Hitler’s Mystery Mega-Structures in Central Europe

During the last two years of WWII, the Wehrmacht of Nazi Germany was slowly retreating from the eastern front, pushed back by the mighty blows of the Red Army. The bombing runs carried out by the western Allies from airfields in Britain were systematically hitting most urban centers in mainland Germany and over the territory occupied by the Nazis. It is hard to imagine, but it was in the year 1944, when the destiny of Germany was almost sealed, that industrial production in Hitler’s Third Reich reached an all-time record.

At that time the Germans were desperately short of fuel, raw materials and troops, and their production efforts would not spare them from a complete defeat in 1945. Yet it was in the last stages of the war that some of the most ambitious industrial facilities were designed, built and in some cases made operative before the end of the war.

The driver of the design was in most cases the need to move production lines to secluded and well protected areas, difficult to spot and to destroy through air bombing. As a result, these sites were placed far from urban centers. They were also designed to withstand bombing, by putting them underground, or building them with substantial reinforcement, making large use of one of Nazi Germany’s favorite materials – reinforced concrete.

In this chapter two major sites of this kind are described. One is in southwestern Poland, a region which had been part of the German Empire for long before WWII. The second is in eastern Bayern, today one of Federal Germany’s most prosperous states, close to the border with the Czech Republic. Photographs were taken in late summer 2018.

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Sights

Project ‘Riese’, Poland

Construction around this cluster of underground sites started in late 1943, and reportedly lasted until the closing stages of WWII, just days before the Soviets entered the region. The name ‘Riese’ means ‘giant’ in German, and it is surely well suited for this complex, which while far from finished is really striking in size. It was actually composed of at least six major construction sites, which in the intention of their designers should have been developed deeper in the mountains, until a link could be established between them forming a formidable network of tunnels and large halls.

Besides the size and historical meaning of these sites, what makes project ‘Riese’ so fascinating is also the actual purpose of this incredible complex is far from established. Three major theories exist in this respect. The complex might have been intended to be an underground industrial city, a kind of Noah’s Ark for the ‘superior race’ embodied by the top-ranking military and governmental staff of the Reich, or a gigantic secret laboratory for innovative technologies.

What is sure is that the construction was carried out by forced labor, mainly by prisoners of Gross-Rosen concentration camp, just a few miles north of the complex. For the scope, the Nazis created a number of satellite camps next to the entrance of the  construction sites. Rather incredibly, only very scant traces of the project remain in the written records of key figures of Nazi Germany – Albert Speer’s personal diary notably reports some millions marks allocated for project ‘Riese’, and at some point after the war he cited the item resulting from the completion of the construction works, whatever its purpose, as sized to be capable of hosting some tens of thousands people.

Today, six construction sites have been discovered, of which two – Osowka and Rzeczka, the most conspicuous – have been opened to the public, whereas the other are visitable basically for speleologists only.

Osowka

The first visitable site is in the town of Osowka. This site is composed of two parts, one underground with access from the side of a hill, the other close to the top of the same hill.

The underground part can be visited only with a guide. The plant of the completed construction features two accesses, and you will be driven in using the first and out using the other. Between the entrances, the site is mainly composed of an array of parallel tunnels pointing towards the mountain, connected by long halls.

Close to the entrance you can spot a concrete guardhouse with loopholes for machine guns. Some wooden structures like in a mine have been put in place to give an idea of the appearance of the working technique at the time of construction.

Most tunnels have been dug but not reinforced with concrete walls, whereas others are almost complete, showing a peculiar two-level design. The lower level features a smaller section, and the top one a taller, round shaped section.

A feature of the ‘Riese’ complex is a special technique for building the inner concrete coat of the rocky tunnels, producing the distinctive ‘church-ceiling-like’ appearance of some of the halls, with a round shape and frames close to one another.

The Osowka site features also a collection of smaller artifacts, collected from the ground and dating from the construction years, i.e. from late WWII.

Life-size silhouettes of some WWII tanks are on display, to show how the size of these items was totally compatible with the size of the tunnels, in support of a potential use of the site for weapon manufacture.

The outside part, which can be accessed freely, is the most mysterious. At the base of the trail leading uphill you can spot a strange concrete platform, with provision for – possibly – interred pipelines.

Close to the top of the hill you can find a huge concrete platform, with an apparently chaotic ensemble of slots, pipes, handles, stairs and pools. This item has been deemed close in shape to the base of a service building for the valves and pipelines of a power-plant. Theories have flourished in support of the use of this item as a prototype control system for a nuclear power-plant.

