World War II European Air Campaign: V-2 Ballistic Missiles

Figure 1.--The V-2 was a sciehtifuc acgievement of thecfirst order. This was the result. This London boy survived one of the last German V-2 attacks in 1945. He holds a stuffed toy animal amid the resulting rubble. Killing London civilians, however, did not stop advancing Allied armies. The V-2 because of targetting limitations was not a military weapon. It was pure and simple a terror weapon. Photograph by Toni Frissell.

The German V-2 program was prodigious scientific achievement. The balistic missle was the weapon of the future, fortunately for the Allies. No other country had a balistic missle program, unlike other innovative programs like jets. And like jets the Germans achieved stunning success with balistic missles. This was achieved by a very substantial commitment of resources by NAZI war planners. Allied intelligence managed to lean of the V-1 and V-2 programs and an air rade seriously set bavk the prigram (August 1943). The V-2 program was moved to the underground Mittelwerk facility near Nordhausen. A crash program using workers from the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp were used to build V-2s. They labored under horendous cionditions, guarded by the SS. Researchers believe that 20,000 prisiners may have perished. Thousands perished. Enough V-2s were built to pound London and carry out lesser strikes on recently liberated cities. The V-2 was, however, a delivery system without a suitable warhead. The guidance system meant that only cities could be targeted. So all the resources had led to a weapon whuich at the very best couild be used to kill a relatively small number of civilans. The V-2 stands as perhaps the only weapon system in history that killed more people in making it than when it was used. This could have been very different had the Germans made more progress on their nuclear program.

Versailles Peace Treaty

The Versailles Peace Treaty placed significant constraints on the German military. The Army was reduced tona small force. There were restrictions on ship building and an air force was prohibited. One of the constraints was on artillery. The Germans developed various strategies to evade these provisions. One effort was to work on weapons systems that were not coversed by the Treaty. This because if the restructions on artillery led them to consider balistic missles and rockets. These new weapons were not covered by the Treaty but could potentially replace heavy artillery which was. Captain Walter Dornberger, an artillery specialist, was ordered to investigate the feasibility of developing rocket weapons. He contacted the Verein fur Raumschiffarht (German Rocket Society). This led him to a brilliant young engineer--Wernher von Braun. Von Braun had dreams of going to the moon, but not real funding for his research. Dornberger offered funding. Von Braun was not particularly interested in politics or the military. He did ardebtly want to pursue rocket research.

Wernher von Braun (1912–77)

Wernher von Braun was a key figure in the space race. Wernher Magnus Maximilian von Braun was born in Wirsitz, in the eastern German province of Posen (1912). It is now in Poland. His parents were Baron Magnus von Braun and Emmy von Quistorp. The Baron was a wealthy land owner and farmer and a provincial councilor. Wener was still a very young school boy when the Versailles Peace Treary ending World War I was signed (1919). The impact was immediate. The family moved as they did not want to live in Poland. But it would have an even more significant impact on Von Braun's career. Baron von Braun served as Minister for Agriculture during the 1930s in President Hindenburg's cabinet. From early childhood, Wernher showed a bent for science and music. As a boy he became interested in space travel. He became an avid reader of early science fiction. He read the books of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. And still a boy read scientific works addressing space exploration. One of the most importsant was Hermann Oberth's 1923 book--Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen (By Rocket to Space). He began experimenting at an early age, He describes strapping a cluster of solid rocket motors to a wagon and shot it down a crowded street. Many in the crowd who jumped out of the way were outraged. Wernher was delighted by the way in careened down the street. His father enrolled him in the Französisches Gymnasium that had been established two centuries earlier by Fredrick the Great (1923). He did not at first do well in math and physics, in part because of the traditional teaching methods. These were of course key subjects in any study of rocketry. This helped motivate young Wernher to study math and science, including the hard work of calculus and trigonometry, necessary to understand the physics of rocketry. His father moved him to the progressive Hermann Lietz schools (1928). Here he did much better. And still a boy read scientific works addressing space exploration. One of the most importsant was Hermann Oberth's 1923 book--Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen (By Rocket to Space). It is at this time he learned how important mathematics were to understand the principles in Oberth's book and roketry in general. In his free time as a teenager he became involved in the Verein fur Raumschiffarht (VfR) (1929). It is here that Dornberger found an recruited the 20-year old von Braun (1932). He was still pursuing his university studies. He earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Berlin. He received his Ph.D. in physics until 2 years later (1934).


