The Forgotten Rocketeers: German Scientists in the Soviet Union, 1945–1959
On Aug. 21, 1957, in the deserts of central Kazakhstan, flames licked the concrete of the Baikonur Cosmodrome. After three disastrous failed tests, rocket designer Sergei Korolev and his team from Special Design Bureau 1 desperately needed the launch they had gathered to observe to proceed as planned. Korolev himself had only just been “rehabilitated” — forgiven of political crimes that had sent him to the Gulag in 1938. His team had gathered to watch the R-7 rocket, the Soviets’ first intercontinental missile, try yet again to achieve stable liftoff. To their great relief, in the cool early morning hours, the rocket accelerated into the sky, assuming a stable trajectory towards the target site in the Soviet Far East.
The R-7’s success marked the beginning of a new era. Less than two months later, an R-7 would carry Sputnik, the first human-designed satellite, into orbit. The R-7’s success also meant the beginning of mutually assured destruction: with deployments of U.S. nuclear-capable bombers in Europe, both the United States and the Soviet Union now possessed the credible capability to destroy each other with nuclear weapons. That historic moment was thanks, in part, to a forgotten group of scientists and engineers whose influence on world affairs continues even today.
In the United States, the presence of Nazi-era German rocket scientists at American laboratories — most notably Wernher von Braun — has been well–documented. Thanks to their assistance, the United States would test its first ballistic missile at the Redstone arsenal in Alabama in 1953. The eventual success of the American rocket program depended heavily upon the legacy of Nazi rocketry. At the end of the World War II, Nazi Germany was years ahead of all its opponents in rocket technology. That edge was demonstrated most clearly with the V-2 rocket, the first long-distance ballistic missile, capable of hitting targets at over 200 miles and reaching speeds of over 3,500 miles per hour. It was used with devastating effect against London in the last days of the war, killing nearly 2,000 civilians during its brief life as a terror weapon in 1944 and 1945.
While America’s dependence on German technology is well known, relatively little has been written about the comparable role of German rocket scientists in the Soviet Union. The memoirs of major Soviet figures barely mention the contributions of the several hundred German scientists deported to rocket facilities in the Soviet Union in 1947. The most-cited Soviet memoir of the Soviet space program notes that German scientists played a role in 1946, but by 1947, “Soviet specialists . . . had mastered the fundamentals of practical rocket technology and had gained the experience needed to make an accelerated transition to a now independent development of this new, promising field of human endeavor.” The official histories followed the same line: the 1969 Soviet encyclopedia of Space Flight does not mention a single German scientist or engineer, while devoting broad coverage to German scientists assisting the American space program. Doubtless, the authors’ aim was to give due credit to the first generation of brilliant Soviet scientists, most of whom worked in anonymity until after their deaths.
Despite their absence in the records, German rocket scientists had a lasting imprint on Soviet rocketry. The work of captured German scientists enabled the Soviet Union to rapidly catch up to, and briefly surpass, the United States in rocket technology. Without German contributions, both the space race and the nuclear arms race would have looked vastly different.
The Soviet Union was a frontrunner in the early development of rocket technology in the 1920s and 1930s. Thanks to interest by senior military leaders like Mikhail Tukhachevsky, the Soviet Union had several major laboratories working on rocket technology by 1936. But during the Great Purge (1936–1938), Stalin decimated the leadership of the country’s top research laboratories; scientists and engineers faced execution or long sentences in the camps of the Gulag system. Among those affected was Sergei Korolev, the future father of the Soviet space program. Months in the Kolyma gold mines resulted in the loss of most of his teeth, kidney problems, and a heart condition that would shorten his life.
While the Soviet program stagnated, the German program raced ahead. During the World War II, German rocket engineers developed a series of ballistic missiles, including the V-2. The success of the V-2 drew Josef Stalin’s attention to the possibilities of the rocket. As a result, in the summer of 1944 Korolev, and fellow aerospace pioneers like Valentin Glushko, were released from the Gulag. Following Germany’s defeat, Korolev and Glushko would travel to the Soviet occupation zone to study the V-2 and begin working on a Soviet modification. They realized the broad potential of ballistic missiles, both in scientific and military application: as early as June 1946, Soviet scientists were exploring the possibility of using German technology to develop a “piloted space rocket.”
Such work depended heavily on German resources. Much of the Soviet rocket program was briefly relocated to German soil in 1945, aiming to use machinery and personnel concentrated at two institutes in Germany to assemble V-2 rockets for Soviet use. In May 1946, the Soviet government decided to relocate these facilities – and their German experts – back to the Soviet Union. In October of that year, with no warning, the leading members of the German rocket development program and their families were rounded up, put on sealed trains, and sent to a secret research bureau at Gorodomlya Island in central Russia, isolated from the surrounding Soviet world. It took far longer than the Soviets had hoped for Soviet experts, working with German assistance, to finally assemble a working V-2: not until October 18, 1947, did a V-2 made of German-produced component parts lift off the launch pad at Kapustin Yar. These initial launches proved disastrous, with at least one rocket veering as far as 180 kilometers from its intended flight path. As a result, the Soviet program remained heavily reliant on German scientists, particularly guidance specialists, as they attempted to build more reliable versions of the German design.