The nuclear program of the Nazis, which indeed existed and is even documented to some extent, is shrouded in mystery for what concerns the actual findings obtained during the war. These dark spots are also due to the destruction of most of the hardware connected with the program everywhere in Germany, and with the inherent secret nature of the program itself. No evidence exists of the Osowka site in the public papers about the nuclear studies of the Reich, so the true purpose of this object is likely to remain an unsolved riddle.

Close by this platform, you can find an original concrete building, part of the same construction plan. It is pretty long, with large windows, and likely intended for troops or technical staff.

Rzeczka

Compared to Osowka, this site is more centered on the inside part. Again, there are two entrances, close by a creek on the side of a hill, providing access to a network of tunnels. Similar to Osowka, close by the entrance you can find guard-houses in concrete. These were built soon, possibly for keeping a watch on the forced workers.

The construction works in Rzeczka were less advanced than those in Osowka. Yet thanks to the lack of the concrete coat, you can appreciate the size of the tunnels, some of which are really tall.

There are small collections of artifacts found in the tunnels, and an original concrete room offers a description of all discovered sites of the ‘Riese’ project.

A 1:1 copy of a V-1 German flying bomb has been placed in one of the tunnels, to show the compatibility of the size of this weapon with the tunnel. Such weapons were reportedly assembled in underground facilities elsewhere in Germany.

Visiting is again possible only with a guide. Some multi-media experiences with sounds, lights and voices are included in the tour, but these are not so impressive for those who don’t understand Polish.

On the outside, you can spot some relics from construction years, including trolleys, and concrete slabs watermarked with symbols of the local construction companies tasked with the practical realization of the site. There is also a copy of a V-2 rocket, operative in the last months of WWII but little effective in changing the fate of Nazi Germany.

Getting there and moving around

As pointed out, the sites connected with project ‘Riese’ are many, but most of them are not visitable unless to specialists and with the help of a speleologist. On the other hand, the two sites of Osowka and Rzeczka are professionally operated as primary tourist attractions. The distance from these two sites is about 20 minutes by car, so you can surely arrange the tour of both sites on the same day, with much spare time in your daily schedule.

At Osowka you can find a large parking and a fully equipped visitor center, where you can book a guided tour, or join a departing one – the only way to get inside. Please note that the number of people admitted on each tour is relatively small, so I would suggest booking at least one day in advance through their website (partly also in English) to be sure to get a place at the time you like. They offer several different tours. The most complete include a visit to a part of the underground site which can only be accessed by boat. This is given only on some days by reservation, and only for groups. The standard tour of the inside is offered several times a day.

The guided may turn out really boring, cause you are provided an audio-guide in English with explanations lasting a couple of minutes for each of the circa ten stops, in face of the Polish-speaking guide talking about 5 minutes per site. You may try to spend your spare time taking good pictures, but even though groups are relatively small, they tend to obstruct the view inside, leaving poor chances for acceptable shots. Furthermore, lighting is not very good, so a tripod would be recommended, except you don’t have the time and chance for undisturbed long poses. Therefore, if you are interested in top-level pictures, you would better arrange a dedicated tour out of the normal touristic offer. Otherwise, you’d better go prepared to a difficult visit.

The outside part of the site is less frequented and more rewarding. It can be reached in about ten minutes following a pretty steep, unpaved trail in the trees. This part is unfenced and unguarded.

The Rzeczka site has only an inside part, which can be visited only on a guided tour. You can join one of the frequent tours they provide even without reservation. There is a small visitor center and plenty of parking space. Similar to Osowka, the guide will speak in Polish, and you are provided an audio-guide in English. The visit lasts less than in the case of Osowka, and the audio-guide explanations are more proportionate to the speech of the Polish-speaking guide, making for a more enjoyable visit. The multi-media experiences are of little relevance for non Polish-speaking people. Outside you can find also some panels with explanations on the history of the site in both Polish and English. Website with some info in English here.

The tunnels in Rzeczka are poorly lighted too, so photographing will be difficult unless with a tripod, but the conditions are not very favorable for operating with a tripod – many people around and short times between stops along the tour.

‘Weingut I’ Aviation Industry Complex, Germany

The giant complex known as ‘Weingut I’, the original codename attributed by the Nazi staff at the time of its design and construction, is the direct result of a plan to relocate all major industrial production lines of the Reich to protected areas, far from the line of the front and from any major urban center. In this particular case, the new factory was intended to shelter the production line of the new Junkers Jumo 004 jet engines for the ‘Schwalbe’ – also known as Messerschmitt Me-262, this was the first jet fighter in the world to be pushed into service, back in 1944.

