Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The V-2 Rocket And Wernher Von Braun

V-2 rocket, Ultimate Vengeance Weapon

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The V-2 rocket (German: Vergeltungswaffe 2, "Vengeance Weapon 2" or, literally, "Retribution Weapon”), technical name Aggregat-4 (A4), was the first long-range ballistic missile. Among its many firsts, it was the first missile used in combat and the first human vehicle of any kind to enter the fringes of outer space. The V-2 was the product of decades of development and a high-point in technological development during World War II. The V-2 led directly to ballistic missile and civilian space development by the Allied powers in subsequent decades. It was the first step toward the first Moon landings in 1969-1973.

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This was a completely mobile missile, which could be pulled out of hiding, raised and launched literally in minutes. This was extremely important at a time of Allied aerial domination.

It is unfair to claim that any one man was responsible for rocket development - several deserve credit. The first origins, though, point toward a handful of men. Hermann Oberth was an Austro-Hungarian Transylvanian who developed an early fascination with rockets after reading Jules Verne's book, "From the Earth to the Moon." He began idly designing and building rockets as a young student, then during World War II began experiments on his own with rockets that used liquid propellants. Nobody was very interested, but he continued his studies after the war, and published a school dissertation he had written, "Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen (The Rocket into Interplanetary Spaces), as a book.

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Wernher Magnus Maximilian, Freiherr von Braun also had an interest in rockets. He bought a copy of the self-published Oberth book and matriculated at the Technical University of Berlin, where he assisted Oberth in liquid-fueled rocket motor tests. Artillery captain Walter Dornberger noticed von Braun's promise and arranged an Ordnance Department research grant for von Braun - thus the entire rocketry program became an Army, not a Luftwaffe, program.

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A V2 at what appears to be the test range at Peenemunde. Look closely and you will see a worker on the gantry, so this definitely is not a model (Ang, Federal Archives).

Von Braun then worked next to Dornberger's existing solid-fuel rocket test site at Kummersdorf testing field, and he wrote a doctoral thesis ("Construction, Theoretical, and Experimental Solution to the Problem of the Liquid Propellant Rocket" (dated 16 April 1934)) that spelled out advanced concepts for rocketry.

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Section of V2 rocket being constructed at Dora-Mittelbau.

Von Braun and the others also borrowed from the advances of American physicist Robert H. Goddard and even occasionally contacted him with questions. It was an ideal team: Oberth the theorist, von Braun the implementer, Dornberger running interference with the authorities and providing resources.

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The distinctive checkerboard paint pattern was later sometimes replaced with olive green

The group worked on rocketry throughout the 1930s. Walter Thiel designed an engine that solved many technical problems and became the basis of the A-4. Dornberger arranged a move of the group to the Army Research Center at Peenemünde, a top-secret research and manufacturing facility on a group of small Baltic islands just off the German coast. The top German leadership was not too impressed - Hitler correctly assessed the A-4 at that stage as nothing but a long-range artillery shell - but Dornberger kept the project going. As the fortunes of war turned against the Germans, they began looking for panacea projects, and the V-2 leaped to the top of the list.

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The Allies knew that the Germans were working on some kind of rocket. Polish partisans kept them fully informed, as test launches were sent toward targets deep in Poland and often went far off target. The main German rocket base was known to be at an island in the Baltic, Peenemünde, which housed the Peenemünde Army Research Center. There was great doubt about the necessity for attacking the rocket center, but Winston Churchill was convinced that it posed a great threat. He overrode objections and ordered Operation Hydra, the first operation of the larger Operation Crossbow that formed the Allied bombing campaign against Germany's secret weapons.

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Peenemünde. This apparently was Allied aerial photographic reconnaissance that convinced them to bomb the facility.

The Allies were massively upgrading their bombing campaign during the summer of 1943. Aside from Peenemünde, they launched their first 1000-bomber raid against Hamburg during the last days of July 1943. In other words, the Royal Air Force was in full flower and had matured far enough to undertake truly strategic missions. Operation Hydra was one of the biggest and most complex missions ever undertaken by the RAF, with an ancillary decoy mission to Berlin, attacks against Luftwaffe airfields to suppress interdiction and a subsidiary mission to supply resistance forces in Holland.

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Enlargement of part of a vertical photographic-reconnaissance aerial of Test Stand VII at the Army Research Centre Peenemunde, Usedom Island, Germany. Clearly seen at the bottom center inside the elliptical earthwork is a V2 rocket on its trailer. Two other trailers can be seen to the right. Also, note the light anti-aircraft positions on top of the pre-launch assembly hall at upper right.

While grandiose claims of success were made after the mission, in fact, the attack missed the most important installations such as the wind tunnel and did not stop any research and development. Famed Luftwaffe aviator Hanna Reitsch later claimed that she was at the facility during the attack (at a nearby location which was not targeted) and slept through it. Many of the facilities were transferred to underground locations (the Mittelwerk) which were impervious to air assault, and it is likely that the bombing set the program back by about two months due to operations being transferred off the island.