The following year, the Soviets first produced their own version of the V-2, called the R-1. It was functionally a replica of its German predecessor, but made wholly from components produced within the Soviet Union. However, problems plagued its deployment — the design was not perfected until 1950, by which point its usefulness as a weapons system had passed due to its limited range and accuracy. The ultimate value of the R-1 came from the experience Soviet experts gained from replicating the German rockets. That process required a great deal of German assistance, but proved critical training for Soviet engineers and designers. The importance of the Germans at Gorodomlya and elsewhere may be judged by their treatment: according to Soviet rocket scientist Boris Chertok, the Soviets paid the Germans more than their own citizens, provided them with private homes, and gave them increasing liberty to travel within the Soviet Union, aiming to incentivize their productivity. The relatively generous treatment of German rocket scientists — an indication of their importance — contrasts favorably with the treatment of German experts in other strategic research areas where the Soviets relied upon them less.
After the successful development of the R-1, the German teams’ work centered on theoretical design work for the next generation of intermediate-range ballistic missiles. The most influential of these was the R-14, also designated the G-4 in honor of German designer Helmut Groettrup. While the design itself never left the drawing board, revolutionary elements of the R-14 would influence the next generation of Soviet designs: the rocket included a new system of swiveling nozzles to control the flow of exhaust gas, was to be launched from an underground silo, and had the range and capacity to carry a nuclear warhead to targets in Western Europe. Unknown to Groettrup, Soviet planners had commissioned the R-14 design to compete against a Soviet-designed rocket, the R-3. After evaluation, Soviet planners concluded the German design was superior. Some scholars have argued that the R-7 — the first Soviet ICBM program — contained critical elements of the R-14. As Soviet scientists proved increasingly adept at reproducing — and later surpassing — wartime German designs, the Soviets isolated German design teams from the latest Soviet research, leading Groettrup to request to be sent home in 1950. While Groettrup’s request would not be granted until 1953, the Soviet government began dispatching German rocket scientists to East Germany in 1951. However, the last contingents of German rocket experts would remain in the Soviet Union until 1958, working on radar, guidance, and other areas where the Soviet program continued to lag behind that of the United States.
Boris Chertok later acknowledged that German assistance had saved the Soviets years of design and development work. Those years made the space race competitive. An R-7 rocket carrying Sputnik launched in October 1957, just three months before the United States’ Explorer 1. Yuri Gagarin’s historic spaceflight in April 1961 on an R-7 variant came less than a month before the first manned American space launch. The years saved by German assistance also amplified the most dangerous moments of the nuclear confrontation. When the Cuban missile crisis occurred in October 1962, the Soviet arsenal contained only 42 ICBMs, all derived from the R-7 design. Without German technical assistance — to both the Soviet and American rocket programs — history would look very different.
While the extent of German influence on the Soviet Union’s space program and strategic forces remains debated, there was another legacy of the German teams in the Soviet Union that shapes the contemporary security landscape. As their fighter forces disintegrated under the Allied onslaught late in the war, German rocket designers had pressed forward with the development of the Wasserfall — the world’s first guided surface-to-air missile, to be used either as a tactical battlefield missile or against aircraft. A miniaturization of the V-2 design, a handful of Wasserfalls were completed during the war, but technical flaws prevented their successful deployment. Interested in the possibilities of a tactical ballistic missile, the Soviets would commission a German team to work on replicating the Wasserfall, and, eventually, to replace it with a superior design. Under the guidance of Sergei Korolev and a team of engineers headed by Viktor Makeev, the Soviet Union would successfully test a new version of this short-range ballistic missile in 1953. It would become best known by its NATO classification, the “Scud.”
Scud-A and Scud-B variants remain in service around the world. They have been deployed in combat at least eight times over the last half century, most notably during the Iran–Iraq War and the First Gulf War. During those conflicts, the Saddam Hussein regime fired nearly three hundred of the missiles at targets in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The Scud remains significant today in the hands of several aspirant nuclear powers. In the 1980s, the Iranian and North Korean militaries acquired Soviet Scud missiles from Egypt. Reverse engineering of those rockets has led to many of the weapons systems currently in the Iranian and North Korean arsenals. Coupled with the nuclear ambitions of those two states, their rocket development programs have remade the international security landscape.
The Nazi rocket program, originally designed to threaten the Allies with destruction from afar, has left a lingering imprint. Today, new challengers are making the technology of two departed autocratic empires – the Nazi and the Soviet – their own. In that story – the transmission and transmutation of rocket technology – the forgotten German rocketeers played a vital role.
Lance Kokonos is a recent graduate of Yale University. He works in Washington, DC.
Ian Ona Johnson is the Moran Assistant Professor of Military History at the University of Notre Dame.