A Visit to Peenemünde Today

© 1996 by Roland S. Speth

In the summer of 1994, I had the opportunity to visit the historic rocket test site of Peenemünde, from which, on October 3, 1942, the first successful A4 rocket was launched for its 190-kilometer ballistic flight. I visited both the museum which has been open to the general public for several years already, and also the actual test site, including the famous Prüfstand VII which lies within a closed military security area. This is my account.


The village of Peenemünde

Peenemünde today is an almost ordinary village, situated in the northwest of the former East German peninsula of Usedom. Usedom itself forms the most Eastern part of the German Baltic coast, bordering Poland and covering an area of 445 square kilometers. According to my pre-reunification lexicon, the village of Peenemünde had a total of 646 inhabitants in 1983. Of course, this village has never really been quite so ordinary for most of its history. However, perhaps the most unexpected sighting today's visitor is going to make is a full-blown tram line linking the tiny villages of the peninsula together. Normally you would find this kind of tram line joining a big city such as Berlin to its outskirts, but here? In order to find the reason for such luxury, the visitor has to go all the way to one of its termini and find it written in big letters on huge signs: Peenemünde.

Figure 1:The author standing at the "Peenemünde" station of Usedom's tram line.

These days, there isn't much which reminds the visitor of the famous past this place has lived through. Not that visitors would care very much - most of them come here for the pleasant seaside climate anyway, and they would spend their days at the beaches taking a sunbath or going for a walk. At best, from time to time their eyes would wander out to that little island to the northeast, the Greifswalder Oie, wondering what it was all about...

Life in Peenemünde has been dictated by the military for the better part of this century. In August of 1936, work began to build the army testing site in the northern part of the peninsula. In order to keep the secrecy of the location, access to this area was controlled very rigidly. With the end of World War II, the site was taken over by the Soviet Red Army which - in accordance with allied agreements - destroyed whatever they found, provided it wasn't destroyed already. During the 1950s, when the East German People's Army, the Volksarmee, was being built up, the Peenemünde site was taken over by Germans again, using it for military exercises and for teaching young soldiers how to drive their military trucks. With the devolution of the German Democratic Republic, the DDR, this use became also obsolete, and for a short period of a few months or so, the whole north of the island, including the military security area, became open to the public. In 1990, with the advent of German unification, another command took over - new leaders, new army, and the borderpoles went down again, now guarded by the German Bundeswehr.

The former army test site, the Heeresversuchsanstalt, is now devided into three parts, covering the most northern part of the peninsula of Usedom. The west now houses a museum which commemorates both Peenemünde's past as a rocket development center as well as its military history during post-war times. Within the compounds of the museum, next to the little harbour basin, lies the test site's own power plant. Towards the middle, a small airport is situated. Here, I am told, the paying visitor can find the right men to give him a round trip over to the island of Greifswalder Oie and across the peninsula itself. The eastern part - now closed to the public - again is a military security area. Unfortunately, it is just this place where history was really written. Here are the locations for all the different test sites, the Prüfstände, including the most famous of them all, the Prüfstand VII.

The Museum of Peenemünde

The museum of Peenemünde covers a relatively large area and comprises several buildings and an outdoors exhibition. There also is a small gift shop to keep souvenir hunters occupied. My general impression was that the museum is far from being finished - many parts of the exhibition look quite improvised. But that's no critisism at all, because the exhibition itself is very interesting indeed, and the impression of being not just ready and completed to me merely reflects the fact that many aspects within the history of the place remain to be looked upon more thoroughly by historians than it has been possible during the last six years. Wandering from one exhibit to the next, the visitor is being dragged back and forth between admiration for the technical solutions already developed in the 1940s and the disgust of the objectives they were supposed to achieve and of the means they were put into reality involving the forced labour of captives.

My second major impression I gained during my stay at the museum concerns the spirit of the place. Looking at the language, the choice of words in all the documents in the exhibition, it becomes very obvious that the entire machinery involved in the A4 was very much a military one. Sometimes you can read about Peenemünde being the birthplace of rocketry for the exploration of outer space - and in the end, this is perhaps true. But the spirit in which this development was performed, was very much a military, i.e. a destructive one. (Non-German readers may find this association of the military with a destructive motive hard to understand, but I think for many young Germans like myself, are inclined to make this association, bearing our particular history in mind. )

I cannot go into details regarding particular items in the exhibition, but they're very widespread. Here, you will find parts of an A4 engine, or a metal blade to be exposed to the hot stream of exhausts of a climbing rocket in order to control its trajectory. And next to it, there is the housing of a Soviet SS-20 war head, rather unimpressively standing on the floor of a scarcely lighted room...

