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MAKING THE MODERN WORLD
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story:Science in war

scene:The V2 rocket: A romance with the future

V2 rocket: A romance with the future
On 8 September 1945 the first V2 rocket struck England. At the time, it was the most complex weapon ever employed. But it did not prove to be the decisive weapon that Hitler had hoped would force Britain out of the Second World War.
Why did Germany spend fifteen years and huge sums of money tying up some of its best scientists to build the new weapon? Was it to evade arms controls on guns and aircraft imposed after the First World War? Or was the rocket the product of something more romantic and obsessive - a love affair with an imagined modernity?
Images with the text:
Smithfield Market, London, after a V2 attack in 1945.
The German rocket cult
The V2 rocket weapon was the culmination of rocket dreams and experimentation that had surfaced in Germany over twenty years earlier.
Space exploration
The first promise of the rocket was for space exploration. In 1923, Hermann Oberth published a booklet in Munich arguing that it was now possible to build rockets, and even spaceships, which could leave the earth's atmosphere.
Oberth was a visionary, but he supported his claims with detailed mathematical analysis.
The arguments attracted the energetic science populariser, Max Valier. His writings and his rocket demonstrations made the idea of space flight and rocket propulsion highly visible and interesting to the German public.
The VfR or Society for Space Travel 'Verein fur Raumschiffahrt' was founded by Valier and others in 1927 and gathered hundreds of members.
Images with the text:
Raketenfhart written by Max Valier. The promise of rocket power seemed to chime with the 'ultra modern' element of inter-war German culture.
Hermann Oberth.
Rocket showmanship
Max Valier performed his own experiments and also persuaded the automobile manufacturer Fritz von Opel to get involved.
Opel piloted his own rocket glider Rak.2 for flights near Frankfurt and built rocket-powered racing cars.
These were publicity stunts for they used simple solid fuel 'black powder' rockets of the type developed for coastguards to send ropes out to ships wrecked on coasts. Used in applications like cars and aircraft they were highly inefficient, dangerous and could not be stopped once ignited.
These dramatic smoking stunts with cars and aircraft kept the idea in the public mind and promised future progress, although another rocket promoter, Willy Ley, called these carefully staged shows 'colossal nonsense'.
Eventually Opel developed the 24 rocket Rak II which in 1928 achieved 125 mph (200 km/h) on the Avus racetrack near Berlin.
After much criticism Valier continued with even more serious liquid fuel rocket experiments with the Heylandt company - an industrial oxygen manufacturer - but was killed by an engine explosion in 1930.
Images with the text:
Max Valier with an early black powder-powered rocket car.
The Sander rockets used in the early Valier/Opel experiments had been developed for coastal line-throwing and naval signalling.
Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon)
In 1927 the German film-maker Fritz Lang released his extraordinary futuristic vision Metropolis, so rocketry received a terrific boost when he announced that his next production would deal with space flight.
Willy Ley, one of the advisers to the film Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon) recalled that 'a Fritz Lang film on space travel could scarcely be surpassed for spreading the idea. it is almost impossible to convey what magic that name had in Germany at that time'.
Lang also paid Hermann Oberth to build a real liquid-fuelled rocket which, it was hoped, would be launched to high altitude as the film was released.
Oberth was unable to engineer a practical rocket in time, and following an explosion which nearly cost his eyesight, suffered a nervous breakdown and left Munich before the film premiere. However, the propaganda influence of the film was still powerful and Oberth's assistant Rudolf Nebel went on to work with the young Wernher von Braun at the Raketenflugplatz - a test field started by Nebel near Berlin.
Images with the text:
The rocket in Frau im Mond.
Frau im Mond - arrival on the moon.
Military backing
In the First World War Lieutenant Colonel Karl Becker had worked on a giant howitzer intended to attack Paris from 80 miles away. That project failed for technical reasons, but Becker thought that rocket technology could provide a new method for a decisive long-range bombardment. Now in charge of army artillery research, Becker arranged army sponsorship for rocketry, alongside the conventional gunnery programmes, which he also ran. A few months later, Hitler came to power and funding increased for weapons research.
