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The German V-2 Rocket

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The German V-2 missiles developed at the end of World War II began a new era in warfare that would eventually enable accurate delivery of weapons of mass destruction to targets thousands of miles from their point of origin.[1]

The ballistic missile age began in earnest at 6.43 p.m. on 8 September 1944, when a German V-2 rocket landed in Staveley Road, Chiswick, in west London. Two people died and twenty were injured. The Chiswick incident is generally acknowledged as the first operational use of a ballistic missile. Just a few seconds later, another V-2 landed harmlessly in Epping forest. The German V-2 was the world’s first ballistic missile used in combat. It was a technological marvel that pioneered many key innovations in missile technology. Today’s scud missiles are based on V-2 rockets.[2] However, as a killing machine, it was largely a failure despite its formidable reputation as a terror weapon. It cost Germany enormous resources for relatively very meager results. The V-2 campaign lasted for six and a half months and today still remains the prime example of the use of ballistic missiles in warfare.  The V-2 war rocket, however, held promise of greater things. After World War II, the V-2 and its engineers played a vital role in post-war space programs in both the United States and the Soviet Union. The advent of the German V-2 was a definite first stage in Man’s expansion into the space beyond.

The V-2, though considered at the time a long-range weapon was, in today’s terms, a short-range, single-stage, liquid-fuelled, single-warhead ballistic missile. It was powered by a single-chamber rocket motor. Fourteen meters (or 46 feet) long and at launch weighing almost 13,000 kg (28,660 pounds), it carried a 750 kg (nearly 1700 pounds) high explosive warhead fitted with an impact fuse. It generated an enormous thrust of 56,000 pounds (27,000 to 30,000 Newtons).[3] There is some evidence that a radiological warhead was planned, but it was never deployed. The V-2 was powered by a nine-ton mixture of ethyl alcohol and liquid oxygen, more than double the weight of the missile itself, including the warhead. Its maximum range was about 350 km (200 miles), with a Circular Error Probable (CEP) at the range of over 15 km (9.3 miles). It traveled at up to 1.6 km/sec (about 3,500 miles per hour), reaching a maximum altitude of 85 km (50 miles). Total flight-time for a maximum-range trajectory was about five minutes.

Like many of the notable German weapons of World War II, development of the V-2 had begun in the early 1930s, before the Nazis came to power. Private research into rockets began in the 1920s and by 1932 the Germany Army was sufficiently interested to set up its own laboratory, one of whose earliest employees was Werner von Braun. The Army saw rockets as a form of artillery, one that was not proscribed by the Treaty of Versailles.

In the 1920’s, the German space flight pioneer, Hermann Oberth wrote and lectured extensively on space flight, and served as president of the Society for Space Travel, or (Verein Für Raumschiffahrt (VfR), formed in 1927. In 1928, a film was produced entitled Frau Im Mond (Girl on the Moon) in 1928, which was based on the 1920 book by Oberth entitled The Rocket in Interplanetary Space. The film introduced concepts such as the multiple-stage rocket, the effects of acceleration, weightlessness, and even the tradition of the use of a “countdown” before launch. Oberth acted as a technical advisor to the film, and he attempted unsuccessfully to build and launch a liquid-fueled rocket for the premier of the film.

This popular film was shown during a time when German rocket designers were working in a scattered and separate fashion to build liquid-fueled rockets. A loose association between  rocket experimenters was facilitated by Willy Ley, another great German space pioneer, and small functional rockets were constructed and launched during this period. In October of 1931, one of these rockets reached an altitude of over one thousand feet. The existence of organized groups like the VfR signaled the increasing fascination with modern rocketry in the 1930’s, and there was frequent exchange of information among the VfR and other amateur rocket groups abroad like the British Interplanetary Society and the American Interplanetary Society.

However, rocket development was complex and expensive. The cost and the difficulties of planning and organization meant that, sooner or later, the major work in rocket development would have to occur under the aegis of permanent government agencies and government-funded research bodies. In the early 1930’s the VfR attracted the attention of the German army.