The exhibition doesn't comment much on single exhibits, it rather leaves the visitor to make up his own mind. This is what I particularly liked about the museum. On the other hand, there are lots of information on technical details and explaining figures readily available. These are rounded off by a couple of very informative films stretching from Peenemünde's own past up to the achievements of today's exploration of space. The films are shown in a cinema-like room prepared inside the historic power plant of the site, which also houses many of the exhibition rooms. So the trip around the exhibition takes the visitor right through the actual locations, adding to the feeling that this is not just another museum on rocketry. By the way, the power plant itself was up and running right until reunification in 1990!

Figure 2:The harbor basin of the Peenemünde text site.
In the background: the power plant, shut down in 1990.

Leaving the indoors exhibition, the visitor strolls among scale models of an A4 rocket - unfortunately there is no original shown - standing next to a genuine part of one of its main nozzles, a full-size mockup of a V1 (please excuse me for using this term, but I know nothing about it but its propaganda name), several Volksarmee MIGs and more...

A striking experience for me were those items which just casually lay around on the ground like a strange in-between of a genuine exhibit and any old junk thrown away after use. Believe it or not - they were the housing of - in my layman's words - bombs!

The last major outdoors sight actually located within the compounds of the museum is the harbor basin of the Heeresversuchsanstalt. At the time of my visit, it provided a secure anchor place for some Volksmarine vessels, put out of duty with the advent of German reunification.

The Oxygen Plant

South of the museum, towards the actual village of Peenemünde, guarded by wire fences and hidden behind high grass, lies the historic Oxygen Plant, the Sauerstoffwerk.

Figure 3:The Oxygen plant, now threatened by collapse.

Unfortunately, the building is threatened by structural collapse - so no visitors are allowed here.

Figure 4:Inside the Oxygen Plant - note the bad state the builing is in.

Inside, large parts of the roof have already come down, and only the unpleasant Hakenkreuz graffities on the walls give a testimony of recent guests.

The Test Site Area and Prüfstand VII

The actual test site, including the Prüfstände, is situated in the northeast of the Usedom peninsula. Being a closed army compound - albeit not an actively used one - it is completely surrounded by a high wire fence and guard patrols to keep unwanted intruders off the site. Even the beach which provides the eastern border of the former test facilities is blocked by the fence stretching out into the sea. If this wasn't enough, big signs keep warning walkers that this is a military security area where shotguns may expected to be used, while another group of signs points out the area may still be infested by dumped ammunition...

Figure 5:A warning sign blocks the beach leading to the test site area.

I won't go into the details of how my friend and me finally managed to get access to the site beside its relative security, in order to preserve the privacy of the place and to leave the remaining artifacts undisturbed. Let me just say that among the museum staff there were one or two very helpful chaps who made our visit possible. I must however stress that in fact, I would strongly recommend to take the dangers expressed on the warning signs very seriously - so please don't risk your health and take your fate in your own hands.

Having walked through the high wheeds for quite a while after having entered the test site from the south, the first signs of its troubled past came in the shape of a couple of concrete steps leading down to a small bunker dug into the ground near the beach. We had just finished our lunch break on top of a hunter's outlook which provided a splendid view of the small island named Greifswalder Oie which lies about 8 km from the coast. It was this little island were, in 1937, the first few "shots" were fired before the actual test stands of Peenemünde were ready to be used: more or less unsuccessful launches of the A3 rocket, precursor to the better known A4 rocket.

Figure 6:Distant view of the island of Greifswalder Oie.

Starting immediately after the little bunker, we found an old road leading further inland in a northwestern direction. I had brought a copy of an old map dating from 1943 which clearly showed the net of railroads and streets cut into the woods covering this part of the peninsula. Although the actual rail tracks were not there any more, the angles with which the roads and footways met each other gave us some idea on how to orient ourselves according to our map - despite it's being more than 50 years out of date!

