German A-4 team in Moscow

In October 1946, the best German engineers who worked for the Soviet missile program were ordered on the trains and sent to the various locations in the USSR to assist in the organization of missile production and design. By the beginning of the 1947, Soviets completed the transfer of all works on rocket technology from Germany into secret locations in the USSR. In the fall of 1947, Soviet-German team launched eleven A-4 rockets near the village of Kapustin Yar in the steppes north of the Caspian Sea.

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End of honeymoon

Given a pathological obsession of the Soviet government with secrecy, it was a remarkable phenomenon that Joseph Stalin did allow hundreds of Soviet specialists, many of them recent GULAG inmates, travel to postwar Germany and work side by side with their German colleagues on the development of rocket technology. Inevitably, the whole endeavor had a temporary nature, aimed to train Soviet cadre in the industry that was virtually nonexistent in the USSR at the time. From the outset of the program, Soviet authorities had grave concerns about engaging thousands of Germans, who had a relative freedom of movement, into super-sensitive defense projects, such as aviation, rocketry and nuclear research.

On May 7, 1946, Ivan Serov, the head of the Soviet security policy, NKVD, in Germany received a letter from A. G. Mrykin from the artillery directorate, GAU, complaining about overwhelming number of Germans involved in the Soviet rocket development effort. The document stressed that German specialists not only were gaining experience in the production of the current German technology, but also had direct access to the Soviet efforts to develop follow-on rocket systems. (170)

Along with having their rocket program exposed to Western intelligence, the USSR was now restoring military-industrial potential of Germany, something the Soviet government was least interested to do. Not to mention, Soviet authorities were concerned they would be accused by the allies of noncompliance with Allied Control Council agreements on the liquidation of the German war machine, which could lead to demands by the allies for inspections. (172)

Official decisions on the deportation of Germans

On April 17, 1946, the Soviet of Ministers USSR issued a decree No. 874-366ss ordering Ministry of Aviation Industry, MAP, to deport 1,400 German engineers and workers in the USSR. Including family members, the number of deported was expected to reach 3,500 people at that point.

On August 24, 1946, Colonel General Ivan Serov, a secret police officer who served as a Deputy Commander of the Soviet Administration in Germany, SVAG, sent a letter to Georgy Malenkov, a top party official overseeing rocketry, asking for government decision on the deportation of German specialists in the USSR. A draft of the government decree on the issue reviewed by the SVAG commander V. D. Sokolovsky and leaders of the various industries was conveniently attached to the letter. Among the officials who read the draft were Dmitry Ustinov, the head of Ministry of Armaments, assigned to host the rocket program; Mikhail Khrunichev, the head of Ministry of Aviation Industry, Ustinov's deputy Ivan Zubovich and Soviet representatives in Germany responsible for reactive and radar technology N. E. Nosovsky and M. M. Lukin.

To minimize the attempts of escape, Soviet authorities scheduled deportations to take place simultaneously across the Soviet zone and in the shortest possible period of time between 15th and 20th of October 1946. The head of Soviet secret police in Germany Ivan Serov would personally lead the operation. Major General A. M. Sidnev, the chief of operations department of the Internal Affairs Ministry, MVD, in Berlin was delegated responsibilities for the logistical support.

The commander of SVAG Sokolovsky supplied troops, tracks, railroad cars, fuel and food rations. Minister of Internal Affairs Kruglov provided guard units for the trains.

In the recent past, Serov's chief Lavrenty Beriya had already accumulated a "considerable experience" in forced deportations of entire national minorities in the USSR, which were deemed to be a threat to the Soviet regime.