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Peenemunde rocket factory, Germany, 1943. Rocket tanks are seen in the foreground, the aft parts of the rockets are on the left, and the nose cones are in the background on the right. These factories were dispersed to underground locations in the south by Armaments Minister Albert Speer after the August 1943 air raid.

Two important scientists (including engine designer Thiel) were killed, along with numerous civilians, but the program survived completely intact. The British, meanwhile, suffered a 6.7% attrition, a high rate of loss which was considered acceptable given the importance of the target.

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Mobile launcher for the V2 (Ang./Murz Federal archive)

Despite the British raid, Von Braun announced in September 1943 that the rocket was "practically complete/concluded." Indeed, from a long-term perspective, it was, but the Devil is in the details. It took another year of frantic work to iron out the bugs. Hitler now changed his tune and, whatever his actual thoughts about the rocket's actual effect on the war, knew a propaganda tool when he saw one.

Multiple V2 rockets on the launch pads, apparently at Peenemunde

Hitler commanded that assembly line production of the V-2 begin at the Mittelwerk site by prisoners from Mittelbau-Dora, a concentration camp where an estimated 20,000 prisoners died during the war. The glorious V-2 was put together by horribly maltreated people who were working on the tools of their own suppression.

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Launch of a V2 in Peenemünde; photo taken four seconds after taking off from test stand, Summer 1943 .

The first launch in combat was not against England, but against Paris on September 8, 1944; Hitler always attacked capitals that had defected, and this was his classic gesture of contempt. Attacks against London began the same day. Unlike the V-1, the V-2 could be launched from anywhere from mobile launchers, so the Allied conquest of France did not prevent the rocket's use against London. Londoners began dying, and the public did not know why: the rockets arrived unseen and unheard until they exploded.

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German V2 Rocket being prepped for launch in 1945. The photo was found on a roll of film captured from a German POW taken by the U.S. 7th Army on April 13, 1945.

The Allies took various countermeasures of minimal impact, but the only true solution was to overrun the underground German production facilities and strangle the manufacturing inputs. As with everything else, the inability to defend had pluses and minuses: on the plus side for the Germans, that meant the rockets got through. On the minus side for Germany, it meant the Allies did not have to spend exorbitant amounts on aircraft defense, as they did on, say, patrols against U-boats or air attacks and naval positioning against the Tirpitz sitting endlessly at anchor in Norwary. The V-1 was a much more effective weapon in this sense, though not as terrifying.

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A test V-2 on the launch pad at Peenemunde, 1943

Over 3100 rockets were fired, and most of them were not against London. Only 1402 were against England, 1358 against London. The rest were against European targets: 1664 against Belgium (Antwerp being a key Allied port), 76 against France, 19 against The Netherlands, 11 against the Remagen Bridge after it was taken intact in early March 1945 (to no effect whatsoever).

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A V-2 nearing the end of its flight

The warhead was 1,000 kg (2,200 lb) of Amatol, a typical World War II explosive mixture of TNT and ammonium nitrate. With a better payload, the rocket might have had a strategic impact on the course of the war, but ultimately the V-2 was nothing but a painful sideshow - painful for both sides. In fact, sometimes the Germans didn't even bother with an explosive payload at all, as the rocket's impact itself had the overwhelming destructive effect. There are stories of the rocket forces filling the warhead space with concrete or pictures of bombed German cities.

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A captured V2 being moved after the war.

Poison gas was available and could have been used to great effect, but then the Allies would have started dropping it on German cities. Besides, Hitler had an aversion to poison gas from his World War I days. In any event, the Germans had large stockpiles of poison gas readily available - there were drums of it found by the occupying Allied forces in Antwerp, for instance - but never used it.

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Dora-Mittelbau, Germany. Prisoners are moving a completed V-2 missile. The underground factory is still there, only partially destroyed.

There were 2,754 civilian deaths in London alone attributed to the rocket before operations ceased on March 27, 1945, 1,736 killed in Antwerp. V-2s left a huge impact crater and caused extensive - but random - damage. The V-2s almost always were aimed against cities because they fell wherever they fell, anywhere within a huge radius, unguided (though radio guidance was attemped with middling results).

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Remnants of a V2 rocket at Chinatown, Limehouse, East London, March 1945.

They were as likely to fall uselessly in an empty field or in water as on a crowded cinema full of people (as happened once in Antwerp, killing over 500 people in a stroke).

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V-2 rocket reconstruction in the Daily Mirror, 1944. British scientists used debris from V-2 attacks to reproduce a diagram of the workings of the rocket.

Despite their intense explosion, they did not completely disintegrate upon impact, leaving clues for Allied scientists. There was intense interest about the mysterious bombs that appeared out of nowhere, under a sky bereft of bombers, and destroyed rows of building at a time.

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V-2 rocket engine on a test stand, Peenemunde, Usedom Island, Germany.

