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Peenemünde is a village in the northeast of the German island of Usedom. It stands near the mouth(s) of the Peene river, on the easternmost part of the German Baltic coast.
During World War II, Peenemünde hosted the Heeresversuchsanstalt, an extensive rocket development and test site established in 1937. Prior to that date the team headed by Wernher von Braun and Walter Dornberger had worked in Kummersdorf, south of Berlin. However, Kummersdorf proved too small for testing. Peenemünde, located on the coast, permitted the launching of rockets and their subsequent monitoring across about 200 miles of open water.
Between 1937 and 1945 the Peenemünders developed many of the basics of rocket technology and two weapons, the V-1 and the V-2. Test-firing of the first V-1 occurred in early 1942 and the first V-2 (then called the A-4) first flew on October 3, 1942, from Prüfstand VII. The German Luftwaffe ran the V-1 cruise missile experiments in Peenemünde west, whereas the Heer (army) ran the ballistic missile development (V-2) project. Peenemunde also served as the development site for many cutting-edge night-navigation and radar systems, under the direction of Dr. Hans Plendl.
The Peenemünde establishment also developed other techniques, such as the first closed-circuit television system in the world, installed at Test Stand VII to track the launching rockets.
In the course of World War II some heavy air-raids targeted the site, including an attack by almost 500 RAF heavy bombers on the night of 16 - 17 August, 1943 ("Operation Hydra"). This raid killed, according to an official German report, 815 staff, mostly Foreign POWs, and Walter Thiel, the head of engine development. This raid prompted the moving of the production of the V rockets underground.
In spite of the raids, many technical installations in Peenemünde remained intact at the end of World War II, because most of the bombs landed on the surrounding woodlands, the housing areas and on the concentration camps for Foreign POWs.
Much controversy exists over how the Allies found out about Peenemünde. The official British version states that air reconnaissance collected all the information. However, witnesses (e.g. Danuta Stepniewska and Hanna Szczepkowska-Mickiewicz from Polish intelligence) and documents (e.g. the monthly reports of courier service from 1943) state it was Polish underground army (Armia Krajowa or AK) intelligence (who gave the British complete plans of the facility) unmasked Peenemünde. British intelligence for years denied that it received any information about Peenemünde from Poland, instead underlining importance of other sources, as a Danish pilot who photographed something looking like a V rocket nearby. However copies of reports emerged after the war in Poland.
One of the British intelligence workers who was receiving the information, R. V. Jones contradicted himself: first he denied that fact, and later in his book Most Secret War (ISBN 0 340 24169 1) he wrote that many bombs fell on camps for Foreign POWs who gave the Allies information; he failed to point out that these Polish workers were agents from AK intelligence. Within the last few years Polish politicians and historians have demanded access to British archives (since Britain held archives of most if not all AK reports). So far the British authorities have answered that all AK reports were destroyed.
Apart from Peenemünde, other sites in Germany saw noteworthy rocket launches. Some took place between 1957 and 1964 at Cuxhaven and between 1988 and 1992 at Zingst.
Peenemünde after World War II
At the end of World War II von Braun and most of the scientists fled westwards to ensure their capture by the Americans. The Soviets and British captured the site and most of the technicians, who feared trial for war crimes for the V-2 attacks on London.
In accordance with an agreement, the Red Army destroyed the site with explosives. Most destruction of the technical facilities of Peenemünde took place between 1948 and 1961. Only the power station, in what has now become a museum, the airport, and the railway link to Zinnowitz remained functional. The plant for production of liquid oxygen lies in ruins at the entrance to Peenemünde. Very little remains of most of the other buildings and facilities.
The Peenemünde Historical and Technical Information Centre, opened in 1992 in the shelter control room and the area of the former power station. It is concerned with history of Peenemuende and in particular with the history of rocket development between 1936 and 1945. Special show-pieces are the reproduction of the Fieseler Fi-103 and the A4-Rakete.