I had two personal reasons for visiting the museum at Peenemünde in Germany, where the Nazis invented their deadly V-weapons during the war: the first because it plays a role in my novel about aerial photo interpretation, and the second because my father-in-law Kurt Drews worked here during the war.
(My wartime novel Bird’s EyeView is fact-based fiction, the story of a Canadian woman who works as a photo interpreter. To read one thrilling chapter, click here: Bird’s Eye View Excerpt.)
That’s me in the photo, standing beside a real V-1 flying bomb.
The Birthplace of the V-Weapons
Peenemünde is a tiny village at the back of beyond – located in the former East Germany, down a long winding country road, at the very edge of the Baltic Sea.
To get there, you must leave the mainland and drive across a bridge onto a long, narrow, oddly-spaced peninsula that sticks out into the ocean, almost straight across from the southern tip of Sweden. Pronounced Pee-nuh-Moon-duh, the English translation is “the mouth of the Peene River.”
As the Nazis discovered, this chilly, wind-swept peninsula was ideally situated for inventing their secret jet-propelled weapons.
Access is restricted to the small neck of land attaching the peninsula to the mainland, and it isn’t close to any large communities.
It’s a long way from Berlin (well, three hours – by European standards, that’s the equivalent of driving from Vancouver to Winnipeg.)
But several years ago, my husband and I made the drive to Peenemünde to visit the birthplace of modern rocket technology: the Peenemünde Historical Technical Museum.
The museum isn’t very popular among tourists, and I didn’t hear any languages spoken other than German. Nor was I able to read most of the text on the exhibits, also written in German.
But here’s a short photographic tour of my visit, starting with the entrance sign pointing to the Peenemünde Historical Technical Museum.
The whole museum was simply fraught with atmosphere (or perhaps it was just me). I had the feeling that the Nazis just packed up their jackboots and departed yesterday. Adding to the chill was the fact that it was a cold, grey day in November.
And outside, the two V-weapons were on display – the killing machines that wreaked havoc on London in a futile attempt to weaken British morale.
Before we went inside, we had to stop and study them in the flesh, as it were. This is the V-1 Flying Bomb, the very same weapon that photo interpreter Constance Babington Smith discovered on an aerial photograph. For more, click my previous post: The Woman With the X-Ray Eyes.
I am standing beside the flying bomb giving the V sign with both hands. Only in this case, my V stands for Victory, not Vergeltungswaffe, which is the German word for Revenge, and the reason V-Weapons have their name. Hitler called them his revenge weapons because he wanted to revenge himself on Britain for the bombing of German civilians.
The flying bomb at Peenumünde is sitting on a wooden ramp, from whence it was launched into the air. Similar launching ramps were built throughout northern Europe, pointed straight toward London.
Their engine produced a distinctive putt-putt sound, so the Londoners heard them coming. They were often called buzz bombs, or doodlebugs.
My own father narrowly escaped being killed by a V-1 flying bomb. To read his story, and learn more about these weapons: V-Weapons: The First Cruise Missiles in History.
And here’s my husband standing next to the V-2 Rocket. This ballistic missile was far more frightening than the flying bomb, because you couldn’t hear it coming. It travelled faster than the speed of sound. The hapless civilians literally didn’t know what hit them; the rocket landed first, and then the sound followed.
Germans are reluctant to celebrate their own military accomplishments, for obvious reasons. It must be awkward for them to boast about their brilliant research.
And it was brilliant – Wernher von Braun, the guy who invented the V-weapons, went to the United States after the war to work for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) where he became known as “the father of modern rocket technology.” He is credited with putting the first American on the moon in 1969.
Aside from wandering around and soaking up the bone-chilling atmosphere, we checked out a small gift shop, with German-language books; and a theatre that shows documentary films (again, in German).
When we were there, we watched a short film about a female helicopter pilot named Hanna Reitsch.
Just one large brick building remains, the old power station, and the museum exhibits are inside. In this photo, a father and son pause to read the sign outside. It was heartening to see German parents taking their children to this museum, because it means they are finally ready to talk about the past.
Inside the museum, you can look out onto the grounds and see the large conveyor used to bring coal from the ships to the coal-fired generating plant. Directly behind the ramp is the icy Baltic Sea.
This room was the largest and most impressive. The red writing “Geheime Kommandosache” means “Top Secret.” Behind the sign are floor-to-ceiling cardboard file folders, yet another example of the German mania for record-keeping.
Here’s a piece of vintage metal signage that survived the air attack. The sign reads “Grenze der Versuchsstelle,” indicating the borders of the testing facility and warning people that if they pick up anything and remove it from the site, they will face punishment.
This shows part of the antiquated electrical system. The facility had its own coal-fired power-generating plant.
This is a part of an actual jet engine, and the sign underneath reads Argus Motoren Werke (Argus Motor Works), the private company that was developing jet engines for aircraft prior to the war, and later became an integral part of the weapon testing program.
This little girl is looking at a relief map of the testing facility. You can see the shape of the peninsula jutting out into the sea.
