Almost three months to the day that the largest invasion fleet in history appeared off the coast of Normandy, Hitler ordered the use of a weapon that would go on to define the 20th Century. Though this weapon could do little to aid the crumbling German forces, it proved to be an enormous step forward in modern warfare and eventually, space travel.
On the morning of 7th September 1944, the first two V-2 rockets were fired at Paris. Both fell short, causing no damage, but in the coming months, many certainly hit their targets. In total, 3,172 rockets were fired at targets across Belgium, the UK, Holland, France and in an act of blind last-ditch desperation, even Germany itself as the Nazi tried to block the allies crossing the Rhine. These were countries that had already borne the brunt of the German Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe in the preceding years, but this was an entirely new terror.
Like its young brother the V-1, the V-2 failed to break the spirit of the allied civilians. It was a dastardly weapon, but thankfully one that came too late in the day to be of much assistance to Adolf Hitler. But the V-2 rocket was just the start of the frantic missile race that began shortly after the conclusion of World War II.
Much has been said about Hitler’s retribution weapons and why they were used when they were. The V-1, V-2 and V-3 all fell into this category and luckily for any interested viewers we’ve already done videos on the V-1 and V-3, so if you’re having a Nazi experimental weapon kind of day, then look no further.
These were all weapons that appeared shortly after D-Day, a fact that leads many to assume they were simply vicious weapons used by a dictator amid the final throes of his rule – which is only partly correct. The truth is that for all his bloodthirsty tendencies, Hitler was highly dubious about these experimental weapons.
And probably for good reason. These weapons were all technologically sound – more or less – but were very much rushed in their final phases of development. These were not quite the finished articles and while they were able to add a new layer of horror to an already horrendous war, Hitler only ordered their use once it became clear that his western front was on the verge of collapse.
Werner Von Braun
The V-2 will always be associated with one man, and no it isn’t Adolf Hitler. Wernher Von Braun, a German aerospace engineer, was very much a man who experienced two lives. Born in Germany two years before the outbreak of World War I, Von Braun eventually became involved with rocketry in the 1930s and proved himself every bit equal to his mentor and idol Hermann Julius Oberth, widely considered one of the founding fathers of rocketry.
In 1933, while Von Braun was working on his doctorate at the Technical University of Berlin, the Nazi party assumed control and I think we all know where the story goes from there. Von Braun played a pivotal role in the development of the V-2 rocket, but as I said, this was a man with two lives.
After the defeat of Nazi Germany, the brilliant Von Braun was whisked thousands of miles away from his homeland and was eventually granted U.S citizenship. His work for NASA, particularly on the development of the Saturn V rocket that took the Apollo Missions to the moon, was absolutely groundbreaking. From Nazi party member to American hero within the span of 30 years.
I’m getting well ahead of myself, but it’s important to highlight the progression of Von Braun’s work. While on the surface you might not immediately think that the Nazi superweapon and the groundbreaking space travel that was to come had a lot in common, but they certainly did.
German leaders understood the importance of Von Braun’s early work. His thesis, Construction, Theoretical, and Experimental Solution to the Problem of the Liquid Propellant Rocket written in 1934, was not declassified by Germany until 1960. This was the kind of theoretical brilliance, and Von Braun was the kind of ingenious person, that the Nazi party knew they had to keep close to their chest.
Shortly after its release, Von Braun secured an Ordnance Department research grant and began building and testing rockets – and so the Aggregate Rocket series was born. The first rocket known as A1 is generally seen as the grandfather of most modern rockets. At just 1.4 metres (4 ft 7 in) in height, 30.5 cm (12 in) in diameter, and with a takeoff weight of only 150 kilograms (331 lb), it wasn’t exactly the fearsome beast that we have come to associate with the word rocket. It was also wildly unstable and quickly led to a new design.
By December 1934, he and his team had successfully launched two A-2 rockets, one reaching a height of 2.2 km (1.4 miles) and the other 3.5 km (2.2 miles). In terms of its physical appearance, it looked almost identical to the A-1 but came with a separate propellant tank.
The tests in front of high-ranking officials cemented Von Braun’s position and reputation and he was actively encouraged to press on. During the summer of 1936, with Nazi Germany basking in the glow of the Berlin Summer Olympics, Von Braun’s team were thinking big and designs began to take on a wholly more militaristic feel. Design specifications from the German military called for a 1-ton payload, a range of 276 km (172 miles) and a dispersion of between 3.2 km and 4.8 km (2 or 3 miles).
