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The Rest of the Rocket Scientists

Some went west. This is the story of the ones who went east.

IN THE CLOSING WEEKS OF WORLD WAR II, AS ALLIED TROOPS RUMBLED INTO GERMAN TOWNS and the victors jockeyed to divide the spoils, one prize stood out: the people and machinery that had produced the V-2 rocket, one of the war’s most exotic weapons. To the delight of U.S. intelligence, Wernher von Braun and most of his top associates on the V-2 development team chose to surrender to the Americans, shrewdly calculating where they might be allowed to continue their pioneering research after the war. One German rocket engineer, quoted by historians Frederick Ordway and Mitchell R. Sharpe in their book The Rocket Team, sized up his options in April 1945: “We despise the French, we are mortally afraid of the Soviets, we do not believe the British can afford us. So that leaves the Americans.”

On June 20, 1945, von Braun and about 1,000 other German engineers and family members made the exodus from east Germany into the U.S.-held western zone, just ahead of the advancing Red Army. When the Soviets arrived, they found the V-2 underground production center at Mittelwerk mostly abandoned, its top personnel gone and key documents missing.

Among the disappointed Russians was 33-year-old Boris Chertok, an aerospace engineer who had arrived in Germany two months earlier with a broad assignment to search for and evaluate Nazi technology, particularly the V-2. Today a consultant at RKK Energia, the company that built the Mir station and other Russian spacecraft, Chertok’s career in the space industry goes back 65 years, including work on the Soviet attempt to send a man to the moon. In the mid-1990s he wrote Rakety i Lyudi (Rockets and People), a monumental four-volume memoir that became a bible for space historians around the world.

When I met Chertok in Moscow last year, his health was declining, which slowed his movements and forced him to talk loudly to overcome deteriorating hearing. Yet his memory of events that took place half a century earlier was still vivid. He recalled the scramble in 1945 as he and his colleagues tried, with little success, to lure top German talent to the Soviet side. His emissaries made risky dashes into the American zone, approaching the rocket specialists with offers of hefty salaries, food rations, and—most importantly—the opportunity to stay in Germany. That was one of the few battles von Braun and his colleagues had lost in negotiating with the Americans, and the Soviet recruiting campaign appealed to the Germans’ longing to remain in their homeland.

Few took the bait. One who did was Helmut Gröttrup, a physicist by training and a top expert on the V-2’s flight control system. Historians have debated why Gröttrup turned down the offer to work in the United States, suggesting that it was a combination of his leftist views and his refusal to become a bit player on von Braun’s team. Chertok thinks the primary reason was Gröttrup’s wish—and the even stronger desire of his wife Irmgard—to stay in Germany. He doesn’t discount, however, the scientist’s left-wing politics. “He was what we would call a social democrat—definitely anti-fascist,” Chertok recalls.

For whatever combination of reasons, Gröttrup signed up with the Soviets, who established a rocket research institute in the town of Bleicherode, not far from the Mittelwerk plant, and set him up with a $1,250 per month salary and a spacious house (the owner, an affluent merchant, was rudely turned out, according to Ordway and Sharpe). Gröttrup’s first task was to compile a detailed report about the rocket research he and his colleagues had been engaged in at the Peenemünde center on the Baltic coast. He also was placed in charge of hundreds of Germans, whose main job was to produce a full set of drawings for the V-2 and re-start production. Irmgard volunteered to search for food and other provisions for institute personnel in the midst of devastated Germany.

It wasn’t long before the other shoe dropped, however. As flightworthy V-2 missiles started rolling off the restored production line in 1946, the Soviet government made a secret decision, signed by Josef Stalin on May 13, to transfer all ballistic missile work, along with the German rocket experts, to Russia by year’s end. Ivan Serov, the head of the Soviet secret police in Germany, devised a plan, code-named “Osoaviakhim” after a Soviet aeronautical organization, to accomplish the deportation in just five days, with no advance notice. As Serov bluntly put it, moving quickly and relying on the element of surprise would “prevent Germans from running away when they learn that Soviet organizations deport their German employees.” Some 2,500 security officers were assigned to the operation, along with regular army units.

Chertok, who had tried hard to build good relations with his new recruits, favored the decision. “I believed it was a useful step,” he says. “We worked with Germans almost a year and a half, achieved a lot, and I considered it necessary to continue in Russia for some period of time.”

Not everyone agreed. Chertok’s friend and colleague, Sergei Korolev, who would go on to lead the stunning Soviet space achievements of the 1950s and 1960s, despised the move. In 1946, the man who would later become the Soviets’ chief designer for space nurtured ambitions of building his own rocket team. “Korolev had a negative attitude toward German participation in our work from the very beginning,” says Chertok, “and he did see them as potential competitors.”

The German engineers had little warning of what was coming. Early in the morning of October 22, 1946, Soviet soldiers showed up at the homes of top technical workers and informed them that they would be deported to work at various Soviet industrial ministries. It was the same story at each house: A Soviet security officer, accompanied by an interpreter, shocked half-asleep families by ordering them to pack up personal belongings and prepare to board trains for Russia. A promise of a five-year contract in the Soviet Union and an offer of assistance with packing and moving were little consolation. According to recently published Soviet accounts, as many as 7,000 workers and family members were rounded up. Only 500 or so were rocket engineers and their families—the rest worked primarily for the aircraft and nuclear industries.

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