An exemplary case: the Reimahg plant in Kahla


The German plans for a fighter jet, for which preliminary designs had already been drafted in 1939, intensified in 1943 when the logistically most suitable site for completion of the project was found near Kahla, in Thuringia. It became operational in July 1944. The construction of a complex including both industrial plants and housing for the staff was decided by Fritz Sauckel, who created the Reimahg (acronym for Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring) group and ordered that work “proceed as quickly as possible without scruples of any kind”. Between 11 April 1944 – when work began at the site – and liberation, 40 tunnels, 7 sheds, and 4 large bunkers with reinforced concrete walls were built. In June, construction of the 1,100-metre-long launch strip was also started; this was connected to a rack railway for the surface transport of complete aircraft. After the initial phase in which above all general labour was needed, in September the number of skilled and specialized workers began to rapidly increase and, together, the factories were moved to the underground tunnels. The history of the Reimahg was intertwined with that of the forced labourers, including many Italians, who began to arrive in Kahla in the months of April and May 1944. In the first few months the workers built bunkers and sheds for the machine tools and for manufacturing the components of the airframes; they set up the tunnels, built the barracks for housing the workforce, and prepared the runway and connections with the sections of the Kahla railway junction. 


One of the most tiring jobs that the deportees had to do was levelling the hill in order to create a runway for the planes to take off:

Giulio Castelnuovo, settlement of Marienburg:   

The work: “One of the most tiring jobs that the deportees had to do was levelling the hill in order to create a runway for the planes to take off […]”

Contact with the outside world: “…but we were cut off from the world: no one could receive or send correspondence.”

The food: “…the diet was poor, a vegetable soup with some turnips, 2 slices of bread with margarine a day”.

MB: “They make us stand in line while a German passes between us, then another, and everyone touches us, they felt our muscles, our legs, our mouths just like at the horse market”.

ROB: “We were […] sold as if on the market to a company that took us over as unskilled workers to dig tunnels inside a mountain”.

BB: “There are lots of us, a multitude, perhaps more than a thousand people. Our first job was felling trees (birches?), entirely by hand, without power saws or other mechanical means. Teams are involved in felling the trees, which are sawn at the base by two people; other workers spread the felled tress and remove the branches, while other people saw the trunks into pieces about 2 metres long”.

The project, which started in the summer, continued throughout the winter when the clearing then had to be tarmacked:

BF: “On the hill overlooking our camp, I could hear the dull roar of the cement mixers churning out the concrete needed to lay the track, night and day”.

Many workers were simultaneously employed in the tunnel where the aircraft were supposed to be mass-produced:

LC: “As soon as we arrived in Kahla we were set up in a group of cottages in a nearby hamlet and went to work in the tunnels. As we advanced, we brought back the material to make concrete blocks”.

Those who had the opportunity to get a clear idea of the Germans’ plans viewed them with incredulity:

GS: “They tell me: Here they want to build a factory, all under the hill […] for jet planes, and the German says to me: Aircraft without propellers. We said: You’re crazy. And then we started to dig all over the hill […] we made fifty kilometres of tunnels […] and there they built all their big rooms, huge corridors, where they processed the material for the jet aircraft. They came out with the fuselage, already assembled in a whole piece”.

The day began with the wake-up call and the distribution of forced labourers into columns:

MA: “In the morning we went to work at 6, but already at 4 in the morning the alarm clock went off. We went to work with the blanket we had to sleep draped over our shoulders with a nail to keep it in place. Wooden clogs with ragged socks… we took some of the paper from the bags of cement over there, there was a mountain of it, and put it on our feet”.

As winter approached, the deportees had to face a new enemy, the cold, from which few were able to defend themselves. Many, in fact, who had arrived during the summer, found themselves in Kahla only with the light clothing they had been wearing at the time of their capture:

FM: “As for clothing, they never gave us anything, and we returned home with the same clothes we had left with, after 9 months of exhausting work in the tunnel”.

DA: “When we arrived in the camp, they provided us with a pair of wooden clogs and a kind of two-piece boiler suit, that’s all.”

Death became such a familiar part of daily life that it almost ceased to arouse any emotion and was sometimes welcomed as a liberation:

ROB: “Death became habitual for us, a daily occurrence”.

OR: “We were in such bad shape that we thought no one would come to the house […] Because by now we no longer hoped, all those who died there… And they died without saying anything! How they fell asleep, they were there and that was it, they didn’t even suffer, because they were just exhausted”.

In early 1945 the first Me 262s took to the air from Kahla:

GS: “We saw the first leave… it was February, January, February of ’45… the first took off. (…) “We saw a wing come off, there was a blaze (…), we saw that they hadn’t calculated the power right, which took it to nine hundred per hour. In short, the wing came off… the pilot died immediately for sure”.

BB: “It was a sunny day, I remember well; a strong hiss was heard and we who were below, outside the tunnels, saw the new jet plane emerge from the top of the mountain and fly like a rocket”.

In Kahla, despite the exploitation of 15,000 workers, 26 to 40 jet aircraft were produced. Exactly one year after being set up, the complex was liberated by the arrival of American troops. Its existence had already been detected by the allies in August 1944. In fact, the first photographic reconnaissance mission dates back to that date, followed by monitoring from the sky carried out at regular intervals.

Testimonies taken from the studies of Annalisa Cegna and Massimiliano Tenconi.