On September 13, 1946, Soviet of Ministers USSR issued decree No. 2163-880s entitled"On removal of hardware from the German military enterprises." The document officially launched the process of transfer of German rocket production potential to the USSR. (170)

Operation "Osoaviakhim"

The Soviet plan to deport thousands of German specialists into the USSR received code name Osoaviakhim, after formally volunteer Soviet organization which in 1930s united many enthusiasts of aviation, rocketry and related disciplines. Some two weeks prior to the operation, Serov received a list of people targeted for deportation. It included 2,200 specialists in the fields of aviation, nuclear technology, rocketry, electronics, radar technology and chemistry. They would be assigned to various industrial enterprises of the USSR:

Number of people to be deported Specialization Assigned ministry Official overseeing the deportation
1,250 aircraft, cruise missile experts Ministry of Aviation Industry Major General S. I. Filatov, MVD chief in Brandenburg
rocket specialists Ministry of Armaments Major General S. A. Klepov, MVD chief in Saxonia
radar and radio experts Ministry of Communications Colonel Svirin
specialists in solid rocket propulsion Ministry of Agricultural Machine building -
gyroscope, navigation system experts Ministry of Ship Building -

Counting family members, the total number of people assigned for deportation would reach 6,000 - 7,000 people.

October 22, 1946

Days before deportation numerous passenger trains were pre-positioned on the stations around Germany. In the early hours of October 22, 1945, around 2,500 internal police officers accompanied by soldiers were dispatched to the homes of German specialists and ordered them to prepare for the trip to the USSR. Soldiers would then start loading furniture and other household items on tracks and transport them to the assigned railroad stations. (64) (170)

There were somewhat conflicting reports about the Soviet approach to the deportation of family members of the specialists. Wild rumors circulating for decades told stories about security officers offering German engineers "to take any woman they wanted." In reality, wives of German engineers could choose to stay in Germany, if their husbands did not insist on them going. In a few cases women apparently did take this option. In other cases, unmarried couples traveled together rather than being separated.

The ordeal experienced by family members of the German specialists was vividly described in the memoirs of Irmgard Gröttrup, the wife of a leading German rocket engineer:

Could these be the same officers who not so long ago had tried, with a courteous smile, to make the reconstruction of our experimental station palatable to us? The same officers who, in response to our tentative inquiries, assured us that we should never be sent to Russia? Their grin was as friendly as ever. Indeed they even made a few promises: a flat much larger and much nicer than ours, a life without any restrictions, a life in a magnificent country, in a magnificent city amongst grand people. The only thing they couldn't promise was when we should see our own country again... At one point, simply to be free for a moment, I tried to get out through the back door. Impossible! The barrel of a gun- a broad face: "Nyet." (64)

It took more than 24 hours for the train with German deportees to leave Bleicherode. Gröttrup's family of two adults and two children was assigned three slipping compartments, most other families had one compartment each. Separate cars carried furniture and other household items. Yet, rumors circulated about people being shipped in box cars, perhaps an irrelevant reminiscent to Germany's barbaric methods during extermination of Jewish people few years earlier.

Population of the trains was also given out standard food rations: flour, rusks, semolina, salt, hard mildew salami, and cheese. Field kitchens were used during the trip to provide hot food.

Known data on the number of German rocket engineers in the USSR

Western sources provided various numbers of German rocket scientists deported to the USSR. According to newly researched Russian data, the actual number of deported German rocket specialists reached 177 people, including 24 people with doctorate degrees, 17 people with master degrees, 71 people with engineering degrees and 27 workers.

Total 136 people were employed by a newly created NII-88 research institute, including 111 people who were identified as heads of households, 18 people without any dependents or family members and seven workers had been family members of other German employees at NII-88. Total number of German citizens under NII-88's responsibility reached 495 people, including family members.

Gröttrups' train reached Moscow on October 28, 1946. Upon arrival to the USSR, 73 specialists assigned to NII-88 were shipped to the Island of Gorodomlya, in the Seliger Lake, northwest of Moscow. However a number of former Gröttrup's colleagues turned out to be missing altogether from the lists of NII-88 employees.

In the attempt to find out the fate of his missing men, Gröttrup came to the following realizations, as recorded by his wife:

...The whole thing's been planned in advance, and it is up to the individual officers who are members of the Special Technical Commission to make a success of the plan. When we were still in Germany we were led to believe that all the officers of the Special Commission belonged to one and the same ministry when in fact they belonged to all sorts of different institutions and ministries.

The shady transactions between the ministries are difficult to fathom; they haggle over every single ordinary measuring instrument, recorder, oscillograph, etc. (64)

The same was going on with the assignment of specialists. This "cattle market," as Gröttrup put it, resulted in the situation, where as many as 30 former employees from Nordhausen were sent to work for other ministries, while German citizens from other Soviet enterprises ended up under his supervision. After some lobbying, Gröttrup was able to return some of the members of his team back into NII-88.

Germans at OKB-456

In the meantime, 23 German citizens were sent to work for the OKB-456 propulsion development center of Valentin Glushko, which at the time had been under jurisdiction of Ministry of Aviation Industry. Including family members, the group counted 65 people and was led by Dr. Oswald Putze. At OKB-456, German specialists held positions of deputy chief and chief engineer of experimental construction, chief of oxygen production and deputy chief of chief of several production shops and test stand. (113)

Yet, another group involved in rocket development program went to work to the flight control systems bureau, (later known as NII-885) under jurisdiction of the Radio Technology Ministry.

Residency around Moscow

Helmut Gröttrup and other Germans from NII-88 were settled in mansions and vacation houses just outside Moscow along the Yaroslavskaya Railroad, near stations of Bolshevo, Valentinovka and Pushkino. Their workplace would be NII-88 campus near the station of Podlipki on the same railroad.

According to Irmgarg Gröttrup the average housing allocation for the German specialists was one room to a family of three, two rooms to a family of four. University graduates were allowed an additional room. Gröttrups were provided with a six-room villa with a large hall and two anterooms, the former home of a minister. To complete the picture, by November 1946 the authorities shipped Gröttrup's car from Germany and complemented it with a Russian chauffeur, whom Mrs. Gröttrup was giving little rest while exploring Moscow. (64)

Specialists who worked for OKB-456 in Khimki on the northwestern edge of Moscow also lived around Podlipki, and would ride buses to work, until specially built cottages had not been completed near the bureau. The German team from NII-885, which was located at Shosse Enthusiastov was housed in sanatoria in Monino, some 45 kilometers northeast of Moscow.

Conditions at NII-88

First several months in the USSR, legal status of German specialists remained uncertain, as Soviet authorities were still figuring out how to treat their captives. Germans had no passports or any other documents and they were not be able to send letters home for the first two months in the USSR. (64)

Yet, the biggest frustration for the German specialists in Russia was not their lack of freedom, or living conditions, but the chaos at work. The condition of facilities of a semi-abandoned artillery plant in Podlipki, where they were expected to build rockets, shocked even their Russian colleagues. (53) Due to lack of storage facilities, the hardware delivered from Institute Nordhausen had been unloaded on the snow-covered ground along the railway lines, where it was quickly turning into scrap metal. "Design offices" of NII-88 lacked tools, materials and even tables. Numerous documents and blueprints generated in Germany were lost in transit or were grabbed by competing ministries. Gröttrup's appeals to the director of NII-88 Gonor and Minister of Armaments Ustinov seemed to bear no fruits.

However Gröttrup's official protest of his collective deportation, which he wrote on the train to Moscow was returned to him by the Soviet officials on December 6, 1946 along with the explanation that the USSR had legal right to deport Germans for the reconstruction of the country and with the warning that he could be sent to the Ural region unless he cooperates.

Yet, at the end of April 1947, Gröttrup frustrated, among other things, by the lack of insight in the work of NII-88 and noncooperation of some Russian colleagues went on strike and offered his resignation as the head of the German collective. This was certainly the only instance of the protest of this sort in the Stalinist Russia. Surprisingly, by May 1947, NII-88 set official salaries for the German employees. (64) For Helmut Gröttrup it was lower than 10,000-ruble monthly honorariums which he had been receiving previously, still he clearly remained highest paid rocket scientist in the USSR.