The most significant proponent of rocket weapons in the pre-war Reichswehr was Oberst-leutnant Karl Becker, the head of the ballistic and munitions section of the Army ordnance branch. Becker had been involved in the development of the Paris Gun in World War I and saw rockets as a more advanced form of long-range artillery.  In 1918, the Paris Gun was able to shell Paris from 120 km (75 miles) away. On Becket’s staff was young artillery officer, Hauptmann Walter Dornberger, who would later command the V-2 program. After experiments with solid fuel rockets in 1929-30, Becker became interested in pursuing the development of liquid-fuel rockets since they offered the potential of much greater range and payloads. The problem with early solid fuel rockets was that only about a quarter by weight of their propellant was the active fuel ingredient, while the remaining three-quarters was the inert binder needed to form the engine. Such rocket engines were extremely inefficient in terms of the amount of thrust for the weight of the engine. By contrast liquid fuel engines offered considerably more thrust for their weight, even counting the added weight of their fuel tanks and combustion chamber. On the other hand, liquid fuel rockets were much more complex, and their design posed great challenges.

In 1932, the German army began to show keen interest in the loosely run amateur liquid rocket projects, and Captain Walter Dornberger, the head of solid-rocket development for the army began to visit German rocket builders at their small facilities. This task had actually been assigned to Dornberger in 1929 by the Army Ordnance Department. The army wanted to develop a rocket capable of greater range than Germany’s most powerful gun, the legendary “Big Bertha” railcar-mounted cannon, a heavy mortar-like howitzer, which could fire shells for a distance of sixty-five miles. The army also required that such a weapon be transportable by railroad car and fit through existing railroad tunnels.

After Dornberger performed his survey of the German rocketeers, he began to make offers to the best designers. The most gifted was Werner Von Braun, an apprentice of Oberth. Von Braun took the offer to work in a research and development program under Dornberger[4]. He also enrolled into a PhD course at this time. Until Dornberger, rocket researchers in all major countries were using small amounts of money, working in garages and doing their work during spare hours. It was the German army and funding from the Nazi party which drew Dornberger’s rocket designers and researchers together.

The German missile program was small until the Nazi rise to power. There was considerable enthusiasm for such futuristic weapons among the Nazi leaders and, with military funding available, the missile program received a significant boost. Also, in the mid-1930’s the leadership of the German Army was dominated by artillery officers since the artillery branch had been so vital in World War I. Their enthusiastic support was the driving force behind the program. Hitler himself, however, tended to mistrust new technologies that had evolved since his WWI career. But rockets were weapons that were not forbidden by treaty following Germany’s defeat in WWI, and this proved to be a blessing for German rocket research. The funding for developing ballistic missiles did not raise undue alarm in the international community.

Thus, a military team backed by good funding began rocket research as a variation of long-range artillery. Initially, various facilities such as buildings, test stands, and manufacturing shops were constructed and assigned to rocket research. Within the period of a few months, working liquid-fuel rockets were being fired from test stands. Many failures occurred but were treated as learning elements in the process of conceptual development.

By December 1932, the army rocket group had static-fired a liquid-propellant rocket engine at the army’s proving grounds near Kumersdorf, 60 miles south of Berlin. A static fire is when the rocket is fully loaded with fuel, and taken all the way through countdown and then held down as the engines are fired. During the next year, it became clear that the test and research facilities at Kummersdorf would not be adequate for the scale of the hardware under development.  A new location, shared jointly by the Germany army and air force, was developed at Peenemünde, a coastal area on the Baltic Sea.

In 1935, Major Von Richtofen visited the rocket facilities and expressed interest in using liquid rocket motors to propel aircraft. Within six months, a Heinkel fighter plane was modified to carry a rocket engine which was operated by the pilot. The rocket plane was test fired on a stand for Von Richtofen who was impressed with the speed and success with which the test had been arranged and carried out. After this public-relations test for the Luftwaffe, more funding began to come forth for rocket research. With increased funding, the scale of the operation gradually increased.

