Above: The remnants of a rocket engine test stand (center) were still visible near the German town of Lehesten decades after the departure of the Soviet rocket team. The steep slopes of the quarry provided an ideal location for the free flow of the fiery exhaust during engine tests.
A facility for testing rocket engines near the town of Lehesten, Thuringia, was built to support the development of the A-4 rocket, Germany's "secret weapon" during World War II. The site was first occupied by American troops in April 1945 but three months later, Thuringia was transferred to Soviet control. In Lehesten, Soviet rocket engineers conducted their first tests of a large rocket motor for a long-range ballistic missile.
Origin of the Lehesten test site
Deep in the mountainous district of Saalfeld-Rudolstadt, a narrow road weaving among pines and birch trees connects the town of Lehesten with the village of Schmiedebach. To an accidental traveler, this could be the perfect setting for a mysterious tale about medieval ghosts and dragons, yet this area hides a dark story from a much more recent past.
In the fall of 1943, SS troops cordoned off a large barn and several adjacent houses on a piece of ground known as "Happy Valley." Its following fate was anything but happy. Like the rest of the Third Reich's rocket development program, the Lehesten facility would be inextricably linked to the vast network of slave labor camps centered around Buchenwald. Along with the underground rocket production plant in Nordhausen, and two propellant production factories, the Lehesten site was conceived in an effort to disperse missile manufacturing away from Allied bombing raids, such as the one which devastated the main rocket development center in Peenemünde in 1943.
Built at the site of a large slate mine pit which belonged to the Oertelsbruch mining company, the Lehesten facility was ideal for tests of the large rocket engines which propelled the A-4 ballistic missile. The engine's combustion chamber could be fixed to the static test stand hanging over the wall of the quarry, so that jet exhaust could run freely down the cliff, with no need for any flame deflectors. The location was found by Peenemünde engineers Martin Schilling and Bernhard Tessmann along with Gerhard Degenkolb, a Nazi government official responsible for the assembly and production of the A-4 missile. Apparently, Lehesten also offered existing caves and tunnels, which could be used for the production of liquid oxygen. (10) This cryogenically cooled chemical served as an oxidizer in the engine of the A-4 missile.
A concentration camp code-named Laura was officially established near Lehesten on Sept. 21, 1943. Its purpose was to supply labor for the construction of the two rocket engine test stands known as Vorwerke (Engine Test Works) and for the excavation of new tunnels to house an underground plant producing liquid oxygen. To operate various rocket-related sites, including Lehesten, a number of a government-owned limited liability companies were formed at the end of 1943 - and the beginning of 1944. (315)
By the end of 1943, the inmate population of the camp Laura reached 1,200 people. In the following 19 months of camp operation, 2,500 prisoners from 10 countries, primarily from France, Poland, Soviet Union and Belgium went through the hell of camp Laura. Jewish inmates were part of its population as well. Although on paper it was a "labor" camp rather than an extermination camp, for many the difference would be irrelevant. It is estimated that as many as a third of the camp's population did not survive to the end of the war. Officially, 510 victims were registered.
The first prisoners worked on heavy construction and excavation of underground tunnels, under the cold Thuringian winter conditions, common in this high-altitude mountainous region. Severe weather was accompanied by daily atrocities by SS guards and subhuman conditions inside the barn housing the inmates. In addition, the poor management of the excavation of unstable layers of slate resulted in several collapses and as many as hundreds of dead prisoners and civilian workers. According to one account Martin Schilling, of the Peenemünde development team did raise some sort of objections about this barbarism. The response of an SS representative reportedly was: "Shut up. Or do you want to join them?" (10)
Once the underground oxygen production plant was completed, it was producing eight tons of liquid oxygen per hour. The facility was operating 24 hours a day, 27 days a month, with a three-day break to melt the ice accumulating on the cryogenic equipment. Still, the most important role of the Lehesten site was the acceptance testing of combustion chambers for the operational A-4 missiles which were fired against London and other cities in the closing months of World War II. Some sort of expansion of rocket testing facilities at Lehesten was proposed and approved as the Soviet Army was closing in on Peenemünde. However before funds for the project could be found, American troops overran Lehesten as well. (10)
As American forces were approaching the area, the SS initiated the "evacuation" of the remaining 672 prisoners of the concentration camp on the night of April 12, 1945. About 600 people were driven to the train station in the village of Wurzbach. They were crowded into cattle trucks and sent to the Dachau death camp. Within hours, American forces liberated the Lehesten site. They found a few sick and disabled prisoners, along with the camp's commander. (425) (In the last months of the camp's existence, its brutal SS commander was replaced with a regular army officer, which led to some improvement in conditions. (426))
Upon capturing Lehesten, the Americans had restarted engine firings, obtaining their first experience in handling V-2's propulsion system. The Americans also produced video footage of tests, which decades later became available to historians. Along with other V-2 development and production sites in Thuringia, the area was transferred to the Soviet control during summer of 1945.
