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
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: Human Resources Manager

£28000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: A successful organisation...

Recruitment Genius: Internal Recruiter - Manufacturing

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Internal Recruiter (manufact...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager (CIPD) - Barking / East Ham - £50-55K

£50000 - £55000 per annum + 25 days holidays & benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Man...

Recruitment Genius: Operations / Project Manager

£40000 - £48000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This software company specialis...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

That's a bit rich

The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference