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Historical Background

V–2 Rocket Standing Upright in Underground Factory, photograph by Walter Frentz. Courtesy of Hanns-Peter Frentz/Amicale des déportés de Dora-Ellrich.

The development of the V–2 missile flowed from the core ideals of the Nazi dictatorship in Germany, including the quest for military domination and the ruthless exploitation of forced labor. The German Army first commissioned Wernher von Braun to develop liquid-fuel rockets for military purposes in late 1932, two months before the Nazis came to power.

In 1936, the Army, as part of the Nazi government’s military expansion, began a secret program to develop ballistic missiles at Peenemünde on the Baltic Sea coast, a program that took on magnified importance when World War II began in 1939. The primary task of the engineers was to develop the A-4 ballistic missile, renamed in 1944 the V–2 vengeance weapon, a wonder weapon that Germany hoped would win the war.

The system of exploiting slave labor to assemble missiles began in 1943. It expanded dramatically after the August 1943 bombings of Peenemünde by the British Royal Air Force. The widespread destruction led the Nazi leadership and the missile staff to move underground and use forced labor. The chosen site was a mine/fuel depot near the town of Nordhausen in Thüringen. Slave laborers from the Buchenwald concentration camp came to extend the tunnels for an underground V–2 factory called Mittelwerk. The new concentration camp outside the tunnels was code named Dora and was later renamed Mittelbau. More than 60,000 prisoners were interred at Dora. Some of them built 6000 V–2 rockets between August 1943 and April 1945. They experienced squalid housing, starvation diets, and draconian discipline with frequent executions.

In April and May 1945, many of the engineers surrendered to the United States, while most of the remaining Dora prisoners endured brutal death marches. The United States Army liberated Mittelbau-Dora on April 11, 1945. Over 20,000 slave laborers died in the Mittelbau-Dora camp system.

The Nazi Regime, the SS, and Slave Labor

Destruction following V–2 Attack on Antwerp. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Peenemünde and V–2 Rocketry

Liftoff of V–2 Rocket at Peenemünde. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Albert Speer, Third Reich Minister of Armaments and War Production, and Adolf Hitler. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.