Dark skies

Tens of thousands died in one of the cruelest of Nazi concentration camps to build the Messerschmitt 262.

me262 plane 88 298 (photo credit: Anshel Pfeffer)
me262 plane 88 298
(photo credit: Anshel Pfeffer)
Tens of thousands throng the runways and hangars of the EADS (Airbus) plant at Manching in southern Germany enjoying the July sun. Employees, family members, guests, all invited to the "family day" at the military systems division of the European aerospace giant. They stroll around the ground display, the children's activity center and fast-food stands, but all are waiting for the central event, the air show. The flight program begins with two Eurofighters, the latest combat plane developed jointly by four European nations, tearing through the sky. After them appears other modern fighters, helicopters and transport planes, but the best is still to come. With a dull roar of propellers, the lovingly restored World War II fighters take to the air. The crowd, though, is waiting for something special this time. A strange high-pitched whine begins, slowly intensifying, and for the first time in more than 60 years, the Messerschmitt 262 takes off into the skies of Bavaria to a rapturous round of applause. The crowd watches spellbound. Those older than 70 still remember how, in the closing days of the war, they bicycled to an airfield hoping to catch a glimpse of the secret weapon. They remember their astonishment upon seeing a plane with no propeller, its power coming from two strange pipes slung under the wings. This was the miracle weapon that was supposed to save the Third Reich, clear the skies of the Allied bombers that were sowing destruction throughout Germany. The first jet plane to enter production. Just like those Luftwaffe fighters, this Me 262 is painted in gray camouflage. It has only one external difference - instead of the big swastika on the tail, a small flag of Germany. Technically, this isn't a German plane, but an exact replica painstakingly recreated by a group of American enthusiasts over eight years, then dismantled, flown across the Atlantic in a cargo plane and reassembled here in Manching. But the crowd doesn't care - as far as it is concerned this was Germany's technological pride, at last flying again above its birthplace. All the remaining specimens are housed in museums around the world. One is proudly displayed at the Deutsche Museum in Munich, a proud example of Germany's industrial greatness. Other Me 262s are on exhibition in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington and the Royal Air Force Museum in London. In the US, a group of retired aerospace engineers, all admirers of the plane, are building five flyable Me 262s. But nowhere is the plane's full history told. The replica cost the Messerschmitt Foundation in Munich more than $2 million and EADS spent additional funds on maintenance and modern avionics, but it is worth every penny. The Franco-German conglomerate is proud of its heritage and over the next month at the Berlin Air Show, the Me 262 was the star attraction, along with the company's latest product, Airbus 380, the largest airliner in the world. Messerschmitt, Germany's biggest airplane manufacturer of World War II went through many changes over the last six decades until it became part of the world's second largest aerospace corporation, but EADS, especially its German branch, sees a clear connection between the Me 262 and the Airbus 380: Both exhibit the technological cutting edge of their generations. The minor detail that almost all the Me 262s that actually went into service with the Luftwaffe were built in one of the most horrendous concentration camps of the Nazi regime goes unmentioned. The fact that an unknown number of slave laborers, estimated at between 35,000 and 50,000, were murdered or died of malnutrition, disease, freezing and work accidents while building the Me 262 doesn't fit in with the corporate heritage. THREE HOURS' drive down the autobahn from Manching, nestled between the low hills of Upper Austria on a tributary of the Danube, are two small picturesque villages, St. Georgen and Gusen. Like thousands of similar villages throughout central Europe, St. Georgen consists of a church and a few dozen old houses by the river, surrounded by a couple of hundred modern houses. In the center of the village is the Heimat Haus, the local museum, dedicated to the various arts, crafts and industries that sustained life there. Between a 19th-century weaving loom and a display of old steam engines, there is a room that tells the story of the huge underground munitions plants built by the Germans beneath St. Georgen during World War II. The museum's curator, Martha Gammer, belongs to the Gusen Memorial Committee, a small group of local residents that collects information on the village's part in the Nazi war machine. The display includes details on life in the camp, working conditions and its main product. When the tide had already turned against the Reich, the Nazi leadership began carrying out its well-laid plans to transfer the main arms factories to secret fortified locations, out of easy range of the Allied bombers that were wreaking havoc on industrial areas. The transfer had another purpose: To solve the personnel shortage in the munitions factories, the SS had come up with a simple solution - use the millions of prisoners