OBITUARY : faith & reason :Arthur Rudolph

In his lifetime the German rocket engineer Arthur Rudolph gained both world-wide fame and notoriety. Without his contribution, the United States may not have won the Space Race and achieved President Kennedy's goal of landing a man on the Moon before the end of the 1960s. On the other hand, he was indirectly responsible for the death of up to 20,000 slave workers during construction of Nazi Germany's V-2 missile.

Rudolph was a farmer's son who received only a basic education, but he had been obsessed with the possibility of space travel from an early age. His career in rocketry began in spring 1930 when he joined the Heylandt factory where Max Valier and Walter Riedel were building rocket-powered cars. Their promising collaboration came to an unfortunate end on 17 May when trials of a modified engine caused a violent explosion. A jagged piece of steel severed Valier's aorta, and the inventor bled to death in Rudolph's arms.

Despite this setback, the team continued to experiment with rocket-engine designs, eventually creating in 1931 an improved version with more efficient fuel injection and the use of fuel as a coolant for the outside of the exhaust nozzle and combustion chamber.

Further progress was halted by the closure of the Heylandt plant. Although unemployed, Rudolph and another ex- Heylandt employee, Alfons Pietsch, began work on an improved rocket assembly. After Pietsch dropped out, Rudolph approached the German Ordnance Department for funding. His new design was successfully demonstrated on 18 August 1934 at the Kummersdorf Army Proving Ground near Berlin.

Even in these early years of the Depression, Rudolph believed that the best hope for a bright future lay with the Nazi party, which he joined in 1931. He later explained, "I read Mein Kampf and agreed with a lot of things in it. Hitler's first six years, until the war started, were really marvellous. Everybody was happy. Everybody got jobs."

Rudolph now joined Germany's rocket experts in an endeavour which would lead to the development of the world's first guided missile. Working alongside him were his former colleague Walter Riedel, and a young engineer, Wernher von Braun. A series of ever more advanced rockets was designed and built at the secret base at Peenemunde on the Baltic coast. Rudolph was given the task of outfitting and managing the giant model shops, preparing the groundwork for eventual mass production of the A-4 rocket (later known as the V-2 or Revenge Weapon 2).

The first successful launch of the new weapon took place on 3 October 1942. Fortunately for the Allies, technical problems and Allied bombing raids prevented the V-2 from becoming operational until 1944. After a successful British bomber attack on Peenemunde in August 1943, construction of the V-2 was shifted to an underground site in Thuringia. Tens of thousands of prisoners were brought from Buchenwald concentration camp to transform a small ammonia mine into a warren of 46 tunnels where the missiles could be assembled in safety. Arthur Rudolph, as the civilian head of V-2 production, was one of the first engineers to arrive at the camp in September 1943.

Over the next two years 20,000 labourers died in the deplorable conditions inside the tunnels at Nordhausen. Forty men died each day from starvation, exhaustion or disease, or were murdered by the SS. The end-product was the launch of 3,000 V-2s on Allied targets, particularly London, between August 1944 and March 1945.

As the war turned against Germany, von Braun's rocket team discussed how they could escape the advancing Red Army. Rudolph was one of 119 rocket engineers who surrendered to the Americans in May 1945. Recognising the value of their captives, the US government secretly shipped them to Fort Bliss, Texas, where they were paid $6 a day tax free, with free medical care, sick leave, accommodation and food. Any previous checks about their war records were ignored.

In return for this privileged treatment, the engineers set about developing America's first long-range missiles. Von Braun's group moved to Huntsville, Alabama, where they built the rockets which would propel men to the Moon. In 1954 Rudolph was granted US citizenship. As one of von Braun's senior lieutenants, he was appointed programme director for the Saturn V, the most powerful rocket ever built.

After the dramatic success of the first Moon landing, Rudolph retired from Nasa in 1969. A grateful government awarded him the Distinguished Service Medal and the Congressional Medal of Honour. Rudolph retired to California, but his Nazi past came back to haunt him. In 1982, Jewish groups began to investigate his war record after Jean Michel, a former inmate of Nordhausen, condemned him in his book Dora: the hell of all the concentration camps (1975; English edition 1979), suggesting that he should have been hanged for his crimes.

Acting on information which had been in their files for almost 40 years, the US Justice Department belatedly accused him of war crimes involving forced labour at Nordhausen. Rather than be charged and put on public trial, Rudolph returned to Germany. On 25 May 1984 he went to the US consulate in Hamburg and renounced his American citizenship but the news did not become public until October that year. He later said that the Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations had pressured him into signing away his precious right to be an American citizen and attempted to re- enter the United States. However, his bid to obtain a visa so that he could participate in the 20th anniversary celebrations of the Apollo 11 landing was rejected.

In 1990, he went to Canada to meet with supporters of his cause, but, after an immigration hearing, he was forced to leave the country. Rudolph claimed that he was unaware of any executions or mistreatment of workers at Nordhausen, and that he tried to obtain extra rations for the workers and improve their conditions. This version was rejected by Jewish investigators, who declared his involvement in a mass hanging of slave workers which took place outside his office.

To the end, Rudolph angrily denounced what he saw as the exploitation and rejection he suffered from the US government. "They only wanted me for what I could do," he said, "and when it was finished they did not care what happened to me."

Peter Bond

Arthur Rudolph, rocket scientist: born 9 November 1906; married (one daughter); died Hamburg 1 January 1996.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Chief Executive

£28, 700: Whiskey Whiskey Tango: Property Management Company is seeking a brig...

COO / Chief Operating Officer

£80 - 100k + Bonus: Guru Careers: A COO / Chief Operating Officer is needed to...

HR Manager - Kent - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager / Training Manager (L&D /...

HR Manager - Edgware, London - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - Edgware, Lon...

Day In a Page

Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

Education, education, education

TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

Inside the E15 'occupation'

We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
Witches: A history of misogyny

Witches: A history of misogyny

The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style