Research and story by Clarence Simonsen
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Engineer and rocket expert Wernher von Braun was born in Wirsitz, Germany, in the province of Posen, [now Wyrzysk, Poland] on 23 March 1912. The family of Baron Magnus von Braun was wealthy, and life was filled with the zest for serious reading, listening to classical music and conversation in five different languages.
In 1899, German composer Paul Lincke wrote the original score of an Operetta he titled “Frau Luna”. The music told the story of a trip to the moon by Berliners in a hot air balloon, who meets the Lady in the moon – “Frau Luna.” Part of this original score included a famous march “Berliner Luft” which became the unofficial anthem of the city of Berlin. In 1906, the Operetta music became a hit in the 2 act of a burlesque show which included part pop tune and operetta. In 1922, Lincke revised the original Operetta and his new classical music soon became a part of the new Weimar Berlin era of cabarets, pleasure-seeking music culture. Wernher was only ten years old but thanks to his father, well involved in German classical music.
As a little boy, von Braun mastered the piano and even composed his own music. Much has been written about his early interest in music by friend and biographer Ernest Stuhlinger. In the 1920s von Braun was accepted for piano lessons by the famous composer Paul Hindemith, and by age 15  had composed some of his own pieces. He demonstrated his piano talent by expertly playing Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”, which had connections to the moon. Von Braun also took cello lessons at the Hermann Lietz boarding school at Ettersburg Castle where he became a member of the student orchestra at age 14 years. They played the works of Mozart, Haydon and Schubert. [Ernest Stuhlinger and Frederick I. Ordway III, Wernher von Braun Crusader for Space, Biographical Memoir Florida 1994]
Another von Braun biographer, Helen B. Waters, has written Wernher’s father had a huge liberty of books and his son was drawn to science fiction, where the works of Jules Verne fired his imagination. [Helen B. Waters – Wernher von Braun Rocket Engineer, New York, 1964, page 18]
In addition to music and literature, at age 13 von Braun was drawn to the heavens when he received a life-changing gift from his mother. He had just begun his studies at Ettersburg Castle, when the gift of a telescope arrived. He soon developed a strong passion for astronomy and moon watching, which led to a curiosity about building a vehicle to carry a man to the moon. At age 16, he transferred to a North Sea school at Spiekeroog Island, where he developed leadership, organization and communication skills. To further his astronomy he persuaded the head master to purchase a five-inch retracting telescope and helped build an observatory. He also began to write about astronautics and his five-page story “Lunetta” [Little Moon] was published in the school magazine. The story involved a rocket trip to a space station, where crews wore space suits and observed earth through special windows.
In 1924, the family moved to Berlin where von Braun read the book “Die Raket zu den Planetenrumen, [The Rocket into Interplanetary Space] published 1923 by Hermann Oberth. This spurred his strong desire to better understand the science and math related to space travel, and he soon became a top student in both subjects. Oberth’s book helped to spark the rise of amateur rockery in all of Germany.
In the summer of 1929, von Braun enrolled at the Berlin Institute of Technology taking mechanical engineering. On 15 October 1929, a movie premiered in the Universum Film AG Cinema, Berlin, titled “Die Frau im Monde” [Women in the Moon] directed by Fritz Lange.
Lange hired author and space expert Hermann Oberth as the film technical advisor. The movie displayed remarkably accurate moon rocket design, acceleration, and weightlessness in space, featuring the very first countdown in seconds before rocket ignition.
The movie historically changed the imagination of space travel for thousands of German male youth, including 17 year old von Braun. The movie also reintroduced von Braun to Oberth, and the German female figure soon became his heroine, “Women in the Moon.”
Due to the historic breakthrough of the movie [Die Frau im Monde], Oberth ask director Lang if he would assist him to raise money to build an operational space rocket. This by-product of the Frau im Monde movie would have a major effect on rocket development and earn Oberth the title –“Father of German Space Flight” movement.
The original rocket group of three included Oberth, and two assistants, a WW I fighter pilot, Rudolf Nebel, and a Russian emigrant, Alexander Sherchevsky. They began work on the new rocket but the project soon fell apart, Sherchevsky was fired, Oberth was injured, suffered a nervous breakdown and returned to his native Rumania. Nebel regrouped and continued work on the rocket using leftover material. In early 1930, Oberth agreed to return and work with Nebel on the new rocket. While conducting his graduate studies, von Braun joined the group and assisted Hermann Oberth with experiments in building and firing the new small liquid fuel rockets. On 23 July 1930, they succeeded in building and successfully test firing a gasoline, liquid oxygen rocket.