Dornberger moved the group to an isolated peninsula of land, Peenemünde, not just for space and convenience but also because here more research could be done without drawing unnecessary attention. By mid-1937, Dornberger had established structure in his group of rocket designers and placed Von Braun in the role of top researcher and manager for the work. Dornberger also knew from experience that Nazi bureaucrats were extremely meddlesome. Therefore, he set as his task to insulate the rocket researchers from official interference through the use of his diplomatic and political resources. Thus, unimpeded politically and backed up financially, the German rocket research thrived in the 1930’s.

Starting with 80 researchers in 1936, there were nearly 5,000 personnel at work by the time of the first successful launch of the long-range V-2 in 1942. At its peak, with the production of V-2 missiles in full swing, the work force totaled at about 18,000, not counting the slave labor who actually worked in the factory. It is estimated that about 60,000 prisoners were involved in the production of V-2 and its non-identical twin V-1.[5]

At the helm of the V-2 scientific enterprise, from its inception to termination, was the young Von Braun. Having completed his doctorate in 1934 (on rocket combustion), von Braun ably guided the formidable research and development team in rocket technology at Peenemünde. Like so many of his cohorts in original VfR projects, for the first few years von Braun still harbored an intense interest in rocket development for manned space travel. Early in the V-2 development agenda, he began looking at the rocket in terms of its promise for space research as well as military role, but found it prudent to strictly adhere to the latter. Among other notables leading the V-2 project were Rudolf Hermann, Hermann Kurzweg, and Krafft Ehricke.

The Reichswehr’s rocket team, under the charge of artillery engineer Captain Dornberger, achieved it first success in 1934 when the (A-2) was first launched.  The first rocket of the program, the A-1 (Aggregat 1: Assembly 1) weighed a mere 135kg (298lb) and had an engine with a thrust of 300kg (661lb). The A-2 was a redesigned version of the A-1 and two were flown in 1934 to a height of 2.4 km (1 1/2 miles). The next rocket was the A-3, with a thrust of 1,500 kg (3,308lb). The first two launches failed due to guidance problems and the next two, while more successful, suggested significant control problems.

In spite of these meager accomplishments, in 1936 the army approved the development of the A-4 missile, the first actually intended as a weapon. To help sell it to the Army, Dornberger proposed a one-ton payload and a range of 270km (168 miles), twice the range and 100 times the payload of the Paris Gun of World War I. The objective was to field the new weapon by 1943. With A-4 designation already reserved, the next test-bed missile was designated A-5. It was the first of the Peenemude rockets to resemble the eventual A-4 design, except that it was only one half the size. Launches began in October 1938 and over two A-5 rockets were launched by the end of 1941 to perfect the advanced inertial guidance system.

By the later 1930s, the rocket development going on at Peenemünde had gathered support from Army Supreme Commander Field Marshall Von Brauchitsch and the minster of armaments Albert Speer. In 1939, Hitler cut off funding for big rocket research, but Von Brauchitsch and Speer arranged for production contracts to be carried out at Peenemünde to keep the facility going. Speer, in fact, continued to supply funding in covert fashion during the early years of the war leading to the development of the V-2.

With few fiscal restraints, the A-4 missile development effort expanded in the late 1930s and early 40’s. The program enjoyed a string of critical technological breakthroughs and many of its innovations are still used in missile designs today. The most challenging aspect of the missile design was the inertial guidance platform, which was based on a set of gyroscopes to provide inputs to the flight control system. The first static firing of the powerful new engine took place on 21 March 1940. The design needed considerable refinement not only to overcome technical problems, but to make it suitable for inexpensive mass production. Mass production of the still untested weapon was authorized by the Army itself in October 1939. The project was not accorded a high priority, however, until more than a year later by which time it was clear that neither invasion nor conventional aerial bombardment would bring about Britain’s defeat.

