Czech episode of Nazi rocket science uncovered by historian

V-2 missile, photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 141-1880 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 de

Germany’s use of long range rockets towards the end of WWII in a desperate but vain attempt to turn around the tide of the war, is a well known episode in history. So is the fact that many of the German experts were drafted in by the victors to help with the United States and Soviet rocket programmes. But a late Czech chapter in the attempt to develop new super weapons and rockets is little known and still shrouded with questions.

V-2 missile,  photo: Bundesarchiv,  Bild 141-1880 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 de
Nazi Germany could congratulate itself when it marched into what remained of the Czech Republic in March 1939. As well as a large booty of arms and munitions from what was regarded as one of the best prepared armies in Europe, the Nazis also took possession of some impressive weapons producers, notably Škoda Plzeň and Zbrojovka Brno. But while using the arms production capacity now on hand for the new wars on the horizon, the Nazis appeared slow to take advantage of the technical knowledge and research facilities that had been developed in Bohemia and Moravia. Perhaps, simple arrogance or a racial factor played a part.

But as WWII began to turn against the Nazis in the key year of 1943, they decided to try and get the most out of the Czech researchers, technicians, and scientists at their disposal and decided to group them together in a new research facility that would be set up at Příbram in buildings that had been used by the national mining authority.

Michal Plavec, curator of the aviation collection at the National Technical Museum in Prague, has scoured archives in several countries to piece together the history of the research facility. He takes up the story. “The Germans decided that it could be very bad to leave unused the capacity of Czech technicians and scientists and that is why they tried to renew the research institute which was under Škoda Plzeň. And that is why this was such a conglomerate of three factories Škoda Plzeň, and Zbrojovka Brno Explosia Semtín. And they were involved in mainly rocket research, artillery, and the production of armoured vehicles.”


František Čuřík,  photo: archive of Technical University of Ostrava
How willing the Czech cooperation was in this small part of the vast Hermann Goering armaments empire is difficult to tell. It appears likely that Czech technicians and researchers were given small parts of larger projects to work on so that they did not have a full picture of the development work that they were working on.

One prominent Czech mathematician, František Čuřík, committed suicide in June 1944, according to some reports because he had been asked to work at the new institute on the ballistic computation of the V-2 missiles for the Nazi war effort. Čuřík’s friends and colleagues said he saw no other way out to prevent himself from taking part in what he regarded as treason. Others have questioned this interpretations of Čuřík’s death saying it was unlikely that he would be trusted by the Germans with such sensitive work and that they already had sufficient German experts of their own.

In any case, the real change in the Waffen-Union Skoda-Brunn establishment, as it was know in German, did not come until August 1944 when a 38-strong team of German rocket scientists and researchers were evacuated from West Prussia to Příbram to prevent their capture from the advancing Red Army. They joined the existing staff which numbered just over 300.

The head of the German team was one of Germany’s top rocket scientists, Rolf Engel, an enthusiastic Nazi who also had the SS rank of Hauptsturmführer. Engel, together with a young and eventually more famous Werner Von Braun, had been among a small group to develop German rocket science in the early 1930s. One of his top assistants was the Swede Nils Werner Larsson, more of whom later.

The Germans decided that it could be very bad to leave unused the capacity of Czech technicians and scientists.

The end of the war was fast approaching and by the Russians had already overrun the Germans’ main rocket research facilities at Peenemünde in early 1945 and most of their fixed launch sites. But the research in Příbram continued. Michal Plavec continues: “It was really at the end of the war and a lot of projects were left only on paper. But the significance was that when the war would be ended later then some of the projects on paper could be put into practice. I think that one of the most influential projects was the so-called V101 rocket, a long distance rocket whose weight was 140 tonnes of which 100 tonnes of fuel, with a velocity of around 2,000 kilometers per hour with an altitude of some 200 kilometres and range of 1,800 kilometers.”

Cutting edge

However megalomaniac the projects seemed in the background of the crumbling and shrinking Third Reich, Germany has invested massive resources in rocket science – it’s estimated that the sums far exceeded the US spending on developing the atomic bomb. And the scientists had become world leaders in a domain whose strategic significance was to become all too clear with the dawning of the nuclear era.

The Soviets and Allies by the end of the war were frantically seeking to grab all the documents and research and rocket equipment they could. Most of the German scientists faced the question of whom they should surrender to and divulge their secrets. One worry widely shared was that fanatic Nazis might order all the scientists to be killed so that their secrets would die with them.

Michal Plavec,  photo: Jan Ptáček
Michal Plavec says many questions still remain unanswered. “I suppose that much is still left {laughs]. But we know for sure about two leading people in Versuchsamstalt Pribrams. Rolf Engel, who cooperated with the German professor Hermann Oberth who was the pioneer of German rocket science. Rolf Engel was involved in rocket science after WWII in France and then Egypt. And his deputy Nils Werner Larsson, a Swede by nationality. He was probably involved in Soviet space rocket development and his life is still largely unknown for us.“

Rolf Engel enjoyed a colourful career after the war. He went on to become a consultant for the French national office for aeronautic studies and research from 1946 to 1952. There followed a five year stint as a consultant with the Egyptian Airforce. He then went to work in Rome to help develop guided missile systems. And after 15 years abroad he returned to West Germany to head up the new space division of MBB, a company formed in part from the remains of the Messerschmitt plane maker.

He authored a book on the history of rockets and missiles and was an outspoken critic of détente, frequently warning of Soviet plans to take over the whole of Europe and specifically to get a lead in space from the construction of an orbiting battle station.

Nils Werner Larsson indeed appears to be like a character from a Graham Greene novel. He was arrested by Swedish police when he returned to the country he quit in 1943. He was put on trial for first offering Swedish secrets to the Nazis, apparently the designs of a machine pistol, to gain credibility with them. And he was also charged with handing over Nazi secrets to the Allies at the end of the war.

Larsson popped up again in 1960 at a press conference in Hamburg, Germany, and said he had worked with Soviet and Warsaw Pact rocket science specialists between 1953 and 1959. He claimed to have been a double agent for the West. He appeared to disappear soon afterwards.

And the Czech scientists who cooperated on the original German programmes, however reluctantly? Well, Plavec says that none of them appeared before the courts after the war whatever might have been the questions about their collaboration and they don’t appear to have been tracked down to help with the US or Soviet rocket race either. They were probably happy to get back to their past work and close the painful chapter on their Pribram war service.