This historic photo shows Oberth, Nebel, and a number of helpers. One eighteen year old youth, wearing suit and knee breeches, is Wernher von Braun.
After this test, Oberth returns to Rumania and Nebel will form the most important rocket group in Germany, [Raketenflugplatz Berlin]. Their work was conducted in an abandoned Army ammunition dump, located on swampy, hilly, wooded, lowland at Reinickendorf. In May 1931, the Raketenflugplatz group launches a rocket they christened “Repulsor” after a German space vehicle in a fictional novel. In the spring of 1932, Capt. Walter Dornberger came to visit and the German Army began to fund the rocket flight club. After completing the first half of his mechanical engineering program at the University of Berlin, von Braun was made a doctoral candidate in applied physics. He officially began work at the new Army Artillery range at Kummersdorf on 1 October 1932. On 30 January 1933, Adolf Hitler forces his way to power in the Weimar Republic and becomes chancellor of Germany. He next leads a parliamentary coup, suspends the constitution and begins rule by decree. The new rocket research will become part of the German Totalitarian Society, over which the new rocket engineers and scientists will have little control.
In early 1932, von Braun had graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, and with the help of Capt. Dornberger, enrolled at the Friedrich-Wilhelm University of Berlin, to study physics. His doctoral studies were funded by the Ordnance Department of the German Army. This German Army grant financed von Braun’s rocket research located at the old Army Artillery range at Kummersdorf, next to the solid-fuel rocket facility headed by Captain Walter Dornberger.
In 1934, von Braun obtained a doctorate degree in physics from the University of Berlin, by that time he was technical director of rocket research at Kummersdorf. That same year, he led a group that successfully launched two liquid-fueled rockets into space. He named these rockets MAX and MORITZ after the famous German cartoon characters created by Wilhelm Busch in 1865.
Born in Bremen on 13 July 1904, Gerd de Beek would become a friend to von Braun, and worked his entire life for his rocket teams. From 1937 to 45 von Braun became technical director of the German rocket research at Peenemunde, and research professor from 1943 to 45. He was responsible for the successful development of the German A4 rocket, which first flew on 3 October 1942. This new rocket was designed on paper by Gerd de Beek and his design team, plus this missile carried a special tail art painted for Wernher von Braun. The painted image featured his heroine a nude “Frau Luna” on the moon, imposed over the outline of an A4 rocket with V4 [4th launch] on tail. A second painting featured a Frau Luna wearing a dress and shoes. [The reason for this second art is still unknown]
The Army A/4 test rockets did not display any German national markings or Nazi colors, which was possibly forbidden due to the classification of “State Secret.” The first A/4 missiles were hand built prototypes painted in a glossy black and white scheme designed for tracking the rocket rotation after lift-off and this was all recorded on 35 mm film and 16 mm motion picture. This early black and white paint scheme was applied by brush in the large assembly building and gave a rather crude appearance to the missile finish. When the black and white painting was completed artist de Beek took over and created his tail art image which was mainly painted between fin number 1 and 2. The German scientists had no way of knowing when the first missile would make a successful flight and thus de Beek had no idea which one of his tail art images would make world space history. The first three tail art images all feature a German female, [possibly Frau Luna on V2, then a witch on V3, and now V4 becomes the very first fully nude lady painting. The two images on right [below] are from the original pre-launch 16 mm film recorded at Peenemunde, Germany.
Microfilm copy of original 35 mm prelaunch images showing the nude Frau Luna, 3 October 1942. These were copied at Fort Eustis, Maryland, in 1946-47 and today are public domain National Archives and Records Administration at Maryland, USA. This flight burn was 58 seconds; however the pitch was too steep due to an error. This became the first man made missile to reach into outer space, 87 to 90 k/m, reaching a top speed of 0.75 miles per second. The photo records the tail art was painted between fin #1 and #2, as the early rockets were manufactured with air rudders on tail fins 1 and 3.
This is the free domain image showing the takeoff of A/4 V4 at 4 p.m. on 3 October 1942, where the rocket achieved the world’s most historic space flight, reaching a maximum altitude of 52.8 miles. It was witnessed by General Leeb and General Koch, with flight duration of 58 seconds burn; it traveled 120 miles before crashing into the Baltic Sea. This rare historic space artifact is still waiting to be re-discovered from the sea bed, and I believe the “Frau Luna” nude space art still survives on the rear section sitting in the Baltic.