Given the original design constraints, the group at Peenemünde began to construct the big A-4 rocket. The design was for a forty-six-foot-long rocket capable of carrying a two-thousand-pound warhead for a range of two hundred miles. A significant part of the design work was carried out by freshly recruited engineers, university professors, and mathematicians. In order to perform the extensive calculations and reduction of flight data, the researchers used mostly women mathematicians armed with slide rules sitting at desks in a single building. One group of these women used large sheets of paper to display trajectory data on the walls of the workroom, and because of this, they were nicknamed the “Wallpaper girls.” Peenemünde also had a contingent of soldiers and some prisoners of war. Many other workers for the rocket program were recruited from universities and by creating a special “battalion” of military personnel with technical skills that were filtered form the German military. It was a massive operation.

Finally, on June 13, 1942, the first test of the A-4 was carried out. The rocket rose for one second and then lost thrust and fell back to earth. It was a spectacular failure. The second A-4 test was conducted on August 16, 1942. The rocket rose and flew for forty-five seconds to a height of eight miles and then spun out of control. An audience of VIPs was in attendance to the failure of the second test and expressed skepticism at continued funding of the A-4 project. As a result of the test the midsection of the rocket was strengthened, and various design improvements were incorporated into the design of the third test unit. The sentiments with regards to the third test were that the project was drawing vast amounts of funding, and if it did not work in the next test, the project would be subject to probable cancellation.

On October 3, 1942, the third test of the A-4 was held. Colonel Leo Zanssen, the military commander of Peenemünde who assisted Dornberger in keeping out external Nazi interference, was in attendance. The technicians and engineers read the results of their system checks into a public-address system over a countdown to launch. At ignition, first, there were sparks, and then a column of flame came from the rocket’s engine nozzle. The thrust level grew until the 13.5-ton rocket began to slowly rise. Within a minute, the A-4 had entered the vacuum of space. It was a momentous occasion in the history of science. The A-4 had operated as planned, the test had been hugely successful. Far exceeding the performance of any previous rocket, the A-4 reached an altitude of about 90km, traveled some 192 km from the launch site and landed within about 4 km of the target.

The Luftwaffe was in parallel developing a pilotless flying bomb (the V-1, an early cruise missile), and together they became known as Vergeltungswaffen (Vengeance Weapons), intended as  retaliation for Allied bombing of German cities. Hitler saw them as a means of terrorizing Allied civilians.[6] The V-1 is considered as the forerunner of V-2, and was known in England as the Doodlebug. It was a rail-launched missile powered by an air breathing pulse jet engine. It traveled at subsonic speeds, and could be shot down by aircraft. It gave distinctive audible warning to its human targets. By contrast, the V-2 was supersonic, impossible to shoot down and gave no convenient warning of its approach. The V-2 was gyro stabilized and range was controlled by cutting off the fuel supply to the rocket motor so that the correct maximum velocity was achieved for the desired distance to be traveled. This could be preset before launch, or executed by radio command (though the latter was rarely used). V-2s were delivered to their firing points by train. After being transferred to a road vehicle the missile was checked, erected and fuelled, a process taking at least an hour in all.

When Speer advised Adolph Hitler of the massive success of the A-4 test, Hitler took an interest in it. Though subsequent tests were not successful, Hitler himself authorized full-scale production in December 1942.

I think we have something quite formidable here. The A-4 is a meausre that can decide the war…This is the decisive weapon of war; and what is more, it can produced with relatively small resources. Speer, you push the rocket as hard as you can.

                                                  – Adolf Hitler to Albert Speer[7]

Several months later, however, there were still no operational missiles, and Hitler’s promise did not materialize. The Fuhrer needed more persuasion. A meeting between Hitler, Dornberger, and Von Braun took place on July 17, 1943. This meeting happened after a number of military disasters for Hitler. Von Braun presented the results of the A-4 program to Hitler. The film of the October test was shown. Hitler once again promised the highest priority to the rocket project. But again he reduced his enthusiasm after having a dream in which he dream that the rocket would be a failure.

