Soviet rocket research in Germany after World War II
In 1945, Soviet engineers discovered vast legacy of rocket weapons in the defeated Nazi Germany, including ballistic (top), cruise (bottom left) and anti-aircraft missiles (bottom right).
In the final months of World War II, as Soviet troops fought their way into the heart of Germany, toward Berlin, a different kind of army trailed them. Although its members were riding army jeeps and carried pistols or submachine guns, their new oversized uniforms and lack of battlefield decorations betrayed recent civilians in them. These "trade-union officers" as they were known in the Soviet Army, represented various Soviet industries charged with the task of locating and removing to the USSR machinery and equipment from the occupied Germany. It should be noted that at the same time west of the demarcation line dividing occupied Germany, the United States had been "engaged in a systematic and wide-ranging program of intellectual reparations..." (172)
The activities of Soviet "trophy battalions" were officially started on February 21, 1945, by a decree No. 7563ss of the State Defense Committee, GKO. The document established permanent commissions at every Soviet Front (Army Group) occupying Poland and Germany and made these commissions responsible for the removal of industrial equipment and materials from both countries.
Within the 1st Belorussian Front, P. M. Zernov chaired such commission, which also included A. N. Baranov and N. E. Nosovsky. The commission oversaw 80 engineers and scientists.
On February 25, 1945, Joseph Stalin signed a decree of the State Defense Committee, GKO, No. 7590ss creating a Special "Trophy" Committee within GKO. It included G. M. Malenkov, N. A. Bulganin, N. A. Voznesensky, A. V. Khrulev and Lt. General F. I. Vakhitov, the head of Chief Trophy Directorate. At the beginning of the effort, General Vakhitov led the force of 40 "work battalions," which by September 1945 grew to 48 "trophy brigades," 23 of which were deployed in Germany, seven in Poland and six in Czechoslovakia. According to the same decree, all members of trophy commissions at different fronts became representatives of the Special Trophy Committee. (170)
Soviet search for rocket technology in Germany
One of the first Soviet groups, which would "specialize" specifically on rocket trophies left Moscow on April 23, 1945. It was led by General Nikolai Petrov, director of Scientific Institute of Airplane Equipment (NISO), and included Boris Evseevich Chertok from the NII-1 research institute. He was one of the several people, who in 1944, studied remnants of the A-4 rockets recovered in Poland. Although the official goal of the group was the search for avionics, radar equipment and aviation armaments, Chertok and others had been looking forward to learning as much as possible about the German rocket program. (58)
Around June - July 1945, General Andrei Illarionovich Sokolov, led another group of specialists in Germany. Sokolov was the head of Directorate of Armaments of the Guards Mortar Units, (or simply Katyusha Units) as well as Deputy Artillery Commander on Reactive Weapons.
Sokolov's group included Yu. A. Pobedonostsev, M. S. Ryazansky, E. Ya. Boguslavsky, V. P. Barmin -- all engineers, and Lt. Colonel Georgy Tyulin. The latter was a senior aide of the Chief of Scientific-Technical Department of the Chief Armaments Directorate of Guards Mortar Units, GMCh. (170)
Tyulin took responsibility for accommodating and assigning positions within the A-4 search effort to the arriving Soviet aviation specialists within the headquarters of the Soviet military administration in Berlin.
One of the primary tasks that Chief Artillery Directorate gave to Sokolov was to investigate, the main German rocket development center in Peenemünde The area of the center fell to the troops of the 2nd Belorussian Front in the first days of May 1945. One source says that the Soviet troops entered Peenemunde on May 5, 1945. (10)
By the time the Soviets arrived, top German rocket scientists had been long gone, and majority of equipment and documents related to rocketry removed or destroyed. Yet, even short review of the stripped down facilities revealed an unprecedented scale of operations conducted by Germans in the field of rocketry.
Alexei Isaev, an engineer from NII-1 research institute, who arrived to Peenemünde with the first group in May 1945, made an accidental discovery of a document describing rocket-propelled supersonic bomber. (58)
Peenemunde also saw another group of visitors led by chief engineer of Plant No. 9 of the Ammunitions Industry, Svichinsky. The group reportedly included 15 specialists, among them Sergei Korolev. (170)
By the end of June, the Soviet engineers working in Germany received the news that the Soviet Army is about to take over the German region of Thuringia, home of the A-4 production plant. Chertok and number of other German specialists arrived to Nordhausen on July 14, 1946. (58)
As it was in Peenemunde, key personnel, along with rockets and documentation left the town in the western direction prior to the Soviet takeover of the area. Yet, first Soviet specialists who entered the underground factory near Nordhausen, found numerous parts of the A-4 rockets and other hardware. Soviets also met few German specialists, who did not move into the Western zone of occupation and now provided information about the facility.
