1953 August 20: Soviet government announces its first hydrogen bomb test. (124)








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History of the Gorodomlya Island

By mid-1948, most German rocket specialists, who worked for NII-88 in Podlipki, ended up in the confines of the Gorodomlya Island on the Seliger Lake, some 200 miles northwest of Moscow in the region known as Upper Volga. There, surrounded by countless swamps and evergreen taiga lay magnificent Seliger Lake. Its non-Russian name apparently was a given to it by Finno-Ugric or Baltic tribesmen, which preceded the coming of Slavs into this region in the first millennium AD.

In the 13th century, the Seliger region became the last frontier for the herds of Mongols, spearheading across Russia in their quest for riches of Novgorod, a sprawling capital of a medieval feudal republic. For the reasons, still hypothesized by historians, somewhere near the shores of Seliger, the Asian invaders mysteriously turned back, only 150 miles from reaching their El Dorado. According to local historians, ancient Russian chronicles mention Ignat Krest, also known as Seliger Krest as the point of farthest advance of the Mongol army to the north.

Gorodomlya apparently saw its early visitors in the 16th century, when Russian orthodox monks established a monastery on a small island near the northern shore of the Seliger Lake, known today as Nilova Pustyn.

In 1629, Boris Lykov, a rich landowner, donated Gorodomlya to the monastery. However for another three centuries Gorodomlya remained virtually uninhabited. According to Aleksei Vasiliev, the keeper of the local museum in Ostashkov, mid-19th century maps show a lone house of a forester on the island.

However, at the turn of the 20th century, ascetic monks from Nilova Pustyn, who found life at the sprawling monastery too "worldly," migrated to Gorodomlya. They erected small log huts and a wooden church, perhaps, first man-made structures of the island.

Gorodomlya’s modern history has started in 1928, when the Soviet government established a bilogical research site, reportedly to study foot-and-mouth disease. It was preceded by a ruthless eviction of monks from the island. According to a local legend, one of the defiant monks drowned himself in the internal lake on Gorodomlya and since then his ghost wandered around the island. From fragmentary information available today, it seems that the newly established organization worked on the development and field testing of a vaccine fighting the foot-and-mouse disease, as well as on military applications of this and other deadly viruses.

Reportedly, by 1932, the vaccine against the foot-and-mouse disease was developed. At the time, according to local sources, the research at Gorodomlya had such a high profile, that the institute hosted an international conference on the problem of the foot-and-mouse disease. German and French scientists reportedly attended the event.

According to another source, since around 1935, the Gorodomlya Island became a test site for pathogens that cause foot-and-mouth disease, leprosy, plague, and tularemia. (195)

World War II brought front lines close to Lake Seliger, and the institute was evacuated in the face of the German advance. German troops, however, never captured Gorodomlya. By 1944, as front lines moved westward, the island itself, as well as the town of Ostashkov on Seliger's southern shore became home for numerous Soviet military hospitals. Around that time, Gorodomlya was connected with the outside world by an underwater telephone cable. With it, this remote island was about to enter the Rocket Age.

German colony on Gorodomlya Island

On Aug. 31, 1946, the Minister of Armaments of USSR issued a secret order No. 258, which created a "Branch No. 1" of the NII-88 rocket development institute based in Podlipki. The purpose of the Branch No. 1 was to employ German rocket engineers, while keeping them isolated from overall rocket-development activities of NII-88 in Podlipki.

First 73 German specialists with their families who landed on Gorodomlya at the end of 1946, were settled in six wooden two-floor apartment buildings. Gröttrup family was provided with a four-room house. Initial conditions on the island were harsh -- no running water and no sewer, food supplies were also limited. However eventually pumping station started working and supply line improved. Yet, tap water remained poorly filtered for several years and shortage of food and basic supplies such as toilet paper plagued the island for the rest of the Soviet period. During their stay on the island, Germans started flower and vegetable gardens and laid out first European-style loans. In August 1948, German team inaugurated a tennis court, which would remain operational for decades. As early as the end of October, skaters tested ice on the internal lake of Gorodomlya. Skiing on the dangerous slopes of the island was also very popular among both Germans and the Russians.