At this juncture, the German SS under Heinrich Himmler became interested in the V-2, and came to its rescue. But the funding it provided was not adequate and continuous, and funding cuts at critical times delayed V-2 production by approximately a year. Allied strategic bombing of rocket-component manufacturing plants and of the transportation routes slowed V-2 production further.  Peenemünde was devastated by Allied bombing raid in August 1943. As a result of this, rocket production was moved underground to the Nordhausen facility in the Hartz Mountains. By August 1944 the A-4 (V-2) was ready, after a total of 65,000 modifications to the original design of the first failed A-4 flight.

Around this time, SS major Hans Kammler was selected to replace Dronberger as head of the rocket program. Kammler was an evil Nazi who had participated in the bloody suppression of the Warsaw ghetto uprising and took part in the making of the crematoria at Auschwitz. Kammler began to acquire a workforce for V-2 production through mass arrests. In the latter months of the war, he assembled a sizeable slave workforce and had little regard for human losses. Kammler worked masses of people to death simply to increase output. Toward the end of the war, Kammler would even shoot groups of prisoners for personal enjoyment, one time shooting two hundred prisoners. The massive number of V-2 missiles that emerged from the Assembly line were soaked with the blood with hundreds and thousands of human beings. At the Nordhausen facility, American soldiers would discover rows of corpses of slave labor. Workers labored 18 hours a day with no food, and very commonly died of starvation.[8] Many more people died in producing these weapons than coming under its fire.

The final production contract was for 12,000 missiles, of which about half were actually built. Monthly production peaked at 600 in November 1944. Despite the free slave labor, the costs involved were prodigious. It is estimated that each missile cost between $70,000 and $90,000 — which would be over $0.5 million at today’s prices. Once research and development costs are included, the total V-2 program has been estimated at $5 billion in early 1990’s dollars.[9] Naturally the opportunity cost was also considerable. It has been estimated that six fighters could have been produced instead of one V-2. Other potentially promising projects suffered as a result of the research and development resources devoted to the V-2, including the Wasserfall surface-to-air guided missile.

Nonetheless, the V-2 was an engineering and manufacturing success. Though it could not and did not win the war for Germany, even in combination with V-1 cruise missile, as had been hoped by Hitler, it did do substantial damage and countering it occupied a great deal of Allied attention and resources in later 1944 and early 1945. Launching as many as ten per day, a total of 1115 V-2s had reached England (of about 1400 targeted there) and an estimated 115 of the 1852 successfully launched targets in continental Europe by the end of war. The targeting of the V-2 was accurate to within a few kilometers, which was sufficient to justify its description as a ‘terror weapon’ when targeted at major cities the sized of Paris or London, but was never as accurate as its designers had hoped. The V-2 was a terror weapon because it had a morale effect out of all proportion to its actual destructiveness.[10] It could not prove more effective also because it was introduced too late into the war, which in Europe ended on 7th May 1945.

In all, the V-1s and V-2s combined together took lives of 13,000 people and injured twice as many. A few tens of thousands of building were destroyed, and a few hundreds of thousands of building were damaged by their impact. These numbers pale, however, when compared to the damage the Allied bombers inflicted and were capable of inflicting. The bombing of Dresden (February 13-15, 1945) and Tokyo (March 9-10, 1945) each brought about more destruction in a single day than the entire fleet of hundreds of V-weapons did in a year. Each of the about 1,500 V-2 missiles that landed on London killed an average of only 1.76 people, which is an absolutely dismal figure by any standards.[11] But though the V-weapons killed far fewer civilians than had died during the blitz raids in the early phase of the war, they were in some respects more frightening. The terrorizing aspect of the V-2 was chiefly a byproduct of its appearance from nowhere without absolutely any warning.