Following our way, again for quite a while, we found ourselves approaching a very strange-looking group of trees - dead trees - directly in front of us. They were all grey and naked, and not a single leaf was hanging from their branches. And so looked the bushes around them. A few more steps and we saw the reason: a large pile of tons, probably leaking their poisonous contents of chemical waste into the ground, made us turn even further to the west in order to avoid any closer contact with this deadly waste dump.

Soon after, the woods opened up into a wide plane of wheeds stretching out to the north. In the distance, the heavily corroded remains of a couple of military trucks looked sadly as if to confirm the rusting signs stating that this was a kind of driving school used by the East Germans' Volksarmee. Passing the plane, we soon left all signs of human activity behind us again, except for the road-like clearing we were following.

After a while, a big mound of earth, perhaps about ten meters in height and covered with grass and trees, began to stretch along the right side of our road. Going on, it became obvious that the regular shape and appearance of this wall couldn't be of natural origin, but before we finally grasped what its true nature was, the mound opened up and revealed it all: the famous Prüfstand VII - the authentic location where, on October 3, 1942, the first successful 190-kilometer ballistic flight of an A4 rocket had lifted off into space!

And now, more than half a century on, there's nothing to remind today's visitor of this historic date. No plaque, no commemorative stone - nothing. Only silence. Leaving us to our own thoughts. One moment thinking about the technical triumph of shooting a man-made object out of the Earth's atmosphere, the next one reminding ourselves of what this project was all about: warfare. And then again, trying to imagine how all this looked 52 years ago.

Figure 7:The servicing trench of the famous Prüfstand VII.

The entire complex of Prüfstand VII was surrounded by a high earth mound in order to shield the rocket and launch facilities from heavy winds blowing along the Baltic coast. This entire mound is still there today, marking the characteristic oval shape of the stand. The central feature inside the wall is the large rectangular servicing trench, located in the northern curve of the oval. It is now completely filled with water. Looking down to its ground, it reveals nothing but boulders of concrete and twisted rods of steel. At the museum I have been told that fearless divers had already searched the floor of this trench - despite the apparent dangers involved with all the protruding metal and concrete edges - in order to secure any original parts of the A4 and launch equipment for archeological preservation.

Figure 8:Looking across the oval from the southern curve of the mound .

The large plane inside the oval is now covered by high wheeds and trees. It was particularly astonishing to me to see the height of these trees and find how much terrain Nature has won back from human intruders during these fifty years. Here and there, especially in the vicinity of the water-filled trench, large plates of broken concrete stretch out from the ground into the air - giving evidence of the Red Army having done all they could to make sure Germany was never to use this place for developing rockets again. Back in the 1950s, they conducted a series of explosions in accordance with allied agreements to achieve this objective.

Figure 9:Protruding concrete plates give evidence of Soviet destruction campaign.

There are many rumors circling about the facilities of Peenemünde. One of them says that the entire mound of Prüfstand VII is undertunneled by a secret pathway. Obviously, we had a close look ourselves, and, well, in one of the explosion craters in the wall itself, we found a small whole - perhaps just big enough for a man to slip through - leading into the mould. It remains to be seen whether this is just the entrance to a tunnel reveiling more information about Prüfstand VII.

Figure 10:The author standing inside an explosion crater in the Prüfstand VII mound.

With the afternoon coming to a close and a long footmarch and bycycle ride before us, we had to leave Prüfstand VII. For a while, we tried to pay the V1 facilities in the far north of the peninsula a short visit. However, when we lost our way several times and found ourselves in deep grass, we gave up and left the area of the Heeresversuchsanstalt Peenemünde.

Peenemünde - 50 years on

With the rediscovery of the Peenemünde test site and the construction of the museum reflecting its past after German reunification in 1990, understanding this aspect of German history has only just begun. I will therefore not even try to give any valuation of this period. In 1992, the discussions about how to handle the 50th anniversary of the first successful A4 launch clearly show that Peenemünde still is an open wound in the German conscience.

For historians as well as those of us Germans interested in the history in rocket development, a lot of work remains to be done in the case of the Heeresversuchsanstalt Peenemünde. In the German language, we have a strange expression for that: "Die Geschichte aufarbeiten" - working off history...

Further reading

Walter Dornberger: Peenemünde - Die Geschichte der V-Waffen, Ullstein Frankfurt (1989)

© 1996 by Roland S. Speth (Photographs and Text, speth@hermes.amp.uni-hannover.de)
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