The History of the v 2 Rocket

The origins of the V2 rocket lay in Germany’s attempts to get around the arms restrictions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles following WWI. Rockets were not included in the list of restricted weapons and in the early 1930s the German Defense Ministry became interested in the various rocket-building groups operating around the country.

An artillery officer called Walter Dornberger was given the task of investigating these groups and in doing so he met a young engineer called Werner von Braun who so impressed him that in 1933 he made von Braun head of Germany’s rocket research program. The program was based at Kummersdorf, south of Berlin, and a series of rocket developments called the Aggregate Series got underway.

By 1938, after several ups and downs and a move to the Baltic island of Usedom, the German rocket program had a workable prototype with the A5. At nearly 6m in length, the A5 was fuelled by alcohol, with liquid oxygen acting as an oxidant (providing oxygen to allow the fuel to burn and produce thrust). However, it was in 1942 that the V2 proper was born in the shape of the much-delayed A4, a rocket that on its second flight reached a height of 50 miles and landed over 150 miles away. The A4 was soon put into production and the Nazi Propaganda Ministry, ever keen to be dramatic, renamed it ‘Vergeltungswaffe 2’ (Retaliation Weapon 2).

The V2 was 14m long and propelled by alcohol and liquid oxygen, the liquid propellants being delivered to the thrust chamber by means of steam-turbine-driven pumps. An advanced gyroscope guided the missile and it was steered by tabs on the fins and vanes on the exhaust outlet. After launch, the motor burned for 60 seconds, pushing the rocket to an altitude of around 60 miles. The rocket would then continue on a free-fall trajectory for around 220 miles, delivering its 1-ton warhead at supersonic speed.

Preparations for V2 (A4) production had been going steadily on Usedom since 1938 but on the night of 17/18 August 1943 the rocket facility was hit by a massive Allied bombing raid that inflicted significant damage, so it was decided to switch production to an underground facility in the Kohnstein mountains called the Mittelwerk that was served by the notorious Nordhausen concentration camp complex. Around 6,000 V2 missiles were built there between January 1944 and April 1945, though the human cost of that production was immense. Forced labor was used and around 60,000 brutalized workers were involved in V2 construction.

For reasons of concealment, V2s were launched from mobile platforms. The missiles and warheads were delivered separately to the launch areas and were stored and assembled by technical troops before being moved out to surrounding launch sites, usually forests, on mobile launch vehicles to be ‘primed’ and fired by the rocket troops. This approach was highly successful because the rockets could be prepared and fired in less than ninety minutes and the launch sites could be cleared in less than thirty. Allied aircraft had almost no chance of discovering the sites.

Over 3,000 V2 rockets were fired in anger between September 1944 and the end of the war, the vast majority targeted at South East England and Belgium. London bore the brunt of the V2 assault on England, with around 2,800 Londoners losing their lives. Most V2 strikes in Belgium were in and around the port of Antwerp, a vital supply-port for the advancing Allies, and around 1,600 V2s hit the city. Yet because the majority of the rockets fell over the city itself and not in the port directly, the rocket assault didn’t stop the Allies from using the port to re-supply. The Allied advance slowly limited the V2’s operational range and when American troops overran the Nordhausen complex in April 1945 the V2 threat was over.

In the last days of the war a scramble ensued between the Americans and the Soviets to get their hands on both the V2 components and blueprints and the engineers and scientists involved in the missile program. Both Werner von Braun and the head of the missile force, Walter Dornberger, had made a conscious decision to surrender to the Americans along with around one hundred and thirty key personnel and soon they and sixteen shiploads of rocket parts were on their way to the US.

The V2 rockets that the Americans subsequently constructed and fired were instrumental in providing the foundations for the US ballistic-missile program that in turn would inspire the space program. Werner von Braun would play a key part in that program as well as in America’s trip to the Moon in 1969 (a trip he had dreamed about since the early 1930s). The Soviets also built and flew a number of V2s and, like the Americans, benefited from the boost German rocketeers gave to their missile development.