The V-2 rocket (German: Vergeltungswaffe 2) was, according to head of Nazi rocket program Walter Dornberger, the world's first ballistic missile and first human artifact to achieve sub-orbital spaceflight, the progenitor of all modern rockets. Over 3,000 V-2s were launched as military rockets by the German Wehrmacht against Allied targets in World War II, resulting in the death of an estimated 7,250 military personnel and civilians.
An estimated 20,000 inmates at Mittelbau-Dora died constructing V-2s. Of these, 9000 died from exhaustion and collapse, 350 were hanged (including 200 executed for acts of sabotage) and the remainder were either shot or died from disease or starvation.
In 1919, the Smithsonian Institution published Robert Goddard's groundbreaking work, A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes. The report describes Goddard's mathematical theories of rocket flight, including his experiments with solid-fuel rockets. Along with Konstantin Tsiolkovsky's earlier work, The Exploration of Cosmic Space by Means of Reaction Devices (1903), Goddard's work influenced subsequent pioneers, Hermann Oberth and Sergey Korolev.
In the late 1920s, a young Wernher von Braun acquired a copy of Hermann Oberth's book, Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen (The Rocket into Interplanetary Space). Starting in 1930, he attended the Technical University of Berlin, where he assisted Hermann Oberth in liquid-fueled rocket motor tests. Von Braun was working on his creative doctorate when the Nazi Party gained power in Germany. An artillery captain, Walter Dornberger, arranged an Ordnance Department research grant for von Braun, who from then on worked next to Dornberger's existing solid-fuel rocket test site at Kummersdorf. Von Braun's thesis, Construction, Theoretical, and Experimental Solution to the Problem of the Liquid Propellant Rocket (dated April 16, 1934) was kept classified by the German army and was not published until 1960. By the end of 1934, his group had successfully launched two rockets that rose to heights of 2.2 and 3.5 kilometers.
At the time, Germany was highly interested in American physicist Robert H. Goddard's research. Before 1939, German scientists occasionally contacted Goddard directly with technical questions. Von Braun used Goddard's plans from various journals and incorporated them into the building of the Aggregat (A) series of rockets.
Following successes at Kummersdorf with the first two Aggregate series rockets, Wernher von Braun and Walter Riedel began thinking of a much larger rocket in the summer of 1936 based on a projected 25-metric-ton-thrust engine.
After the A-4 project was postponed after unfavorable aerodynamic stability testing of the A-3 in July 1936, von Braun specified the A-4 performance in 1937, and A-4 design and construction was ordered c1938/1939. During September 28-30 1939, Der Tag der Weisheit (English: the day of wisdom) conference met at Peenemünde to initiate the funding of university research to solve rocket problems. By late 1941, the Army Research Center at Peenemünde possessed the technologies essential to the success of the A-4. The three key technologies for the A-4 were large liquid-fuel rocket engines, supersonic aerodynamics, gyroscopic guidance and rudders in jet control. Then Hitler was not particularly impressed by the V-2; he pointed out that it was merely an artillery shell with a longer range and much higher cost.
In early September 1943, von Braun promised the Long-Range Bombardment Commission that the A-4 development was 'practically complete/concluded', but even by the middle of 1944, a complete A-4 parts list was still unavailable. Hitler was probably still not impressed with the weapon but was impressed by the enthusiasm of its developers, and needing a "wonder weapon" to maintain German morale, Hitler authorized its deployment in large numbers.
At launch the A-4 propelled itself for up to 65 seconds on its own power, and a program motor controlled the pitch to the specified angle at engine shutdown, from which the rocket continued on a free-fall (ballistic) trajectory. The rocket reached a height of 80 km (50 miles) before shutting off the engine.
The fuel and oxidizer pumps were steam turbines, and the steam was produced by concentrated hydrogen peroxide with potassium permanganate catalyst. Both the alcohol and oxygen tanks were an aluminium-magnesium alloy.
The combustion burner reached a temperature of 2500−2700 °C (4500 - 4900 °F). The alcohol-water fuel was pumped along the double wall of the main combustion burner. This cooled the chamber and heated the fuel (regenerative cooling). The fuel was then pumped into the main burner chamber through 1,224 nozzles, which assured the correct mixture of alcohol and oxygen at all times. Small holes also permitted some alcohol to escape directly into the combustion chamber, forming a cooled boundary layer that further protected the wall of the chamber, especially at the throat where the chamber was narrowest. The boundary layer alcohol ignited in contact with the atmosphere, accounting for the long, diffuse exhaust plume. (Later, post-V2 engine designs not employing this alcohol boundary layer cooling show a translucent plume with shock diamonds.)