Upon her arrival to the island in the summer of 1948, Irmgard Gröttrup found life at the island somewhat settled:

The camp looks like an outsize toy village transplanted from Germany -- a German village set in Russian forests. There are flowers in the touchingly well-tended gardens and on the balconies, the windows are curtained and the washing on the lines is spotless. The girls do their shopping in dirndls. Even the Stalovaya is like any other German Works canteen, except that we have solianka (sauerkraut and fish) and borscht instead of rissoles and potato salad. At first sight, only a few banners, a solitary bust of Stalin and the Russian inscription, "Salute to Our Victorious Nation" on the gable of the club, remind you that you are in fact in Russia. (64)

Yet, despite a superficial appearance of happy life for a newcomer, the life of individual German families varied considerably:

Apart from anything else, there is the eternal difference in salaries: quite a few have financial worries. They can't afford to pay the prices charged on the market, and all the island store can offer at present is bread, stale biscuits and now and again some butter. As to accommodation, the less said about it the better. Families of three share one room and two families share a two-room flat. At this rate about six people share one kitchen. Therefore, it's not surprising that feelings run high and the billets are hotbeds of intrigue and jealousy. Added to this, there is the constricted space, the constant running about in circles round the twelve houses, the Institute, and the Club. The snow in the woods is so deep that you can only ski in it. I am in a permanent state of claustrophobic anxiety. (64)

The island was surrounded by a barbwire fence along its entire perimeter and armed guards were posted for 24 hours at two piers on the northern and southern edges of the island. Groups of German housewives were usually allowed biweekly trips with the escort to Ostashkov on the southern shore of the Seliger Lake to make purchases at local shops and at the produce market. According to Russian residents of the area, on the days when Germans were expected, prices at the market would go up. In the spring, however, as ice would start thawing on the lake, the island would be cut off from the rest of the world for days or even weeks.

Organization of work on Gorodomlya

The German group at Gorodomlya was designated as Branch 1 of NII-88.

Petr Maloletov became director of Branch 1 at Gorodomlya, replacing V. D. Kurganov. Sukhomlinov served as the administrator of the island.

Branch 1 was organized as an independent design center with departments covering practically every aspect of rocket development:

  • Flight control systems department led by Johannes Hoch had a staff of 27 people, including a laboratory of steering mechanisms led by Kurt Blazig;
  • Alois Yasper was in charge of production;
  • Joachim Umpfenbach led the development of propulsion systems;
  • Heinz Jaffke - was in charge of construction and launch facilities;
  • General design team was subdivided into ballistic and antiaircraft missile systems groups, which were led by Emile Mende and Dr. Walter Quessel respectively;

German team was provided with a number of sophisticated development and testing facilities, including electronics lab and a wind tunnel. Just north of the main complex of the institute was located "Object 1" (Facility 1) featuring a propulsion test stand and a storage of liquid oxygen.

However the group had very limited contact with the Soviet rocket industry and was unable to establish effective network of subcontractors outside the island.

The German collective required half a million rubles for the salaries only, which makes average salary of the German specialist around 2,900 rubles.

End of the G-1

Right after Christmas of 1948, Gröttrup and his closest associates including Umpfenbach, Albring, Blass, Wolff and Hoch returned to Podlipki for the second and last scientific review, NTS, of the G-1 rocket, which was held on December 28, 1948.

Korolev's deputy Konstantin Bushuev somewhat reluctantly stated that the G-1 was not as innovative as it was portrayed, however he refrained from active criticism. Yuri Pobedonostsev, a leading engineer at NII-88 said that Germans deserved "praise and honor" for bringing in not only very detailed and well implemented project, but also managing to manufacture real elements of the rocket's subsystems on the extremely limited manufacturing base. As a year before, overall Russian feedback was positive, but no real go ahead for the project followed.

To his disappointment, Gröttrup confirmed previous reports that Korolev's team did receive official green light for the development of the successor to the A-4, designated the R-2. The project incorporated a detachable warhead, which was earlier proposed for the G-1. In other respects, the R-2 remained much more conservative then G-1 in its use of innovations.

