the V2 rocket

captured V2 on test in the USA

The V2 rocket was the world's first ballistic missile. It was originally designated A4, as it was the fourth in a line of rocket developments, however, Joseph Goebbel's propaganda ministry renamed it Vergeltungswaffe 2 (Retaliation Weapon 2). It was naturally shortened to V2. The one shown above was captured by the Americans.

The major character in the development of the German ballistic missile program was engineer Werner von Braun, who became the Head of the German Rocket Development Centre in Peenemunde. As an engineering student he was a member of the Verein fur Raumschiffahrt (Society for Space Travel) and was always interested in furthering the cause of rockets as a means of space travel. At the request of the Reichswehr Ordnance Department, he began work on rockets in 1932 upon graduation from the Berlin Institute of Technology. The fledgling Reichswehr's interest in rocketry was to legally get around the restrictions on the number and size of artillery pieces laid out in the Treaty of Versailles following WWI. Rockets were not included as artillery pieces.

Unlike the V1 developed by the Luftwaffe, which flew low, and slow enough to be intercepted by fast aircraft, the V2 was a true, guided, ballistic missile, rising into the stratosphere before plunging down to the target. The only warning of an approaching V2 was the double boom as it broke the sound barrier shortly before impact. There was no defence against the V2, so the English went after the launching sites. They did this very effectively in the Pas de Calais so that only mobile V2s could be launched. None of these systems were ever successfully attacked.

However, due to the large bomber raid on the Peenemunde (see the biography of WC John Fauquier) test site, the V2 program was set back a few crucial months. They were not ready in time for the Allied landings in Normandy, where they could have played considerable havoc with logistical systems. Instead the Germans rained V2s onto Antwerp once the Allies captured it, as it was used as the major European port for Allied supplies. The German rocket troops were trained to erect 3 missiles at a time, fuel, align, and launch them in a matter of 2 hours. About 1000 of these missiles were fired at the cities of London and Norwich, while about 2000 more were fired at targets on the European continent, primarily Antwerp. Another 500 or so were used in test and training launches. A total of about 10,000 were built and shipped from a central German assembly facility located in the Hartz Mountains, in the area known as the Mittelwerke.

Two miles northwest of Nordhausen a huge underground V-bomb factory was discovered. It was two miles in length, with two large tunnels approximately fifty feet in width and height, connected laterally by forty-eight smaller tunnels. From 1943 until 1945, 60,000 prisoners had toiled here in production of V-1 and V-2 bombs. Of these, 20,000 had died from various causes including starvation, fatigue and execution. The SS was in charge of the factory and the camp, with German criminals as straw bosses. Workers were executed at the slightest suggestion of sabotage. No workers had ever been allowed to leave the camp and when they became too weak to work, they were abandoned to die and their bodies burned at the crematorium within the grounds. Reports indicated that approximately one hundred bodies were cremated per day, and there were about thirty corpses piled on the ground awaiting such treatment when the American 104th "Timberwolf" Army Infantry Division arrived. These bodies showed many signs of beating, starvation and torture. There were several camps in the area (Mittelbau Dora and Nordhausen Concentration Camps) that fed prisoners into the V2 production facility as required, as well as concentration camps for political prisoners (links at the end of the page will allow you to access sites related to these camps. Warning, the contents of these websites are not for the meek or squeamish.)

Many missiles were still in the pipeline to the front, or had been rejected by the troops because of problems and damage when the war ended. The V2 ultimately failed as a weapon due to it's great expense, relatively small warhead and inaccuracy. Had the Germans developed a nuclear warhead for it, then it would have been a very different matter.

After the war the Allied Forces showed great interest in learning more about this new weapon and its military applications. The U.S. War Department decided at the end of the World War II to bring a number of German scientists and engineers to the U.S.A. for interrogation, as well as to have them demonstrate the use and operation of these new systems. About 500 German rocket specialists were used in "Operation Paperclip" for this purpose, including Wernher von Braun. Many of them became naturalized Americans and contributed greatly to all of the American rocket programs, both military and scientific.

Technical Details

The V2 was an unmanned, guided, ballistic missile. It was guided by an advanced gyroscopic system that sent signals to aerodynamic steering tabs on the fins. It was generally inaccurate due to errors in aligning the rocket with it's target, premature shut-off of the motor and inconsistencies in electric current in the guidance system. It was propelled by an alcohol (a mixture of 75% ethyl alcohol and water), and liquid oxygen fuel. The two liquids were delivered to the thrust chamber by two rotary pumps, driven by a steam turbine. The steam turbine operated at 5,000 rpm on two auxiliary fuels, namely hydroperoxide (100 %) and calcium permanganate. This system generated about 55,000 lbs (27,000 to 30,000 Newton) of thrust. The motor typically burned for 60 seconds, pushing the rocket to around 4,400 ft/second. It rose to an altitude of 52 miles and had a range of 200 - 225 miles. The V2 carried a high explosive warhead weighing 2,000 lbs (1 ton) that was capable of flattening a large building. It was first fired operationally on Sept 7, 1944 against London, primarily as a propaganda exercise.