in its vast network of camps. Soviet POWs, political prisoners, captured resistance fighters and Jews all became a commodity hired out to German companies for a daily fee. In many cases, the SS set up financial companies within the camps which became a major source of income for the organization. The biggest industrial complex was the network of 49 camps throughout Austria managed from headquarters at Mauthausen. The Gusen camp, a few kilometers down the road from Mauthausen, was the biggest. The camp was set up in May 1940 to operate the local stone quarries using slave laborers. The original intention was to supply material for the grandiose building plans at Linz, 20 kilometers away. Adolf Hitler lived in Linz as a teenager and young man and planned after the war to transform it into the Reich's second capital, with a huge art museum. He had even selected the paintings. SS commander Heinrich Himmler had set up DEST, the SS-owned German Stone and Sand Company, which took ownership of the area's famed quarries. When the arms industry started its transfer to the area, the camp's purpose was changed. Tens of thousands of prisoners were brought in to burrow beneath the villages, creating huge spaces that could accommodate assembly lines. A new camp, Gusen 2, was built in March 1944, and its prisoners set to work in the Bergkristall complex beneath St. Georgen. At its height, the camp contained 25,000 prisoners working in shifts around the clock. The prisoners of Gusen 2 were a mix of nationalities brought in from other concentration camps. The camp became known as the "hell of hells." "In the Gusen, the Germans had no need for a selection, prisoners died on their own," recalled Aron Tenenbaum, a young Polish Jew who worked in Gusen 2 from October 1944 to liberation in May 1945 (in an interview for the Spielberg Project). "Every morning before work, we took out the dead and threw them on platforms to be counted. When we passed the guards, if they stopped someone it almost always meant death from beating or something else. The toilet was a barrel with steps. When the guards had their fun or someone did something wrong, they would hold him by the legs and drown him in the barrel. Every day we saw a body there." The SS, with typical efficiency, graded its camps by the severity of their regime. Dachau, the first concentration camp, was grade 1; Auschwitz (the camp set up before the extermination camp at Birkenau) was grade 2. Mauthausen and Gusen were the only camps in the entire system to be grade 3, meaning "extermination through labor." "Even after Mauthausen it was real hell," recalled Vasili Kononenko, a Russian prisoner transferred to Gusen 2. "Two months in Gusen was a long life," said Felice Malgaroli from Milan. "Seven was a record" (talking in a collection of recorded testimony compiled by the Gusen Museum). THE STONE FORTRESS built by inmates, the main prisoners' and SS quarters, and the central quarry still stand on a hill above the village of Mauthausen, surrounded by monuments commemorating the prisoners of different nationalities. The site is now the national Austrian museum of the war's horrors, the prisoners' quarters contain a display detailing the tortuous narrative connecting what Austrians see as their dual identity, both perpetrators and victims. Little remains of the vast network of camps, but some of the quarries and steel works are still operated. The wooden barracks of Gusen 1 and 2 were burned a few months after liberation. In the 1950s, when the village grew and new housing went up, a group of former prisoners bought the plot where the camp's crematorium stood and built a memorial. The concrete building with the original oven that was used to dispose of the prisoners' bodies also contains hundreds of private plaques in memory of individual prisoners. Only one small plaque in Hebrew mentions the thousands of Jews who died in Gusen. Not all the camp's buildings were destroyed. Some stone houses, including the SS commandant's Jourhaus, are now private villas. The camp brothel, which served the kapos, now houses Turkish workers. Siegi Witzani, a history and English teacher from St. Georgen, points out other camp remnants in the area. Parallel to the road between the two villages, two long straight grooves are still easily visible. This is where the cattle wagons which transported the prisoners to work under the mountain ran. The bridge built by prisoners to move the trucks loaded with raw materials into the Bergkristall and completed parts out again still stands; today it is part of an international cycling path. On the hillside, the concrete supports of the underground plant are still clearly visible, but all the entrances have been blocked off by the government. Some of the newer houses in the village made use of the tunnel's remains. One entrance is now a storage area, another has been converted into a garage. The government rarely allows anyone down into the 50,000-square-meter cavity dug out by the prisoners in the space of a few months, but Witzani managed twice to descend with authorized groups. "It's extremely impressive; you just see a huge empty space, like a few football fields." The entrances are clearly visible from the village - one of them is right behind the church - and the people of the St Georgen and Gusen saw the prisoners go by every day. The Gusen Memorial Committee has interviewed many of the older citizens, recording their impressions of the camp. "We decided that we couldn't allow the events that happened here to be forgotten, especially after the new houses and farming obliterated most of the remains," says Witzani. "As an Austrian born after the war, I feel that I cannot atone for what happened, but it is my duty to try and shed some light." The prisoners were not the only new additions to the village. "In addition to the prisoners, whom everyone saw," says Witzani, "there were also hundreds of engineers and other employees of Messerschmitt who lived in lodgings in the village." BY THE END of the 1930s, a number of teams in different countries were working on the next step of aviation development - jet propulsion. Nazi Germany got there first when in August 1939, a few days before the outbreak of the war, the world's first jet plane, the Heinkel 178, took off from Rostock airfield. Germany's star aircraft designer Willy Messerschmitt was also working on a jet plane and was awarded a contract by the Reich Air Ministry to develop and build the Luftwaffe's jet combat plane, the Me 262. Messerschmitt remains a controversial figure to this day. His supporters see him as the greatest aviation genius of his generation, a trailblazer in the mold of the Wright brothers. His critics note that many of his designs were failures, killing pilots and passengers, and that he often presented the ideas of his employees as his own. Similar controversy surrounds his political affiliations. He was a member of the Nazi Party and a prot g of Hitler, who saw in him the embodiment of German genius and protected him from his powerful enemies in the Air Ministry. According to his biographers, he took little interest in politics and cared only about his planes. The Me 262 was his brainchild along with the famed BF 109, the Luftwaffe's main fighter plane throughout the war and the most widely produced fighter in aviation history. Problems in the engine development held up the first flight of the Me 262, which eventually took place in April 1941, powered by a piston-driven propeller as were the subsequent prototypes. It was another 15 months before an Me 262 powered only by two Junkers jet engines took to the air. The Me 262 had other innovations - swept-back wings, a pressurized cockpit and forward undercarriage all combined to make it the most advanced aircraft of the period. In December 1942, the Me 262 was included in the Vulcan program which allocated valuable resources and personnel to the production of advanced aircraft. The plane was planned to enter squadron service by the end of 1943, but the great interest Hitler personally showed in the plane proved to be to its detriment. He dreamed of "blitzbombers" that would bomb the Allied forces that were expected to land on the coast of France on their way to invade Germany. But the Me 262 had been designed to fight air-to-air battles and wasn't suited for bombing missions. Messerschmitt and the heads of the Air Ministry knew the truth but did not tell Hitler this. When he found out that despite his express orders, the Me 262 was still being built as a fighter, he forbade its use in air battles. Only upon meeting a young Luftwaffe ace in September 1944 was Hitler convinced of the need for a fast interceptor to operate against the British and American bombers. By that stage, the Third Reich's days were numbered, but Hitler believed that jet fighters, together with the new V1 and V2 flying bombs, could still turn the tide. Orders were given to drastically step up production. The entrance of the Me 262 into squadron service in the last months of 1944 was too little and too late to change the war's result. The few units that operated the plane suffered from a lack of properly trained pilots, who in many cases had only a single flight to get used to the revolutionary machine before taking off into battle. Nevertheless, in the hands of an experienced pilot, the Me 262 was capable of quickly shooting down the well-defended American bombers. The plane was especially effective in night operations, using special radar. But the numerical superiority of the Allies was insurmountable. The Americans quickly found the Me 262's weakness - its limited range allowed it to operate from only a few front-line air bases. American fighters began patrolling above these fields to shoot down the Me 262s on takeoff, before they could pick up speed. Losses were heavy and there was a constant demand for new planes to replace those shot down, lost in air accidents and bombed on the ground. THE THOUSANDS of prisoners transferred to Gusen 2 from the main camp at Mauthausen and later from other camps, including Auschwitz, were put to work excavating beneath the hills surrounding St. Georgen. The pace was frantic and the work proceeded under constant supervision of the Nazi leadership. Himmler visited frequently as did Albert Speer, Hitler's favorite architect who had been appointed minister of armaments in 1942 and was in charge of the entire industrial effort of the Reich. Gianfranco Maris, an Italian prisoner, worked in the excavations: "I was put in a work group that had to carry 50-kilo sacks of cement from the trucks. Together with me in the group were six or seven Jews. At that stage I was still capable of lifting the sacks, but they were older, perhaps 40, and not capable. They had no experience of physical work - one was a professor, another a surgeon and a third a painter. It was terrible, they murdered them." Despite the importance of their work for the war effort, the prisoners were given little food. "Most of the prisoners had empty tin cans tied to their trousers," recalls Austrian survivor Erwin Rinker. "While they dug, they would collect worms and cockroaches and eat them later." This wasn't the first time Messerschmitt used slave laborers. In 1943 prisoners in Gusen 1 were already making parts for the company's BF 109, and slave laborers were also at work in the company's main factory at Augsburg. But Gusen 2 was a much larger enterprise. The underground factory was run by the SS firm DEST, but it was a joint venture. Messerschmitt personnel gave the laborers their basic training, supplied the tools and machinery and, according to local witnesses, had a 400-strong technical staff on the site. Survivors remembered the presence of civilian Messerschmitt employees in the camp. "I worked in the cockpit assembly," testified Abraham Zuckerman, a prisoner from Krakow in Poland. "I didn't know really anything about the work, but you had to say you did. The work manager wasn't a Nazi; he taught us what to do. The kapos were the real killers." The Messerschmitt employees, of course, enjoyed totally different conditions than those of the prisoners, including normal rations. "I was transferred to work on the wing assembly-line at the Messerschmitt factory," recalls Henri Maitre, a French prisoner. "One day I got some thicker soup, Messerschmitt soup they called it, and it was very rare." Aron Tenenbaum remembers that the company tried to do at least something for the prisoners. "Messerschmitt would send milk for us, so we would have more strength to work. The kapo was supposed to give us the milk together with our bread and soup, but instead he would take the milk for himself and his friends back at the camp. The German and Austrian civilians saw the soup we received; they can't say they did not see what we ate, that they didn't know our soup was diluted with water. They saw how thin we got, saw how we were dressed." Another testimony was uncovered in 1997 when the estate of a former Messerschmitt employee was opened and 10 paintings of life in Gusen by Franciszek Znamirowski, a Polish prisoner, were found. One of them shows a group of prisoners working on an airplane wing, supervised by a man in civilian clothes with a ruler in his pocket. By June 1944, according to a report to Himmler, 35 percent of Messerschmitt production was coming from the concentration camps at Gusen and Flossenburg. At that point Gusen 1 began producing parts for the Me 262 and the excavation proceeded at full speed. In the first stage, 20,000 square meters were cleared for the first assembly lines, and while work there began in September 1944, prisoners dug out another 30,000 sq.m. The factory was planned to reach a peak assembly rate of 1,250 planes a month, with production lasting until 1955. Messerschmitt's design philosophy of modular planes made final assembly easier. The completed parts were shipped out of Gusen by train, straight to hidden sites in forest clearings. There the parts were put together, and the planes made their maiden flights from special closed-off sections of the autobahn to their operational bases. For the seven months of Bergkristall's operation, its assembly lines were continually upgraded until nearly all the production stages took place there. The highly specialized work needed constant cooperation with Messerschmitt headquarters, which sent hundreds of engineers, including senior production experts, to Gusen and opened a technical office there. The entire Me 262 assembly line was transferred by rail from Bavaria. In December 1944, the local school was closed so the building could be used as lodgings for the Messerschmitt staff. During these months, the levels of sadism reached new heights. Thousands of prisoners were dying each month, not only of hunger, exhaustion and illness; anyone who showed weakness, signs of disease or the slightest insubordination was immediately murdered. By the start of 1945, the Third Reich was mostly in flames, almost all its factories had shut down or been destroyed, but the work in Gusen carried on at full steam. Tens of thousands of new prisoners were transported from other camps that were rapidly being liberated by the advancing Allied armies, and were set to work on the assembly lines and excavations. In April 1945, Bergkristall reached its peak production with 15 Me 262s completed each day. ON APRIL 30, 1945, Hitler committed suicide in his bunker beneath Berlin, but work in Gusen continued around the clock. By May 2, Red Cross representatives had already reached the central camp at Mauthausen and were negotiating a peaceful surrender. On that day the SS executed the crematoria workers at Gusen, as it had done at other camps, and began destroying sensitive documents. The plan had been to hold out for as long as possible, then concentrate all the prisoners in the tunnels and blow them up, not allowing anything to fall into the hands of the Allies. But the US Army was closing in, and on May 3 the last roll call was heard in Gusen. The prisoners were sent off to work as usual and, later in the day, the SS escaped, leaving control of the camp to members of the Vienna fire brigade. On May 5, soldiers of the US 11th "Thunderbolt" Armored Division liberated the camp. Air force intelligence officers quickly arrived. The assembly lines, remaining aircraft and parts were all crated up and sent to the US. US intelligence estimated that 987 Me 262s were built in Gusen, and some of the ideas and innovations of the plane found their way into the first generation of American jet combat aircraft. Only about 20,000 of the more than 70,000 prisoners sent to Gusen lived to see liberation. The official death toll according to German records was 36,000, but the real number was much higher. Over the years, Gusen became known as "the forgotten camp" by the dwindling number of survivors. Willy Messerschmitt was put on trial after the war for using slave labor and was also accused of being a Nazi "fellow traveler." After two years in prison, he was released and resumed his position as head of his company, but was not allowed to manufacture airplanes in Germany, so he lived for a few years in Spain where he designed planes for the local air force. The Messerschmitt company built cars and prefabricated houses until it was allowed to resume aircraft production. In 1969, together with other companies it formed the MBB aerospace corporation, with Messerschmitt as company chairman. He retired in 1970 and died in Munich in September 1978. In 1989 the company was bought by Daimler-Benz as part of Deutsche Aerospace, and in 2001 it was combined with Aerospatiale of France and CASA of Spain to form European Aerospace Defense and Space Company - EADS, the second largest aircraft manufacturer in the world. The corporation's most visible asset is Airbus, but its German division deals mainly with military aircraft and traces its lineage to Messerschmitt. THE STREETS around the German headquarters of EADS in Ottobrun, south of Munich, are named for German air pioneers. The central entrance is on Willy Messerschmitt Strasse. At the main plant in Manching, there is a hangar named after Messerschmitt which contains a display on the company's past and its historic aircraft, including the Me 262. Hans-Ulrich Willbold is in charge of corporate heritage in the EADS public relations department. For our meeting he prepared a pile of books on the Me 262, but he had little detail on the production in Gusen. Most of what he has on file was taken from the Web site of the Gusen Memorial Committee. He said Messerschmitt's records and documents were mostly destroyed or taken away by the Americans at the end of the war. He had never heard of the Bergkristall factory until a few years ago, when camp survivors contacted EADS demanding reparations and pensions for their work. The survivors were referred to the German government's Remembrance, Responsibility and Future Foundation, a fund set up in 2000 to compensate slave laborers and their families with 5.1 billion euros, half of it coming from German companies including Deutsche Aerospace. Willbold insists that "many prisoners thought they were working for Messerschmitt, even if they were working for another aircraft company. Messerschmitt was just the name everyone identified with German planes. Besides, all the factories belonged to DEST. You have to understand the situation in that period, all the economy was planned. Everything was decided from above by the government. There were design competitions and whoever won would get an order for exactly how many planes to build. According to this, they got allocations of material and manpower. When there were not enough workers at Augsburg, prisoners were transferred there." He is adamant that these prisoners received decent treatment. "They got the same food as German workers, only that way could they work properly." He has no idea as to conditions at Gusen and insists that everything there was managed by the SS, despite the presence of Messerschmitt engineers. "You have to remember that all the production then was an act of desperation. They were talking of crazy numbers of a thousand planes a month." He also finds it hard to believe that more than two-thirds of the total production of the Me 262, 1,400 planes, took place in Gusen. "At the end of the war, there tens of thousands of planes in different stages lying around in all kinds of places. Most of the planes delivered were sent back because vital parts were missing. The Luftwaffe accepted only 900 planes." And what of the dark chapter in his company's history? "In our historical display on Messerschmitt's life, we mention that forced labor was used. We are not allowed to forget that, we cannot just choose the nice things and ignore the dark sides. We don't deny we have these sides like every other company." That won't prevent the Me 262 from being the star in EADS events. "The company is about the future," explains Willbold, "but with you can't be without heritage. You have to know where you are coming from to go forward. Most of the fans think abut the plane, not its production; all the rest just isn't interesting. It's a plane that made a huge impression on so many people, a technological milestone; also the Allies were in shock because of it. Even we were surprised when we saw the crowd's excitement at the air shows, thousands gathered around. This plane is a legend." The writer would like to thank the members of the Gusen Memorial Committee.