In early December 1937, during Operation Lighthouse, a series of A-3 launches took place at Kummersdorf, a launch site south of Berlin. They were all unmitigated disasters. All four tests failed to reach their desired altitude and followed the same rough pattern; a premature engine cut-out and a fiery wreckage not far from the take-off point. It was a sobering experience for Van Braun and the development of the V-4 was immediately put on hold as they tried to determine why all of the tests could have gone so wrong.
If you’re expecting the A-4 at this point, then hold your horses. While the A-4 would eventually go on to become the V-2, Von Braun decided to test various factors on the slightly smaller version, the A-5.
The A-5 rocket was 5.8 metres (19.11 ft) long, with a diameter of 0.78 metres (2 ft 7 in). It had a takeoff weight of 900 kg (2,000 lb) and came with a new control system built by Siemens.
Tests on the A-5 were much more promising and over the course of around 80 flights up until 1943, the rockets reached a maximum height of roughly 12 km (7.5 mi) and a range of 17.7 km (11 miles). Perhaps most importantly, however, they greatly contributed to the team’s understanding of the rocket aerodynamics as well as allowing them to test the more advanced guidance system. The pieces were finally beginning to fall into place.
The A-4 becomes the V-2
Through a mixture of trial and error and sheer mechanical wizardry, Von Braun and his team were now approaching a high-altitude rocket with fearsome capabilities. The A-4, as it was first known, took flight for the first time in March 1942, but only clocked up a paltry distance of 1.6 kilometres (1 mile). However, things improved at a dramatic pace. The third launch in October 1942 was hailed as a great success and followed its projected trajectory perfectly, landing 193 kilometres (120 miles) away, after reaching an altitude of 83 kilometres (52 miles).
In December 1942, Hiter ordered the A-4 into mass production. This may have been a little hasty as there were still countless issues to address, but Adolf was never known to be a man of restraint and patience. Through 1943, production was stepped up at three separate factories, each using slave labour either from captured prisoners of war or the civilian population.
But it was the civilian population that proved to be a real thorn in the side. One of the V-2 test sites was near Blizna in central Poland. The Polish resistance began taking note of the strange rockets flying into the sky and when one V-2 fell almost intact into marshland it was carefully concealed from the Germans before being painstakingly taken apart and moved to Warsaw for further analysis.
And here we have one of those wonderfully audacious missions from World War II. The Poles contacted British intelligence and a bold plan was conceived. On 25th July 1944, a British transportation aircraft took off from Italy and landed at the abandoned airfield at Matczyn, near Lublin, an area surrounded by Germans hastily pulling back from the advancing Soviet tide coming from the east.
Out of the woods came the Polish resistance dragging carts piled high with parts from the captured V-2 which were quickly loaded into the waiting plane. In an almost cinematic nerve-shredding moment, the plane’s wheels sank into the ground preventing it from taking off. The Poles dug frantically with their bare hands to provide enough traction for the plane to begin taxing. Two days later, after a series of journeys, the aircraft landed in Britain and scientists and engineers began examining this new superweapon.
Inside the V-2
The V-2 was 14 metres (45 ft 11 in) in length, quite an upgrade from the 1 metre tall A-1 all those years ago. It also came with a 1.65 metres (5 ft 5 in) diameter and a wingspan of 3.56 metres (11 ft 8 inches). The rocket weighed 12,500 kg (27,600 lb) – about twice as heavy as a male adult elephant – with a warhead, containing amatol, which weighed 1,000 kg (2,200 lb).
The rocket used a mixture of ethanol and water for its propellant (75% ethanol and 25% water) weighing a total of 3,810 kg (8,400 lb). This was one of the hindrances that the Germans faced during mass production as the amount of ethanol available was dependent on the local potato harvest, which as you might imagine during the war was fairly up and down.
After launching, the V-2 would travel for roughly 65 seconds, reaching a height of 80 km (50 miles) before the engine shut down, and it fell back to earth on a ballistic free-fall trajectory. The rocket was guided by four external rudders on the tail fins, and four internal graphite vanes in the jet stream, all controlled by an analogue computer, called the Mischgerät. This information was sent via electrical-hydraulic servomotors, based on electrical signals from the gyros. Two gyroscopes were used, one for the horizontal pitch and one for the vertical yaw and roll. Also included was the PIGA accelerometer which measured speed and distance covered, which dictated when the engine cut off depending on where the target was.
Production of the V-2 was badly hampered by a massive Allied airstrike, codenamed Operation Hydra, which targeted the German scientific research centre at Peenemünde. Of course, this wasn’t by chance. The allies had been tipped off by an Austrian resistance group regarding what was being developed at Peenemünde. Over the course of one night, straddling the 17th and 18th August 1943, RAF bombers laid waste to the area across three separate waves.