Salary range comparison of German and Soviet engineers at NII-88 in 1947-1948 (170):

German citizens   Soviet citizens  
Helmut Gröttrup (Chief of German collective) 8,500 Sergei Korolev (Chief Designer and Department Chief) 6,000
Kurt Magnus (Doctor of Science) 6,000 Yuri Pobedonostsev (Chief Engineer) 5,000
Engineers with a diploma 4,000 Vasily Mishin (Deputy Chief Designer) 2,500

At the time average Russian engineer would earn around 1,000 rubles a month.

Gröttrup did remain at his post and he officially resumed work at NII-88 full time in July 1947. Around the same period of time, he also visited rest of his German compatriots at Gorodomlya Island. He found living conditions on the island much worse than in Podlipki. However by the end of the summer 1947, the Soviet authorities started removing German employees from their positions in Podlipki and sending them to Gorodomlya.

G-1 project - the first review at NII-88's Scientific and Technical Council, NTS.

In the first few months at NII-88, the Soviet management engaged German specialists into several aspects of work, including the assistance in issuing Russian-language documentation on the A-4 and starting prospective research on future ballistic and antiaircraft missiles, as well as on more powerful rocket engines. Germans also assisted in organization of rocket production at NII-88's experimental plant and preparations for the flight tests of the A-4.

However, the main task for the Germans at NII-88 was the development of proposals for the improvements in the A-4 design. The fruit of this effort was the G-1, or German Rocket No. 1 -- a radical upgrade of the A-4. The project, officially started around June of 1947, incorporated many engineering ideas and technical innovations, some of which were conceived back in Peenemunde.

On September 25, 1947, NII-88 hosted a major scientific review of the G-1 project. (84) A diary published by Gröttrup's wife dated the event at the end of 1947, and this date was then often was then quoted by Western historians. Yet, the description provided by Mrs. Gröttrup, apparently from the words of her husband, still provides a unique glimpse inside NII-88 in the 1940s:

Seated in the festively decorated conference room at the long tables covered with red cloth were sixty Russians, the cream of their intelligentsia and military forces. There were high-ranking representatives of the Government Army and Air Force and from the various ministries concerned, and there were senior lecturers from the universities, and the departmental heads of the TsAGI Institute (Central Institute of Aerodynamics). They were there to listen, and to ask searching questions. Helmut, on his side, had the German scientists responsible for the various departments: Dr. Wolff (ballistics), Dr. Albring (aerodynamics), Dr. Umpfenbach (propulsion), Engineer Mueller (statics), Engineer Blass (firing equipment) and Dr. Hoch (controls).

Helmut made his report with the help of twelve huge drawings on the wall showing the projected improvements on the new A-4, and his report was followed by further comments from each of the scientists in his own field of research. Then there were further talks by Ryazansky, a Russian, and Professor Frankl, an aerodynamic expert who emigrated to Russia from Austria, both of whom have had an opportunity to work on all the data. (64)

Vasily Mishin, Korolev's deputy, and Mikhail Tikhonravov from NII-4 research institute were to review and critique the G-1 project. (84) Although, at the time Korolev's team had been working on its own successor to the A-4, designated R-2, both Tikhonravov and Mishin gave generally positive feedback about the German work. However, Mishin stressed that the R-2 project would be easier to implement given current Soviet production potential. During 1947, Korolev retreated from the original goal of using both fuel and oxidizer tanks as external walls of the rocket body and resorted to placing the oxidizer tank inside protective casing as it was done in the A-4. In contrast, the G-1 would have both tanks carrying flight loads and only thin divider separated two propellant compartments.

The NTS formally approved the G-1 project, however requested more detailed design work before it could be practically implemented. As Germans will learn, it will become be a standard excuse for not going ahead with the development of German designs in the next several years. We know in the retrospect that G-1 project had never had a chance to be implemented, since Soviet authorities limited role of German specialists to consulting and practical training. (64)

At the time Germans only knew that their interaction with the Soviet counterparts was almost entirely a one-way street -- they submitted all their work to the institute, while they had little information about the work done by the Soviet teams.