The huge factory was designed based on a basic module made of a reinforced concrete arch, some 250 ft open, 100 ft tall and 10 to 15 ft thick. This item was to be built on site and partly buried under ground level. Twelve such modules were needed for the complete hangar, with a total intended length of the factory of around 1.200 ft. Of the planned twelve sections, seven were actually built between mid-1944 and the end of the war.

Despite the intended scope was that of hiding the factory to protect it from aerial reconnaissance, due to the size of the construction works the object was reportedly spotted by US aircraft, but not attacked. Actually, the special construction was tested against explosives by the US Army after the war, resulting in the collapse of all modules except one, which is still standing today besides the pretty sizable relics of the others.

The site is not actively guarded, but it is located in a regional nature preserve, so access is through a nice walk in the trees. Once next to the hangar you can find multiple access points.

Close to the main arch, the only one still standing, it is possible to find an explanatory panel in German only. It commemorates also the forced laborers from the nearby concentration camps, who had to take part substantially in the construction works.

Walking under the arch is at your own risk, cause despite the bulky appearance of the structure, smaller pieces of concrete are hanging from from the ceiling. However, a walk inside will give you the most striking impression of the size of the hangar.

Just nearby the remaining module to the west you can find a walkable, half interred bunker, likely with a technical function which is today hard to imagine.

The module still standing today is the westernmost of the hangar, so walking east you will have the chance to step on the roof of the demolished modules. A number of thick iron rods can be spot at ground level.

Walking along the former southern side of the hangar, you can spot a deep well, probably part of the construction strategy. It may have been used to take out the gravel from beneath the base of the arches to lower them to a rest position on more compact ground.

Along the same side you can find a way to walk below the fallen structure. You can also get a view of the edge of one of the modules.

The eastern end of the complex is probably the most hazardous, cause you find an unprotected concrete cliff a good 10 ft high, constituted by the edge of a fallen module.

All in all, the place is a nice example of the undeniable structural design abilities of the German military, really interesting to visit both from a technical viewpoint and as a witness of the utopian visions of the Nazis, which unfortunately cost the lives of many.

Getting there and moving around

Reaching the trail-head is very easy by car. Leaving Mühldorf am Inn for Waldkraiburg along the road St2352, about 0.5 miles south of the crossing with St2550 you will find a sizable gravel factory to your right, preceded by an unpaved road taking west in the trees. You can park on the unpaved road on the northern side of the factory – probably a heir of the original factory built to feed the construction works of the hangar.

From there, you should take the unpaved trail into the trees, closed to vehicle traffic. It is another 0.5 miles to the site, on a flat and easy trail. A quick scan of the Google map will allow you to plan the trip. The place is not remote, cell phones work and you may use a virtual map to get oriented on site. Visiting might take about 2 hours for a very interested subject, including the trip from the parking and back, plus all time needed for pictures .

Hitler’s Wonder Weapons in Northern France

Following the end of the Battle of Britain, mainly fought in the air in summer-fall 1940, the plans of the Axis for an invasion of Britain were halted and progressively updated and reconfigured. The successful invasion of Holland, Belgium and Northern France had led to a stabilization of the border of the Axis territory on the Atlantic coast of Europe earlier in 1940. Since then and until the counter-invasion by the Allied troops in June 1944, the military command of Germany decided for the fortification of the coast with the Atlantic Wall, a series of naval gun batteries, ammo storages, barracks, radar stations, command and communication centers, and everything else that was needed to detect and contrast an attack from the West, both from the sea and from the air.

But the coast of the Atlantic was not considered only as a border line to be defended. Some large-caliber cannons of the Atlantic Wall built in the region of Calais on the narrowest sector of the English Channel, were capable of hitting targets on British mainland. Furthermore, many port towns on the cost of France were converted into military ports from where the Kriegsmarine operated regularly with various material, including the famed underwater U-Boot forces, running offensive missions against all sorts of Allied ships in various sectors of the North Sea and the Atlantic ocean. Airbases were routinely operated in the regions of Northern France, Belgium and Holland both for bombing raids over Britain and later for fighting missions in defense of the occupied and the innermost territories of the Reich from the Allied bombing runs. With the help of the US, these began to systematically target the Axis in 1943, operating from Britain.

