Peenemünde Army Research Facility

Peenemünde is broadly known for having hosted the first ever large-scale research center and test ground for military rockets, missiles, flying bombs and innovative ordnance and weaponry in the world. The small town of Peenemünde is located on the island of Usedom, a nice, almost flat island on the shore of the Baltic sea, on the border between today’s Germany and Poland – ‘Peene’ is a river having its mouth (‘münde’ in German, from which the name of the place) where Usedom island is.

History – in brief

The Peenemünde site was a creäture of the administration of the Nazi regime in the late Thirties. It grew rapidly to a considerable size especially for the time. The site included an electric power plant, later used after the closure of the research center for supplying energy to the East German power grid, an airport, later converted into an air base and operated by the Air Force of East Germany, a sea port, a series of technical facilities for testing and producing all that was needed to assemble rockets, their systems and engines, as well as for preparing propellants.

There were also several launch pads for missiles and flying bombs, and last but not least, scattered over a broad area, housing for thousands of people, which included high-ranking technicians and people from academia – there was also an advanced wind tunnel -, military/SS personnel, as well as factory workers, including many prisoners of the regime.

The site was so large that a dedicated local railway was built and operated to allow people commuting, modeled on the urban railway of Berlin. The railway network was the third in size in Germany, following Berlin and Hamburg.

This enormous installation was directed by Wehrner von Braun, later to become a technical leader in the US research efforts in the field of rocketry, and a central character in the race for space opposite the Soviets.

Peenemünde was never an operative launch site – it was far too distant from potential targets in Britain for the limited range of flying weapons of those days – but due to its primary relevance as a testing and production site of the v1 flying bombs and later of the v2 missiles, the site became a designated target of very intense bombing raids.

The Peenemünde complex was severely hit in a series of air attacks launched by the Allied British and US air forces in the summer of 1943. After that, production was moved in forced labor camps in central Germany – Mittelbau/Dora being probably the most in-famous – whereas only research and testing was still conducted in Peenemünde, with plans to move progressively more and more equipment to other destinations scattered over the territory of the Third Reich, for which construction was started in the last years of WWII.

The Soviets captured what remained of the complex in Peenemünde at the very end of WWII in May 1945. By common agreement, the Allied put an end to rocket research in Germany, the Soviets materially blowing up every technical building still standing in the area, with the exception of the power plant, the airport and a few others. Parts of the machinery in the powerplant as well as almost all railway tracks were reportedly transferred to the Soviet Union.

Since then, the air base of the East German Air Force has been developed in more instances, adding aircraft shelters, a tower and other technical buildings that are still standing – the airport is today open to general aviation. The power plant was updated over the years by the Communist regime, becoming one of the most polluting plants in Germany, whereas the former launch pads and the area once occupied by technical buildings were rapidly reclaimed by nature.

The following photos were taken during a visit to the site in April 2016.

Sights

Museum

After 1989 and the German reunification, the power plant was soon closed, and a museum (Historical Technical Museum, website here) on the history of the Peenemünde site, recognized worldwide as the cradle of modern rocketry, was opened in it.

Among the few buildings of the Nazi era still standing today, the building of the ticket and book shop of this museum used to be a bunker for governing the power plant also in case of an air raid.

There are three main exhibitions in the museum. The open air exhibition, on the ground of the power plant, is composed of an original v1 launching ramp moved here from France, with a v1 flying bomb assembled from original pieces, a reconstructed v2 rocket, and a local train from the original local railway system.

In the photos it is possible to see the launch system of the v1, which was pushed to its take-off speed by a piston moving in a pipe underneath the bomb, in the body of the ramp. Mostly similar to modern acceleration systems on aircraft carriers, except for the piston was moved as an effect of a chemical reaction involving hydrogen peroxide, and not water steam as it’s most typical for aircraft carriers.

The second and third exhibitions are hosted in the building of the power plant – itself a significant example of industrial architecture from the days of the Nazi regime – and describe the history of the army research center and of the powerplant. The first of these two is the ‘central piece’ of the complex, no visit of Peenemünde is complete without a look at this exhibition.

In the photographs it is possible to see some of the artifacts in the exhibition about rocketry in Peenemünde. It is possible to appreciate the advanced technologies tested here already in those early years, including high pressure mixing of liquid propellants, graphite deflectors for thrust vectoring, inertial navigation systems, turbopumps for pumping the propellant into the combustion chamber at the correct rate. There are also original signs from the area.

Scaled mockups of all items tested in Peenemünde, much more numerous than the v1 and v2, add to the show, together with models of the former launch pads. Especially launch pad ‘VII’, used for the v2 rocket, was so well designed that it was adopted also in the US after the war as a blueprint for their own designs.

A visit to the complex of the power plant may easily take 2 h 30 min for an interested subject.

Former test grounds and launch pads

The launch pads were placed closer to the airport, very close to the northeastern shore of the island, to the north of the village of Peenemünde. Today, this broad ‘ghost area’ is partly fenced, surely not accessible with private vehicles, possibly accessible by foot. It is a kind of natural preserve, with much wildlife around.

The best way to explore this area, without getting lost in the trees and with a chance to spot what is still in place, is going with a society offering guided tours of the site, named ‘Historische Rundfahrt Peenemünde’ (website here). As of 2016 there are tours offered in German three times a day on a regular basis, but it is possible to arrange tours in English upon request at your preferred time – this was my only option as I don’t know much German. In my case, it turned out I was the only visitor on that tour, so I had the guide – a gentleman speaking a very good English, and with an incredible knowledge of many technical matters – all for me for the duration of the whole 3 h 15 min tour. You move mostly with a minivan, so apart from the bumpy road the visit is very comfortable.

