From Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933–1945
The first seven months of Dora's existence were devoted entirely to the conversion into a V-2 factory of tunnels owned by the Wifo (Wirtschafliche Forschungsgesellschaft mbH—Economic Research Co. Ltd.), a state-owned enterprise devoted to strategic underground war reserves.
A British air raid against the German Army rocket research center at Peenemünde on the Baltic on August 17/18, 1943, had provoked action on the part of Hitler, Speer, and Himmler to evacuate rocket production to an underground site. The assembly line machinery had to move to the Nordhausen region from Peenemünde and also from two other unfinished V-2 assembly plants at Friedrichshafen and Wiener Neustadt. Along with them eventually came the SS prisoners who had been in subcamps at Peenemünde and the Raxwerke in Wiener Neustadt, along with civilian personnel.
On September 21, Speer's Armaments Ministry created a state-owned firm, Mittelwerk GmbH (Central Works Ltd.—a veiled reference to the geographic location) to assemble the missiles, and together with the Army, struggled to maintain the upper hand vis-à-vis the SS. During the discussions at Führer headquarters immediately after the Peenemünde raid, Himmler had named as his key man SS-Brigadeführer Dr.-Ing. Hans Kammler, the head of WVHA Amtsgruppe C, Construction. Kammler was an exceedingly energetic, ambitious, and ruthless man. While the Mittelwerk company would never formally leave the control of Speer's ministry, and the camp reported to Buchenwald and later directly to the camp inspectorate, WVHA Amtsgruppe D, Kammler would be the decisive personality throughout the history of Mittelbau.
Camp commandant throughout most of the short history of Dora and Mittelbau was SS-Sturmbannführer Otto Förschner, who had served in subsidiary positions at Buchenwald since February 1942, after service on the Eastern Front. Förschner was an NCO in the Reichswehr before transferring to the SS in 1934 as a military instructor. He was thus not of the cadre of long-serving camp SS officers schooled at Dachau and elsewhere, and was not noted for particular cruelty—but neither did he care much about the horrendous suffering at Dora in the early months. On the Buchenwald model, he relied on "red triangle" German political prisoners in non-SS administrative positions, notably Communists like Albert Kuntz, who supervised camp construction, Georg Thomas, and Ludwig Szymczak, the camp elder (Lagerälteste). When the latter two refused to carry out an execution of a prisoner in March 1944, they were removed from their post and thrown in the Bunker, and a "green triangle" criminal prisoner, Willi Zwiener, was briefly put in their place. But Thomas and Szymczak were released back to the barracks, and Förschner put other political prisoners, notably Christian Beham, into the position of Lagerälteste again in the summer and fall of 1944.
During the first phase of Dora, Kammler placed little emphasis on the above-ground camp on the south side of Kohnstein mountain, next to the tunnel exits, because it diverted labor from the building of infrastructure and the conversion of the tunnels, both subcontracted through the local Wifo office. Thus the unfortunate inmates of Dora were forced to sleep and live underground, in some cases not seeing daylight for months.
Early arrivals from Buchenwald lived in tents near the entrance to main tunnel B, but by the end of September 1943 the ever-growing number of prisoners were bedded on straw on the bare rock of cross-tunnel 39 until wooden bunks four levels high were built into dead-end tunnels 43 to 46 at the south end of main tunnel A. (The tunnel system formed a ladder-like network connecting the north and south sides of the mountain, with 46 cross-tunnels between the two main tunnels.) Tunnel A had not been completed when the Mittelwerk took over, so mining and blasting operations to break through to the south side of the Kohnstein continued right next to the "sleeping tunnels" (Schlafstollen).
The noise, dust, and noxious gasses from the blasting and from trains hauling rock exacerbated an already catastrophic health situation for the prisoners. Water was in short supply. The only toilets were oil barrels cut in half with boards over them, but they were too few in number; many relieved themselves in the tunnels. The stench became intolerable, and disease and vermin proliferated. Soon, cases of pneumonia, tuberculosis, typhoid, and dysentery took a dreadful toll, combined with total exhaustion inflicted by 12-hour days of backbreaking labor with poor sleep and minimal equipment. Registered deaths shot up from five in September 1943 to 669 in January 1944.
By the end of January 1944 there were 12,682 registered prisoners, the highest total in the early history of Dora; and eight to ten thousand of them still lived underground. The catastrophic death rate continued in February and March 1944, and three transports, each of one thousand extremely ill and dying prisoners—to Lublin-Majdenek on January 15 and February 6, and to Bergen-Belsen on March 27—raised the de facto death toll to nearly six thousand by the beginning of April. The camp population in these months was all-male and non-Jewish; the predominant prisoner groups in order of size were Soviet, Polish, French, German, Belgian, and Italian.
From the standpoint of Kammler, Speer, and others, however, the catastrophic working conditions of the winter of 1943/44 served their purpose: V-2 assembly began in late December. But production numbers only slowly rose in the spring and quality was poor. “Sabotage” inevitably became a great concern; prisoners were hanged for it, often with little proof. It appears, however, that the mostly individual attempts at sabotage do not explain the frequent failures of the V-2s, which were riddled with technical problems.
Michael J. Neufeld, from Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933–1945 (Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum).