The development of the V2 rocket carried with it the genesis of intercontinental ballistic missiles and space flight, yet it all began as an attempt to evade the limits imposed on Germany’s heavy artillery after World War One.
In the late 1920s Colonel Karl Becker of the German Army’s Ordinance Office began to investigate the use of rockets. He was unimpressed by a Berlin amateur rocket group, Raketenflugplatz Berlin, whose display failed. They had been trying to launch liquid fueled rockets. However, he met a 20 year old group member named Wernher von Braun, an enthusiast of space travel and rocketry. Von Braun’s enthusiasm interested Becker and he offered him a job. Walter Riedel, another enthusiast, was also recruited. Together they began to experiment with designing and building a liquid fueled rocket, working at Kummersdorf under the direction of Walter Dornberger, an army engineering officer. This was Project Aggregat 1, or A1.
Considerable progress was made between 1932 and 1935 towards identifying the technical problems involved in rocket design and control and by 1935 the project had outgrown the artillery range facilities at Kummersdorf. Everything was moved to Peenemunde on the German Baltic coast. To justify the expense of the move, von Braun, Riedel and Dornberger produced a scheme for a ballistic missile with a thrust of 56,000 lbs, able to deliver a 1 ton warhead over 200 miles. This was far beyond anything yet attempted. Thus was project Aggregat 4, later renamed V2, born.
To succeed, the V2 would need an engine 17 times more powerful than anything yet in existence. It was an ambitious project. With the Nazis in power and rearming Germany, money was forthcoming and by 1936 Von Braun was able to launch 2 liquid fuel rockets, Max and Merit. These showed the need to tackle issues of drag, stability, rocket control and the effects of heating at supersonic speeds.
Between 1936 and 1940 many of these problems were overcome. A fuel of liquid oxygen and an alcohol/water mix (75%-25%) was used, the water serving as a coolant. The fuel was delivered into the combustion chamber by fuel pumps powered by hydrogen peroxide. Guidance was achieved through a new, advanced gyroscopic system linked to aerodynamic steering fins on the rocket body and adjustable vanes in the exhaust. In 1941 Hermann Oberth, with a doctorate in rocket design from Heidelberg, joined the team.
The rocket they developed delivered 56,000 lbs of thrust at ignition, rising to 160,000 lbs at maximum. Carrying a one ton warhead, the 14 meter (47 foot) V2 accelerated to a speed of 4,400 feet per second during a 60 second motor burn, rapidly rising to an altitude of 50 miles and had a range of 234 miles maximum. The first attempt to launch failed as the rocket was damaged during fueling. The next two rockets fell back to earth soon after lift off, but on October 3rd 1942 came success, with a 120 mile flight. However, the activities at Peenemunde had come to the attention of British intelligence and the area was bombed by the RAF. The German SS ordered the A4/V2 project to be moved out of bombing range to an underground site at Mittelwerk, where it resumed using slave labor.
With the need to set up production lines and component manufacture, the V2 did not come into use in 1943. Himmler, head of the SS, took control of the project from Dornberger. Himmler was impatient at the delays. Von Braun wanted to conduct further research and testing to perfect the V2 but with the war taking several turns for the worse Himmler wanted V2s in the air. In mid March Von Braun was arrested by the Gestapo, accused of being too interested in rocket research and not enthusiastic enough about weaponry. There were also suspicions he might use his private airplane to flee Germany. It seems that the intervention of Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect, effected Von Braun’s release and the project went ahead. Mobile launch pads were built to prevent disruption by bombing.
The first use of the V2 came in September 1944, at a time when the Allies had complete air superiority over England and the combat zone in France. There was no defense against the V2 though. Traveling at 3,500 mph and coming down from 50 miles up with a ton of high explosive it arrived ahead of any warning noise with an explosion which could level a whole city block. London was the main target, but it was fired at the port of Antwerp and at Paris too. Some 5000 were launched before the collapse of the western front in March 1945 as the Allies crossed the Rhine. In Britain 2,724 civilians were killed and about 6000 badly injured.
Wernher von Braun was taken to the USA after the War and worked for the American government. He was never required to answer for the consequences of his actions in working for the Nazi government of Adolf Hitler.