The V-2 was guided by four external rudders on the tail fins, and four internal graphite vanes at the exit of the motor. The LEV-3 guidance system consisted of two free gyroscopes (a horizon and a vertical) for lateral stabilization, and a gyroscopic accelerometer connected to an electrolytic integrator (engine cut-off occurred when a thin coating of silver was electrochemically eroded off a poorly conducting base). Some later V-2s used "guide beams" (radio signals transmitted from the ground) to navigate towards the target, but the first models used a simple analog computer that adjusted the azimuth for the rocket, and the flying distance was controlled by the timing of the engine cut-off, "Brennschluss", ground controlled by a Doppler system or by different types of on-board integrating accelerometers. The rocket stopped accelerating and soon reached the top of the (approximately parabolic) flight curve.
The painting of the operational V-2s was mostly a camouflage ragged pattern with several variations, but at the end of the war a plain olive green rocket also appeared. During tests, the rocket was painted in a characteristic black-and-white chessboard pattern, which aided in determining if the rocket was spinning around its longitudinal axis.
Two test launches were recovered by the Allies: The Bäckebo Bomb on June 13, 1944 in Sweden and one recovered by Polish resistance on 30 May 1944 from Blizna and transported to the UK during Operation Most III.
Various problems were identified during V-2 development and testing:
Through mid-March 1944, only 4 of the 26 successful Blizna launches had satisfactorily reached the Sarnaki target area due to Luftzerleger (English: in-flight breakup) on entry into the atmosphere. Initially excessive alcohol tank pressure was suspected, and by April 1944 after 5 months of test firings, the cause was still not determined. Major-General Rossmann, the Army Weapons Office department chief, recommended stationing observers in the target area -- cMay/June, Walter Dornberger and Wernher von Braun set up a camp at the center of the Poland target zone (one impact was 300 feet from an armed missile.) After moving to the Heidekraut, SS Mortar Battery 500 of the 836th Artillery Battalion (Motorized) was ordered on August 30 to begin test launches of eighty 'sleeved' rockets. Testing confirmed the so-called 'tin trousers' -- a tube designed to strengthen the forward end of the rocket cladding -- reduced the likelihood of airbursts.
Following Operation Crossbow bombing, initial plans for launching from the massive underground Le Blockhaus and La Coupole or from fixed pads such as near the Chateau du Molay were dropped in favor of mobile launching. Eight main storage dumps were planned and four had been completed by July 1944 (the one at Mery-sur-Oise was begun in August 1943 and completed by February 1944). The missile could be launched practically anywhere, roads running through forests being a particular favorite. The system was so mobile and small that not one Meillerwagen was caught in action by Allied aircraft, although Raymond Baxter reported that he shot at a V2 from his Spitfire as it was launched.
An average of ten V-2s were launched per day and up to 1000 V-2s could be launched per month, given sufficient supply of the rockets.
After Hitler's August 29 declaration to begin V-2 attacks as soon as possible, the offensive began on September 8, 1944 with a single launch at Paris, which caused modest damage near Porte d'Italie,. Two more launches by the 485th followed, including one from The Hague against London on the same day at 6:43 p.m. -- the first landed at Chiswick which killed 63-year-old Mrs. Ada Harrison, 3-year-old Rosemary Clarke, and Sapper Bernard Browning on leave from the Royal Engineers. Upon hearing the double-crack of the supersonic rocket (London's first-ever), Duncan Sandys and Reginald Victor Jones looked up from different parts of the city and exclaimed 'That was a rocket!', and a short while after the double-crack, the sky was filled with the sound of a heavy body rushing through the air. Explosions could be attributed to other causes or to no particular cause. The Germans themselves finally announced the V-2 on 8 November 1944 and only then, on 10 November 1944, did Winston Churchill inform Parliament, and the world, that England had been under rocket attack "for the last few weeks."
Over the next few months the number of V-2s fired was at least 3,172, distributed over the various targets as follows:
The final two exploded on (or near) their targets on 27 March 1945. The last British civilian killed was Mrs. Ivy Millichamp, 34, in her home in Elm Grove, Orpington. An estimated 2,754 civilians were killed in London by V-2 attacks with another 6,523 injured, which is just two people killed per V-2 rocket. However, this understates the potential of the V-2, since many rockets were misdirected and exploded harmlessly. Accuracy increased greatly over the course of the war, particularly on batteries where Leitstrahl-Guide Beam apparatus was installed, with V-2s sometimes landing within meters of the target. Accurately targeted missiles were often devastating, causing large numbers of deaths—about 160 in one explosion in a Woolworth's department store in New Cross, south-east London and 567 deaths in a cinema in Antwerp—and significant damage in the critically important Antwerp docks.