The cost to Germany was fantastically expensive. It was the German "Manhattan Project," and in fact cost more than the US development of the atomic bomb. SS General Hans Kammler organized production using slave labor, thousands of whom died due to maltreatment, without which costs would have been even greater. Overall, for the cost, the rocket hurt Germany more than it hurt the Allies, though it hurt both sides a great deal. It did, however, allow Hitler and his cronies to keep the troops fighting a hopeless war for months based on the spurious propaganda promise that the V-2 was just one of many "super weapons" coming along that would lead Germany to ultimate victory despite all the obvious evidence to the contrary. That was perhaps the largest cost of all.

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This is claimed to be the last of the German V2s launched during World War II.

However, this was one weapon that also had a future civilian use of great import. The money the Germanss spent was not wasted.

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A young boy killed and set aflame by a V-2 rocket attack on the main intersection in Antwerp on the main allied supply line to Holland. Belgium, November 27, 1944.

As the war wound down, von Braun convened his staff and thrashed out with them whom would make the best captor. It was common in those times for Germans to prefer the Americans, because they figured everyone else would hold treat them worse.

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Von Braun in the 1950s, when he worked with NASA and came up with fantastic schemes for advanced space projects that are still beyond the range of practical science - but remain intriguing and potentially viable nonetheless.

The consensus among this select group was similar, that the Americans were the best army to find. They were terrified of the Russians, believed that surrendering to the French would be ignominious and they would treat them like slaves, and believed that the British did not have enough money to afford a rocket program. The scientists commandeered a train with forged papers and set out to the south, avoiding the Russians approaching from the east and the British from due west.

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General Doktor Engineer Hans (Heinz) Friedrich Karl Franz Kammler. Kammler is one of the most enigmatic and downright shadowy figures of the Third Reich. He is reputed to have designed Dauchau and Auschwitz, and he later ran Hitler's secret weapons program (including overseeing the V2 rocket and atomic bomb projects). His body was never recovered after WWII. Oddly, his name was redacted from the Nuremberg Trial transcripts and effectively whitewashed. There are various conspiracy theories and downright speculations about Kammler's true fate, and among them, it is rumored that he was allowed to escape justice in return for giving the Americans Wernher Von Braun.

Von Braun led 500 people, including many of the top names in the German rocket program, through war-torn Germany to surrender to the Americans. The SS were issued orders to kill the German engineers, who hid their notes in a mine shaft and evaded their own army while searching for the Americans. Finally, the team found an American private and surrendered to him.

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Informal portrait of Wehrmacht (Army) Major General Walter Robert Dornberger, head of the Peenemuende rocket research center. Dornberger was the military chief of the production of the V-2 rocket, and was brought to the United States after the end of the war. Credit: unknown (Smithsonian Institution).

Realizing the importance of these engineers, the Americans immediately went to Peenemunde and Nordhausen and captured all of the remaining V-2's and V-2 parts, then destroyed both places with explosives. The Americans brought over 300 train car loads of spare V-2 parts to the United States. Much of von Braun's production team was captured by the Russians and formed the nucleus for the Soviet rocket program.

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Examining a captured V2.

Scientists such as von Braun were brought to the United States under Operation Paperclip and continued their research at White Sands, New Mexico, using captured V-2 rockets (but this time re-assembled without slave labor). That was just the start.

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President Kennedy and Von Braun, 19 May 1963.

Von Braun personally advised President Kennedy, who accordingly made his bold promise to go to the Moon during the 1960s. Von Braun, Oberth and the rest helped make it happen, along with countless American scientists.

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1945 - U.S. soldier examines a German V-2 rocket captured by the 1st Army in Bromskirchen, Germany.

The Russians also used the German technology they managed to capture. They rounded up some German scientists for their own space/missile program (they likely would claim it was all their own doing), and may have spied on the American program's progress as well.

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Examining a captured V2 after the war.

As a character in "Ice Station Zebra" commented, "The Russians put our camera made by *our* German scientists and your film made by *your* German scientists into their satellite made by *their* German scientists." Von Braun was around to help design the Space Shuttle and various probes, and oversaw/witnessed the entire Apollo program.

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May 2, 1945: As Berlin falls to the Soviet Army, rocket scientist Wernher von Braun and over 100 of his team flee to the relative safety of the American front. His brother and fellow rocket engineer, Magnus, spotting an American Private from the US 44th Infantry Division and addressed the soldier in broken English: "My name is Magnus von Braun. My brother invented the V-2. We want to surrender." Wernher's arm was in a cast due to an earlier injury.

It is no coincidence that after von Braun's passing in 1977, the US space program carried forward for a while, still propelled by the momentum generated in earlier years, but then entered a period of stagnation and downright retrenchment.

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Von Braun in front of the Saturn V.
Space flight is a peculiar legacy of the Third Reich, but spaceflight would have happened decades later than it actually did without the Germans' contributions to basic space science.

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A Saturn V liftoff. Note the black/white pattern. Remind you of anything above?

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Rocket engineer Wernher von Braun in front of his Saturn V engine. 


1 comment:

  1. I had no idea our main "thrust" in the space program was originally working for the Nazis. Imagine if Germany kept developing technology without the Nazis. Advanced chemistry, technology and business, but no war or holocaust.