The Argument Over the V-Weapons

By early 1943 enough evidence had accumulated in Britain of German secret weapon development to alert several of the responsible authorities to the danger of pilotless weapons – or other forms of long-range attack. The authorities included R.V. Jones, who advised the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), as well as the Air Ministry, and who enjoyed the Prime Minister’s favour as the ‘man who broke the beams’, the Luftwaffe’s radio guidance system during the Blitz of 1940; Professor C. D. Ellis, the army’s scientific adviser; Dr A. D. Crew, Controller of Projectile Development at the Ministry of Supply, the British equivalent of Albert Speer’s Armaments Ministry in Germany; General Ismay, Churchill’s personal military staff officer; the Joint Intelligence SubCommittee, which co-ordinated the work of MI6, MI5 (the internal security service) and Special Operations Executive (SOE), Churchill’s subversive organisation overseas; and the government’s Scientific Advisory Committee. Too many fingers in the pie, no doubt; but the crucial initiates were Lord Cherwell (Professor F.A. Lindemann), Paymaster-General but holding that post as Churchill’s personal and long-time scientific adviser, and Duncan Sandys, since 20 April chairman of the committee, soon to be known as the Bodyline, then Crossbow Committee, charged with overall responsibility for investigation of the secret weapon threat.

Churchill believed in ‘creative tension’ as a principle of administrative efficiency, the fostering of rivalries between government servants to generate energy in the examination of problems and the keenest critical response. It was a sound principle, as long as normal personalities were involved. There was nothing normal about the personalities of Sandys and Cherwell, or in turn about their relationship with their overlord. Sandys was an ambitious young politician of grating disposition, who had a possessively filial attitude to the Prime Minister. Cherwell, a rich bachelor scientist of exceptional intelligence, also had a possessive attitude towards Churchill. Never quite at home in England, though he was a Fellow of the Royal Society, an Oxford professor and a resident of Devon, he seemed unable to shrug off his sense of foreignness, the product of German birth and education, burning British patriot though he was. He had attached himself to the Prime Minister during Churchill’s wilderness years, adulated him personally and jealously guarded his own status as the medium through whom Churchill received scientific advice. The appointment of Sandys to head the secret weapons committee touched him to the quick. Observers noted that – discreetly heterosexual though he undoubtedly was – he trembled with an almost feminine indignation at the slight. The regrettable outcome was that, because Sandys early espoused the idea that Nazi Germany was indeed developing a long-range rocket, Cherwell grasped at every strand of his extensive scientific knowledge to decry the thought: liquid fuel was unmanageable, only a solid-fuelled rocket would work, it would have to be a multi-stage monstrosity, its launch sites would be so large as to be undisguisable, it probably existed only in the minds of unreliable foreign agents. The idea, he argued in a phrase that inextinguishably attaches to his considered advice, was ‘a mare’s nest’.

The secret weapons intelligence plot, between the first deliberate overflying of Peenemünde by RAF photographic intelligence aircraft in April 1943 and the arrival of the first pilotless weapon on British soil on 13 June 1944 (a flying bomb, not a rocket), was therefore bedevilled at every turn by reasoned disagreement between the parties to the investigation. To his credit, Cherwell never dismissed the feasibility of a cruise missile (the flying bomb). Indeed, he argued that, if a pilotless weapon threat existed, it was probable that it would take a cruise missile form. Because, however, agents’ reports of the V-1 came later, while evidence of the rocket threat, however vague and misleading, came earlier and more plentifully, the British were both misled and caused to disagree among themselves. The disabling weakness of the German secret weapons programme was to attempt to do too much with too little; the British were further confused by the German investment in a multi-stage long-range gun (the ‘high-pressure pump’) and a rocket-propelled anti-aircraft missile, the Wasserfall (Waterfall). The weakness of the British intelligence counter-attack lay in an absence of practical knowledge of rocket or cruise missile technology and so a lack of clarity in their attempt to perceive what it was they were seeking to identify. The very wealth of intelligence received during April, May, June and July 1943 – from agents, prisoner-of-war interrogations and air photographs – required laborious analysis but in its diversity and imprecision provided something for anyone who had taken up an intellectual position on the nature of the threat or who denied its reality.