During the NTS meeting, Gröttrup drew the "line in the sand," saying that unless full-scale development and testing of the vehicle can be initiated, any further work on the G-1 would be pointless...

G-4 (R-14)

On April 9, 1949, Dmitry Ustinov, the head of the Ministry of Armaments in charge the rocket industry, made it to Gorodomlya Island, after being stuck in Ostashkov for few days by thawing ice on the Lake Seliger. Realizing the seriousness of the visit, Gröttrup and his associates rushed home to put on the official attire. During a long meeting with the team, which lasted until late night, Ustinov outlined a new assignment for the German team -- a rocket with the range of 3,000 kilometers and three tons of payload.

Germans didn't know,that it was the same requirement formulated by Korolev's team for the R-3 project. To approach the problem, the German team considered as many as 10 different configurations of single and multistage rockets; however, very early on Gröttrup and his associates favored a concept of a one-stage rocket with the body in a shape of a slim cone. In her diary entry dated April 18, 1949, or less then ten days after Ustinov's visit, Irmgard Gröttrup mentioned her husband discussing "load-carrying cones."

In the following days, Helmut Gröttrup described to his wife the philosophy behind the new concept:

"I think if we abandon the old conservative form of the V-2, it may be quite possible to reach a range of nearly two thousand miles. Albring and Wolff are trying to work out what the chances are at this very moment... It's the idea of breaking with the old tradition, even with conventional exterior design. Tradition won't get us anywhere here. I want to get away from the classical shape of the rocket -- I'm just beginning to work out the details. Apart from that we are also working on other suggestions, though I consider the conical shape of the rocket the best, and, fundamentally, the only possible solution."

"Does this mean that it's going to be absolutely different from your work at Peenemunde?" - his wife asked.

"Yes, it does. The circumstances are so different here it's unavoidable. You know that in Germany I'd already got together an entirely new group of scientists who had never been to Peenemunde? What an advantage that now turns out to be!"

"But," his wife interjected, "You used to say that it was easy for Braun whose assistants were used to working on rockets." "It won't be easy for Wernher von Braun to explore new avenues. We are unencumbered, and men like Wolff, Albring, Magnus and Umpfenbach are irreplaceable. I am sure we'll succeed with this new venture."

"What if the Russians don't approve of this daring project?" his wife asked.

"Don't underestimate the Russians," he said, "Their ballistics is based on a long-standing tradition, and they know a great deal about it. The Russians are sure to agree to the new project..." (64)

The first half of 1949 was perhaps the most hectic, as well as most productive time for the German team on Gorodomlya. Gröttrup and his closest associates worked long hours to formulate the project, which became known as G-4 or R-14.

The G-4 tech description

R-14 would have two separate turbo-pumps for fuel and oxidizer. The engine could be gimbaled up to four degrees from the longitudinal axis of the vehicle.

Engine trust 100 tons
Engine combustion chamber pressure 60 atmosphere
Mass fueled 70.85 - 73 tons

Dry mass

  • including detachable warhead

7 tons

  • 3 tons

At the beginning of July 1949, Germans provided initial results of their research to NII-88's technical commission, which visited the island. The Soviets took all the preliminary drawings generated by the team. Gröttrup optimistically believed that he would be soon invited back to Podlipki for further consultations. Initially, Germans did receive requests to produce more details on the R-14 and one more Soviet commission visited Gorodomlya in August 1949.

In October 1949, Ustinov returned to the island, apparently in the company of Pobedonostsev and Korolev. Presence of Korolev, who would normally avoid direct contact with the German team, hints about the importance of the G-4 project for the ongoing work at NII-88. After reviewing the project with the Germans, the Soviet team returned to Podlipki with all the results of the research on the G-4.