On July 15, Aleksey Isaev and Arvid Pallo were dispatched to Lehesten, the site of the A-4 engine firing stand, one of the few rocket-related facilities, the Soviets found virtually untouched, after the departure of the Americans. (58) The same month, the top Soviet specialist in rocket engines, Valentin Glushko was sent to Germany with a group of his associates from OKB-SD, a design bureau specialized on propulsion systems for rocket-assisted takeoff for military aircraft. Lehesten became a home for Glushko's team, where test firings resumed as soon as September 6, 1945. Dr. Joachim Umpfenbach initially directed the firings, (10) however the same month, V. L. Shabransky, one of the specialists from OKB-SD, was appointed the director of the test site, the position he held until Soviet work on rocketry concluded in Germany in January 1947. (167)
Soon after visiting Nordhausen, Soviets dispatched additional groups of specialists to Bleicherode, the last headquarters of Wernher von Braun, before his surrender to the US forces. (The US Army left the town on June 30, 1945, and the Soviet forces took over the area a day later.)
In Bleicherode, Boris Chertok and Aleksey Isaev settled in the mansion, which only recently was occupied by von Braun. Along with 12 Germans, Chertok comprised a core of the future organization, which soon would take responsibility for restoring the flight control system of the A-4 rocket, clearly the most challenging element of the vehicle. Within days, the newly created institute, dubbed Rabe (from German Raketenbau und Entwicklung - rocket building and design), hired dozens of German engineers, living in surrounding areas. However few of them had ever dealt with rocket technology before. To obtain experienced German rocket engineers, Chertok conceived a clandestine campaign to lure people from the Western zone.
In August 1945, General Kuznetsov from Chief Artillery Directorate, GAU, appeared in town and declared Chertok's organization under GAU's control. Chertok had little choice but to agree, since various Soviet industrial bureaucracies were still steering clear of rocket technology. In the interim, the Soviet military promised help and official cover.
Following Kuznetsov, General Lev Mikhailovich Gaidukov visited Bleicherode. Gaidukov was a member of the military council of the Guards Mortar Brigade and chairman of the department overseeing the production of the Katuysha rockets at the Central Committee of the Communist Party. (173) Gaidukov took personal interest in the fate of the Soviet rocketry and using his connections at the Central Committee lobbied for the centralization and widening of the efforts in Germany.
From his side, Professor Abramovich, who returned to Moscow, after his visit to Germany, lobbied before the NII-1 management, for sending additional Soviet personnel from the institute to Germany.
On August 3, 1945, Gaidukov apparently received an official blessing from Stalin (58) in the form of the Decree of GKO No. 9716ss, (170) creating the so-called interagency commission on the A-4, which had power to recruit experts from various industries of the USSR. (173)
As a result, on August 8, 1945, many of the former NII-1 colleagues, who in 1944 studied "Polish remnants" of the A-4 were called to the Central Committee of VKP(b) (Communist Party of Bolsheviks) on individual basis, where they found themselves included in the "Inter-ministerial Commission" leaving for Berlin... the very next day. The engineers were advised to consider the assignment as a military draft. What "the assignment" was all about should have been explained to them upon arrival in Germany. At the end of the briefing they were offered to ask questions. Accordingly, they had none.
Next morning, the engineers showed up at the Moscow Central Airport all dressed in a bit oversized military uniforms but embellished with shoulder-straps of majors and colonels. In the reunion, they sarcastically called "summit," on the floor of a transport plane flying to Berlin participated Nikolai Pilugin, Vladimir Kuznetsov, Mikhail Ryazansky, Evgeni Boguslavskiy, V. A. Rudnitskiy, Florenskiy, Bakurin, Gorunov.
In Berlin the engineers learned that restoration of a complete set of blueprints for the A-4 and restoration of an experimental production line for the missile are the primary goals of the commission based in the German capital and led by General Kuznetsov. At the time the commission supervised Institute Rabe, but eventually embraced all facilities of former Mittlewerk, German industrial complex manufacturing A-4s, as well as the center of development of antiaircraft missiles and rocket control systems in Berlin.
Of many aviation specialists, who arrived in Germany at the end of summer 1945, Mikhail Ryazansky, Viktor Kuznetsov, Yuri Pobenostsev, Eugene Boguslavsky and Zinovy Tsetsior joined Institute Rabe in Bleicherode.