From September 1930 Rudolf Nebel and rocket society members established a test site, the Raketenflugplatz, on disused land near Reinickendorf, a suburb north of Berlin. They made some advances with liquid-fuel rockets, discovering that alcohol fuel could be diluted with water to give cooler running and a longer motor life than the gasoline they had used till then.
The contacts between Nebel and the army brought some results, but army engineer officers viewed Nebel as unreliable and cut off contact. However, one of Nebel's associates Wernher von Braun had the background and the engineering knowledge to hit it off with Becker. In December 1932 von Braun began official work at the army weapons range at Kummersdorf, south of Berlin.
The rocket groups started to be closed down by officialdom. The army disliked their amateur approach and thirst for publicity. It would like to use the best of them 'but behind the fence of Army post'. The long-range rocket had begun the journey from the innocent world of imagination to the world of the terror weapon.
Images with the text:
Lieutenant Colonel Karl Becker who ran the artillery research programmes and brought the German army into rocketry.
The unsuccessful 'Paris Gun' which Becker had worked on in the First World War.
Leading members of the VfR in 1930. Rudolf Nebel, Hermann Oberth and Wernher von Braun.
V2 development
Here we look at the beginning of the German army rocket programme, the expansion of production at the Peenemünde research centre and the inner workings of a V2 rocket.
The beginning
To run the new German army rocket programme Lieutenant Colonel Becker called on fellow artilleryman Walter Dornberger. He was to direct the rocket and V2 programme throughout the war. With von Braun and some of the other experimenters they began work at the army range at Kummersdorf, in a pine forest about 30 kilometres south of Berlin.
The army wanted scientific results but Dornberger recalled 'it was not easy at first to get my young collaborators away from their space-dreams and make them settle down to hard research and development work'.
By spring 1936 the group had achieved successful launches of small rockets but then achieved a step-change with the A-3. It was nearly seven metres tall with 1.5 tonnes of thrust.
Most importantly, it had a new system of gyroscopic stabilisation with four gyro-controlled vanes working in the rocket gas-stream. For the first time a large heavy rocket could take off vertically and under full control.
Images with the text:
A picture of Walter Dornberger with Wernher von Braun. The occasion is the receipt of a telegram congratulating the team on the first perfect V-2 flight in October 1942.
The A-3 (Aggregate or 'assembly' 3). The heavy steel framework is to hold the rocket down and measure thrust.
The move to Peenemünde
By 1935 the army weapons range at Kummersdorf was getting too small for rocket experiments. Wernher von Braun started looking for a remote coastal site where long-range missiles could be fired safely out to sea. 'Why don't you take a look at Peenemünde', his mother had said. 'Your grandfather used to go duck-hunting up there'.
By now, the Luftwaffe had also started to take an interest in rockets and in the possibility of developing new high-speed aircraft. Peenemünde quickly took shape as a lavishly equipped joint army and air force research centre with large funds contributed by each service. It had a huge test stand, capable of measuring the performance of rockets of up to 100 tonnes thrust, a comprehensively equipped airfield and the most advanced supersonic wind tunnels then built. However, for a long time the Peenemünde team wrestled with the problem of making the rockets work.
The A-3 proved to be aerodynamically unstable and four crashed within seconds of launching. The team eventually moved to the larger A-4 - the rocket that would become known as the V2.
However, so much of the A-4 was new that for a long time launch failures were frequent. The pipes, valves and controls of the rocket motor itself were extraordinarily complex and a failure in almost any part could cause an explosion or loss of thrust. Similarly, any problem with the gyroscopic control system was likely to be catastrophic. Rockets could also break up in flight under air loads.
Armaments minister Albert Speer witnessed one such trial:
'At the predetermined second, at first with a faltering motion, but then with the roar of an unleashed giant, the rocket rose slowly from its pad, seemed to stand upon its jet of flame for the fraction of a second, then vanished with a howl into the low clouds.'