Here are a couple of nose cones from the V-2 rocket – one intact, and another that hit the ground. There were a lot of duds and failed test flights from the experimental station before they finally got it right.
Kurt Drews Narrowly Escapes Bombing Raid
And now for the personal reason for our visit. My father-in-law Kurt Drews worked here during the war.
Born on March 5, 1925 in Berlin to parents Hermann and Margarete Drews, Kurt finished high school and obtained an apprenticeship at Argus through his father, who was also employed by the aviation engine company.
When he finished his apprenticeship in 1942, Kurt was conscripted to work for the war effort and sent to Peenemünde. Since he was just an inexperienced seventeen-year-old boy, he didn’t perform any vital research, but he was one of several hundred workers on site, both German and Polish.
Little did he know, nor did anyone else stationed there, that the testing site had been identified on an aerial photograph and the Allies were about to take action. To read more about that discovery, click: The Woman With the X-Ray Eyes.
One day Kurt received word that his family home had been bombed by the Allies, and he was given a forty-eight hour compassionate leave to visit his parents.
The civilians in Berlin were suffering terribly as a result of the nightly Allied bombing attacks. Kurt’s apartment building had burned to the ground and his family lost everything they owned, but his parents had survived the attack in a nearby bomb shelter.
That very night, August 17th, 1943, a six-hundred bomber raid made the famous surprise attack on Peenemünde in full moonlight, targeting the living quarters, the factory workshop and the experimental station.
Bombs decimated the property and killed 180 Germans including several of the scientists. Unfortunately, some bombers overshot the target and bombed a nearby camp housing the enslaved Polish workers. They were housed in flimsy wooden barracks without any bomb shelters, and about 500 of them died as well.
Here’s what it looked like after they were finished. Each dot is a bomb crater, surrounded by the white earth thrown up around the holes.
Although caught by surprise, the Germans mounted a spirited defence. Because it was a bright moonlit night, the worst case scenario for a bombing attack, the casualties were heavy and forty bombers were shot down.
If Kurt had been on the site that night, his life may very well have ended then.
Disappointingly, the museum says nothing about that raid. I wanted to know how many people had died on the ground, how the Germans reacted, and how they proceeded to clean up the mess and reinstate the V-weapon initiative in an underground cavern in Germany, far away from the prying eyes of the aerial cameras. But the museum was silent on that score.
However, we know that the bombing raid delayed the V-weapon program for several crucial months. It wasn’t until June 1944, a week after the successful D-Day invasion, that the first V-1s started to rain down on London. The V-2s followed, starting in September 1944. By that time the Allies were advancing across the continent, and the Germans were in retreat.
After 10,000 flying bombs and 3,000 rockets were launched, the V weapon program simply petered out. If they had been invented and deployed earlier, they might indeed have fulfilled Hitler’s boast as “the weapons that will win the war.
Kurt Drews Trains as Luftwaffe Pilot
After Peenemünde was bombed in 1943, Kurt was ordered to join the Luftwaffe, since Germany was desperately short of pilots. By the time he finished his training in occupied Denmark and earned his pilot’s wings, the war was winding down.
He spent the final months of the war in a one-man Henschel Hs129 ground-attack aircraft, flying low-level missions on the eastern front, bombing and strafing the Russians as they advanced toward his home city, Berlin.
Kurt was only twenty years old when the war ended. He was captured by the Red Army and spent a year in a Russian prison camp inside the Polish border, almost starving to death. Then he was ordered into a train filled with prisoners headed east, deeper into Russia, probably en route to a Siberian gulag where few survived.
While the train was parked at a siding, another train drew up beside it, heading west. When the guards weren’t looking, Kurt and his friend leaped off their train and into the westbound train. Happily, that train was carrying released prisoners back to Germany. Kurt arrived home in Berlin without any identification papers, but naturally delighted to be free at last.
After the War
Kurt spent the rest of his life in a very steady fashion, a model German citizen. His uncle found him a job as a mechanic for the Berlin Transit Authority, servicing the engines in city buses, and he remained there until his retirement. He married the former Gerda Kernchen and raised two sons. (To read the story of Gerda’s terrible wartime experiences, click: The Bombing of Berlin).
Their oldest son Heinz emigrated to Canada in 1974 and is now my husband; their younger son Jürgen is the fifth generation of the Drews family to work for the Berlin Transit Authority. Kurt was a devoted husband, and a loving father and grandfather, until his death in 2009.
Like many German veterans, and indeed veterans of all nationalities, Kurt never spoke of the war. Although he lived just a three-hour drive away, even after the border between East and West Germany opened up in 1990, he never visited Peenemünde again.
Rest in peace, Kurt Jürgen Drews.
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MY FAVOURITE VETERANS
The amazing story of Kurt Drews, along with twenty-seven other original stories from Wartime Wednesdays, are now available in print. To read more about the book, My Favourite Veterans: True Stories From World War Two’s Hometown Heroes, visit the book cover image at the bottom of this page.