Finally, the newest and most advanced conventionally armed weapons of WWII started to be operated from the coastal area in 1944 by the German armed forces. The famous ‘Retaliation Weapons’, or ‘Vergeltungswaffen’ in German – from which the famous abbreviation ‘V’ of the V-1, V-2 and V-3 – suffered from limited range, and so had to be launched from close enough to their intended target – Britain, by design. Today some relics of the launch sites and some buildings connected with the deployment of such ordnance can be visited when touring the area of the Pas-de-Calais, the northernmost province of France.

The following photographs, taken in summer 2016, portray four notable sites of the kind in that region.

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Sights

V-1 – Ardouval

Since 1943 new weapons enriched the arsenal of the German armed forces. The famous V-1, manufactured as Fieseler-103, reached operational readiness and began to be deployed that year. This relatively simple, subsonic, air-breathing – i.e. non-rocket-propelled – flying bomb, while not very accurate, could be deadly against large target cities like London. Its limited range forced deployment in the occupied territories closest to Britain.

Many launch bases were prepared in Northern France, from where Southern England was well within range. The V-1 was used only after the D-Day – the first registered operative launch was on June 13th, 1944, against Britain. By the end of Summer 1944 the Allied had pushed the Germans roughly back to the region of the Ardennes in Northeastern France, on the border with Belgium. Consequently, all bases in Northwestern France were silenced. Later in the war, V-1 were still launched against liberated Belgium and central England, from more inland and further north bases by the retreating German forces. Total launched V-1 were actually in the order of the tens of thousands.

The Ardouval site is possibly the only V-1 site officially opened to the public in France. It is an open-air museum with no fences, so it is open h24 every day of the year. The site was severely hit before by Allied air raids before it could enter service, so no flying bomb was ever launched from it. Actually, the bomb craters can be clearly spotted in the trees all around. Going far from the paved walkways is not advised due to danger of unexploded ordnance.

The installation is rather extensive, and traces of some original buildings and service roads remain to this day. Among them a concrete water basin, a generator building, a building with a concrete arch for aligning navigation instruments prior to the launch.

Two curved trails from the V-1 body storage to the operational buildings and launch ramp can be spotted. The launch ramp was reconstructed, but just besides you can see the launch observation bunker, with a slot for visual checking the launch from very close to the lower end of the inclined ramp.

Barely recognizable ruins of other buildings can be spotted as well. Touring the place is not complicated, thanks to an explanatory panel close to the parking. It is advisable to take a picture of it with your phone, to be sure to see everything the site has to offer. Time required is about 45 min.

Getting there and moving around

The site of Ardouval (Val Ygot) is located close to the town of Ardouval and Pommeréval. It can be easily reached by car from the latter, less than 2 miles from the town center, driving west on the D99. Large free parking on site.

V-2 – Watten & Wizernes

Much more advanced than V-1, the V-2 was the first operational rocket in the world. Invented by the team of Wernher von Braun and tested in Peenemünde, on the border between today’s Germany and Poland, this liquid-propelled rocket came in the latest stage of WWII. The production totalled around 5000 units, and about 3100 were actually launched during the war, basically only from mobile launch platforms. Targets were mainly Belgium and Britain, but the first successful launch took place against Paris in September 1944. As for the V-1, range was among the weaknesses of the design, so that a deployment close to the Atlantic coast was necessary for targeting Britain from mainland Europe.

Mobile gantries were well designed and allowed a relatively fast re-deployment, a critical feature in the last stage of the war when the frontline was moving eastward at fast pace. Despite that, Hitler’s personal preference was with huge, autonomous, fixed launch bases, for which design and construction work began soon after the occupation of Northern France.

Two sites were created. The first was close to Watten, in the forest of Eperlecques – about 40 miles from the coast to the south-east of Calais – and was codenamed ‘Kraftwerk Nordwest’. Work on this monstrous bunker – probably the largest you will ever see from this age – started in early 1943 in a forest, at ground level and with little natural defences.

This installation was designed for the assembly of V-2 rockets arriving by train, and for supplying them with oxygen prepared in place in a dedicated branch of this bunker-factory. The intended role of this installation was the creation of a ‘rocket revolver’, capable of launching rockets at a frequency of 1.5 per hour, 24 hours a day. The Allies did not overlook the potential strategic relevance of the site and bombed it repeatedly. During a raid carried out by US forces in summer 1943 the site still under construction was seriously damaged. Since then it was decided to turn it into a liquid oxygen production factory for supplying other launch sites. Soon after the disembarkment, the place was finally abandoned after being hit by Tallboy bombs by the British. After capture in September 1944 it was decided to further demolish it by testing several new ordnance against a target so hard to crack.

The site is open as a regular museum, which can be visited on self-guided tours. A trail in the trees leads you to the main bunker, the tallest part of which can be entered. A V-2 mockup allows you to appreciate the proportions of the building. Some of the tunnels can be seen from the outside.

Also in place are a V-1 launch ramp, cannons and vehicles. Time required for visiting may vary between about 30 minutes to more than 1 hour depending on your level of interest.

The second site was built starting mid-1943 close to Wizernes, and not far from the previous site in Watten. This was codenamed ‘Schotterwerk Nordwest’, and it was intended for the same basic scope of the other, but it had also to be built to avoid heavy damage from air-dropped bombs. The location was extremely favorable, making use of a former quarry, with tunneling in the body of a U-shaped hill. A distinctive feature still remaining today is the concrete dome covering part of the site. The place was stricken with usual and Tallboy bombs after the D-Day. This caused the collapse of the entrances to the tunnel system, and of the side of the hill. The dome moved and banked to on side, but notably it did not break apart.

The place is open as a major documentation center. Besides the usual IMAX theatre in a building close to the parking, you can visit on a self-guided tour both the tunnels in the side of the hill and the area below the concrete dome – it can be incredibly hot and suffocating there, where it’s cold in the tunnels. You can find here much information about the history of the site and more in general of the deployment of the V-1 and V-2 in the area. A complete visit without the IMAX may take 45 minute to 1.5 hours depending on your interests.

Getting there and moving around

Both sites are easily reachable by car. The site of Watten is located is about two miles west of the town. You can reach it driving west on the D207 from the crossing between D207 and D300. A road called Rue des Sarts takes to the right after about .6 mile. The local name of the place is ‘Le Blockhaus d’Eperlecques’.

The site of Wizernes is located on the D210 about 1 mile south of Wizernes. The local name is ‘La Coupole’ – the Dome’.

Both sites are clearly signed.

V-3 – Mimoyecques

The hatred against the indomitable British enemy reached a pinnacle with the deployment of the V-3, reportedly Hitler’s favorite, a supercannon capable of shelling London from a distance of around 100 miles. The installation in Mimoyecques, close to Cap-Gris-Nez, about 8 miles southwest of Calais, was single-targeted against the ‘symbol town’ of London, for the cannon could not be oriented – it was built inside a hill and pointed upwards in a fixed attitude. The design was based on the older idea of multiple-charged shells, i.e. shells which were accelerated gradually to a very high target speed while running along an exceptionally long (430 ft) barrel. The site in Mimoyecques, codenamed ‘Bauvorhaben 711’, by design accommodated 25 such barrels, allowing the battery to shoot at the very high rate of 10 shells per minute, all the day round. The tunnel was designed to allow a train entering it.

Work on the site began in summer 1943, but the site never reached completion and was severely hit in summer 1944 by Allied bombing raids. President Kennedy’s elder brother reportedly died in an accident on one of them. It is noteworthy that the novelty and originality of the design disoriented Allied intelligence, who did not understand the role of the installation before capture in September 1944.

The concept of supercannons, albeit never provedly succesful from an operational viewpoint, was destined to emerge again in recent history, with a similar installation proposed by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and designed with the help of a Canadian company – its manager being reportedly killed by the Mossad to hamper realization.

Together with the other ‘V sites’, Mimoyecques was almost completely demolished in order to avoid any further strategic use. It is reported that Winston Churchill in person pushed for this, to the aim of preventing the yet-to-be-established government of France from any action against Britain – some speculate that what the Prime Minister likely feared was the establishment of Communist rule in France.

This is site is not so famous as the V-2 sites, and not similarly ‘institutional’, yet there are opening times. You can go on a self-guided tour of the tunnels, where you can find many explanatory panels, as well as a reconstruction of one of the barrels. It’s always too warm for me, but I must say this time it was incredibly cold inside… The visit may take 30-45 minutes. Guided tours are available in French.

On the outside, just besides the tunnel entrance you can find a steel plate once on top of the site armouring the outlets of the barrels. The concrete construction on top of the place lies on a private property. I could only take one pic before being forced to withdraw…

 Getting there and moving around

The area is very nice, with the lovely Cap-Gris-Nez and Cap-Blanc-Nez a few miles away. The site can be reached on the D249 between the small towns of Bainghen and Landretun-le-Nord. Large free parking on site.

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.