Dornberger found that the VfR was the only group in Germany with any expertise in rockets, even though their work was still very basic. He recruited von Braun to build a liquid-fueled rocket (August 1932). Von Braun was still thinking of space travel, but the military was the only real source of funding. Von Braum began work with a team of 80 engineers at Kummersdorf. They had developed the small A2 rocket (late 1934). While a significant achievement, the A2 had only a primitive cooling system for its engine. The team moved to lasrger, more secure facilities at Peenemunde on Baltic coast. There they developed the A3 (1937). It was developed as small prototype of the A4 rocket which would have military capabilities. The A3 engine lacked real endurance. A major problem was control systems and aerodynamics. The A3 was thus judged a failure. The development of the A4 was thus postponed while the problems were addressed using the smaller A5. Van Braun's team had to slove many technical problems. The central problem to be solved was developing an engine powerful enough to lift the massive A4. This took the von Braun team 7 years to resolve. Soving this problem would envolve inventing a series of inovative equipment, including fuel nozzles, a prechamber system for mixing oxidizer and propellant, a shorter combustion chamber, and a shorter exhaust nozzle. The next problem was controlling the A$. Von Braun's designers had to develop guidance system for the A4 that would allow it to reach the required velocity before shutting off the engines. The team evenusally developed an early inertial guidance system which would enable it to hit a city-size target at a range of 200 miles. A major problem for the design team was the difficulty of testing aissle that would reach supersonic speeds. Tere were enumerable tests with various possible shapes. Supersonic wind tunnels were constructed at Peenemunde. This delayed the project which missded guidelines. They were the first designers to address the aerodynsamics of supersonic speeds. The aerodynamic tests were essentially conducted on a trial and error basis. The assessmebnts were just informed guesswork. The last major problem was developing a radio transmission system which could relay information about the rocket's performance to ground controllers. The result was one of the first telemetry systems to transmit data. The V-2 was a technical marvel one of the greatest scientific achievements of the War.

Hitler's Support

The V-weapons were eventually seized upon by Hitler as a terror weapons which could strike at British cities after growing Allied air power made it impossible for Luftwaffe bombers to make such strikes. At first the Führer who visited Peenemunde for a test firing was not very impressed. German armies were sweeing through Europe and the expensive new weapon did not seem to be needed. He saw it as essentially an expensive and not very reliable artillery shell. As Germany did not achieve victory in 1941 as expected and the War developed into a long-term war of attrition, his views began to change. A key factor here was the expanding British strategic bombing campaign as well as the deepening crisis at Stalingrad. He gave his approvsal for the A4 to be produced on a large scale (December 22, 1942). The A4was not yet ready, however, for mass production. There were still technical peroblems to be resolved. Litterally thousands of changes had to be made before production could begin. It was not ready for actual production until a yearlater (early 1944). The Germans chaned the name of the new weapon from the experimental A4 to the weapon/production model V2. The Germans planned to produce the missels at Peenemunde, Friedrichshafen, and Wiener Neustadt, in addition to as several smaller sites.

Allied Intelligence

Allied intelligence aided by anti-NAZIs in Germany and the resistance in occupied countries played a major role in significatly impairing the impact. of the German V-1 and V-2 weapons designed to know Britain out of the war. Several intelligence reports combined with with resistance reports and photo reconisance gave the allies a good picture of the developing German threat. This began with the Oslo Report early in the war before the German invasion. Anti-NAZI erman scientist Hans Ferdinand Mayer compiled information on advanced German technology and delivered it to the British embassy in Oslo (November 1939). It contained details on German German radar development and secret weapon development including rockets and 'winged' missiles. British experts treated it with some skepticism and some of the informtion was incorrect. British scientist Reginald Victor Jones played a major role in alerting the British military. His assessment was at forsr scoffed at by other British analysts. American intelligence director Allen Dullesalso played a role after America entered the War. The British used the Double Cross System for counter-intelligence and the British Big Ben Project reconstructed and evaluated German missile technology. Denmark, Poland, Sweden, and the Soviets helped with the intelligence operation. The Swedes provided the wreckge from a stray test V-2 ired from Peenemünde which exploded over Bäckebo, Sweden. The Polish underground reported on the work at Peenemünde as did a Danish pilot. The British managed to get an agent into Peenemünde. The Fremch underground provided important information on instalations the Germans began building along the Channel coast.