In April 1950, there were more visitors from NII-88 with inquiries about the G-4, however against all his hopes, Gröttrup was not invited to any meetings in Podliki. Yet, his Soviet colleagues hinted that the project once again received positive reviews. It was another deja vu for the Germans, as they were not offered any responsible positions in the implementation of the project. Inquires for various updates and studies of details related to the G-4 continued coming in from the "mainland" during 1950, however Germans started quickly loosing interest in the rocket they surely would not be allowed to build or see flying.

Yet, reluctantly they continued work on the project during 1950, once again submitting all the results to the officials from "mainland."

From bits and pieces of information, Gröttrup knew that the R-14 was still generating interest at NII-88 as late as 1951, however he was told nothing about any progress on the project. Talking between themselves, German engineers contemplated that an addition of a second stage could potentially enable the R-14 to launch a small Earth satellite.

Beginning of the end

As it became known decades later, in April 1950, Ustinov made a decision to phase out the advanced missile development work on Gorodomlya. (178) and on August 13, 1950, the Soviet of Ministers issued Decree No. 3456 on the further employment of German engineers, which apparently established conditions for repatriation of German specialists. (113)

Around this time, the Island of Gorodomlya saw a great deal of construction. Newly erected apartment buildings accommodate young Russian engineers who were arriving to Branch 1 of NII-88 to take positions alongside Germans. Understanding the meaning of the trend, Gröttrup called himself a "walking dictionary." Despite this humiliating reality for the German specialists, they and Russians developed good relations at work and at home. In her diaries, Irmgard Gröttrup described sharing sandy beaches of Gorodomlya with the wives of Russian specialists.

In addition to gloom prospects at the institute, Germans of Gorodomlya saw food shortages reoccur in the second half of 1950:

"Bread is so short, we're lucky if we get one loaf a week," Irmgard wrote, "even the children now beg for a slice instead of tiresomely kneading it into pellets as they used to. There is a rush on the shops as soon as any bread arrives. One soon forgets such civilized notions as the idea that it is humiliating to fight for bread. A friend says (and I agree with her): "Living here, you have to rid yourself of all sorts of cultural paraphernalia -- morals and the rest -- they're so much unwanted luggage." At the store this morning, we Germans were ruthlessly squashed against the wall by Russian workmen and had to look on while a German woman fainted and was taken to the clinic. (64)

Long demise of the German collective

By the end of the 1950, with much of the work on the G-4 winding down, many Germans on Gorodomlya felt disheartened and hopeless. Pondering for ways out of their stalemate, Gröttrup and his associates discussed diplomatic means of refusing further work on missiles. Soon Soviet officials themselves presented Germans with an excuse.

In 1950, the NII-88 institute in Podlipki initiated a research into new types of propellants which could be stored onboard rockets for prolonged periods of time. The study, designated N2, was the result of the pressure from the Soviet military to find a replacement for liquid oxygen, which quickly evaporated from rockets' propellant tanks, greatly reducing operational readiness of the weapon. On December 4, 1950, the Soviet government officially launched the N2 study at NII-88 research institute in Podlipki. Few days later, Ustinov's deputy (probably Vasily Ryabikov) appeared on Gorodomlya to give Branch 1 the same task assigned to Podlipki -- the development of a short-range rocket, which would use nitric acid as the oxidizer instead of liquid oxygen.

Citing health hazards associated with the test firing of engines burning toxic nitric acid, Gröttrup refused to lead the project. Although majority of Germans supported Gröttrup, one of his associates, whom Irmgard Gröttrup described as "crypto-communist," agreed to take charge of the work on island. It is now known that Dr. Johannes Hoch was the person, who agreed to replace Gröttrup as the head of the German team.

"After that, everything went off like a well-rehearsed play," Mrs. Gröttrup wrote, "a big conference, long speeches and finally Helmut was asked again whether he would be willing to solve the new problem. Helmut defined his position in a long speech, whereupon the Deputy Minister said: 'Since you are more interested in matters affecting the community than in large-scale problems, I shall put your services at the disposal of the Commandant for other work." (64)

Dr. Johannes Hoch was formally appointed as the new chief structural engineer on Gorodomlya. However, only four days later, understanding unhealthy moral climate in the team, the authorities transferred Dr. Hoch and five of his "followers" to Moscow. There, they joined the team led by Sergei Beriya, the son of Stalin’s dreaded secret police chief. The group was developing the anti-aircraft missiles.

