When the Soviets advanced into eastern Germany, the Nazis tried to quickly evacuate the jet factory. But by then, it was too late for the jet to have much effect on the outcome of the war.
By Uli Suckert
At the very end of World War II, Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler still hoped that state-of-the-art technology could turn the tide in his favor. One of those projects, the Messerschmitt jet fighter, found a home in a remote corner of eastern Germany. But it was too late.
It took four and a half years, but finally, on March 20, 1944, World War II -- and more specifically, the armaments industry -- came to a remote corner of eastern Germany called the Lausitz. As the Allies flew an ever-increasing number of air raids over Germany's industrial and urban centers, large weapons factories in Nazi Germany began an exhaustive search for suitable places to relocate -- sites as inconspicuous and isolated as possible. Indeed, by 1943, Hermann Göring, commander of the Luftwaffe, had already forged plans to relocate the aviation industry to areas the Allies were unlikely to bomb.
It took a year, but then Junkers, an airplane and engine manufacturer from Dessau, moved into a factory belonging to the Moras Brothers textile company in Zittau, which today is located near Germany's border with Poland and the Czech Republic.
Disguised as a company called Zittwerke AG, it was far from run-of-the-mill as far as armaments factories go. Zittau was to be where the world's first production-ready jet engine would be completed, the same engine that was to power Hitler's secret weapon, the Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighter.
Jürgen Ulderup from Junkers' Dessau production site was tasked with taking over as plant manager in Zittau. He immediately set up a network of manufacturing plants throughout the region, all top secret. Key to getting the project off the ground was his demand that 18 long-established textile producers make space in their factories for armaments production. Some companies had to turn over their factories in their entirety. It proved a further blow for the region's textile industry, already largely crippled and converted to the war economy.
Core of the Enterprise
But winning the war took priority, and the remote corner of Nazi Germany now began producing components for the clandestine jet engine. Ulderup hired over 2,500 employees and put them to work in the Zittwerke plants, under the direction of aviation industry experts. They worked in the Moras factory, the Haebler Brothers textile company in Zittau, the Rudolf Breuer mechanical weaving mill in Reichenau, the Kreutziger & Henke company in Leutersdorf, the Ebersbach spinning and weaving mill, and at 13 other factories located in regional towns and villages.
But the core of the enterprise was to be found on the grounds of a former World War I prisoner of war camp in the present-day Polish town of Porajów -- a camp which had been converted for use by the German armed forces. The factory, guarded by the 17th SS "Totenkopf" battalion, simply moved into several half-finished barracks.
Deep in the heart of the compound, behind several rows of barbed wire, was the administration building where a detachment from the Gross-Rosen concentration camp was housed. Along with prisoners of war and the so-called "Eastern workers" -- forced labor from countries such as the Ukraine -- over 850 concentration camp prisoners did most of the work in the Zittwerke factories.
Not long after Junkers had settled in, the sound of industry filled the Neisse River Valley day and night. Rumors of a "miracle weapon" circulated among the local population, but no one knew exactly what the factory produced. It wasn't until final assembly that the object in question could be recognized for what it was: a special turbojet engine for a new type of jet fighter.
Shiny New Me 262s
Technicians had already tested the engines. A Messerschmitt plane, the Me 262-V 1, powered with a Junkers Jumo 004A-0 jet engine, took to the air as early as March 2, 1943. The test proved successful. And before long, the Zwittau factories mastered all aspects of the jet engine's production, from pre-assembly to shipment.
The factories were well connected to the Third Reich's rail network, with covered freight cars lugging the completed engines -- once they had passed inspection -- to the south. There, in the forests surrounding the Bavarian towns of Regensburg and Augsburg, workers installed the new engines into the jets. A converted Autobahn nearby served as a runway from which the shiny new Me 262s took off for their test flights. Only then would they be loaded onto freight trains for delivery to the Luftwaffe.
The Nazis had high hopes for the new jets. By the beginning of 1945, with the Russians closing from the east and the US and Britain marching in from the west, it was clear that Germany faced a catastrophic defeat, but the Nazi leadership refused to give up hope. On February 28, 1945, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels announced to the nation that Germany's "miracle weapon" would soon turn the tide of the war.
For Zittau, however, indications were mounting that it would be too late. The day before the Goebbels speech, the city of Görlitz just north of Zittau had been declared part of the front. Workers in the jet engine factories could already hear the thunder of enemy guns.
It wasn't long before the hectic evacuation got underway. A Wehrmacht counterattack near the present-day Polish town of Luba on March 7 and 8, 1945 managed to push back the Red Army. But after heavy losses on both sides, the Soviets halted the German advance, such as it was, and the factories ceased production.
Given the importance of the jet engine project, it didn't take long for evacuation of both workers and factory machinery to get underway. In early March, two special trains carrying the most vital elements of the production chain made their way from Zittau to the west, one on the 6th and another on the 10th. They ultimately ended up in the town of Nordhausen, located in the state of Thuringia, some 100 kilometers west of Leipzig.
Luftwaffe soldiers, who had guarded the Zittwerke's various factory locations producing jet engines for the Me 262, also boarded the train in Zittau. Two trains with over 500 people left directly from the factory premises for Halberstadt in Saxony-Anhalt. A final train, belonging to the Wehrmacht, left on April 30, just days before the end of the war, presumably carrying the last of the military units.
But the Nazis didn't evacuate everything. Inside the remaining restricted military area, the forced laborers and concentration camp prisoners remained. Many of them died. A factory doctor issued 70 handwritten death certificates in April and the beginning of May. The causes of death listed were primarily "acute heart failure with asthenia," "pulmonary tuberculosis," "pneumonia," or "scurvy."
The role Zittwerke plant manager Jürgen Ulderup played in the deaths remains something of a mystery. According to his own reports, Ulderup fled by bicycle from Zittau to Osnabrück in western Germany in the last days of the war, with a backpack crammed full of copper bars. His driver, along with his company car, had long since disappeared, according to the former Nazi plant manager.
Today only a mass grave in Zittau's women's cemetery provides a reminder that the so-called "miracle weapon" was produced locally. A well-kept lawn covers the area behind the cemetery wall, where civilian victims of World War II are buried. They include the prisoners and forced laborers who sweated away in Nazi Germany's final attempt to turn the tide of onrushing World War II destruction.