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Museum sheds light on German rocket achievements April 12, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Museums.

The site where German scientists developed the notorious V2 rocket during World War II has become one of the country’s most popular tourist attractions.

Around a quarter of a million people each year flock to the sparsely populated northern island of Usedom to visit the Historical Technical Information Centre in the village of Peenemuende. Located in a former power station, the museum details the development of the rockets used to target Britain during the war and examines the role played by the men who designed them.

Put together over a five-year period until 2001, the 5,000 square metres of exhibition space show original rocket parts, documentary films of launches and interviews with witnesses of the events.

Booster rockets used in space exploration as well as guided missiles of the Cold War era have their roots in research and development carried out at the Army Test Centre in Peenemuende. What for some is the “cradle of space travel” that opened the gateway to the future is for others a “breeding ground for weapons of mass destruction and terror. ”

The scientific achievements that led to the launch of the world’s first rocket stand in stark contrast to the suffering caused by Hitler’s “Vergeltung” or Vengeance weapon V2 and its predecessor V1. A total of 3,000 V2s and 22,000 V1s targeted cities in England, France and Belgium, causing heavy civilian casualties because of their inadequate accuracy. Some 8,000 died in London alone.

“The concept of the exhibition is to demonstrate the two ends of the rocket’s parabola, from the takeoff to what happened where it landed,” says museum spokeswoman Ute Augustat.

In addition to those killed and wounded in the rocket attacks, thousands of concentration camp inmates, prisoners of war and slave labourers died while working in Peenemuende and the mass production sites of the V2.

The first part of the exhibition shows the inaugural flight of the new “wonder weapon” on October 3, 1942 and the role played by its chief scientist, Wernher von Braun. A second section is devoted to the further development of rocket technology after the war, including the Russian and US space programmes as well as the arms race during the Cold War.

When Britain learned the Nazis were developing a new flying bomb, the Royal Air Force launched an air raid on Peenemuende on August 17-18, 1943, dropping 1,900 tons of bombs from 596 aircraft. Some 750 people died in the raids, among them 500 to 600 slave labourers killed when bombs went off target and hit their barracks. There is a memorial to them in the neighbouring town of Karlshagen.

After the air raid, production of the V2s was moved to a more secure underground tunnel network built by concentration camp inmates in the Kohnstein mountains near Nordhausen in central Germany. The horrendous conditions in which prisoners were worked to death or succumbed to sickness, hunger and torture on the part of the SS guards, claimed more than 20,000 lives. After the war, more than 420 German scientists and technicians involved in the V2 project were recruited to work in the United States, Britain, Russia and France.

Von Braun was admitted to the US after his Nazi record was sanitized and went on to become a leading figure in the development of the carrier rocket used in the Apollo space programme that landed the first man on the moon. The village of Peenemuende was less fortunate. It was used as a Soviet military base, then taken over by the East German armed forces until unification in 1990.

The last soldiers were withdrawn in 1994 and the area returned to its original roots as a fishing village. Attempts to attract outside investment have met with little success.

The approach to the village is dominated by the ruins of a factory designed to produce liquid oxygen for the V2 and a dilapidated apartment complex that has been empty since being abandoned by the military.

Large areas around the museum, including the original ramp used to launch the V2, are off-limits to the general public because of the danger posed by uncollected munitions. In addition to the V2 exhibit, the centre’s grounds contain a display of MiG jet fighters and other Soviet warplanes as well as helicopters and a guided missile patrol boat. In a separate part of the harbour adjacent to the centre, there is a 4,127-ton former Soviet Juliett-class submarine which can now be visited as a floating museum.

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