Today in 1944, V-2 rockets were first launched against London by Germany. These craft, the first ballistic missiles, were crude by today’s standards but seemed almost otherworldly at the time. They were less a strategic weapon than a weapon of terror, but they claimed thousands of lives, both in cities and in the factories where they were produced.
Although many people contributed to the development of the V-2, it was Wernher von Braun and Walter Riedel who were the chief engineers of the project. The two had tested several designs during the 1930’s with varied success. By the end of 1941, their A-4 design, later to be renamed V-2 for the German word “Vergeltungwaffe” or vengeance weapon, was complete. The rocket contained three key technologies that made it truly a ballistic missile: a liquid-fuel rocket engine, guidance controls and supersonic speeds. Two more years of testing would be required before the V-2 saw use as a weapon. Part of this delay was caused by a lack of suitable funding early in the war. Hitler was not fond of the V-2, which he viewed as not particularly effective when compared to bombers, tanks and the other weapons of conventional war. It was only when the war turned against Germany that Hitler and his cronies became enthusiastic about the program.
By summer, 1943, the first assembly lines for the V-2 were being tested for mass production. The plan was to build the rockets at Peenemunde, a small town in northeastern Germany. The labor force was made up of prisoners from concentration camp F-1, located nearby, as well as other slave labor gathered from throughout occupied Europe. In August of 1943, the Royal Air Force Bomber Command attacked Peenemunde with mixed results, but the operation was effective enough to compel the Germans to move production to a mine near Nordhausen, where the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp was established to house the slave labor brought from Peenemunde and the nearby Buchenwald camp. 60,000 prisoners worked in the Mittelwerk factory, as the underground facility was called, between the fall of 1943 and the end of the war in Europe in May, 1945. 20,000 of those died.
The V-2s were launched from mobile launchers. A convoy of 30 trucks was required to haul the missile, equipment, fuel, and men needed to launch the rockets, which took 90 minutes to set up and launch. After launch, the ground crew could be on their way in a half-hour. This system proved to be highly effective, both in terms of launching missiles and hiding from Allied air strikes. During the operation of the convoys, none was destroyed by attacking aircraft. Some convoys averaged 10 launches a day, and could have averaged more had there been more V-2s available.
The first V-2s used against live targets were fired at recently-liberated Paris on September 2, 1944. The rockets used their engines for only 65 seconds, allowing them to reach a height of 50 miles on their way to the target. They travelled up to four times the speed of sound, so their approach was silent; all the people in the target area knew was that a 2,000 pound bomb, the size of the V-2s warhead, had exploded nearby. After the London attacks of September 8th, 1944, the British government decided to keep the source of the attacks secret. Many of the V-2s veered off course or did not explode, but those that reached their targets were reported as conventional bombing attacks or, more often, not reported at all. This was intended to keep the German High Command guessing as to whether or not the rockets were reaching their targets. This plan worked until November, 1944, when the Germans announced the existance of the V-2 and Winston Churchill was forced to admit that England had been under attack by the new weapon for two months.
There were no countermeasures to the V-2 other than finding and destroying them on the ground. One rocket was destroyed seconds after launch by the quick-thinking gunners of an American B-24 Liberator bomber, but this was simply a case of being at the right place at the right time. As the Allies advanced across eastern and western Europe, the mobile launchers were forced further and further away from their targets, resulting in some cities becoming out of range. This proved to be the only effective means of stopping the terror weapons.
Over 3,100 V-2s were successfully fired at Belgium, England, France, and the Netherlands. Antwerp was hit 1,610 times, London 1,358 times. These two cities accounted for 90% of the completed V-2 attacks. Many hundreds more were launched but were lost over the North Sea or exploded in flight. Approximately 7,000 men, women and children were killed by V-2s, meaning that more people died building them than from their attacks.
At the end of the war, Wernher von Braun came to the United States to continue his rocketry work. The Allies captured a number of complete V-2s as well as many parts---their design was used as the framework for many early NASA rockets. While von Braun’s work on the V-2 project was well-known during his time at NASA, his knowledge of the conditions in the Mittelwerk factory was known only to a few. In the 1970’s, von Braun finally talked openly about what he witnessed and even admitted in a letter that he had personally picked prisoners from Buchenwald to work in the factory. Critics of von Braun have for decades maintained that the American space program was essentially built by a man who should have been charged with war crimes and sent to prison. That debate still rages.