125th anniversary of Rheinmetall – the years 1936 to 1945
“A factory or piles of paper?” - Red tape abundance even in times of war
In 1943 the German Army was engaged in fierce combat on the Eastern and Western Front. Numerous Rheinmetall-Borsig AG employees had been conscripted and many had already lost their lives on the battlefield. Women and forced labourers had taken their place in arms production. However, something that still functioned perfectly in spite of all the hardship was the German bureaucracy. Even the weapons production needed for the much hoped for Final Victory (Endsieg) was slowed down by abundant red tape. This applied both to the recruitment of labour – even of forced labourers – and to the relocation of factories.
When the allies started their day and night time air raids of major cities like Berlin and Düsseldorf damaging residential buildings and production facilities alike, Rheinmetall-Borsig’s plant management tried to relocate production of the 8.8cm anti-aircraft gun and other important guns to requisitioned property in the allegedly safer eastern regions of the German Reich. On several occasions, this was prevented by red tape. However, the administrators of German thoroughness that survived even in times of war often had no other choice. Only thus was it possible to stop big companies from securing large factory halls to get access to cheap labour and facilities.
In one case, one of the Berlin plant managers of the subsidiary Maget (standing for Maschinen- und Gerätebau Tegel) got extremely frustrated when in 1942 the regulatory authorities demanded the usual paperwork for the erection of a new building to increase production of the MG42 machine gun. They demanded details on building statics, terrain structure, height, the intended production activity and many other things. Like many other vital wartime processes, this administrative procedure was lengthy. In the end, managing director Priebe got involved and wrote a strongly worded complaint: “Do you want us to build a plant for machine gun production as quickly as possible or do you want us to dump a truckload full of paper in front of your door?” This clearly turned out to be effective – only a few months later, construction work was completed and production finally got under way.
“I dreamt of leaving the camp” - A former forced labourer remembers
Many forced labourers had to work for Rheinmetall-Borsig in World War II. We wouldn’t know a lot about their fate if some of them hadn’t written letters describing their experience. They did this because – to obtain financial compensation from the trust set up by the German government and German industry in 1999 – they needed a certificate from Rheinmetall proving they had been subjected to forced labour.
One such person was Sascha A. who had worked on the carpenter’s bench at the Düsseldorf-Derendorf plant. “The German workers were kind and warm-hearted. They gave us food to eat.” By contrast, his memories of two of his German colleagues are less positive: “Two young Germans called Otto and Kurt worked next to me. Otto was intelligent, wore spectacles and was a fascist who wanted to shoot all communists on the Eastern Front.” Sascha A. did not say he was treated badly by them. His foreman Johann was a member of the national socialist party but Sascha still didn’t think he was inhuman. He described him as a “small man with the fascist symbol pinned to his suit. He was strict but honest.”
One point is particularly touching in the light of the great suffering of forced labourers at Rheinmetall in Düsseldorf, Berlin and elsewhere: “I enjoyed drawing. I started to draw French labourers and they sent the portraits to their homes in France. They gave me pencils and paper and they paid for my artwork with bread, cigarettes and tinned food.” It is not known where he drew the pictures, whether at the forced labour camp in Grashofstrasse or at the factory during breaks from work. Yet the hobby of the talented forced labourer did not go noticed. “The foreman found out. He showed me a photograph of a five year-old girl. I agreed to produce a portrait of the young girl. The girl had died. The portrait of the girl was drawn in the dining room for Germans.”
The fact that the foreman Johann let Sascha A. into the dining room reserved for Germans shows that foreigners weren’t normally given access to this room but used a separate dining area. In fact, forced labourers were not allowed to use the communal facilities of the Germans; the plans of the Düsseldorf-Derendorf plant show separate communal areas for labourers from Eastern regions. Another story reported by Sascha A. concerned a failed attempt to escape from the prison camp. “I dreamt of leaving the camp. My dream came true. I was on the street next to the Art Academy. I was admiring pictures by German painters. Then the police grabbed me and took me to the Gestapo.” What did the Gestapo do to Sascha A? Why didn’t he speak of his time there? Perhaps his experience was too painful to remember…
”Access strictly forbidden!”
Hartmut and Heinrich Johannes from Brambostel are only distant relatives, yet their neighbouring farmsteads have one thing in common: in former times, their respective families were expelled from their farms Brambostel 2 and Brambostel 3.
During World War II, development, production and testing activities at Rheinmetall-Borsig were at full-speed, and this wasn’t everything. The German Reichswehr had taken over the proving grounds in Unterlüß. The German air force used the shooting range to fire from the Lorenz position to the west of the main fire stand and the German army operated from the Gut Mitte location. All in all, more than 2000 shots were fired from 20 different firing positions in just one hour. Only 20% of all practice firing was actually carried out by Rheinmetall-Borsig in Unterlüß. In terms of related risks and sequence of firing, none of the military services showed any consideration towards each other or towards Rheinmetall,for that matter. Hit patterns had to be collected, fired cartridges retrieved and special explosive tests conducted. This stopped all firing activities each time this was necessary. Consequently, a second firing range was sought in 1941 but this caused problems: the hit area was located on populated farmland with farmhouses in the district of Brambostel.
