Walter Dornberger

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Walter Dornberger
Portrait of Major General Walter Dornberger taken during captivity, 1945
Born(1895-09-06)6 September 1895
Died26 June 1980(1980-06-26) (aged 84)
Engineering career
InstitutionsPeenemünde Army Research Centre
ProjectsV-1 flying bomb
V-2 rocket

Major-General Dr. Walter Robert Dornberger (6 September 1895 – 26 June 1980) was a German Army artillery officer whose career spanned World War I and World War II. He was a leader of Nazi Germany's V-2 rocket programme and other projects at the Peenemünde Army Research Centre.

Dornberger was born in Gießen in 1895. In 1914 he enlisted in the German army during World War 1.[1] In October 1918, as an artillery lieutenant, Dornberger was captured by United States Marines and spent two years in a French prisoner of war camp, mostly in solitary confinement because of repeated escape attempts.[1] In the late 1920s, Dornberger completed an engineering course with distinction at the Berlin Technical Institute,[2] and in the spring of 1930,[3] Dornberger graduated after five years with an MS degree in mechanical engineering from the Technische Hochschule Charlottenburg in Berlin.[1][4] In 1935, Dornberger received an honorary doctorate, which Col. Karl Emil Becker arranged as Dean of the new Faculty of Military Technology at the TH Berlin.[5]

Rocket development[edit]

In April 1930,[6] Dornberger was appointed to the Ballistics Council of the German Army (Reichswehr) Weapons Department as Assistant Examiner to secretly develop[4] a military liquid-fuel[7] rocket suitable for mass-production that would surpass the range of artillery.[8][9] In the spring of 1932, Dornberger, his commander (Captain Ritter von Horstig), and Col. Karl Emil Becker visited the Verein für Raumschiffahrt (VfR)'s leased Raketenflugplatz (English: "Rocket Flight Field") and subsequently issued a contract for a demonstration launch.[4][5] On 21 December 1932, Captain Dornberger watched a rocket motor explode at Kummersdorf while Wernher von Braun tried to light it with a flaming gasoline can at the end of a four-meter-long (13 ft) pole.[3][4][5]

In 1933, Waffenamt Prüfwesen (Wa Prüf, English: "Weapons Testing") 1/1, under the Heereswaffenamt (Army Weapons Department), commenced work under the direction of Colonel Ing. h. c. Dornberger. Dornberger also took over his last military command on 1 October 1934, a powder-rocket training battery at Königsbrück.[3] In May 1937, Dornberger and his ninety-man organization were transferred from Kummersdorf to Peenemünde.[10] In September 1942, Dornberger was given two posts: coordinating the V-1 flying bomb and V-2 rocket development programs and directing active operations.[11] The first successful test launch of a V-2 was the third test launch on 3 October 1942.

Dornberger (left) with Wernher von Braun (in civilian clothes) in Peenemünde, February 1941

In June 1943, in a speech to nearly 6500 German employees and soldiers in Peenemünde, Dornberger blended traditional German patriotism with Nazi ideological motifs while also highlighting and reinforcing many of the unique factors that made missile development so successful at Peenemünde in the first place. By emphasizing the path-breaking nature of their work as well as its singular importance to the war effort, all while playing on the popular fear of the Soviet Union and the disdain for the Western Allies for bombing their cities into rubble, Dornberger composed a powerful message that would certainly appeal to many Peenemünders.[12]

In the early morning of 7 July 1943, Ernst Steinhoff flew[13] von Braun and Major-General Dornberger in his Heinkel He 111 to Hitler's Führerhauptquartier "Wolfsschanze" headquarters and the next day Hitler viewed the film of the successful V-2 test launch (narrated by von Braun) and the scale models of the Watten bunker and launching-troop vehicles:[14]

This third day of October, 1942, is the first of a new era in transportation, that of space travel ...

— Walter Dornberger, speech at Peenemünde 3 October 1942[3]

I have had to apologize only to two men in my whole life. The first was Field Marshal von Brauchitsch. I did not listen to him when he told me again and again how important your research was. The second man is yourself. I never believed that your work would be successful.

— Adolf Hitler, Apology to Major-General Dornberger, 8 July 1944[15]
Dornberger (on the left, with hat) together with von Braun, after their surrender to Allies in Austria, May 1945

In January 1944, Dornberger was named Senior Artillery Commander 191 and was headquartered at Maisons-Lafitte near Saint Germain, and in December 1944, Dornberger was given complete authority for anti-aircraft rocket development (Flak E Flugabwehrkanonenentwicklung).[16] On 12 January 1945 on Dornberger's proposal, Albert Speer replaced the Long-Range Weapons Commission with "Working Staff Dornberger".[17] In February 1945, Dornberger and staff relocated his headquarters from Schwedt-an-der-Oder to Bad Sachsa, then on 6 April 1945, from Bad Sachsa to Haus Ingeborg in Oberjoch near Hindelang in the Allgäu mountains of Bavaria.[18][19] Before going to the Alps, General Dornberger hid comprehensive V-2 documentation in a mine near Goslar, which were recovered by the US 332nd Engineer Regiment on 16 May 1945 by a secret action when Goslar was already occupied by the British Army.[20]

On 2 May 1945, Dornberger, von Braun, and five other men departed from Haus Ingeborg and travelled through Gaicht Pass and towards the little Austrian village of Schattwald. They met American soldiers who convoyed the group to the Tyrolean town of Reutte[21] for the night.[22] At an internment camp after the war, known as "CSDIC Camp 11", the British bugged Dornberger, who in conversation with Generalmajor Gerhard Bassenge (GOC Air Defences, Tunis & Biserta) said that he and Wernher von Braun had realized in late 1944 that things were going wrong and had consequently communicated with the General Electric Corporation through the German Embassy in Portugal, with the intent coming to some arrangement.[23]