Unlike the V-1, the V-2's speed and trajectory made it invulnerable to anti-aircraft guns and fighters, as it dropped from an altitude of 100–110 km (60–70 miles) at up to four times the speed of sound. A plan was proposed whereby the missile would be detected by radar, its terminal trajectory calculated, and the area along that trajectory saturated by large-caliber anti-aircraft guns. The plan was dropped after operations research indicated that the likely number of malfunctioning artillery shells falling to the ground would do more damage than the V-2 itself.
The defence against the V-2 campaign was to destroy the launch infrastructure—expensive in terms of bomber resources and casualties—or to cause the Germans to "aim" at the wrong place through disinformation. The British were able to convince the Germans to direct V-1s and V-2s aimed at London to less populated areas east of the city. This was done by sending false impact reports via the German espionage network in Britain, which was controlled by the British (the Double Cross System).
There is a record of one V-2, fortuitously observed at launch from a passing American B-24 Liberator, being shot down by .50 caliber machine-gun fire.
Ultimately the most successful countermeasure was the Allied advance that forced the launchers back beyond range.
On 3 March 1945 the allies attempted to destroy V-2s and launching equipment near The Hague by a large-scale bombardment, but due to navigational errors the Bezuidenhout quarter was destroyed, killing 500 Dutch civilians.
The V-2 program was the single most expensive development project of the Third Reich: 6048 were built, at a cost of approximately 100,000 Reichsmarks each; 3225 were launched. SS General Hans Kammler, who as an engineer had constructed several concentration camps including Auschwitz, had a reputation for brutality and had originated the idea of using concentration camp prisoners as slave laborers in the rocket program. The V-2 is perhaps the only weapon system to have more deaths caused by its production than its deployment.
The production of the fuel for one V-2 required 30 tons of explosives. Sometimes as Germany lacked enough explosives to put in the V-2, concrete was used and sometimes they put in V-2s photographic propaganda of German citizens who had died in allied bombing.
The V-2 lacked a proximity fuse, so it could not be set for air burst; it buried itself in the target area before or just as the warhead detonated. This reduced its effectiveness. Furthermore its guidance systems were too primitive to hit specific targets, and its costs were approximately equivalent to four-engined bombers, which were more accurate (though only in a relative sense), had longer ranges, carried many more warheads, and were reusable. Moreover, it diverted resources from other, more effective programs. Nevertheless, it had a considerable psychological effect as, unlike bombing planes or the V1 Flying Bomb, which made a characteristic buzzing sound, the V-2 traveled faster than the speed of sound, with no warning before impact and no possibility of defense.
With the war all but lost, regardless of the factory output of conventional weapons, the Nazis resorted to V-weapons as a tenuous last hope to influence the war militarily (hence Antwerp as V-2 target), as an extension of their desire to "punish" their foes and most importantly to give hope to their supporters with their miracle weapon. The V-2 had no effect on the outcome of the war, but its value, despite its overall ineffectiveness, was in its novelty as a weapon which set the stage for the next 50 years of ballistic military rocketry, culminating with ICBMs during the Cold War and modern space exploration.
A submarine-towed launch platform was tested successfully, effectively making it the prototype for submarine-launched ballistic missiles. The project codename was Prüfstand XII (Test stand XII), sometimes called the rocket U-boat. If deployed, it would have allowed a U-boat to launch V-2 missiles against United States cities, though only with considerable effort (and likely limited effect).
Whilst interned after the war by the British at CSDIC camp 11 however, Dornberger was recorded as saying that he had begged the Führer to stop the V-weapon propaganda, because nothing more could be expected from just one ton of explosive. To this Hitler had replied that Dornberger might not expect more but he himself certainly did.
Commencing July 1944, Hitler, followed by Speer, in January 1945 made speeches alluding to a U-boat campaign against USA to fire "robot" U-1 and U-2 bombs. There has been no definitive explanation of what type of bombs these were references to; however, the US Government was greatly distressed by a group of six Gruppe Seewolf U-boats in April 1945, which sailed for America from Norway with secret orders which had not been broadcast in the usual manner.
ULTRA decrypts from the Japanese embassy at Berlin disclose twelve dismantled V-2 rockets were shipped to the Japanese. These left Bordeaux in August 1944 on transport U-boats U-219 and U-195 reaching Djakarta in December 1944. A civilian V-2 expert was a VIP passenger on the U-234 bound for Japan in May 1945 when the war ended in Europe. The fate of these V-2 rockets is unknown.