The death toll for everybody involved was incredibly high. The RAF lost 40 bombers and 215 crew, while scores of civilians and prisoners of war on the ground were also killed. It’s thought that Operation Hydra put back the emergence of the V-2 by 4 to 6 weeks, which in the long run must have saved many lives but was far from the total obliteration that the British had hoped for. The Germans rather ingeniously camouflaged the ground to make it appear like the destruction had been more severe than it actually had been. The site was left alone for the rest of the war, but production and testing quickly began again. Including Operation Hydra and the horrific conditions many worked in during the production of the rockets, historians believe roughly 20,000 people died while building this Nazi wonder weapon.
The Germans had initially envisioned stationary launch sites close to the English Channel, but this was changed in favour of mobile launch pads. In July 1944, with the allies quickly establishing a foothold in Normandy, 4 separate storage dumps for the weapons had been built in northern France. As they prepared to begin operations, the German estimated 350 launches per week, with 100 per day at maximum output, although this was never seen as sustainable.
The first rockets were launched against Paris on the 7th September 1944, with the first to hit the French capital coming the following day. London was also hit for the first time on 8th September, with a V-2 claiming its first British lives, including a three-year-old child.
Now, remember that the allies knew full well what was coming. The information on the V-2s that had been smuggled out of continental Europe painted a pretty definitive picture. With this in mind, the British government’s reluctance to announce the use of the new Nazi weapon probably had much more to do with not wanting to create mass panic, they even went as far as to blame the explosions on faulty gas lines. By mid-November however, any denials seemed ludicrous and Prime Minister Winston Churchill announced to the nation that the Germans had been using a new type of rocket weapon.
Antwerp took the brunt of the V-2 attacks, with 1,736 killed and 4,500 injured in the greater Antwerp area. This was primarily because of the city’s port which remained intact and open, unlike every other port strung across northern France. The Allies were struggling to get resupplies through the beaches of Normandy and this corner of Belgium was seen as vital – and didn’t Hitler know it.
The death toll in London was higher, 2,754 civilians killed and another 6,523 injured, despite receiving slightly less V-2 attacks, down to the denser population in the English capital. The British began sending fake messages through turned spies and double agents saying that the V-2s were overshooting their targets, and the German duly obliged. Almost half of the rockets fired at London fell short and because of that, the counter-espionage operation, known as Operation Double Cross, was remarkably effective.
The final V-2 fired, and the last to claim a British life came on 27th March 1945 when a rocket landed on Orpington in Kent. With the allied advance now thundering across Europe, the V-2s pulled back out of range.
Impact on the War
The V weapons certainly caused damage, but their psychological impact was far greater. These were weapons that had never been seen, and for many, perhaps never even considered. If you think that just 30 years before, pilots had to physically drop a bomb out of a rickey aircraft, the progress that had been made in terms of aerial bombardment was quite extraordinary.
But these were costly weapons. The V-1 and V-2 programs cost roughly $40 billion when adjusted for inflations – that’s double what the U.S spent to build the atomic bomb. A total of 6,048 V-2s were built, at a reported cost of 100,000 reichsmarks each (that was about $249,000, which equates to a pricey $3.7 million today), but only around half were ever launched.
As I mentioned earlier, one of the main problems came down to potatoes. A single V-2 required roughly 30 tons of the vegetable to make the alcohol needed for the propellant. With the nation being bombed into the previous century by the allies, food was scarce and this was a major reason why so few V-2s were launched.
The V-2s acted as a final hoorah to Hitler’s murderous ambitions. They exemplified just how far ahead German scientists were at the time but they had little to no impact on the war. If anything, considering the huge resources put into Hitler’s vengeance weapons, they may have been more of a hindrance to the preservation of the Third Reich.
But the V-2 certainly had a profound impact on what came next. With the Nazis defeated, the allies took their pick of German scientists and engineers. Wernher Von Braun made his way to the U.S, along with around 1,600 of Germany’s best and brightest. The blueprints of the V-2 fell into the hands of both the Soviets and the European allies, and the race for the Intercontinental missile soon began.
If you can look past the murderous intent that it was created for, the V-2 was a hugely important step forward. The years of work done by Von Braun in the lead up to World War II undoubtedly sped up the space race – going form mass murder to one small step for man in just 25 years. The scientific and engineering line between murderous carnage and groundbreaking developments can sometimes be a fine one. And so it proved with the V-2. The revenge weapon that eventually led us into space.