The tour starts by the airport of Peenemünde, and you are soon driven into the site. With the help of a digital map, the guide will show where you are standing with respect to the buildings and installations that were originally there. You can see from the photos that Soviets took their job very seriously, so that very little remains of the original structures. You can recognize the original plan of the site mainly by the asphalted roads still in place today – albeit covered in dust.

The most prominent sight in the complex is surely launch pad ‘VII’, once used for the v2. It is possible to spot the containment banks all around the launch site. The concrete flame deflector is still in place, filled with rainwater. The walls of the deflector were water-cooled to resist the extreme heat of the rocket exhaust at takeoff. The water pump occupied a part of the lateral banks, together with measuring equipment and a sheltered observation deck. Still standing is a water nozzle used by firefighters in the – likely – event of fires due to malfunctions in the launching process.

A stone celebrates the launching of the first v2 missile from this site.

The rocket used to be moved to the launching position – above the flame deflector – with a special trolley. Multiple silos were placed around a common track made of concrete, built outside the perimeter of the containment banks. The trolley, loaded on a sliding platform, could move along the concrete track. The missile was collected from the assembly silo, the platform moved along the concrete track to reach the head of a short metal railway track where the trolley could be pushed to reach the flame deflector, in the middle of the containment banks – see the photo of the model above. Like the flame deflector, the concrete guide is still standing today, filled with rain water.

Other interesting sights of the visit are the experimental launch ramps of the v1, placed to the northernmost part of the island, right behind the beach. A first experimental ramp (type 1) was totally made of concrete, and was clearly not adopted for operational use, being too difficult to build and manage. Other two ramps, not so different from one another, were the first examples of types 2 and 3.

Type 3 was adopted operationally and deployed to the coasts of France and Belgium. Inert concrete warheads used in test flights can be seen in the photos, left from the age of testing.

You can see here that all ramps pointed directly to the Baltic sea. Telemetry towers were installed on the neighbor islands of Oie and Ruegen for tracking the experimental flights and taking measurements. Two such towers that are still standing today can be spotted from here in the distance, you can see them in the photos.

Before leaving, having shown a great interest for the topic of aeronautics, I was given the opportunity to tour an incredible exhibition of weapons, systems and artifacts from the area they are putting together in a small farm surviving from the days of WWII – where rabbits were bred for feeding the staff and for making fur for airmen. As of May 2016 this was not yet open to the public.

Among the artifacts you can see in the pictures from this exhibition, TV-guided bombs, experimental solid propellant rockets, a piloted v1 and tons of other incredible items. This shows once more that many technologies later become widespread had been tested here much before they started to be massively used. Also preserved are some parts of aircraft downed during the raids of 1943.

Maybe after finishing with the tour it is interesting to have a brief look to the airport, where the control tower possibly from the Nazi era and some aircraft shelters are still standing. The place can’t be walked freely for it’s still an active GA airport, but part of the former base is being used as a testing track for sport cars and can be approached safely.

My tour lasted more than 3 hours, but at the time of booking my English tour I was offered also shorter options.

K-24 Juliett-class Soviet submarine

This submarine is moored in the port of Peenemünde, a five minutes walk from the entrance to the power plant. This is reportedly the only Juliett class submarine existing today, so visiting is an absolute ‘must-do’ for the committed tourist (website here).

Furthermore, the condition of this unit is still very good, making for an interesting and unusual visit – a unusal fact is that all is written in Cyrillic alphabet, with many ‘CCCP’ factory signs on the labels of the gauges and of the technical stuff. Juliett submarines were designed in the Fifties and operated till the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early Nineties, with a capability for launching cruise missiles with tactical nuclear warheads directed to target ships or coastal targets, from a distance of some hundred miles. They were conventionally powered with large diesel electric-units.

Having been designed after WWII, they are much roomier than German U-Boots from the Nazi era, hence the visit is ok also for claustrophobic people. You can see two launch tubes in a deployed position to the back of the ship.

Visiting may take between five minutes and 1 hour depending on the level of your interest.

Note

A visit of these three items at a reasonable pace but without running may easily fill a day schedule. I know there is much to explore and see on your own in the area of the former complex, but I could only dedicate one day to this site during my trip. I would recommend doing at least the same for an interested person.

In any case, the island with its Baltic shores and light is nice and relaxing, so I would recommend planning a day for Usedom also in case you are not interested only in military history.

Getting there and moving around

The island of Usedom is much larger than the area of the former research complex, which once occupied the northernmost extremity. The island can be approached by car with two bridges in Anklam and Wolgast from mainland Germany, or from Poland. It is very easy to get there by car.

Once in the village of Peenemünde, it’s easy to spot the massive building of the power plant. K-24 can be reached with a five minutes walk from the entrance of the power plant. The place is very popular, so there is a large parking just besides these two attractions.

The pick-up point for the guided tour of the former research center is by the small airport, which is located north of the village, a 1.5 miles drive from Peenemünde. Free parking besides the small office building.

I couldn’t imagine a more convenient way than having a car for moving around, but the island is reportedly very crowded in summer. A train can be used to reach some of the villages on Usedom, so you may consider also this alternative.

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