The Rest of the Rocket Scientists
Some went west. This is the story of the ones who went east.
- By Anatoly Zak
- Air & Space magazine, September 2003
(Page 4 of 6)
“The camp looks like an outsize toy village transplanted from Germany,” Irmgard wrote. “There are flowers in the touchingly well-tended gardens, and on the balconies, the windows are curtained and the washing on the lines is spotless.” More than 50 years later, a visitor can still find many houses at Gorodomlya surrounded by rose bushes, their bright flowers striking a dissonant note in that harsh landscape.
The German engineers and their family members could obtain permits to leave the island, but only for limited periods, and only with a Soviet escort. According to Valery Bukreev, a Russian engineer who has lived on Gorodomlya since the 1960s, the weekly trips German housewives made across the lake drove up prices at the local produce market. During winter the lake iced over, and the wives pulled sleds loaded with provisions. During spring thaws the trip became more dangerous, and Irmgard Gröttrup remembered watching Russians hop from one piece of floating ice to another.
Compared to Moscow, life on the island was primitive. The first German families to arrive had been given apartments with no bathtubs but plenty of bugs. (I learned on my first morning there that the descendants of these bloodsucking insects remain.) Eventually, after much bickering with the Soviet authorities and their own efforts on the weekends, things improved. In the summer of 1948, the Germans built a tennis court. “Even today,” Bukreev says, “the surface of this court gets dry in minutes after the rain, so well was it laid out.” The Soviets provided schools, which had 150 German students at one point, some of whom went on to college in St. Petersburg.
The real problem, though, was not the living conditions or even the lack of freedom, but disillusionment with the work. Gröttrup was pleased with the caliber of his German colleagues, who were well equipped and had more cohesiveness as a unit than he had seen back in Moscow. Although only a few had worked at Peenemünde, he quickly discovered a number of brilliant specialists on his new team: Joachim Umpfenbach, responsible for propulsion systems; Waldemar Wollf, a ballistics expert; aerodynamicist Werner Albring; Johannes Hoch, who led the team developing flight control systems; Alois Yasper, in charge of production; and Heinz Jaffke, who headed construction of launch facilities.
But politics worked against them. “There was a suspicion toward any foreigner in the U.S.S.R,” says Alexander Eremenko, a historian of NII-88, and the Germans at Gorodomlya were physically and intellectually isolated. Back in Moscow, Korolev was building a vast industrial network for rocket development, but the Germans were unable to test their concepts or even collaborate with anyone off the island.
Korolev was trying to push his own rocket design through the bureaucracy at NII-88. In many ways his R-2 paralleled the Germans’ G-1 concept. Both rockets minimized weight and added range. And both featured a separable warhead, so the rest of the missile wouldn’t have to survive the scorching heat of atmospheric reentry.
Three days after Christmas 1948, a delegation from NII-88 arrived at Gorodomlya to review progress on the G-1 project. Gröttrup bluntly told his bosses that further development of the rocket made no sense unless he and his co-workers were allowed to do experimental work. The review ended on a positive note, but there was no further discussion of building the G-1 rocket. Soviet officials continued visiting the island over the following year, seeking proposals for various rocket concepts, but nothing came of any of them.
By the end of 1950, with no prospect of returning home and no hope of creative engineering work, Gröttrup asked visiting Soviet officials to relieve him of his duties as head of the German collective. He hoped that as a show of solidarity, none of his German colleagues would agree to fill his position. He was wrong. Johannes Hoch, the flight control system expert, was appointed to take his place. But only four days later, possibly due to negative reactions from other members of the team, Hoch and five of his supporters were transferred to Moscow to join a team developing anti-aircraft missiles; it was led by Sergei Beriya, the son of Lavrenty Beriya, Stalin’s infamous secret police chief. Boris Chertok agrees with Irmgard Gröttrup’s perhaps biased characterization of Hoch as a “crypto-Communist.” According to Chertok, Hoch applied for Soviet citizenship and even tried to join the Communist party. “He also was an extraordinary talented engineer,” says Chertok, “and if not for his premature death could have been one of our chief designers.”