Along with civilian engineers, the Chief Artillery Directorate, GAU, sent from Berlin to Bleicherode military officers and recent graduates of military academies, among them Georgy Tuylin, Yuri Mozhorin, Pavel Trubachev, Kerim Kerimov, all future prominent figures in the Soviet space program. (58) During 1945, the total number of the Soviet specialists in Germany working on the rocket program reached 284. (52)
Although brightest Soviet specialists scored postwar Germany in a search for rocket secrets, the overall effort still lacked expertise needed to unravel the intricacies of the A-4 design, particularly its complicated flight control system. Most key documents describing flight control system were missing, available hardware was also lacking. (52) In the meantime, Western allies of the USSR worked hard to assemble "creme de la creme" of the German science and technology. Recent Western historical studies suggested that "the American and British programs for recruiting German scientists were linked as much to denying scientific and technical expertise to the Soviet Union as to augmenting their own knowledge in these fields." (172)
At the official level, the head of the Soviet aviation industry, A. I. Shakhurin brought the subject of German specialists in a letter sent to the Central Committee of the Communist Party on June 27, 1945. Shakhurin recommended the creation of a "special regime" bureau for the German aviation specialists, which would be run by the NKVD, the dreaded Soviet secret police. The organization would be essentially a design center in prison, not unlike "Sharashkas," which had been home of many Soviet engineers during 1940s. (170)
Back in Germany, Marshall Zhukov, the commander of the Soviet military administration, SVAG, issued an order, requiring Chief of Workforce Department Colonel Ya. T. Remizov to form proposals on the employment of highly qualified German specialists by Aug. 31, 1945, and to develop a compensation system for German citizens by the end of October 1945.
In the meantime, Soviet representatives in Germany launched a multi-folded campaign to recruit German brains in aviation, nuclear research and rocket technology. Apparently, both "stick and carrot" methods were employed to get right people. Soviet-controlled radio station in the city of Leipzig reportedly promised good wages and personal safety to any Peenemünde veterans. (144)
In most cases, German engineers and qualified workers offered their services voluntarily, in exchange for decent salaries and good conditions by postwar standards.
At the beginning of August 1945, the representative of Special Committee within GOKO, M. S. Saburov informed Marshall Zhukov that around 1,000 German specialists worked for various Soviet research organizations and that number was expected to climb to 3,000. Saburov recommended a creation of specialized research organizations for respective Soviet industries. In response, Zhukov signed an order of SVAG No. 026 "On organization of work on using German technology by the Soviet industry. (170)
An absolute majority of German employees who joined the Soviet effort to restore the A-4 had no prior involvement in the program, however Soviets never considered work in Peenemunde a requirement. Among such individuals were Kurt Magnus, a first-class gyroscope expert and Dr. Hoch, an avionics specialist. In October 1945, Dr. Blazig, a key specialist from one of the subcontractors in the A-4 program, joined Institute Rabe. (58)
Yet, in parallel with routine hiring, Boris Chertok led the effort to lure top Peenemünde veterans into the Soviet zone. A rather improvised campaign scored a major victory in mid-September 1945, when Helmut Gröttrup, a chief expert in the A-4's flight control system, returned into the Soviet zone of occupation and joined Institute Rabe. (10) In a futile effort to recruit Wernher von Braun himself, Chertok's emissary crossed into the US zone; however he was quickly intercepted by the US military and was escorted back empty-handed.
To ensure a maximum use of Gröttrup's expertise, Chertok established a separate division of the institute called "Bureau Gröttrup," complemented by a hefty salary and a number of exclusive perks. One of the first assignments given to Gröttrup by the Soviets was writing a report on the engineering history of Peenemünde, which he completed in mid-1946. According to Boris Chertok, this document became "the most complete and objective account of work at Peenemunde and technical problems, which had to be solved in the course of the development of the first long-range ballistic missiles." (58)
Apparently, Gröttrup provided to the Soviets with many details about geography of subcontractors involved into the A-4 program. He also contacted a number of qualified individuals outside of the Soviet zone, who could assist the Soviet rocket development effort. Apparently among people, who moved into the Soviet efforts to join A-4 program with the help of Gröttrup's references were aerodynamist Hans Zeise and the construction expert Anton Narr. Friz Fibach, the expert in launch operations, also crossed over into the Soviet zone from the British sector. (170)
As the Soviet rocket program in Germany received official status, an extensive Soviet security apparatus run by Lavrenty Beriya also played some role in providing local cadre for the effort. Security police reportedly showed up at the homes of German citizens known to work for the rocket program.