Wernher von Braun was beaming:
'For my part I was thunderstruck at this technical miracle, at its precision and at the way it seemed to abolish the laws of gravity, so that thirteen tons could be hurled into the airThe technicians were just explaining the incredible distance the projectile was covering when, a minute and a half after the start, a rapidly swelling howl indicated that the rocket was falling in the immediate vicinity. We all froze. it struck the ground only half a mile away. The guidance system had failed.'
Images with the text:
A technician working on an experimental V2 during the development phase. One of the carbon vanes which steered the rocket exhaust to ensure stability during take-off is on the bench in the foreground.
An A-3 rising from an island near Peenemünde in December 1937. The A-3 was the first rocket to have a gyroscope guidance system.
Video footage of V2 trials at Peenemünde, 1943.
British intelligence
Rumours of new German secret weapons had circulated since the start of the Second World War. Here we look at the development of British intelligence reports between 1939-1943 and listen-in on the secret cabinet meeting of 29 July 1943, as The Prime Minister, Winston Churchill takes the decision to attack Peenemünde.
The search for V2
Great Britain 1939:
Rumours of new German secret weapons had circulated since the start of the Second World War. The anonymous 'Oslo Report' received by British Intelligence in 1939 mentioned several new weapon developments. British intelligence analysts and scientists attempted to learn about the V2 and to understand the German secret weapon programme.
Great Britain 1942:
In 1942 a Danish chemical engineer overheard an apparently well-informed conversation about a long-range rocket. There were also continuing hints via foreign forced labourers at Peenemünde. But there was much scepticism about a long-range rocket, because some experts in Britain considered it impossible to engineer.
Great Britain 1943:
Peenemünde began to be surveyed by British photo-reconnaissance Mosquito aircraft. Duncan Sandys, Winston Churchill's son-in-law and formerly the commander of an anti-aircraft rocket battery, was put in charge of a committee to study the rocket threat. Eventually, R. V. Jones, as head of Air Intelligence at MI6, detected a rocket on a 'cover' of the site made on 12 June 1943. Another rocket was confirmed by a reconnaissance flight a few days later.
These reports finally convinced the War Cabinet that Peenemünde should be bombed on the heaviest possible scale on 17 August 1943.
Great Britain 1944:
The bombing of Peenemünde did not end the intelligence hunt. Rocket reports continued to be received. In May 1944 a V2 variant went astray and fell in Sweden. British experts studied this in detail. Almost at the same time rocket reports and sample parts began to be received from Blizna, in Poland, where some experimental work had been relocated.
Lord Cherwell, Churchill's personal scientific adviser, still considered the long-range rocket almost impossibly elaborate and expensive to engineer. He argued that it was much more likely that Germany was developing a type of pilotless aircraft or 'flying bomb'. Cherwell was partly right. There were two different secret weapons being tested at Peenemünde: the rocket and a far simpler pilotless winged bomb - the V1. This partly explains the disagreements and confusion among British experts about the secret Peenemünde work.
As this picture was emerging, concrete structures, some massive, some lighter and aligned on London, began to appear on the Channel coast of France. These appeared to be the launch sites for the weapons. By the time the V1 and V2 attacks began in 1944 they were beginning to be understood by the British. The major task for the Allies was to use their air superiority to reduce the threat of the V1s and V2s.
Almost 40% of all Allied photo-reconnaissance effort was now devoted to the secret weapons' threat and massive heavy bomber attacks were mounted on all the V-weapon sites that could be found.
Images with the text:
Sketch of a stray test V-1 missile which crashed on the island of Bornholm, made by Hasager Christiansen, a Danish naval officer, which arrived with British Intelligence in August 1943. Due to the position of the aircraft after the crash, Christiansen assumed that the pulse jet motor below, rather than above, the fuselage.
The decision to attack Peenemünde29 June 1943, 22.00 GMTThe underground Cabinet War Room installation, Whitehall, London
At 10.00 o'clock on the evening of 29 June 1943 the British war cabinet met in the underground war room to consider the growing intelligence reports about German long-range rockets and other possible secret weapons.