Allied Peenemünde Bombing Raids (August 17, 1943)

The V weapons are perhaps the only World War II bombing raids in which large numbers of the scientists and technicians who developed the weapon were killed. RAF reconnaissance also found the site. Kammhuber learned of a major British raid through a RAF intercept, but did not know the target. He prepared a substantial force to oppose the attack. The British carefully prepared the attack--Operation Hydra. It was one of their largest 1943 raids. The sent a decoy Pathfinder group of Mosquitos to drop flares over Berlin. This was normal procedure, the first step of a raid. At this time Kammhuber communication line in the Netherlands was cut, presumably by the Ressistance. German ground controllers cut off from Kammhuber, scrambled the bulk of the night figter force to Berlin. When they arrived the Berlin Flak batteries opened up them. In the meantime the British force of 597 bombers attacked Peenemünde. Some of the Luftwaffe fighters saw the glow from flares and bombs to the north and asked for permission to head north. They were refused permission, but some defied orders and caught the final British wave and succeeded in shooting down many of the 40 British bombers lost in the raid. Mamy facilities at the research facilities survived the raid. The British did hit the housing areas and camps for foreign workers. About 700 staff members were killed, this included Walter Thiel, the head of engine development. The Germans as a result moved the production of the V weapons to secret underground facilities deep into Germany.

Production (1944)

The Allied Peenemunde bombing raid changed the German productionn plans. The Germans believed that not only did the Allies learn of the resesarch effort, but also production plans. They thus moved the production to undrground facilities at Nordhausen (Mittelwerk) and Ebensee. The move delayed production and the only facility to be fully operational by war's end was the Nordhausen facility. that were protected from Allied bombing. Given the priority as a result of the rapidly deteriorating military situation and the preceived need for security, the SS took over the production. They used slave lbor from concentration camps. The workers had to endure apaulig conditions. They were not only poorly fed and clothed, but subjected to constant beatings and other abuses. Researches believe that 20,000 workers may have died at Nordhausen building the V-2s--more than the casualties resulting from the V2 attacks. This means that the V-2 is the only weapon system in which more people died building it than were killed in the attacks. It is also notable how the SS continued its murderous treatment of slave laborers at a time that Germany was experiencing a critical shortage of labor in its war industries. The Germans suceeded in building more than 5,700 V-2s.


The Germans planned to launch the V-2s at London and other English sites from massive blockhouses located at Éperlecques and La Coupole near the English Channel. This cold have potentially disrupted the impending Allied cross-Channel invasion. The Allies by this time, however, had achierved air superiority over France and were in the process of doing the same even over the Reich. And the Allies found the launch sites. They were not entirely sure what the sites were, but bombing raids disabeled them. The Germans thius shifted to less vulnerable mobile launchers. The mobile launch teams traveled in convoys of 30 trucks. The V-2 team were very efficent. They could arrive at a staging area and rapidly fire the V2s. This made it very difficult for the Allies to stop the firings. The V-2 teams quickly installed the war head, towed it to the launch site on a Meillerwagen. The missile was placed on the launch platform, armed, fueled, and the gyros set. This could be accomplished in about 90 minutes. The launch team was then able to depart in only about 30 minutes. The sites available were infinite. There Germans even fired from cities, complicating Allied supression efforts.

Terror Campaign

The V-1 could be shot down, but there was no defense against the V-2 balistic missile as a result of the ballistic trajectory and extreme speedand. There was not even the buzzing warning of the V-1s. The German mobile launch system proved highly successful. They were able to fire as many as 100 missiles a day. As a result of their mobility, ability to use virtually any area, and quick firing time, Allied fighters rarely succeeded in catching V2 convoys on the ground. Thanks to delays in the productioin phase resulting from the Allied Peenemunde raid, the Germans were unable to deply the V-2 until several monthas after the D-Day landings when Germabnsmies were retreating from France anbd Belgium. The first V-2 attacks were launched on Paris and London (September 8, 1944). London was perenial German target and after the German coimmnander in Paris had refused to destroy the city, Paris also became a target. The Germans conducted a 8-month campaign with the V2s. They fired 3,172 V-2 at London and other Allied cities. Targets besides London included Paris, Antwerp, Lille, Norwich, and Liege. Antwerp became a target because it was a critically important port badly needed to supply the advancing Allied armies. And unlike the French ports was located close to the friontlines for the final Allied push into the Reich. (This is also why it was the objective of the German Bulge offensive.) Because of their lack of accuracy, however, they had no real value as a military weapon. A Dutch reader tells us, "I have seen and heard the V-2 weapons in 1944/45 when I was a boy of 16 in the Netherlands. Many of them were launched from occupied Holland and Belgium to target England. They were extremely fast, sometimes like a lightning bolt and they made a loud, whistling sound. Quite a few did not function right and exploded in the air or came down in the fields or on houses and buildings often with disastrous results. We started seeing them at the end of 1944 and in the beginning of 1945. Several came down in our neighborhood. Most of them were launched near The Hague in the Netherlands and Antwerp, Belgium." The V-2 attacks against English and French targets only ended when the advancving Allied armies push back the Germans to an extent that these cities were out of range. The last V-2-attack on England occurred on March 27, 1945. By this time the Allies were crossing the Rhine. The V-2 was capable of inflicting terrible destuction, essentially obliterating a city block.