Confirming Mrs. Gröttrup's assertions about Dr. Hoch political views, Boris Chertok said that while in Moscow, Dr. Hoch applied for the Soviet citizenship and even wrote a letter asking to join the Communist Party. “He also was an extraordinary talented engineer, and if not his early death, he could’ve been one of our chief-designers,” Chertok said.

1951-1952: Hope for return

The loss of his lifetime passion for rocketry did not come easy for Helmut Gröttrup. Sickness and drinking came as an immediate consequence. Yet, many of his German and Russian colleagues came to support his position. "The friendliness of the Russian colleagues is amazing," Irmgard Gröttrup wrote, "it's pleasant to receive an appreciative handshake by a party member. They still have some respect for integrity."

As no repressive actions against Gröttrup followed, he soon resumed his work at the ballistics department. After departure of Dr. Hoch, the Soviet administration never bothered to formally appoint a new chief of the German team. In March 1951, as more Russian specialists were arriving to the island, the authorities broke the news to the Germans, that 20 Germans will be leaving for their homeland on June 3, 1951. The departing group was comprised out of the least qualified technicians.

As it became known decades later, in September 1951 the Soviet government made a final decision to repatriate German specialists. (178) The same month, Gröttrup's family was asked to leave their one-family house and move into the apartment; his salary was also reduced. As 1951 drew to a close, Gröttrup fell seriously ill, and after difficult recovery became even more withdrawn from his work.

On June 15, 1952, the Soviet officials announced that all but 20 top specialists should leave the USSR within five days. Gröttrup, Umpfenbach and Magnus were among remaining twenty. Although they no longer worked on any particular projects, some of the assignments, they were receiving hinted about the direction of the work at NII-88. For example, Umpfenbach tested different combinations of propellant in the combustion chamber stand. Germans also worked on the development of the system, which would allow a vehicle to maintain altitude based on barometric pressure. Possibly, the device was needed for some sort of cruise missile or a gliding rocket stage. It is now known that during this period NII-88 was indeed developing an experimental cruise missile, EKR.

1953: Last on the ship

On March 5, 1953, Russians on Gorodomlya greeted their German colleagues with phrases like "Stalin kaput, good for you." A sudden death of Joseph Stalin brought peoples of the Soviet Union a long-delayed relieve from decades of repression and fear.

Within weeks news came about amnesty for countless victims of Stalinist terror. In the meantime, authorities on Gorodomlya tried to show "business as usual" giving Germans an assignment to develop an amphibious vehicle, possible with rocket assisted engine. In June of the same year, the Soviet officials promised remaining Germans that the decision about their return will be made "by 1954."

Also in June 1953, scores of German detainees arrived to Gorodomlya from other locations in the USSR. The Branch 1 of NII-88, reinforced by specialists from Junkers, Heinkel and Zeiss, renewed its activities somewhat for few months. The atmosphere on the island improved greatly, as Germans expected the order for repatriation from day to day.

Finally, on November 15, 1953, Soviet officials read following decree to the inhabitants of Gorodomlya, "All German specialists with the exception of twelve are to return to their country on the twenty-second of November I953. They must leave within two days of that date. We take this opportunity to express our thanks for the work done."

Gröttrup and other families of German specialists crossed the German-Polish border on November 28, 1953. (64)

Remaining small group of German engineers, all of whom were electronics experts were offered five-year contracts along with good accommodation in Moscow. There, they probably lived to see the launch of the first Soviet satellite in 1957.

Cause for the demise of the German collective in the USSR

Since the return of the German rocket scientists from the USSR, Western historians were wondering why the Soviets underused German rocket scientists and denied them the opportunity to implement many promising ideas. In his memoirs, Boris Chertok, the pioneer of the Soviet rocket program, hypothesized that Sergei Korolev's ambitions to be the leader of the nation's rocket program prevented Germans from taking any key positions in the rocket development hierarchy. Some Western historians subscribed to the idea, claiming that Soviet officials overseeing early rocket industry, including Ustinov, would prefer to give Germans full control over the development of their rockets if not for Korolev's overwhelming lust for power.

