Himmler visits the Peenemünde rocket research site, June 1943.
In summer 1943 it looked as if the SS would succeed after all in moving beyond the hiring-out of prisoners and a modest amount of production to becoming involved in a promising major armaments project, namely, in the development and production of the so-called A4, the first ballistic missile.
Militarily, the A4 with its conventional warhead of 1,000 kilograms of explosives, was of relatively little value; the much cheaper and technically less advanced Luftwaffe competitor, the flying bomb, Fi 103, could carry almost the same amount of explosives. However, from a technical point of view neither the Fi 103 nor the A4 represented a reply to the Allied bomber fleets, which in a single attack could drop thousands of tons of explosives with increasing accuracy on their planned targets. It was presumably Himmler’s penchant for exotic, utopian-type projects that made him so enthusiastic about the Army’s idea for a rocket. Moreover, he was probably also tempted by the thought that, with the help of prisoner labour, he would at last be able to get hold of a major armaments project.
Himmler’s interest was aroused after Hitler had given his basic approval to the A4 rocket programme in November 1942. On 11 December he attended a rocket trial launch at the Peenemünde testing ground; he was not put off by the fact that the trial ended with the rocket exploding four seconds after take-off. On the contrary, he supported the head of the project’s attempt to gain an audience with Hitler, though without success. In March 1943 he had the military commander at Peenemünde dismissed. There were doubts about his reliability because of his alleged links to the Catholic Church, and vague accusations were made, which later turned out to be without foundation. Himmler installed a successor who could be relied upon to toe the line. This example shows how he was prepared to use his police powers ruthlessly when bent on gaining an advantage. On 28 June Himmler was received at Peenemünde by Wernher von Braun wearing the uniform of an SS-Hauptsturmführer. The visit went off satisfactorily: Himmler appointed von Braun Sturmbannführer and backdated the promotion to the day of his visit.
In the meantime the A4 special committee of the Peenemünde test facilities responsible for rocket production had decided to request KZ inmates from the SS for the envisaged manufacture of the rockets, and this was approved in June.250 However, when a British air raid on Peenemünde in August 1943 caused some damage, Himmler suggested to Hitler that rocket production should be placed entirely in his hands. The A4 rocket was to be produced underground with the aid of KZ prisoners— the SS had already agreed to a request from the A4 Armaments special committee—and the development programme could be carried out at a testing ground of the Waffen-SS in Poland. Hitler approved this proposal and Himmler assigned the responsibility to Hans Kammler, the head of Department C (Buildings) in the Business and Administration Main Office. A cave system near Nordhausen in Thuringia was selected as the production site, the so-called Mittelwerk, where in autumn 1943 an autonomous concentration camp was established named Mittelbau. On 20 August Speer and his deputy Karl-Otto Saur met the recently appointed Interior Minister, Himmler, to discuss the details. The following day Himmler summed up the main result of the meeting in a note to Speer: ‘I, as Reichsführer-SS, [ . . ] am taking over responsibility for the production of the A4 equipment.’
This statement was, however, a little premature, for while Hitler had ordered that Himmler should support Speer with this work, he by no means wished to give him responsibility for the production process. Himmler, however, did not allow himself to be put off: in March 1944 von Braun and two of his leading colleagues were arrested and imprisoned for several weeks. They were accused of making comments in which, among other things, they had criticized the conduct of the war and emphasized the importance of civil space exploration. Braun’s army superior managed, however, to get the technical director freed, albeit only on a temporary basis. According to von Braun, Himmler’s aim in doing this was to gain control of the development work on the rocket, though he was to prove unsuccessful. In spring 1944, however, Himmler’s man Kammler became heavily involved in the transfer of German aircraft production underground; Mittelwerk became the model for this. On 4 March 1944 Göring appointed Kammler his ‘Representative for Special Building Work’, whereupon, supported by the SS and with the aid of KZ prisoners, he set about transferring aircraft production underground in mines, tunnels, and so forth. This meant that the SS had in fact at last managed to get a foothold in Luftwaffe armaments production, but at a time when German planes could no longer compete with those of the Allies.
In the following months of Himmler’s appointment as commander of the Reserve Army, also saw to it that Wehrmacht armaments were merged on the level of personnel and organization with the SS. Thus the A4 rocket project seemed finally to have fallen into his hands. On 6 August 1944 he gave Kammler, the Head of department C in the Business and Administration Main Office, complete authority to ensure the ‘most rapid’ deployment of the A4.38 Kammler did as he was told, and on 6 September the first raid on London using the A4 (or V2, as it was also called) took place. In all more than 3,000 V2s were to be launched, more than half of which landed on the British capital.
Himmler claimed to be convinced that the V rockets would bring about a turn in the war. At the end of July he had declared in a speech to the officer corps of a new grenadier division: ‘I know that we still have crises and shortages to get through. We should not forget, however that V1 and the V2, V3, and V4 to come are not a bluff [ . . . ].’ He had, he said, news from London according to which the constant bombardment of the city in the previous weeks with V1s (the ‘doodlebug’ flying-bombs developed by the Luftwaffe) had already led to 120,000 deaths, which ‘absolutely matches the numbers of V1s we have sent over and for which I have precise figures. For we know more or less what effect they have and thus we can work out ourselves the numbers of dead.’ It remains Himmler’s secret how he could claim to know the damage done by a weapon whose impact on southern England could not be verified by the German side. At any rate, the figures he gave were almost fifty times larger than the actual number of victims.
The drive with which Himmler in his new capacity attempted to expand his power in all directions did, however, meet with resistance. When, on 23 August 1944, Goebbels suggested to Hitler that, as part of the measures to promote total war, Himmler should be put in charge of all the district headquarters of the Wehrmacht, Hitler’s reaction was negative: ‘But the Führer fears that Himmler is so overloaded with work that it will get too much for him and the same tragedy will befall him as befell Göring. He too had so many offices that he lost track of them.’ Himmler’s work would have to be ‘concentrated’. As Goebbels explained further, Himmler had ‘tried once more to take charge of the entire A4 programme, which the Führer had categorically rejected. To do this Himmler would have had to build up a new apparatus without being in a position to dismantle the existing apparatus. So nothing is going to change here.’
In the end, in January 1945 Himmler was forced to give up not only the A4 programme but also armaments as a whole, having been put in charge of them in the meantime as commander of the Reserve Army. Thus the miracle weapon, the capabilities of which had been completely overestimated, had been placed once and for all beyond his grasp.