Near the end of the war, German scientists were working on chemical and possibly biological weapons to use in the V-2 program. By this stage, the Germans had produced munitions containing nerve agents sarin, soman and tabun, however they had never used any of them.
Post-World War II usage
At the end of the war, a race began between the United States and the USSR to retrieve as many V-2 rockets and staff as possible. Three hundred trainloads of V-2s and parts were captured and shipped to the United States, and 126 of the principal designers, including both Wernher von Braun and Walter Dornberger were in American hands. Von Braun, his brother Magnus von Braun, and seven others decided to surrender to the United States military (Operation Paperclip) to ensure they were not captured by the advancing Soviets.
In October 1945, British Operation Backfire assembled a small number of V-2 missiles and launched three of them from a site in northern Germany. The engineers involved had already agreed to move to the US when the test firings were complete. The Backfire report remains the most extensive technical documentation of the rocket, including all support procedures, tailored vehicles and fuel composition. In his book My Father's Son, Canadian author Farley Mowat, then a member of the Canadian Army, claims to have obtained a V-2 rocket in 1945 and shipped it back to Canada, where it is alleged to have ended up in the National Exhibition grounds in Toronto.
Post-war V-2s launched in secret from Peenemünde may have been responsible for a curious phenomenon known as Ghost rockets, unexplained objects crossing the skies over Sweden and Finland.
The USSR also captured a number of V-2s and staff, letting them set up in Germany for a time. The first work contracts were signed in the middle of 1945. In 1946 (as part of Operation Osoaviakhim) they were obliged to move to Kapustin Yar in the USSR, where Groettrup headed up a group of just under 250 engineers. The first Soviet missile was the R-1, an exact copy of the V-2. Most of the German team was sent home after that project, but some remained to do research until as late as 1951. Unbeknownst to the Germans, work immediately began on larger missiles, the R-2 and R-5, based on extension of the V-2 technology.
Operation Paperclip recruited German engineers and Special Mission V-2 transported the captured V-2 parts to the United States. At the close of World War II, over 300 rail cars filled with V-2 engines, fuselages, propellant tanks, gyroscopes and associated equipment were brought to the railyards in Las Cruces, New Mexico, so they could be placed on trucks and driven to the White Sands Proving Grounds in New Mexico.
A committee was formed with both military and civilian scientists to review payload proposals for the reassembled V-2 rockets. This led to an eclectic array of experiments that flew on the V-2s and paved the way for American manned space exploration. Devices were sent aloft to sample the air at all levels to determine atmospheric pressures and to see what gases were present. Other instruments measured the level of cosmic radiation.
Only 68 percent of the V-2 flights were considered successful. A V-2 launched on on May 29, 1947 landed near Juarez, Mexico and was actually a Hermes B-1 vehicle.
The U.S. Navy attempted to launch a reassembled German V-2 rocket at sea-one test launch from the aircraft carrier USS Midway was performed on September 6, 1947 as part of the Navy's Operation Sandy. The test launch was a partial success, the V-2 went off the pad, but splashed down in the ocean only some 10 km (6.2 mi) from the carrier. Film of V-2 launch from USS Midway The launch setup on the Midway's carrier deck is notable in that it used foldaway arms to prevent the missile from falling down. The arms pulled away just after the engine ignited, releasing the missile. The setup may look similar to the R-7 launch procedure, but in case of the R-7 the trusses hold full weight of the rocket, not just react to side forces.
The PGM-11 Redstone rocket is a direct descendant of the V-2.
In popular culture
Model rocket V-2s are available in many sizes. For Germans, the 33-cm and 47-cm NORIS models are the best flying versions, because they can be launched without special permission with model rocket engines available in Germany.
Since the 1960s Estes Industries has released several versions of the V-2. Currently there are no Estes V-2s in production.
Surviving V-2 examples and components
At least 20 V-2s still existed in 2005.
Notes and references
Note 1: The Peenemünde replica incorporates many original components along with remanufactured ones and was put together by a group that included Reinhold Kruger, who worked as an apprentice at Peenemünde during the war.
Note 2: The WSMR exhibit is Mittelwerk rocket #FZ04/20919 captured during Special Mission V-2 and is painted with a yellow and black paint scheme of the first successful V-2 launched at WSMR on May 10, 1946.
Note 3: The V-2 consumed a third of Nazi Germany's fuel alcohol production and major portions of other critical technologies: 24,000 fighters could have been produced instead of the inaccurate V-weapons.
Published - July 2009
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