However such position likely presents a naive view of the Stalinist Russia and does not take into account the Russian national character. One word of Ustinov would be enough to subordinate Korolev to Gröttrup or to any other German, Soviet authorities deemed necessary. In fact, several times in his career, Korolev was subordinated to people, he considered rivals, including Valentin Glushko and Mikhail Yangel. Not to mention, Korolev, Glushko and many of their colleagues were against forced deportation of Germans into the USSR in the first place, but were overruled by the political authority.

A real reason for the German failure to assume any active role in the Soviet rocket program was traditional Russian distrust of foreigners, reinforced and multiplied by the Soviet anti-western policies.

By 1949, Stalin brought Russian chauvinism and "spymania" to the level of a nationwide paranoia. In January 1949, the Soviet Academy of Sciences, the supreme institution of the Soviet science, called for a nationwide struggle against "kowtowing to the West" and affirmation of the primacy of the Russian science. (124) This campaign took the ugliest forms from the expulsion of Jews from scientific and cultural institutions to most caricature ones; for example, some research organizations would be renamed to avoid the use of Latin words.

In this kind of atmosphere, the appointment of a German to the top position in the secret Soviet defense project was impossible. Joseph Stalin, who had been ultimate arbiter of this controversy, never had the intention of placing Germans at the helm of the rocket development program, or any other Soviet institution for this matter. Just the opposite, after World War II, Stalin renewed his purges of "foreign elements" in the Soviet society.

However, Ustinov did want to use Germans as tutors and as a viable backup and alternative to Korolev, to provide the latter with a competition. Soviet authorities needed Germans to have a "second opinion" on the complex matters of rocket design until Russia's native talent provided new competitors to Korolev, such as Mikhail Yangel and Vladimir Chelomei.

Beyond the USSR

Somewhat surprisingly, Soviet authorities apparently made no effort to contain German rocket specialists on the Soviet side of the "iron curtain." Although Germans were "shipped" to the Soviet-controlled East Germany, many of the repatriants, including Helmut Gröttrup, made it to the West without much trouble. Some even moved to the United States and apparently continued working in aerospace. Not surprisingly, the operatives from the Air Technical Intelligence Center of the US Air Force in cooperation with British Air Ministry apparently debriefed every German returning from the USSR.

In August 1952, immediately after all but 20 top Germans returned from Gorodomlya, the Air Technical Intelligence Center organized a special meeting at Wright Field (now Wright-Patterson Air Force Base) in Dayton, Ohio. It was attended by high-ranking military officials from the US, Britain and Canada. Based on reports of German specialists, the panel concluded that the Soviet rocket program was comparable to that of the US and pursued the development of intercontinental cruise and ballistic missiles, similar to the US Navaho, Snark and Atlas projects. Germans reported that while in the USSR, they considered the engine with the thrust of up 120 tons and it was concluded that it was "possible but not probable" that the USSR could build missiles powered by two or even four of these engines. The panel also speculated that a winged missile with two such engines could travel up to 4,400 miles, still far not enough to attack the continental United States. Even such missile seemed unlikely to be built anytime soon. Yet, the experts agreed that by 1956, the USSR could reach northwestern region of the US with a 2,000-pound warhead launched by a two-stage ballistic missile. Finally, they estimated, by 1958, the USSR could have a capability to hit anywhere in the US with a 8,000-pound warhead, but only if the Soviet government gives high priority to such program. The representative of Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation (future developer of the Atlas ICBM) called such estimates "highly optimistic." (56)

Dr. Ernest G. Schweibert, Command Historian of the US Air Force Systems Command summarized the general conclusions of the August 1952 meeting:

There seemed to be little cause for undue alarm over the prospect of a war employing ballistic missiles. The "missile age" appeared to be rather remote to the conferees, who displayed no particular sense of immediacy. (56)

One of Gorodomlya engineers, Erich Apel, who settled in East Germany in 1952, rose to become a head of the Planning Commission of the ruling Socialist Party, SED. Known as a progressive reformer, he committed suicide after a clash with Walter Ulbricht, the head of SED, in 1965.

