Monday, 10 November 2014

Nazi Megastructures

These last five weeks there's only been one place for Third Reich geeks. And that's been More4, 9pm Sunday evenings for the fantastically-named documentary series, Nazi Megastructures. At the centrepiece of each programme was a terrible, maniacal, yet ingenious Nazi scheme designed to strike the allies a crippling blow. They were truly windows into this most barbarous of regimes.

The first episode focused on the U-boat threat and particularly the base built at Lorient, on the French Atlantic coast. This structure, built between 1941 and 1942 provided three huge bunkers for the repair, resupply and storage of up to 30 submarines at a time. Encasing them were steel-reinforced concrete walls up to three metres thick and gaps between differently levels of the structure to deflect away blast force of any incoming bombs. As the air war turned against Germany, Lorient was attacked many times and hit directly by some of the heaviest conventional bombs at the allies disposal. Fortunately for the U-boats inside they remained unbowed and undamaged. But unfortunately for the town itself, it, the support roads and the rail heads leading to the complex were totally flattened, significantly reducing the operational efficacy of the base - at the price of thousands of dead French civilians.

The second looked at the development of von Braun's V-2 rocket. The initial part of the programme was concerned with the secret army research centre at Peenem├╝nde. It describes the dedicated factories, test beds, barracks and offices, and the facility's dedicated power plant for manufacturing rocket fuel. Despite the secrecy, the Allies got wind of the the launch site in 1942 and bombed it. Undeterred, the Nazis distributed the manufacture of rockets across Germany. In some cases, it led to underground factories. In others, bizarre and outlandish structures. La Coupole near Calais is typical of this. The Nazis constructed a vast bomb-proof concrete dome under which they excavated a warren of tunnels and chambers. This was an all-in-one facility. It was designed to build rockets, wheel them out on to the launch pad, and fire them. The unforeseen problem, again, was that while the structure was virtually indestructible the land surround it was not. The project was abandoned after bombing raids made supply to and from the site impractical, as well as ensuring the launch area was thoroughly cratered.

The third dealt with Hitler's love-in with supersized tanks. This episode is a history of Wehrmacht tank production, and details the development and deployment of the fearsome Tiger (my late granddad had to face these at Anzio - he wasn't a fan). Hitler was though, and wanted to see even larger tanks take to the field. The second part of the programme introduced the Panzer VIII, known as the Maus. This beast was over 200 tons and had armour 19cm thick at its weakest point. As such it was virtually impervious to any battlefield opposition. The problem, however, was its weight, speed, and sheer impracticality. The Germans didn't have an engine small but powerful enough to drive it more than eight miles an hour, had no machine guns to ward off infantry ambushes, and would either have bogged down in wet ground or collapsed any bridge it tried to cross. There seems to be a pattern emerging to these megastructures.

Episode four looked at the development of the notorious Me262, the world's first operational jet fighter. This far outperformed anything in the Allied and Soviet air forces, except the British Gloster Meteor that briefly saw active service. The development of the craft was delayed as both the Luftwaffe and Willy Messerchmitt himself believed/had an interest in continuing the manufacture of piston-driven planes, and thought the war could be won using them alone. By the time the funds started flowing in this direction, the air war was lost and Messerschmitt factories were systematically bombed. Matters weren't helped by an intervention by Hitler who cost development time by insisting the jet be a fighter bomber rather than an interceptor, before eventually relenting. Like the V-2 programme, production was dispersed across Germany. The site of interest to this episode was Walpersberg Hill. Here the Nazis excavated an underground factory/base designed, like La Coupole, to launch machines straight from the production line from a makeshift runway at the hill summit. It was a colossal engineering effort that cost huge quantities of resources, the lives of over 900 slave labourers and produced just 27 fighters before the Americans overran the site.

The final episode looked at the ring of fortifications built around Berlin as the Soviets prepared for their final assault. As such this was about structures rather than a singular construction. It took in the huge anti-tank ditches dug by civilians on the approaches to the capital, the super-bomb proof F├╝hrerbunker (not only was it buried beneath the Reich Chancellery, it was capped by a roof of steel-reinforced concrete some four metres thick), and the three flak towers. Constructed in 1940 as anti-aircraft artillery placements during the Battle of Berlin these doubled up as strongpoints and shelters from the fighting. An estimated 60,000 people stayed in them as the war raged outside. Their 11 foot thick walls also proved impervious to Soviet guns and were, unsurprisingly, among the last areas of the city to surrender.

In each case, these buildings and the projects they supported say everything about Nazi Germany. They were all brutally functional to the point of being dysfunctional - time and again the facilities were made vulnerable and inoperable by the 'soft' civilian structures surrounding them to which the Nazis paid scant regard. And all had an element of desperate madness about them. As the war swung against Hitler, his regime preferred to chase wonder weapons that would somehow turn the tide back their way. Yet the V-2, the Me262, the Tiger, all fearsome weapons in their own right showed up too late and in too few number - thankfully. But also how scant resources continued to be poured into these projects right up to the very end of the war says something about the collective madness gripping the Nazis - a flight from a reality their crimes brought down on their heads.

Where Nazi Megastructures was good was it spared no detail about the use of slave labour in these schemes. This was not an indulgent "the Nazis were bad but what amazing engineers they were!" apologetics. The real human costs were shown, as well as the absurdity and pointlessness of the projects.