With Prime Minister Winston Churchill are ministers, military chiefs and Lord Cherwell - formerly Professor Frederick Lindemann, Professor of Experimental Philosophy at Oxford and the Prime Minister's most trusted scientific adviser.
Also present is Dr. R. V. Jones - a former student of Lord Cherwell but now in charge of Scientific Air Intelligence at MI6.
Duncan Sandys, in charge of the special investigation into suspected secret weapons, has discussed intelligence reports and evidence from eavesdropping on senior German prisoners. He has just exhibited aerial photographs of Peenemünde which clearly show white-painted rocket-shaped objects.
The Prime Minister, Winston Churchill:
'We have heard, from Mr Sandys, of the real possibility that a long-range bombardment rocket is under development at Peenemünde, the German research station on the Baltic, and that it may quite soon be put into use against us, aimed certainly at London. The size of the device is uncertain but we have heard estimates that a single rocket might create 4000 casualties killed and injured.''If this were to be proved correct, and if the enemy had the capacity to fire a rocket every hour for a month, the casualties would amount to over two million. We would be forced to evacuate a major proportion of the population of London, with a grave effect on our war effort and on preparations for the invasion of France.'
Lord Cherwell:
'I do not accept that a single rocket would cause anything like 4000 casualties and for the purpose of this discussion I propose acting as a devil's advocate.''It is incredible to think the Germans have reached a stage which our own rocket experts tell me would take us more than five years.''As for the objects in the air reconnaissance photographs, they may be either torpedoes or wooden dummies. The whole rocket story may be a great hoax to distract our attention from some other weapon. I believe, at the end of the war, when we know the full story, we shall find that the rocket was a mare's nest.'
Winston Churchill:
'I want to introduce to the meeting Dr. Jones of MI6, who was responsible for piecing together the evidence which enabled us to detect and defeat the enemy's night bomber radio-navigation beams in 1940. Now Dr. Jones, I want the truth!'
R. V. Jones:
'Prime Minister, I have been studying the possible existence of a rocket weapon since December 1942 when a report was smuggled out through Sweden. Since then, there has been a continuous series of reports, many of them identifying Peenemünde as the location of the work, and now we have these quite definite photographs.''Now regarding Lord Cherwell's speculation about a torpedo, it is my information that there is no type of aircraft in Germany capable of carrying a torpedo thirty-eight feet long and six feet in diameter or that could lift ten or 20 tons.'
Winston Churchill:
'Stop! Hear that, Lord Cherwell. That's a weighty point against you!'
R. V. Jones:
'As for the deception theory, surely if it was a successful deception, we would attack Peenemünde and there is plenty of evidence to show that it one of their most important air establishments. It's as though we set out some dummy weapons at Farnborough to mislead the Germans. It would be a very silly hoax that resulted in it being bombed flat.'
Winston Churchill (to the meeting):
'Peenemünde is a very long way east. I am told that it is beyond the range of our radio navigation beams and that we must bomb by moonlight, although the German night fighters will be close at hand and it is too far to send our own. Nevertheless, we must attack it on the heaviest possible scale as soon as conditions are suitable.'
Images with the text:
The Cabinet war rooms in Whitehall, 1945.
Inside the war rooms and access to the underground offices.
The main underground meeting room.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
Lord Cherwell (Professor Frederick Lindemann); Winston Churchill.
British aerial reconnaissance photograph of a Peenemunde test stand and two rockets.
Night-time view of the House of Lords in war-time.
R V Jones, the Oxford physicist who studied Germany's high-tech weapons.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
British aerial reconnaissance photograph of Peenemunde.
British bombs falling from a Lancaster bomber.
Bombing Peenemünde
Here we look at the details of the August 1943 British attack on the Peenemünde research centre, and explore the consequences of the bombing on V2 production.
The attack: August 1943
Bombing Peenemünde challenged the RAF to achieve far more accuracy than the 'area bombing' raids it had used up to then. Nearly 600 aircraft were to bomb from 6000 feet - less than half the usual attack height, and in bright moonlight.