A Russian historian quoted a report by Ivan Serov, the chief of Soviet security in Germany, dated July 3, 1946 and addressed to Beriya among others claiming that 18 German specialists with expertise in rocketry were identified among inmates of the Soviet internal police camps. The document stated that after interviews with the Soviet industry representatives, these German citizens would be released and sent to work for respective research organizations. (170) These revelations seemed to confirm eyewitness accounts published in the West in the 1940s-50s, about German citizens forced to work for the Soviet rocket program in Germany.
In addition to coordinating pure research and development activities, the Soviet Army, which would be the ultimate user of prospective rocket weapons, delegated the responsibility for the application of the new technology to a Special Purpose Brigade, formed around June 1945. With the agreement of the US military, which then occupied Thuringia, a group of the Soviet veterans of legendary Katyusha units established a camp in the village of Berka, six kilometers from the town of Zonderhausen. (72) The brigade, led by a 53-year-old Major General A. F. Tveretsky absorbed many of the veterans of Katyusha units.
One of the first responsibilities of the brigade's personnel in July 1945 was the search for the A-4 hardware, which would be assembled at the camp in Berka. According to the veterans of the brigade, the US troops shared some of the A-4 trophies with their Soviet allies. In the town of Bad Sachs the US personnel lend the Soviets a copy of the A-4 launching manual, as well as the launch support equipment, including an armored launch control vehicle known as Panzerwagen. Finally, a training version of the A-4 rocket was also left by the Americans in Bad Sachs to the Soviets. (170)
The brigade would remain in Germany until August 1947. (170)
After arrival to Germany in August 1945, a group of Soviet specialists led by NII-1 engineer Vasily Mishin was sent to Czechoslovakia, the location of some of the German subcontractors involved into the A-4 program and the home to a coordination center for the A-4 system suppliers. In Prague, Mishin's group located an archive, which apparently traveled to a burial site at one of the lakes, before ending up at one of the transit points controlled by the Czech army. With the help of the Soviet military administration in Chezhkoslova, Soviets pressured Czech authorities to release the archive (53) and at the beginning of November 1945, documents were shipped to Moscow. The archive turned out to contain incomplete technical description of the A-4 rocket, lacking general drawings and other documentation. (173)
In the second half of November 1945, Mishin was recalled from Prague back to Berlin, where at the end of the month, he met for the first time with Sergei Korolev, his boss and associate for the next two decades.
In Berlin, Mishin was reassigned again, this time to Institute Rabe, to lead so-called Calculation Theory Bureau, RTB, which was housed in the former bank and employed a number of Germans. The bureau calculated technical and flight characteristic of the A-4 rocket.
In October 1945, the Soviet representatives had been invited to witness a demonstration launch of the A-4 rocket, conducted by the British with the assistance of German detainees near the town of Cuxhaven. Permissions to enter the test area had been issued to the delegation of three people, however on the day of the launch on October 15, six people showed up. British officers allowed the entry into the facility only to three accredited visitors, not counting the interpreter -- Yuri Pobedonostsev, Valentin Glushko and General Andrei Sokolov. They did identify Sergei Korolev, who posed as a chauffeur in the uniform of the captain, among one of the uninvited guests. (10) Post-Cold War Russian sources revealed that Lt. Colonel Georgy Tyulin, the veteran of Katyusha units, along with Korolev convinced Sokolov to take them to Cuxhaven. Both "demoted" themselves for the occasion. They did fail to convince the British, however, and had to witness the launch through the barbwire fence surrounding the facility. (18)
Korolev's trip to Cuxhaven had an immediate aftermath -- at the beginning of 1946, Korolev moved to Nordhausen to lead preparations for the test launch of the A-4 rocket in the Soviet zone of Germany, code-named operation "Vystrel" (Shot).
In support of the operation, Korolev's asked Mishin's bureau to conduct trajectory calculations, develop aiming algorithms and methods for measuring parameters of flight trajectory. Korolev also referred to Mishin a number of young specialists, whom he screened among military officers in Germany, including S. S. Lavrov and Yuri Mozhorin. (173) Ultimately, concerns about secrecy prompted Soviet authorities to cancel Operation Vystrel.
In February 1946, Gaidukov and Korolev traveled to Moscow to report on the progress of their work to G. M. Malenkov, a high-ranking official within the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Upon making his presentation in Kremlin, Korolev called for centralization of the rocket development effort in Germany. His pleas were answered with the creation of the Institute Nordhausen. Gaidukov and Korolev had been named the director and chief engineer of the new organization respectively. (52)
The "Nordhausen" was conceived to cover all aspects of the A-4 development, as oppose to Institute Rabe, primarily concentrated on the flight-control system. It embraced all existing centers of the Soviet research in rocketry in Nordhausen and Lehesten, and, in the first half of 1946, expanded into four new locations.