On July 15, 1945, Soviet rocket engineers Aleksei Isaev and Arvid Pallo were dispatched to Lehesten. Unlike had been the case at most other rocket-related facilities in Thuringia, the Soviets found the test stand virtually untouched after the departure of the Americans. (58)
That same month, the top Soviet expert in rocket engines -- Valentin Glushko -- was sent to Germany with a group of his associates from the OKB-SD design bureau. At the time, the organization specialized in propulsion systems for the so-called rocket-assisted takeoff of military aircraft. As early as Sept. 6, 1945, Soviet specialists resumed engine testing in Lehesten. A former propulsion expert from Peenemünde, Dr. Joachim Umpfenbach, initially directed the firings, (10) however the same month, V. L. Shabransky, one of the Soviet specialists from OKB-SD, was appointed director of the test site, the position he held until Soviet work on rocketry concluded in Germany in January 1947. (167) A former Peenemünde test expert, Willy Schwarz, assisted Shabransky in the revival of the test stand in Lehesten. (424)
According to the official history of Glushko's collective, the Soviet team in Lehesten with the help of German specialists "restored the test stand for testing of combustion chambers and built from scratch a second stand for the testing of fully assembled rocket engines." (424) Given the fact that two test stands had already existed in Lehesten before the arrival of the Soviet team, that might be an exaggeration. Possibly, it originates from official Soviet-era accounts, which tended to inflate accomplishments when possible.
A total of 407 test firings were conducted by the joint team of German specialists and engineers from Glushko's OKB-SD design bureau. (424) Witnesses said that an entire V-2 rocket was erected on the test stand in Lehesten and test-fired without an actual launch. The continuation of this work in Lehesten, however, presented a problem for the Soviet authorities. The site was located in extreme proximity to the American occupation zone and could easily be monitored from the opposite side of the demarcation line.
End of the site, beginning of the memorial
Before the end of 1946, the Soviet authorities dismantled the Lehesten site, sending movable hardware along with specialists to the USSR. Remaining test-related structures were blown up at the beginning of 1948. A similar test site for rocket engines was established near Zagorsk, north of Moscow, and eventually became Russia's main rocket engine test center, known today as NITs RKP. The first test stand in Zagorsk was modeled after the Lehesten's facility and its construction benefited from the hardware dismantled in Lehesten.
In 1956, a memorial stone was placed at the site of Camp Laura. During 1965-1968, a group of school children in the nearby town of Wurzbach researched the history of the site, resulting in the first exhibition of numerous documents on the subject, held in 1979. The exhibit was organized in the section of the same barn, where camp inmates had lived. Thus, it became a precursor for a permanent memorial at the former Camp Laura. (425)
Next chapter: Zagorsk/Peresvet test center
Writing and photography: Anatoly Zak; Last update: March 25, 2011
Page editor: Alain Chabot; Last edit: March 25, 2011
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The slate mining works of the Oertelsbruch company at the Lehesten pit during the 1930s. Click to enlarge. Credit: Alfons Olbricht via Camp Laura memorial
A big barn built in 1929 just a few meters from the slate quarry was later used to house inmates of the Laura concentration camp, which supported missile-related activities near Lehesten. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2007 Anatoly Zak
View of the rocket engine test stand near Lehesten in 1945.Credit: Camp Laura memorial
Live test firing of the A-4 (V-2) engine in Lehesten. Credit: Camp Laura memorial