To draw off the night fighters, a force of fast Mosquito bombers flew ahead to Berlin, ejecting 'Window' - radar-reflective aluminium chaff which simulated a major attack on the city.
New techniques were used. 'Pathfinder' aircraft laid bright-burning incendiaries to mark the target for the main force. 'Backers up' followed to keep the incendiary signals alight, while 'shifters' could place markers of different colour to correct errors.
Controlling this was a 'master bomber', Group Captain John Searby, who continuously circled in his Lancaster radioing which markers were correct or asking for new ones to be laid. A pilot recalled 'it seemed so strange to hear this nice English voice, so calmly telling us what to do'.
The initial attack was intended for the area housing German scientists and technicians. Unfortunately, it fell too far south, destroying the Trassenheide labour camp which housed captive foreign workers, killing 732 Polish, Russian, French and other prisoners.
Searby corrected the aim of the following two waves of bombers, ensuring the destruction of the German housing area, further north, and creating substantial damage to the assembly workshops and test areas. Perhaps 150 German scientists and technicians died there, although many more escaped, warned by the first attack.
Images with the text:
The unique shape of the Peenemünde peninsula with its distinctive coastline aided the bomb aimers.
Group Captain Searby, the 'master bomber' at Peenemünde.
Peenemünde experimental shops after the raid.
Peenemünde experimental shops after the raid.
After the raid: V2 production
The attack on Peenemünde was the most accurate night bombing operation carried out by the RAF at that time. The destruction, though immense, was not as complete as hoped but it showed that the importance of Peenemünde was understood by the Allies; production and work there was no longer safe.
The effect was to cause a dispersal of secret weapons work around German-held territory and a delay - probably of two vital months - in using the rocket against England.
The Mittelwerk factory
Following the RAF raid, production went underground. A factory was created by prisoners by enlarging a former mine in the Harz mountains. This built V1s, V2s and a range of other weapons on production lines running 1.8 kilometres through the rock.
The project was run by SS General Hans Kammler - creator of the Auschwitz gas chambers, and concentration camps were combed for skilled workers from Russia, France and other occupied territories.
At first prisoners slept in the damp tunnels, sleeping in shifts. About 10,000 were living underground. In the first six months of production about 6000 died from starvation, dysentery and respiratory diseases. Conditions were unimaginably brutal with frequent beatings and executions, but production was worked up to about 20 missiles a day, totalling around 6000 missiles until the US Army liberated the site in April 1945.
The V2 killed more people in its creation than in its use. Some 20,000 out of the 60,000 people sent to Mittelwerk died. In London and Antwerp almost 7000 were killed by V2s.
Historian Michael J. Neufeld has called it 'one of the 20th century's most horrifying lessons; that advanced industrial technology is perfectly compatible with barbarism, slavery, and mass murder'.
Images with the text:
The entrance to the Mittelwerk tunnels near Nordhausen in the Harz mountains.
Concentration camp prisoners from the nearby Dora camp working on V2 assembly at Mittelwerk. This photograph, was taken by Hitler's personal photographer, Walter Frentz, former cameraman on Leni Riefenstahl's film, The Triumph of the Will.
Prisoners working on the rocket motor of a V2 that is approaching completion. This photograph, was taken by Hitler's personal photographer, Walter Frentz, former cameraman on Leni Riefenstahl's film, The Triumph of the Will.
Prisoners at Work Camp Dora hanged in the roll-call square. Dora was set up to house the Mittelwerk slave workers.
Impact and aftermath
Here we consider the impact of the V2 rocket on World War II and the aftermath, and listen to a first hand account of V2 destruction in London.
Did V2 change the war?
From June 1944, London and southern England came under attack from V1 flying bombs. By September the V2s also began falling. Hitler and the Nazi leadership hoped that bombardment from the secret V weapons would force Britain to pull out of the war, although German cities had endured far worse devastation from conventional bombing.
The Anglo-American armies were now engaged in Operation Overlord to liberate Europe. The invasion landing (on 6 June 1944) and the break-out from the beaches was desperately risky, especially in the first few days when German armour might have been brought up to attack the small bridgehead.