Yet there was a curious omission. Where was the Holocaust? Surely, the most ambitious, far-reaching, extensive, complex and, sadly, ruthlessly efficient megastructure of all were the networks of death camps, murder factories and crematoria that exterminated between six and seven million people. In terms of resources expended, this monstrous enterprise dwarfed the underground factories, the slave labour assembly lines, the concrete domes and useless tanks. As Third Reich documentation makes clear, throughout the war the wholesale murder of Jews and other "underdesirables" were the Nazis' top priority. Not even chronic labour shortages in German factories stopped the killing. The madness and barbarity of the Nazis can be glimpsed in the concrete ruins they left behind. But to see it truly, fully, Nazi Megastructures needed to go where it failed to do so - the dark heart of their largest, most secret, most disgusting project.


Unknown said...

Don't you ever watch something like Strictly on Saturday night? Even political obsessives need a bit of nonsense to watch, or are you going to deconstruct this at some point? That said, I can't bring myself to watch X factor and am waiting for the return of Engrenages/ Spiral on a Sat night. I have in fact visited various Nazi sights over the years and I've never felt comfortable with concrete since. Canary Wharf gives me a similar feeling.

Gary Elsby said...

At the end of the war, Germany was divided into 4 sectors.
USA, Canada, Great Britain, USSR.
(Berlin segmented between the 4).

Responsibility for German prisoners welfare was given to each respective occupier.

To make things simple, take a look at the British sector.
What happened next?

Speedy said...

Albert Speer got away with murder, literally.

But to answer Gary's point - yes: the mass murder of German prisoners by the Americans and French is one of WW2's great unexplored war crimes (hundreds of thousands), along with the Italian crimes in Greece and Yugoslavia - thousands of Italian war criminals cases pushed under the carpet when communism "threatened" post-war Italy. The Italian myth of victimhood perseveres to this day while their crimes match anything done by the Germans in Italy.

Despite the odd firestorm, the British really did come out of WW2 smelling of roses. They were even behind the German economic miracle, for which the receive little acknowledgement, naturally.

Speaking of megastructures..

Alex said...

Weirdly, one of the flakturms in Vienna has been converted into an aquarium, having defied various efforts to knock it down (any force that would knock it down would also flatten most of the city). So there's this massive Nazi land-submarine eighteen stories up and another nine down looming over the city and it's FULL OF FISH, and just so weird nobody thinks about it for a moment.

Gary Elsby said...

It's the British sector I highlight and was administered by Field Marshall Montgomery, Britain's most senior soldier WW2.

I cast no judgement here at all but numbers counted in and numbers counted out along with accommodation and calorific rations is something that should be followed by a simple ?

Speedy said...

Indeed. It has been said that the French and Americans had a deliberate policy to wipe out hundreds of thousands of German soldiers through neglect, in order to "punish" Germany.

The stats talk for themselves.

asquith said...

Totalitarian states know very well the symbolism of buildings which is why they are so keen on building, and demolishing them. One thinks of the clerical fascists of the Taliban and Islamic State, who destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan and are trying to efface the Yezidi and Christian cultures from the world. Only last week a group of fash destroyed an Armenian (yes, they're the victims again) church in Syria as part of cultural genocide which is as thoroughgoing as ever even if no one is physically there.

Meanwhile, Israeli and Palestinian "historians" can't agree over whose forefathers owned what building or site and did what with it, and sometimes I think none of them care what really happened.

This might interest those who are interested in that kind of thing.

It achieves the feat of being even worse than that postwar staircase near Birmingham New Street, which is the grimmest construction I've ever seen and makes the old bus station look like Shugborough by comparison.

That question by "Unknown" at 10:13 reminds me of something. Don't you actually listen to Eurovision and dance music in your spaare time? People have unexpected recreations.

One Saturday a few weeks ago, during an enforced 2-hour wait between one bit of business in Hanley and another, I decided to go to Webberleys for a free read. (They don't complain because they know I come in and buy books often enough). I had a look at Dennis Skinner's autobiography. Who knew that he enjoys a stroll in the park, finding that it helps clear his mind and assemble his thoughts?

I do that with cycling, it evidently doesn't work but I try :)

Gary Elsby said...

Of course, I should have pointed out that in the West sector of Germany, it was USA, GB, France, Canada.
The East was the USSR.

Again, I cast no judgement, but can only observe that it is said that the East were well fed and in the West, 1000 calories per day was the norm and a hole in the ground with no roof protected men from the elements.
Just how did the allies remove all those land mines?

Anonymous said...

We can hardly deny the West's treatment of German civilians and POWs postwar was poor and in some cases abusive.

You are however inviting a comparison with the care of Germans under Soviet occupation. East Germans may have been better fed than West in the few years immediately postwar. On the other hand, we also know that tens of thousands of East Germans fled to the West rather than endure their forced labour. As for German POWs and civilians (mostly evicted from Eastern Europe) taken to the USSR, the death toll (~30%) speaks for itself.

And even that high attrition rate is a significant improvement over the Nazi regime.

Phil said...

You're doing alright, Asquith. And yes, I really do listen to dance music and watch Eurovision every year.

On mega projects themselves, it's interesting that politicians and managers generally have a thing for them. Our place is splashing out on a huge new sports hall. The City Council has the Smithfield development, and then there's the huge projects - some still unbuilt - at Keele. There's something gagging to be written on this topic.