Facilities of Institute Nordhausen:
The German-Russian division for rocket design in Sommerda, which was assigned to restore a full set of design documentation for the A-4 rocket, initially in the German language. To lead the division, Korolev invited Vasily Mishin. Originally, V. S. Budnik worked on the problem. As the team at Sommerda more or less restored the A-4 documentation, it immediately started translating it into Russian and preparing for the production of the missile using available or newly manufactured parts. (173)
By October 1946, 733 Soviet specialists, and between 5,000 and 7,000 Germans worked for the Institute Nordhausen. (52)(10)(172) According to the Soviet documents, as of May 1946, 330 German specialists worked at Plant No. 3. including 30 engineers and technicians, 23 draftsmen and 277 mechanics and workers. The only Russians on staff were director of the plant Evgeny Kurilo and chief of the combustion chamber assembly Artamonov. At the same time, 300 Germans worked at Institute Rabe, including 11 specialists with Doctorate Degrees, and 10 with engineering diplomas. Again the only Russians on staff were Director Pilugin and his deputy Voskresensky. (170)
Along with institute Nordhausen, Institute "Berlin" was formed in the German capital. D. G. Dyatlov was the head of the organization and Vladimir Barmin, chief engineer. The group specialized in launching equipment. (112)
At the beginning of May 1946, Marshall of Artillery N. D. Yakovlev chaired a government commission which included such officials as M. I. Nedelin, Dmitry Ustinov, General Lev Gaidukov. The commission made final determination about organization of work on missiles in the USSR. (173)
One of the key moves, which enabled the testing of the A-4 rocket in the USSR was the development of special trains providing all logistics from kitchens and showers to laboratories and launching equipment. Two trains -- one for the military and one for the industry -- included 70 cars built at Gota plant and then outfitted at Kleinbodungen. The formation of the trains was completed by October 1946.
During 1945 and most part of 1946, Soviet specialists with the help of German engineers reestablished a A-4 production line in Germany, which turned out around a dozen of missiles. According to one Russian source, 20 rockets were assembled at Plant No. 3 in Kleinbodungen and five more rockets in the underground plant in Nordhausen. (170)
In addition, various spare parts which were enough to assemble another dozen of A-4s were sent to the Soviet Union. Concurrently, Russian engineers have started consideration of their own and German ideas on improvements in the A-4.
At the beginning of August 1946, Korolev told his deputy Vasily Mishin to return from Germany to the Soviet Union and led preparations for the A-4 production at Plant No. 88 in Podlipki, near Moscow. On August 9, 1946, Mishin returned to the USSR.
Finally, in October 1946, the best German engineers recruited by the Soviets were ordered on the trains and sent to the various locations in the USSR to assist in the organization of missile production and design. Remaining thousands of German specialists had to find new jobs. Soviet authorities promised Helmut Gröttrup to provide one-month salaries to the German employees as a severance pay. (64)
By the beginning of 1947, Soviets completed the transfer of all works on rocket technology from Germany into secret locations in the USSR. At the end of February 1947, Sergei Korolev became one of the last Soviet specialists to return from Germany. Less than a month later, the Institute Nordhausen officially ceased to exist. Empty caverns of the underground rocket factories in Nordhausen were blown up by the Soviet crews in 1948. (172)
Soviet research and development sites realated to the A-4 (V-2) technology in the region of Thuringia in Germany duirng 1945-1947. Click to enlarge: 307 by 500 pixels / 32K Copyright © 2003 by Anatoly Zak
Rocket specialists followed Soviet Army to Peenemünde in May 1945. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2008 Anatoly Zak
One of the tunnels of the notorious underground production plant near Nordhausen, where German V-2 rockets were manufactured by the Dora concentration camp inmates, working under horrific conditions. The tunnel was reopened in mid-1990s, as a memorial. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2007 Anatoly Zak
Casings for flight control gyroscopes for Fi-103 (V-1) ammassed inside Dora underground plant in Nordhausen. Click to enlarge Copyright © 2007 Anatoly Zak
From von Braun to Chertok: Villa Franka in Bleicherode served as residence for Wernher von Braun during his stay in Bleicherode. Appropriately, leading Soviet rocket specialist Boris Chertok moved in, after the Soviet forces had taken control of the area. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2007 Anatoly Zak
Korolev's first MIK: The first Soviet assembly and checkout building for ballistic missiles (known by Russian abbreviation as MIK) was located in the town of Kleinbodungen. Before the defeat of Nazi Germany, it was used as a repair shop for the V-2/A-4 missiles, returned from the battlefield due to production defects or transportation damage. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2007 Anatoly Zak