Much of the success was due to overwhelming Allied air power. There was continual air cover and 'tank busting' missions, but also a sustained heavy bomber attack on the French railway system with 13,000 aircraft sorties.
The Allied bombers were also reducing the V-weapon offensive by attacking launching sites and storage depots with some 50,000 tons of bombs. Churchill observed during the V1 bombardment, that 'everyone saw that we just had to lump it', but if the weight of attack from the V2 rocket and the V1 flying bomb had proved intolerable, popular pressure might have forced the use of more Allied aircraft against launch sites.
If V-weapon production had built up sooner, too much Allied air power might have been drawn away and this could have robbed the Overlord armies of essential air support. The two months of grace, bought by the attack on Peenemünde in 1943, was a vital contribution.
Images with the text:
American troops moving in from the beaches on D-Day, 6 June 1944. If more Allied air power had been drawn away to counter the V- weapons, it is possible the German army might have been able to hold the invaders back.
A V2 hit my streetRecollections of Ray Smith, March 2001:
'Following the destruction of my home at Gorseway by a 'flying bomb', I have only sketchy recollections of what I did or where I went during the following first few weeks. I remember a family friend allowing us the use of her home at Elm Park, until such time that the council found us other accommodation.' 'The authorities were empowered at that time to requisition empty houses for the purpose of rehousing families who had lost homes through bombing. I think that it was towards the end of 1944 that we were rehoused at 95 Fairholme Avenue.''The house wasn't furnished and our furniture destroyed, the council issued permits and a sum of money to purchase the minimum necessary items, beds, tables, chairs etcetera. Not luxurious but at least home for the time being until our former home was rebuilt.' 'One evening I was upstairs in the bathroom at the hand basin, which was situated under the window, and looking into a mirror over the hand basin, when suddenly the mirror and the window glass disappeared and I was left looking out into the back garden and the railway at the bottom of the garden. For a short while I wondered what the devil was going on, but then came to the conclusion that an explosion had occurred somewhere.' 'I had not heard any sound before or after the happening and so assumed it was some distance away. Not until Later the next day was I told that houses had been destroyed by a [V2] rocket further up Fairholme Avenue, and on the same side of the road as our house. It was not until many years later that I learned that twelve people had been killed.'I was thankful that the blast created a suction, so that the window glass and mirror went outwards instead of in. Bomb blast and broken glass are not a healthy mixture.'
Images with the text:
London under attack.
De Vere Gardens, Ilford, after destruction of a number of houses by one V2. Some adjacent houses have had their damaged roofs sheeted temporarily to allow their occupants to remain there.
The missile age
Although the V2 was strategically insignificant during the Second World War it led to enormous changes in the world.
Wernher von Braun and his team surrendered to the Americans, because, he apparently said, the team was afraid of the Russians and 'the British couldn't afford us'.
However, Britain acquired a number of V2s and carried out test firings from Cuxhaven into the Baltic. British post-war research and development concentrated less on rocketry, though, and more on building long-range V-bomber aircraft for the new atomic bomb.
Wernher von Braun's team, in a well-known episode, was exported to the USA under 'Operation Paperclip' where the rocket pioneers remained remarkably cohesive for many years.
The Saturn rockets, which first took men to the moon in 1969, were the direct descendants of the V2 and were engineered by Wernher von Braun and many members of the same rocket team.
The V2 technology also led to the nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) developed by the USA and Russia from the late 1950s. These missiles have changed our view of the world and of war forever.
Images with the text:
Wernher von Braun with Walter Dornberger and associates surrendering to the Americans. Von Braun is wearing a plaster cast as a result of breaking his arm in a car crash some time earlier.
An American soldier with partly completed V2 in the newly liberated Mittelwerk underground factory.
Refugees living among the remains of V2 production in Mittelwerk.
A V2 rocket at London docks. Although Britain did not develop V2 technology like the USA and Russia, a number were brought back for study.
V2 being test-fired under British control during Operation Backfire at the end of the war.

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