The Life & Games of Wernher von Braun

Tumultuous times do not only change history-at-large, but also the lives of individuals. A person might have to move to another country and start anew. It’s hard to continue a successful career after such a sharp break in life. It’s particularly hard if the first part of your career was based on the exploitation of slave labor in the service of a totalitarian dictatorship that warred against your prospective new employer. And yet, a German rocket engineer did just that – he developed rockets for the Nazis, transitioned, and then held a crucial position in US rocket development and the space flight program that put the first man on the moon. “How did he do it?”, you wonder? – Gather ’round while I tell you of Wernher von Braun.

In Germany

Wernher von Braun was born on March 23, 1912. From his father, an East Elbian nobleman and civil servant, he inherited excellent connections, from his mother, who gifted him with a telescope, a love for astronomy. Combined with his dream of space flight, it compelled him early on to work on rockets that would one day carry humans into space. For the time being, experiments with fireworks had to do, though.

Von Braun studied mechanical engineering and physics in Berlin and joined the Verein für Raumschiffahrt (Society for Space Travel), a group of rocket enthusiasts which conducted some of the earliest serious rocket experiments. Their activity – and the bright young student who had joined them – did not go unnoticed by the fledgling German military. While von Braun was still in university, the Nazis took power and began their quest to re-militarize Germany. Von Braun’s path into funding was clear now: He joined the SS in 1933, finished his PhD the following year, and, at age 22, went straight into rocket research and development for the German army.

Science & fiction: Secret Weapons of the Third Reich includes both real projects (like the V1 in the top left corner) and fictional ones (like the “Haunebu” flying saucer, popular in conspiracy theories of Nazi technological superiority and survival, in the top right corner). Image ©Luca Cammisa.

The Treaty of Versailles had left Germany with a very small army and severe restrictions on many forms of modern weaponry (say, aviation). Thus, Germany was particularly interested in the development of weapons on which the treaty was mum – like rocketry. The frenzied German rearmament and fanciful arms engineering is the subject of Secret Weapons of the Third Reich (Luca Cammisa, 4Dados) – mixing the science with a strong dollop of fiction and imagination-based theories of alleged German projects. Thanks to @upandawaygames for pointing this game out to me!

Von Braun quickly turned into the head of one of the (real) arms development projects. As World War II had begun in 1939 (earlier than Hitler had planned to start his conquests), quick results were expected from him. Von Braun could not deliver any such, but his personal charisma kept funds flowing his way. Thus, his station at Peenemünde (on the Baltic Coast) grew into a sizeable scientific-industrial complex, and, when the tide of war had already turned against Germany, the first modern rockets were tested successfully. These models were called V1 and V2 – the V standing for “Vergeltungswaffe”, vengeance weapon. The Allies had caught wind of such developments: For example, the Polish Home Army had gathered rocket parts and even an entire rocket falling from the sky after tests and managed to convey them to Britain for inspection (which is the subject of Czas Honoru: Most III (Michal Ozon, Phalanx)). Still, when the first V1s started falling on London in June 1944, it came as a shock. Thousands of civilians lost their homes and lives to the rockets.

From the other side: This dashing member of the Polish Home Army is about to snatch a V2 from the swamp and smuggle it to London. Cover of Czas Honoru, ©Phalanx Games.

Yet those targeted by the V1 and V2 were not its only victims. 1943, von Braun’s station had been moved to Thuringia, where the rockets were manufactured in the Mittelbau-Dora underground facility by thousands of concentration camp workers. Working conditions were so horrible that it is estimated that 20,000 of the workers perished. That makes the V1/V2 the rare weapon whose production has cost more lives than its use.

The rockets were assigned grand names – vengeance weapon, wonder weapon – but they could not turn the tide for Germany. (One wonders if the war had gone different if all the funding that von Braun had received had been matched by a similar commitment to the fledgling German nuclear weapons program.) Consequently, the rockets are a common sight in World War II board games, but rarely more than a flavorful minor effect.