German contribution in the Soviet rocketry: Myth and Reality

Six years after Germans left Gorodomlya, on August 21, 1957, the Soviet official newspaper "Pravda" boasted that the USSR has been now in possession of the intercontinental ballistic missile. As Western intelligence confirmed the Soviet claim, one high-ranking official at NATO headquarters in Europe reportedly exclaimed, "We captured wrong Germans."

He expressed a rather common belief in the West that Soviet breakthroughs in rocketry, as well as the success of the Sputnik few weeks later, stemmed from the expertise of the German rocket scientists. When few months later, on another side of the Atlantic, Wernher von Braun and his team “answered” to the Sputnik with the first US satellite, a popular joke was that the two orbiters exchanged greetings in space in their common language – German.

Historians, however, remained in disagreement about the extent of the contribution made by the German team into the Soviet rocketry. “In reality, the Germans did not build anything for the Russians, did not “supervise” the firings, and did not “introduce innovations,” wrote German-born historian of rocketry Willey Ley in his book “Rockets, Missiles, and Men in Space” published in 1968. More than three decades later Boris Chertok echoed this opinion, saying in his memoirs, that the R-7, the first Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile, which launched Sputnik, had no “birth marks” of the German technology.

However in the last few years, the latest historical publications renewed claims about the extensive influence of the Gorodomlya team on the Soviet rocketry. Not surprisingly, such assessments originated in Germany. Dr. Olaf Przybilski from the Technical University of Dresden pointed out at a striking resemblance between a cone-like aerodynamic shape proposed by the Gröttrup team for several of its rockets and Korolev’s own designs, which appeared in metal years later. Korolev’s largest rockets – the R-7 and the ill-fated N1 moon rocket, both featured exotic conical shape. Russian sources are yet to collaborate this claim.

As it often happens in history, the truth might lie in between: Germans did not designed Sputnik or its rocket, however the ideas and concepts developed by Gröttrup’s team on Gorodomlya did influence Soviet designers and thus accelerated their efforts. "The work of the captive German scientists and technicians served as a yardstick against which Soviet accomplishments could be measured, and the Soviets were capable of extracting those developments useful to their program and of discarding others which they had already surpassed," concluded a US historian. (56)

On her last day on Gorodomlya Island, Irmgard Gröttrup made the following record in her diary: “Once more we had a meal with our friends, draining glass after glass and taking stock at the past years. We came to the conclusion that they had not been wasted, as we had so often believed. The men agreed that … the long-range rocket has made the conquest of space a definite possibility in the foreseeable future.”

"Post-German" period on Gorodomlya

After departure of the German rocket team, the Island of Gorodomlya continued playing some role in the Soviet rocket industry. Branch 1 of NII-88 was eventually reincarnated into the Zvezda Enterprise, which specialized in the production of high-precision gyroscopic instruments and sensors for rockets and spacecraft. (Should not be confused with the company building space suites and life-support systems.) In this role, Zvezda on Gorodomlya served as one of the subcontractors of RKK Energia, supplying hardware for the Energia-Buran, Mir and the International Space Station.

As of beginning of the 21st century, the island remained officially off-limits for the general public. After the fall of the "iron curtain" a number of German veterans of Branch 1 of NII-88 and their family members did return to Gorodomlya, among them Ursula Gröttrup, a daughter of the team leader. Two aging Russian teachers who decades ago worked with German children in Ostashkov, visited their former pupils in Germany. The veteran of the Soviet space program, Boris Chertok returned to Germany and visited sites of his work in 1946. Yuri Mozhorin, who led TsNIIMash research institute in the 1960s, received a letter from his former German colleague, who then lived in the US.

On June 26, 2007, the Russian president issued an order No. 804 and the Russian government followed on August 17 with a directive No. 1066-r, which declared the Zvezda enterprise a branch of NPTs AP federal enterprise specialized in flight control systems of rocket industry.