Tests in Kapustin Yar

Along with working on prospective designs during summer of 1947, NII-88 completed assembly of several A-4 rockets of the "T" series, in addition to "N" series assembled back in Germany. Both batches, along with auxiliary hardware from Germany were shipped to a newly founded test range in Kapustin Yar. On July 26, 1947, the Soviet of Ministers officially scheduled test launches of the A-4 missiles in Kapustin Yar during September-October 1947. (52)

Transfer to Gorodomlya

After completion of tests in Kapustin Yar, Soviet authorities intensified transfer of German specialists from Podlipki to Gorodomlya. Irmgard Gröttrup made following entries in her diary dated by January 1948:

Once again we are faced with the nightmare of moving. They are making a tremendous drive to transplant everyone to an island near the source of the Volga ... In spite of all protests, the first transport to the island in the Volga is already under way. Helmut has gone with them. He did not want the idea to get about that "It's the boss that's sending us away." Besides, his presence there is meant to boost their morale.

According to the Russian data, as of January 1, 1948, the number of German specialists at Gorodomlya Island was 96 people, not counting family members, while a year later all but two out of 172 Germans working for the Ministry of Armaments were within the confines of the island.

Helmut Gröttrup departed for Gorodomlya on February 20, 1948. His wife was allowed to stay in the suburbs of Moscow until June to care for a sick son. One of the last trains carrying Germans to Gorodomlya left on June 16, 1948. Dr. Umpfenbach remained one of the few Germans in Podlipki, before he was also removed to Gorodomlya. (64)

End of German involvement at OKB-456

From around mid-1948, Germans at OKB-456 were also denied active involvement in the development of a next generation engines. They were still receiving various assignments, however were no longer able to see a "big picture." According to German authors, Germans participated in the development of the KS-50 and ED-140 experimental engines, which could pave the way to the RD-110 engine -- a significantly scaled up version of the propulsion system from the German A-4 rocket. However all related information in the German source clearly came from a single Russian publication, (113) which in turn gives no credit to German engineers for the respective work. The time frame within KS-50 engine was developed and tested (1949) does not match the period, in which German specialists were actively involved into development work at OKB-456, according to the Russian sources. Therefore, the level of German contribution in the project is still open to interpretation.

By the end of 1950, Germans who worked for OKB-456 were sent back to Germany. (113)

Next chapter: Gorodomlya Island

Grounds of RKK Energia in Podlipki, where NII-88 originated in 1946. Copyright © 2000 by Anatoly Zak

German citizens employed by NII-88, most likely Mr. and Mrs. Schwarz. An expert in Russian language, Mrs. Schwarz worked as an interpreter at NII-88. This photo was apparently taken in front of their residence in Bolshevo (see photos below) around 1947. If you have more information about these individuals please contact Anatoly Zak.

Residence of German rocket specialists in the town of Bolshevo near Moscow, as it looked in 1947 (top) and at the beginning of the 21st century. Copyright © 2002 by Anatoly Zak

Residence of German rocket specialists in Valentinovka, near Moscow circa 1947. Credit: Boris Yezhov.

Residence of the German rocket team in the village of Mamontovka near Moscow circa 1947. Credit: Boris Yezhov.

A produce market in the village of Mamontovka frequented by German rocket specialists in 1947. Credit: Boris Yezhov.

Residence of German rocket specialists in Pushkino circa 1947. Credit: Boris Yezhov.

The construction of a test stand for live firings of rocket engines 18 kilometers from the town of Zagorsk in 1949. The project apparently used German expertise and hardware from Germany. Credit: NIIKhIMMash

The KS-50 experimental engine, whose development could possibly involve German specialists. Copyright © 2002 by Anatoly Zak