Card “Vergeltungswaffe” from World War II: Barbarossa to Berlin (Ted Raicer, GMT Games): A typical depiction of the V1/V2 in strategic World War II games: The effect – one victory point – is rather minor. The designer has stated that the reason for that is that he regards the V1/V2 program as a waste of resources – but wanted to give players a credible incentive to play the card anyway. The victory point is then representative of the achievement of the self-set technological goal and the illusion that these weapons might turn the tide. Image ©GMT Games.

In Between

Von Braun had worked for the Nazis his entire career, but he wasn’t going to die for them. When it was clear to him that the war was as good as over, he began to plan his defection. His station had once more been moved, this time to Bavaria, where the engineers had been dispersed into several villages. As the guard of their SS watchdogs relaxed, von Braun’s brother Magnus managed to sneak away when US forces arrived and surrendered himself and Wernher to the United States.

Von Braun was immediately useful to his captors. American troops had taken Thuringia and were thus in control of Mittelbau-Dora, but according to the agreement with their allies, Thuringia was to be placed under Soviet control. Thus, the Americans took what they could in valuable papers and materials from the site before turning Thuringia over – with von Braun’s crucial assessment what was important and what wasn’t.

The dark, mineral-looking background evokes the underground facilities like Mittelbau-Dora. Cover of Operation Paperclip, ©Nacho Head Games.

He was by no means the only German who was interesting for the victors. The United States ran an organized campaign, Operation Paperclip, to snatch all relevant scientists, engineers, and technicians. The Soviets did the same (Operation Osoaviakhim). Their competition for German technical knowledge forms the basis for Operation Paperclip (Ben Drain, Nacho Head Games): The set collection game allows players to compete for German scientists not only as the United States or the Soviet Union, but also as the ODESSA (Organisation der ehemaligen SS-Angehörigen, Organization of Former SS Members, a not-quite-historical umbrella term for the (historical) efforts at shielding SS members from repercussions after the war, often by aiding their escape from Germany), and Nakam (a Jewish partisan organization bent on exacting vengeance on the Germans, particularly the SS, after the war). Obviously, while everybody wants the scientists, the factions’ goals are different: Americans and Soviets want to recruit them, Nakam to kill them, and ODESSA wants them to escape. Neither ODESSA nor Nakam were particularly concerned with scientists (albeit many of those working on military projects had joined the SS like von Braun), but their inclusion in the game attaches it more strongly to the antecedent events instead of letting Operation Paperclip happen in a vacuum. Once more, thanks to two Twitter users (@LawZag and @jasonwclemons) for mentioning this game!

Von Braun and his team were shipped to the United States by late 1945. They conducted V2 experiments for the US Army there. However, as America demobilized after the war, interest in von Braun’s work dwindled. The beginning of the Cold War would change that soon.

One of the rare Twilight Struggle (Ananda Gupta/Jason Matthews, GMT Games) event cards not based on a Cold War era image… but rather on von Braun’s past: The dashing young engineer in his natural habitat, surrounded by Nazi officers. Image ©GMT Games.

In America

The outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 led to a sharp militarization of the United States in its global fight against communism – and after the war ended, the militarization didn’t. Rocket research was en vogue again. He was moved to Huntsville, Alabama, and oversaw the development of the US Army’s first ballistic rocket, the Redstone.

As the Soviets had taken over the role of America’s main opponent, the American perception of Germans improved as well. Von Braun was naturalized as a US citizen in 1955, and even turned into a public figure advocating for space flight (including appearances on no fewer than three TV broadcasts produced by Walt Disney).

Twilight Squabble (David J. Mortimer, Alderac) has “Sputnik Launched” as the most powerful Soviet event of its era – and it’s one of the rare 3-value cards that also has a space symbol (top right corner)! Image ©Alderac.