[Hitler] squandered Germany’s limited manpower and industrial resources on the V-1 buzz bomb, and especially the V-2 rocket. These were purely terror weapons and produced no military benefits.[12]

Although it showed very poor results, interestingly enough, the V-2 may have decisively influenced the outcome of the war in a way. This is so beacause if the resources “wasted” on the V-2 rocket had been applied to jets and other advanced weapons, things may have turned out differently. The V-2 perhaps won the war for the Allies.


Bellis, Mary. The V-2 Rocket. About.com. 2007. April 18 2007.  http://inventors.about.com/library/inventors/blrocketv2.htm

Dungan, T. D. V-2: A Combat History of the First Ballistic Missile (Weapons in History). Yardley, Pennsylvania : Westholme Publishing, 2005

Hey, Nigel. The Star Wars Enigma: Behind the Scenes of the Cold War Race for Missile Defense. Dulles, Virginia : Potomac Books, 2006

Krull, Kathleen. V Is for Victory: America Remembers World War II (American History Classics). New York : Alfred A Knopf, 1995

Neufeld, Michael J. The Rocket and the Reich: Peenemunde and the Coming of the Ballistic Missile Era. New York : The Free Press, 1995

O’Neill, William L. World War II: A Student Companion (Oxford Student Companions to American History). New York : Oxford University Press, 1994

 V2Rocket.com. Werner Von Braun. 2007. April 18, 2007. http://www.v2rocket.com/start/chapters/vonbraun.html

Van Riper, A. Bowdoin. Rockets and Missiles: The Life Story of a Technology Greenwood Technographies). Westport, CT : Greenwood Press, 2004

Von Braun, Wernher, Ordway III, Frederick. The Rockets Red Glare.  From, V2 Guided Ballistic Rocket.  April 18, 2007. http://www.constable.ca/v2.htm

Weinberg, Gerhard L. A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1994

Wirtz, James J., Larsen, Jeffrey A. Rockets’ Red Glare: Missile Defenses and the Future of World Politics. Boulder, Colorado : Westview Press, 2001

[1] Nigel Hey. The Star Wars Enigma: Behind the Scenes of the Cold War Race for Missile Defense. (Dulles, Virginia : Potomac Books, 2006) p.7

[2] James J. Wirtz, Jeffrey A. Larsen. Rockets’ Red Glare: Missile Defenses and the Future of World Politics. (Boulder, Colorado : Westview Press, 2001) p. 80

[3] Mary Bellis. The V-2 Rocket. About.com. 2007. April 18 2007.  http://inventors.about.com/library/inventors/blrocketv2.htm

[4] V2Rocket.com. Werner Von Braun. 2007. April 18, 2007. http://www.v2rocket.com/start/chapters/vonbraun.html

[5] Wernher von Braun, Frederick Ordway III. The Rockets Red Glare.  From, V2 Guided Ballistic Rocket.  April 18, 2007. http://www.constable.ca/v2.htm

[6] A. Bowdoin Van Riper. Rockets and Missiles: The Life Story of a Technology (Greenwood Technographies). (Westport, CT : Greenwood Press, 2004) p. 53

[7] T. D. Dungan. V-2: A Combat History of the First Ballistic Missile (Weapons in History). (Yardley, Pennsylvania : Westholme Publishing, 2005) p.56

[8] Kathleen Krull. V Is for Victory: America Remembers World War II (American History Classics). (New York : Alfred A Knopf, 1995) p.50

[9] Michael J. Neufeld. The Rocket and the Reich: Peenemunde and the Coming of the Ballistic Missile Era. (New York : The Free Press, 1995), 273

[10] Gerhard L. Weinberg. A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1994) p. 489

[11] A. Bowdoin Van Riper. Rockets and Missiles: The Life Story of a Technology (Greenwood Technographies). (Westport, CT : Greenwood Press, 2004) p. 56

[12] William L. O’Neill. World War II: A Student Companion (Oxford Student Companions to American History). (New York : Oxford University Press, 1994) p. 147

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