Future German Plans

The German scientists had developed plans for larger missiles that could hit New York and other East Coast American cities.

Nuclear Program

It is widely assumed that the Germans did not produce an atomic bomb during World War II because they lacked the resources to devote to the project during the War. The actual reason is much more complicated. Actually tremendous resources were avaoilable to the NAZIs. Many were poorly utilized. Some claim that the leading German scientidsts led the research now a fruitless path on purpose. There is little evidence to substantiate this claim. We do know that other factors affected the NAZI bomb program. Driving out leading physicists because they were Jews or sympathetic to the Jews deprived the NAZIs of some of the greatest minds in physics. The failure to use tho of captive narions and the view of nuclear physics as Jewish scince were other factors. Also Hitler was uninterested in long-term projects. There is, however, reason to believe that the Germans made more prigress than commonly assumed. They seem to have made considerable progress in nuclear enrichment. The Germans could have made deadly dirty bombs which the V-2 could have delivered.


The V-2 was surely the most unsucessful major weapon system of the War. The NAZIs lavished huge resources on the project. It was one of the most costly NAZI weapons system of the War. It was undeniable a major scientific accomplishment. It was not, however, an effective weapons system. It was extremely complicated and costly to build. And once built, it could it could not target military targets. It could hit cities and least large cities like London, Antwerp, and Paris. As aesult it could not be used to kill enemy soldiers or military instalations. In the end, the V-2 attacks killed about 5,500 people (some estimates are as low as 2,500) almost entirely civilians in London and Antwerp. The V-2 could be targeted on aarge city, but not on military targets. Thus despite the technological tour de force, the V-2 was useless as a military weapon. The V-2 did have one major impact on the War. Concern over the V-2 attacks on London is why General Eisenhower gave Field Masrshall Mongomery the go ahead on Operation Marget Garden, the attempt to liberate the Netherlsands and secure a Rhine crossing. This meant that supply deliveries had to be curtailed to other Allied sarmies.

Operation Paper Clip

Werner von Braun and other German rocket scientists after the War were brought to the United States through Operation Paper Clip. Both the Western Allies and the Soviet Union scoured Germany after the War for German scientists. The rocket scientists were some of the most sought after. It always has been an embarrassing subject to have used the knowledge and expertise of German sientists. Operation Space Clip was kept secret for many years. The German and NAZI connections of the Vn Braun team may have been a factor in President Euisenhower's selection of the Bavy program to launch the forst American satellite. The connection of these scientists with the NAZIs is a matter of conjecture among historians. Some charge that they were committed NAZIs. Others that they were primarily focused on rocketry and space and only the German military offered the funding needed to persue their work. The V-2s in particular were built by slave laborers working in horrific conditions in underground facilities. A reader writes, "I think it shameful that the inventors (rocket scientists von Braun and his team) immediately after the war in 1945 were brought to the United States to be enployed in further development and research of the American space program." Another reader writes, "As far as the Nazi rocket scientists are concerned I think that they could have done something to improve the condition of the slave laborers , because had they protested, Hitler would have given in, since he needed these scientists more than ever to win the war. Von Braun perhaps tried, I don't know, because he was arrested and jailed for a while (I think also on account of his aristocratic background, after all most of the officers in the plot to kill Hitler on July 20 1944 were noblemen). You are right, history is full of examples where enemies and dangerous people have been used for the common good as in the case of Nazi Germany and Japan, but when I think that I as an immigrant to the U.S. had to fill out forms to declare that I was no nazi or communist (in 1961), while members of the Nazi party who had developed weapons to enventually destroy the United States were brought to this country in 1945, leaving the rubbles of Europe behind, and were given houses, cars and citizenship in no time, then I cannot help to say that there is something wrong with this. I call it hypocricy."

Cold War Space Race

They played a promonent role in the American space program and the Cold War Space Race. The German scientists were put to work in Huntsville, Alabama and other places for the development of the national space program in order to beat the Soviets during the Cold War. Without them the United State missle program would have lagged behind the Soviet program with very serious potential reperussions in the Cold war. Also the United States would not have been able to have put a man on the moon as early as it did. The Russians tried to do that also, but did not succeed.



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Created: 3:20 AM 10/4/2008
Last updated: 6:24 PM 4/21/2016