Tuesday 15 September 2015

The Peenemunde Rocket Centre (1936 - 1945)

Until relatively recently parts of the Peenemunde peninsular in Northern Germany were closed to the public. However nowadays it is possible to explore all of the areas of interest - the harbour, the V2 development and test stand sites, the Luftwaffe jet and V1 establishment and the feeder town of Karlshagen.

Many of the original structures on the site were destroyed in bombing raids during WW2. In particular Operation Hydra when 596 RAF bombers targeted the V2 production facilities on the night of the 17 / 18 August 1943.
V2 rocket from the top of Peenemunde Power Station
However, there are a couple of very significant buildings that survived the bombing raid. The first is the Power Plant which is now an excellent museum documenting the early years of rocket development at Peenemunde. From the roof one can gain a really good view of the surrounding landscape. The second building of note can be seen on the drive up to the museum on the Eastern side of the peninsula. This is the WW2 era liquid oxygen plant which survived the bombing raids and remained operational until 1945.
Ground floor of liquid oxygen plant, Peenemund
The interior of the building was partially destroyed by the Soviet authorities in compliance with the 1945 Potsdam agreement. However the bulk of the massive structure defied attempts at demolition and is now accessible - albeit only by climbing a security fence. The effort of getting in is well worth it. Inside it is possible to see the huge gantries that were used to move the heavy oxygen cylinders and the fixings on the floor which originally secured massive storage tanks.
Soviet U461 in Peenemund Harbour
The nearby harbour served the entire Pennemunde site. The main point of interest nowadays is a 1980s era Juliett-class submarine. Decommissioned in the 1980s, this cold war relic is open for public tours.

Peenemunde is mainly remembered for the development of ballistic missile capability the fulmination of which was the terrifying V2 rocket. However, at the end of the peninsular the Luftwaffe had an entirely separate research and development facility based around the airfield. On the Western side one can find the remains of V1 test ramps. On the airfield, the Luftwaffe tested early jet aircraft such as the Messerschmitt 162, the Arado Ar 234 and the Heinkel He 162. The original control tower can be seen across the runway which is still used for recreational flights.
Command Bunker & Control Tower at Peenemunde Airfield
MiG Fighter at Peenemunde Airfield
At the main entrance to the airfield there are a couple of cold war era MiG fighters. On the right hand side of the approach road there is a wall behind which there are a number of camouflaged cold war era barrack buildings and hangers.

Nearby, on the old military road that runs around the penisular the old railway siding can be seen alongside the site of the old Karlshagen concentration camp. 

The perimeter of the latter was marked out by four blockhouses - two of which (at least) survive. Little is known about the various populations interned in the camp. However it is clear that many died at this site - some as a result of the first Allied bombing raid in 1943 when a significant proportion of bombs fell short of the primary target area.
Railway Station - Peenemunde Airfield

Continuing the drive around the perimeter road, the areas once dominated by ten V2 test stands is now forested. Further on the housing estate originally built to house the rocket scientists and their families is now part of the enlarged Karlshagen village. On the left hand side, tucked away off the road, is the WW2 era cemetery. This sad place contains a number of monuments and two burial areas (one for German nationals and the other for foreign workers and camp internees). The vast majority were victims of the 1943 Operation Hydra raid.
Guardhouse at Karlshagen Camp

As an aside, two members of my family became fatal casualties on 1st February 1945 when a V2 fell on group of houses behind West Ham Town Hall in London. Matilda and Dennis Curme (mother & son) were amongst 30 people killed by this particular explosion. 

To see photographs of a V1 launch ramp taken by my Great Aunt, Joan Curme, on a school visit a couple of years after the end of WW2 click here.