Initially, the inhabitants of Brambostel had to leave their houses and farms at shooting times only. “The area was blocked off and nobody was given access”, recalls Harmut Johannes. On 6th November 1942, a dispossession order decreed that the farmland in Brambostel had to be allocated to Rheinmetall-Borsig. From then on, the families were strictly forbidden to enter their properties. Most of the houses were demolished, large areas of woodland were deforested for the shooting range and hit areas, wood and construction material was sold off. The properties had thus been devalued. Furthermore, a penal colony from Torgau was housed in a specially converted barn belonging to Albert Johannes. Harmut and Heinrich were still young when their fathers Ernst and Albert Johannes had to leave their Brambostel farms with their families. Whereas Albert Johannes and family were actually moved to a farm in the district of Lüneburg in 1944, whose owner had likewise been dispossessed and – as a hostile British national – was interned, Ernst Johannes was never allocated a new farm in the war. “We stayed with friends and acquaintances in Eimke”, recalls his son Hartmut. “We hunted for a living – this was naturally illegal. The hunting rights were likewise with Rheinmetall. Our property was stored in various places, and much of it was burnt when Eimke was defended against the British forces“. Albert Johannes including his wife and sons Heinrich and Alfred had to leave their substitute farm immediately after the end of World War II. The British occupiers returned the property to the former owner who had been freed.
On May 25th 1945, Rheinmetall-Borsig informed Ernst and Albert Johannes “that we have no further claim to the utilisation of your property in Brambostel”. But the families encountered a lot of problems on their return. Former inhabitants of Brambostel had to share their destroyed farmsteads with refugees, without electrical power and without being able to farm their land properly. An architect from Munster was requested to rebuild the houses and utility buildings, and a British major had the neglected fields ploughed with a small armoured personnel carrier. Theoretically, the cost of reconstruction should have been borne by Rheinmetall, but the company’s accounts had been frozen by the Allies. Later, Rheinmetall stated that the dispossession had taken place at the order of the naval headquarters and that Rheinmetall had reaped no benefit – and only had a cost burden – from the dispossession. The dispossessed farmers nevertheless insisted they were entitled to compensation payments and successfully claimed damages ten years later.
After returning home, neither Albert nor Ernst Johannes had feelings of resentment against Rheinmetall. Heinrich Johannes reports that his father always claimed that Rheinmetall had lost the war just like the rest of Germany. He never wanted to sue Rheinmetall for damages, not even in cooperation with the British occupation forces.” Hartmut explains: “My father never had to fight on the front line. Thanks to the dispossession, he was given the status of a person who was needed at home in the interest of the public. All his comrades who had attended the same basic military training had died on the Eastern Front. My father survived – due to the dispossession. This is something he never forgot.”
The second firing range no longer exists and the farms of the family Johannes have long since been returned to their rightful owners. The memory of the dispossession has, however, remained alive. The two sons emphasise they bear no grudge against Rheinmetall. In fact, Heinrich Johannes’ younger brother Alfred worked for Rheinmetall for 37 years.
“Mouse” tank glides through hall
A 1941 news reel featured something quite extraordinary: it showed super-heavy tanks for the Ger-man Army attached to chains floating from one position to the next in a factory hall. What onlookers didn’t know and weren’t allowed to know was that the factory was Altmärkische Kettenwerke (Alkett) in Berlin, a subsidiary of Rheinmetall-Borsig AG.
Hitler’s megalomania was boundless, as evidenced by the architectural plans of Albert Speer. He also wanted the biggest ever weapon system to be built. The self-propelled mortar Karl (“Karl-Device) built by Rheinmetall-Borsig was just one further example of his megalomania. Similar to Krupp’s super-heavy howitzer Big Bertha (Dicke Bertha) from World War I, Karl fired 40mm rounds against the fortress at Sevastopol in Crimea. Another major project was the “Mouse” super tank also referred to as the “Little Mouse” by some. This tank was neither very small, nor agile or quick, nor was it detected late or did it offer other conceivable advantages. Quite the opposite: it was to be the heaviest enclosed armoured vehicle ever to be seen by the enemy.
Originally designed by Porsche and called “Mammoth” (Mamuth), it was renamed “Mouse” because the name was considered more appropriate. The tank was more than ten meters long, approximately 3.7 meters wide and 3.8 meters high. Weighing in at 188 tons (compared to the Leopard 2 A6 MBT that weighs 62 tons), the tank was powered by a 1080 hp engine. In service, the tank consumed 3,800 liters of diesel over a distance of 100 kilometers. Today, a trip would cost around 5,000 E. In view of the fuel scarcity in the war, it would have been impossible to operate a complete fleet of tanks. As with the “Karl” mortar system, it would have been necessary to transport the tank to the front by train, however, the tank was too heavy to cross bridges, and many of the tunnels were too low and narrow.
The German Army ordered 150 super-heavy “Mouse” tanks. A total of seven units were started, two prototypes were completed, the first of which on Christmas Eve in 1943; the remaining order was cancelled in 1944. The “Mouse” super tank was never sent to the front and actually never progressed beyond the trial phase. One -prototype still exists because the Soviets seized the remaining Alkett prototype; the vehicle hull is on display at the Kubinka tank museum near Moscow.