This successful flight-test came at just the right moment, as the next thirteen test missiles would all be a total failure in functioning property. Wernher von Braun used this A/4 test film to his full advantage on 6-7 July 1943, the date he was finally allowed a face to face appointment with the Fuehrer. Dr. Steinhoff was the pilot of a He-111 which flew Dornberger and von Braun to meet with Hitler in his East Prussia bunker, [Wolfsschanze]. At 17:00 hours they were ushered in for a briefing, in the presence of Hitler, Jodl, Butale, Keitel and Albert Speer. The presentation film began with the impressive vast assembly hall at Peenemunde, showing the production, assembly, vertical roll-out, the P-7 launch complex and finally the A/4 launch. This was followed by von Braun presenting Hitler with model and plans to construct a huge protected production and launch bunker on the coast of France. At the end of the film presentation, Hitler promoted Dornberger to the rank of Generalmajor and appointed von Braun as professor. Hitler had problems to understand the technical developments of the rocket, however he finally agreed to a monthly production of two thousands A/4s.
This film came to the United States with von Braun in 1945, and can be viewed online today. I’m positive the little nude Frau Luna was also explained to Hitler on 7 July 43.
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It is possible this A/4 rocket art nudity reflected on the German Weimar 1920’s era, which gave way to open displays of lewd dancing, with full nudity; to the point all German cabarets [Over 500] had at least topless German dancers. Von Braun was able to erect a strange wall of silence around this part of his sexual past and the number of lovers that he made contact with. In 1929, he was a handsome 17 year old student living in Berlin, where he was often seen in the evenings in the company of two girls at once. This was the main time period where Berlin was the hottest pleasure city in all of Europe, where gay men, lesbians, and transvestites openly displayed their sexuality. Even today, nobody knows if von Braun was bi-sexual, or straight, but he was in Berlin, had money to spend and each night hundreds of men costumed as women and hundreds of women as men, danced in transvestite balls. Von Braun had a charismatic personality and is recorded as being a ladies man, so you can let your imagination run wild. This madcap Weimar “Golden” period was captured in paint and pencil by a famous German artist Jeanne Mammen, who depicted sensual women in the dark side of Berlin City nightlife.
Jeanne was born in Berlin in 1890, fled with her parents to Paris in 1916, and spent a good part of her life working with people of different class backgrounds. She found work as a commercial artist and her mainly pencil drawings with a watercolor wash, illustrated the urban atmosphere of Berlin from late 1920 to early 1930. With the arrival of Hitler in 1933, the Nazis banned her art and denounced her subjects as hated Jewish. Until the end of the war she painted for advertising magazines and sold second-hand books. Her portrayals of Weimar period German life and lesbian women were most disturbing to Hitler and his Nazis. Wernher von Braun spent the fall of 1929, until the spring of 1933, in this Weimar wild nightlife. [Age 17 to 21 years]
1930 pencil and watercolor by Jeanne Mammen titled – Lesbian girlfriends
This famous 1930 pencil drawing by Jeanne Mammen is titled – Boot Whores Berlin.
The illustration captures the blind and poor Germans attempting to make a living to stay alive, while the young girls sell their bodies on the street. Most of the prostitutes wore high top leather boots which earned them the nicknamed “Boot Whores.” When you look at the little nude “Frau Luna” on A/4 rocket V4 she is wearing only stockings and her high top black leather boots. Could she in fact be a “Boot Whore” painted for von Braun by Gerd de Beek?
The historical impact of the film “Die Frau im Monde” supplied the funds to build the first German rocket which was launched on 23 July 1930. Eighteen year old von Braun was part of this historical event, and it is most likely he attended a large number of the Weimar Berlin cabarets; combined with his movie heroine “The Girl in the Moon” this could have influenced the launch tail art on 3 October 1942. Smithsonian Historian Michael Neufeld recorded in his 2007 book – “Von Braun Dreamer of Space Engineer of War”, [he was known as a ladies’ man], processed power and money, which attracted the German high society to the Berlin cabaret lifestyle.
From 13 June 1942 to 27 January 1954, Wernher von Braun approved the painting of forty-four rocket tail art paintings by his friend Gerd de Beek. Fifteen German female images were created for his rockets, and six featured female nudity. While von Braun was obsessed with space and going to the moon, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see he was also obsessed with nude German ladies.
Image of young von Braun from the Website V2rocket.com, rocket tail art images from author collection