In mid-August 1945, after taking part in Operation Backfire, Dornberger was escorted from Cuxhaven to London for interrogation by the British War Crimes Investigation Unit in connection with the use of slave labour in the production of V-2 rockets; he was subsequently transferred and detained for two years at Bridgend in South Wales.[24]

Along with some other German rocket scientists, Dornberger was released and brought to the United States under the auspices of Operation Paperclip and worked for the United States Air Force for three years, developing guided missiles. From 1950 to 1965, he worked for the Bell Aircraft Corporation, where he worked on several projects, rising to the post of Vice-President. He played a major role in the creation of the North American X-15 aircraft and was a key consultant for the Boeing X-20 Dyna-Soar project. He also had a role on the creation of ideas and projects, which, in the end, led to the creation of the Space Shuttle.[25][26][27] Dornberger also developed Bell's ASM-A-2, the world's first guided nuclear air-to-surface missile developed for the Strategic Air Command.[28] Dornberger advised West Germany on a European space program.[29] During the 1950s he had some differences with von Braun and was instrumental in recruiting several engineers out of the Huntsville's team for US Air Force projects. These included Krafft Ehricke, who later created the Centaur rocket stage and participated in several more defence projects.

Following retirement, Dornberger went to Mexico and later returned to West Germany, where he died in 1980 in Baden-Württemberg.


  • Dornberger, Walter (1952). V-2, der Schuss ins Weltall: Geschichte einer grossen Erfindung [V-2, the Shot into Space: History of a Great Invention] (in German). Esslingen: Bechtle Verlag. OCLC 175065526.
  • Dornberger, Walter (1954). V-2. New York: Viking Press. OCLC 1223668.

Awards and decorations[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c McGovern, J. (1964). Crossbow and Overcast. New York: W. Morrow. p. 18.
  2. ^ Middlebrook, Martin (1982). The Peenemünde Raid: The Night of 17–18 August 1943. New York: Bobbs-Merrill. p. 19.
  3. ^ a b c d Dornberger 1952, pp. 17, 20, 26, 36
    Dornberger 1954
    Dornberger's detailed account of the V2 project was one of the first to be published by a major participant.
  4. ^ a b c d Ordway & Sharpe 1979, pp. 21, 26, 27, 40
  5. ^ a b c Neufeld 1995, pp. 19, 33, 55.
  6. ^ Heashall (1985). Hitler's Rocket Sites. St Martin's Press. p. 12.
  7. ^ Warsitz, Lutz: The First Jet Pilot - The Story of German Test Pilot Erich Warsitz (p. 23), Pen and Sword Books Ltd., England, 2009
  8. ^ Klee, Ernst; Merk, Otto (1965) [1963]. The Birth of the Missile: The Secrets of Peenemünde. Hamburg: Gerhard Stalling Verlag. p. 117. ASIN B001REHJ98.; The 1965 translation is Publisher: E. P. Dutton, New York – not Stalling; another translation?; citations may be to German edition;
  9. ^ Collier, Basil (1976) [1964]. The Battle of the V-Weapons, 1944-1945. Yorkshire: The Emfield Press. p. 24. ISBN 0-7057-0070-4.
  10. ^ Braun, Wernher von; Ordway III, Frederick I. (1985). Space Travel: A History. Harper & Row. p. 45.
  11. ^ Collier, Basil (1976) [1964]. The Battle of the V-Weapons, 1944-1945. Yorkshire: The Emfield Press. p. 20. ISBN 0-7057-0070-4.
  12. ^ Petersen, Michael Brian (2005). "Engineering Consent: Peenemuende, National Socialism, and The V-2 Missile, 1924-1945" (PDF). pp. 168–176. Retrieved 2023-04-22.
  13. ^ Neufeld 1995, p. 191
  14. ^ Garliński, Józef (1978). Hitler's Last Weapons: The Underground War against the V1 and V2. New York: Times Books. pp. 73, 74.
  15. ^ Piszkiewicz, Dennis (2006). The Nazi Rocketeers: Dreams of Space and Crimes of War. Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania: Stackpole Books. p. 94. ISBN 9780811733878.
  16. ^ Ordway & Sharpe 1979, pp. 61, 214
  17. ^ Dornberger 1954, p. 260
  18. ^ Ordway & Sharpe 1979, p. 301
  19. ^ Dornberger 1954, pp. 266, 271
  20. ^ Kurowski, Franz (1982). Alliierte Jagd auf deutsche Wissenschaftler (in German). Munich: Kristall bei Langen Müller. pp. 53–56. ISBN 3-607-00049-2.
  21. ^ Klee & Merk 1965, p. 110
  22. ^ Huzel, Dieter K (1960). Peenemünde to Canaveral. Prentice Hall. p. 187.
  23. ^ C.S.D.I.C Report Entitled G.R.G.G. 341 dated 7 August 1945 (summary of Dornberger's revelations)
  24. ^ Ordway & Sharpe 1979, p. 343
  25. ^ Paul Dickson (2009). A Dictionary of the Space Age. Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 199.
  26. ^ "SP-4402 Origins of NASA Names". NASA.
  27. ^ "The Space Shuttle Decision". NASA.
  28. ^ "PERSONNEL: Changes of the Week, Nov. 25, 1957". Time Magazine. Vol. LXX, no. 22. November 25, 1957. p. 116.
  29. ^ Ley, Willy (June 1964). "Anyone Else for Space?". For Your Information. Galaxy Science Fiction. pp. 110–128.

Sources cited[edit]

External links[edit]