Space was the trending topic of the era – and, at the same time, the dimension of US-Soviet rivalry in which America suffered its most painful defeats: In October 1957, the Soviets were the first to launch a satellite, Sputnik 1, into space. The smarting setback was compounded soon after when the US Navy’s Vanguard rocket exploded soon after launch. Only in March 1958 could America claim a satellite of its own (Explorer 1, launched on an Army Juno rocket based on von Braun’s previous Jupiter/Redstone designs). To avoid future embarrassment, the United States concentrated its space efforts into one institution: NASA. Von Braun was to be the director of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, responsible for the development of America’s rockets. That role is reflected in the Wernher von Braun personality card in Space Race: The Card Game (Marek Loskot/Jan Soukal, Boardcubator) – a strong card which allows players to place up to two technology cards from their hand into their space agency.

Von Braun in classic CEO power pose at his desk, rocket models lined up behind him (based on contemporary photos). Card “Wernher von Braun” from Space Race: The Card Game, ©Boardcubator.

America was at the height of the space race now, and von Braun at the height of his public standing. Still, his past in the development of rockets which had rained destruction on Allied civilians in World War II meant there was not only excitement about him and his role in the American space program. Even the largely sympathetic biopic I Aim for the Stars (released in 1960) had one character, an American officer, reply to the eponymous line with “but sometimes I hit London”. One of the wittiest indictments of von Braun came from musical satirist Tom Lehrer:

Von Braun’s career was undisturbed by these sentiments. America was bested once more by the Soviets when it came to putting a human in space – Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin beat his American counterpart Alan Shepard by a few weeks in 1961, partially because the ever-conservative von Braun had insisted on an additional test before entrusting a human to his rocket. However, before the end of the decade, America snatched the most prestigious space prize of all: On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong was the first human on the moon. Of course, he had gotten there on a Saturn V rocket engineered and manufactured under the aegis of von Braun. On the larger scale of the space program which the game 1969 (Aureliano Buonfino/Andrea Crespi/Lorenzo Silva/Lorenzo Tucci Sorrentino, Cranio Creations) encompasses, von Braun would have been a crucial scientist cube.

Von Braun’s career highlight: The moon landing in 1969. You don’t have to complete the moon mission to win the game, but it gives so many victory points that you’re clearly lured in that direction. Cover of 1969, Image ©Cranio Creations.

The moon landing marked the apex of von Braun’s career. Afterward, he worked as NASA’s Deputy Associate Administrator for Planning before turning to jobs in private enterprise. Only a few years later would archival research uncover the horrors of Mittelbau-Dora. Some of von Braun’s underlings at Mittelbau-Dora would face trial for war crimes in the 1980s. Von Braun, however, had once more escaped´scrutiny: He had died on June 16, 1977.

Games Referenced

Secret Weapons of the Third Reich (Luca Cammisa, 4Dados)

Czas Honoru: Most III (Michal Ozon, Phalanx)

World War II: Barbarossa to Berlin (Ted Raicer, GMT Games)

Operation Paperclip (Ben Drain, Nacho Head Games)

Twilight Struggle (Ananda Gupta/Jason Matthews, GMT Games)

Twilight Squabble (David J. Mortimer, Alderac)

Space Race: The Card Game (Marek Loskot/Jan Soukal, Boardcubator)

1969 (Aureliano Buonfino/Andrea Crespi/Lorenzo Silva/Lorenzo Tucci Sorrentino, Cranio Creations)

Further Reading

The standard biography is Neufeld, Michael J.: Von Braun. Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War, Alfred A. Knopf, New York City, NY 2007.

On the early parts of von Braun’s career, see Neufeld, Michael J.: The Rocket and the Reich. Peenemünde and the Coming of the Ballistic Missile Era, Free Press, New York City, NY 1994, online here.

For a “dual biography” of von Braun and his counterpart, “Chief Designer” of the Soviet rocket program Sergey Korolev, see Cadbury, Deborah: Space Race. The Battle for the Heavens, Harper Perennial, New York City, NY 2006.

5 thoughts on “The Life & Games of Wernher von Braun

  1. Up & Away Games🎈 (@upandawaygames)

    Thanks for the shout out. Von Braun comes up in a book I’ve been enjoying lately, The Pre-Astronauts by Craig Ryan. It details the competition between the US and Soviets to see who could fly the highest altitude balloon in the 30s-50s. Von Braun was very interested in the biological effects of balloonists at the upper altitudes.

    Liked by 1 person


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