In 1943, punishing Allied bombing had chased Germany’s brilliant rocket scientist Wernher von Braun and his team away from the Baltic port of Peenemünde where their pioneering work on the V-2 rocket had taken such a heavy toll on London.
Casting about the Third Reich for a suitable spot to base the missile team, the rocketeers settled on the Kohnstein, a hill in Thuringia already hollowed out by gypsum mines. This tunnel network was readily adapted into a subterranean munitions factory called Mittelwerk — difficult for the Allies to find, and once they found it, difficult to bomb.
A U.S. Army soldier poses with a half-assembled V-2, one of about 250 such rockets found in the Mittelwerk labyrinth when the facility was captured.
With the facilities and the big brains in place, only one thing was missing: millions of man-hours of labor.
Nazi Germany had that in plentiful supply.
Beginning in late 1943, concentration camp inmates at Buchenwald began to be funneled out to a new facility, Mittelbau-Dora. Initially just a Buchenwald sub-camp, Dora grew over the course of 1944 into an immense facility holding 50,000 prisoners — a handful of German undesirables, but mostly captured foreign nationals: French, Dutch, Polish, Czech, and Russian. Short of food, sleep, and clothing for the 1944-1945 German winter, they were systematically worked to death in the Mittelwerk shafts to build a better bomb.
On May 1, 1944, Möser was transferred from Auschwitz to Mittelbau-Dora. It was the last job he would ever hold, but were Möser on the market today his C.V. would laud his team-player orientation and project management skills on a high-priority initiative. No doubt he was just the sort of reliable agent who understands how things are done that the world’s mad bombers need at their back.
“Ninety percent of the prisoners lived and worked in the tunnel of the mine,” testified one German who worked at Dora as a secretary and doctor’s aide.
As a result of the uninterrupted work in the mines and the absence of any installation for forced draft and ventilation, there prevailed a stuffy cold atmosphere, which made breathing difficult. The prisoners also slept in the subterranean tunnel in big chambers hewed out of the rocks, in five beds on top of each other. Already in 1944 3,500 prisoners used to sleep in such a room. In the tunnel of the mine there was no ater, the prisoners got absolutely insufficient quantities of tea for drinking purposes. But for weeks they were not able to wash themselves. As a result of the heavy work in the mines and of the bad food numerous prisoners died from exhaustion during their work.
According to that same testimony, the camp received a frightful order on Good Friday, which fell on March 30 in 1945: drive every last prisoner into those tunnels and bring down the caves around them. “No prisoner should be allowed to fall into Allied hands alive.”
The facilities themselves, too, were to be destroyed as part of Hitler’s scorched-earth “Nero Decree” intended to deny the benefit of German industry and infrastructure to the arriving conquerors. But Hitler’s War Production Minister Albert Speer was intentionally ignoring that order, a decision that might well have helped him avoid hanging at the Nuremberg trials.
Mittelwerk was a valuable capture indeed for the Allies. The Americans who first occupied it, and then the Russians who took it over a few months later, ransacked it for parts and technical specifications. The V-2 was the first man-made object to reach space, blasting at the speed of sound to the edge of orbit before plummeting back with its payload into the heart of London or wherever. It’s the ancestor of the long-range, intercontinental ballistic missiles that would come later, as well as the space programs of the countries who could build such missiles.
And of course, it wasn’t just the parts.
Wernher von Braun himself was the top prize of all — the young genius (he was just 33 when World War II ended) with the weapons of the future in his skull. As Germany collapsed in 1945, von Braun and his team of engineers had resolved to surrender themselves to the Americans rather than the Russians, but they too were subject to an order given the SS to execute the scientists if their capture appeared imminent. The Fuhrerbunker knew as well as the Allies how valuable this asset was.
In the event, von Braun managed to give himself up to a surprised American private. He disappeared into American custody, the crown jewel of “Operation Paperclip” that grabbed some 1,500 scientists from Germany and helpfully whitewashed their past misdeeds — misdeeds like Nazi party affiliation, and participating in slave labor camps.
Firing guided rockets into space was one thing. Unfortunately for our man Möser, his own skill set of bullying subordinates was not in short supply for either of the Cold War antagonists.
Möser was the one defendant (among 15) condemned to death at the resulting trial of Dora camp personnel. Rocket scientists, naturally, were not present for the occasion; Wernher von Braun and his team were hard at work at this time at Fort Bliss, Texas adapting the V-2 to the American Hermes program.
But at Dora, it had been Möser’s job to oversee camp discipline and labor strength for the slaves doing the grunt work manufacturing von Braun’s brainchild. Testimony convinced the court that the SS man had done this far too brutally, and perhaps with sadistic pleasure.
Several witnesses testified Möser frequently beat prisoners and participated in executions, often shooting at the men who were hanged for camp infractions — while they were hanging, or after they were taken off the gallows. (And of the latter, some already dead and some still alive.) “The accused told the twelfth witness that it was a pleasure to give the mercy shots, like shooting a deer.”
Möser for his part countered that he took no joy himself in the beatings and killings that he had to conduct as part of his job — and that the camp commandant had early on reprimanded him for leniency, threatening that “in view of the importance of the V-weapons operation, this could be interpreted as sabotage because it reduced the work efficiency.” How’s that for a hostile work environment?
(There’s a large .pdf of the entire trial summary here. Möser’s section begins on page 36 of the pdf (page 68 per the numbering in the scanned book pages).)