Page author: Anatoly Zak; Last update: August 5, 2012

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Like a dream of space flight, which was nurtured on these forbidden shores, the majestic monastery of Nilova Pustyn defied time and political upheavals. Both views are from Gorodomlya Island at dusk and in the morning. Copyright © 2002 by Anatoly Zak

...Now we have a new hobby to vary our evening visits to one another - photography. After a long wait, we'd got our cameras back with the warning that 'no photographs are to be taken of houses, or Russians, or landmarks... We take no notice of the restrictions and photograph anything and everything ... For fun, I once took a snapshot of my weeping son and showed it to old 'High-and-mighty' who was horrified--'That one's no good! Why is the boy crying?' I showed him another one of Peter smiling, and he loved it: 'That's excellent. You may send this one home. As for the other, never take a photograph like that again-- I'll have to keep it if you do. What would people think at home if you sent them a photograph of a crying child? Aren't you doing well here?...

From Irmgard Grottrup's diary (64)

Credit: Bernd Falkenmayer

Buildings of Branch 1 of NII-88 on Gorodomlya Island circa 1949. Credit: TsNIIMash

A propulsion test stand of NII-88, circa 1949, apparently located on the Gorodomlya Island. Credit: TsNIIMash

Apratment buildings, which housed German rocket team (bottom) and Russian personnel (top) on Gorodomlya. Copyright © 2002 by Anatoly Zak

Mrs. Grottrup is shown playing tennis on the court she helped to build on the island. Credit: Valery Bukreev

...On Saturdays and Sundays we either spend the time chopping wood or skiing. Everyone has his own idea of how it should be done. There are those who will only chop wood with other men and a good supply of vodka near at hand, and others who like to do it with their wives, though this usually ends in a quarrel...

From Irmgard Grottrup's diary (64)

The orchestra made of German rocket specialists performs at the club on Gorodomlya Island. Omni-present Joseph Stalin looks on from the painting above. Credit: Bernd Falkenmayer

Heinz Jaffke on Gorodomlya Island. Credit: Valery Bukreev

...On Sundays we go boating. We row out over the lake in search of new villages and get to know more of the hospitable peasants who are only too pleased to share what little they have to offer us, thick creamy milk, bread and cheese. They make room for us in the "parlour," the only room in the house except the bedroom and the kitchen. The floorboards are scrubbed snowy white and geraniums grow in the windows. In one corner the lamp burns before ikons and a crucifix; in another corner "Little Father" (Stalin) is pinned to the wall beside family photographs of those killed in the war. While we sit there, Peter plays outside with the village children, watching the fat black pigs rooting about in the road and shooing the chicken and geese away. Last Sunday, as we all watched them playing, I said, 'We could live so peacefully if there were no threat of war...'

From Irmgard Grottrup's diary (64)

Fritz Mattheis, one of the members of the rocket team at Gorodomlya is shown depositing a letter at the local post office. Credit: Valery Bukreev; special thanks to Bernd Falkenmayer

At the height of the summer, darkness has no chance to descend on Gorodomlya. In the middle of "white nights," waters of the island's internal lake reflect colors of the sunset turning into dawn. Copyright © 2002 by Anatoly Zak

For years this ferry connected Gorodomlya Island with Ostashkov on the shore of Lake Seliger. During thaw season the island is virtually inaccessible. Copyright © 2002 by Anatoly Zak

A barbewire fence, which used to surround Gorodomlya along its entire perimenter, was falling apart at the beginning of the 21st century. Copyright © 2002 by Anatoly Zak

The Russian map of the Seliger Lake published decades after the departure of the German rocket team, shows Gorodomlya Island (top) and the town of Ostashkov (bottom). Although several structures on the island are shown, the only one is identified as "pioneer camp" (the Soviet equivalent of the boy scout camp). Anatoly Zak's archive.

Several German specialists tried to map Gorodomlya Island after their return to Germany from the USSR. This watercolor map was painted by Professor Kurt Magnus. Provided by Bernd Falkenmayer