Among those contributing were a captured German tank technology officer who co-operated so enthusiastically with his interrogators that he was appointed a British civil servant and posted to the Ministry of Supply as ‘Mr Herbert’. He had information on anything he was asked about including, eventually, the German secret weapons programme. He claimed that he had been involved in the development of projectiles weighing a hundred tons, launched either from a tube or a ramp. A senior officer of the Luftwaffe experimental unit, captured in April, told of his superior, Colonel Rowehl, being summoned to see Hitler at Berchtesgaden to discuss the bombardment of Britain with rockets and jet-propelled aircraft in the coming summer. ‘Mr Herbert’, when re-interrogated, remembered that he had witnessed the launch of a sixty-ton rocket and knew of another of twenty-five tons. He mentioned the involvement of the Askania company and of Peenemünde, and other circumstantial facts, all later proved accurate. During 1–5 June, four reports were received in London that substantiated, in one way or another, information on hand. They mentioned Rechlin, the Luftwaffe experimental station, Usedom, the island on which Peenemünde was located, described it as a German army, not Luftwaffe, establishment (important, because the rocket was an army weapon) and, in the last report, described the firing of three rockets, 50–60 feet long, from ‘testing pit No. 7’. Large pits, clearly visible on air photographs of Peenemünde, had puzzled the interpreters. The reference was misleading, since the rockets were fired from transporter-erectors positioned in the open, but it seemed to emphasise that the British should be interested in Peenemünde.

This pot-pourri of information merely helped to harden attitudes among the investigators in Britain, not to elucidate. The positions were as follows: Duncan Sandys was fairly certain that the Germans were developing a rocket; R.V. Jones was uncertain but had an open mind; Lord Cherwell was absolutely convinced that a rocket was not technically feasible. His argument was fiercely reasonable: take-off would demand an enormous thrust; such thrust could only be supplied by an enormous charge of solid fuel inside a very large rocket; a very large rocket would need a conspicuous launch platform, either a ‘gun’ or a large ramp; no such structures had been identified; therefore the rocket did not exist. He dismissed the notion that the Germans might be using liquid fuel – he appears not to have studied Goddard’s pre-war experiments in America and to have been unaware of recent British experiments, conducted by Isaac Lubbeck for the Shell Petroleum Company – on the grounds that it would be impossible to control the flow of gases out of the rocket, which could not therefore be guided. Cherwell was to persist in this view until the contrary evidence became incontrovertible.

Meanwhile, photograph reconnaissance of ‘cylindrical’ or ‘torpedo-like’ objects at Peenemünde accumulated; interpretation suggested dimensions of ‘38 feet by eight [in diameter]’, ‘40 feet by 4 feet thick’, ‘35 feet long with a blunt point’ (we now know the warhead had not been fitted), ‘a cylinder tapered at one end and provided with 3 radial fins at the other’. On 23 June a photographic mission returned with film of two ‘torpedo-like’ objects, both thirty-eight feet long, six feet in diameter and with three fins. These photographs proved critical in advancing the debate about what Peenemünde threatened.

Sandys summarised the evidence in a report on 28 June. ‘The German long-range rocket has undoubtedly reached an advanced state of development . . . frequent firings are taking place at Peenemünde.’ Prisoner-of-war and agent reports implied a range of 130 miles, making it likely that it would be fired from the Pas de Calais, the part of northern France nearest London. Work of a suspicious nature – in fact the construction of a large concrete bunker – had been detected at Wissant. However, the report again grossly overestimated the rocket’s weight, at between sixty and a hundred tons, with a warhead of up to ten tons, and was still based on the suggestion that it was solid-fuelled.

That was unfortunate, given that so much of the assessment was correct, for the continual false judgement could only lend weight to Cherwell’s dismissal of such a monster rocket’s existence. On 29 June the Defence Committee (Operations) of the Cabinet met in Churchill’s underground command centre in Whitehall. Sandys and Cherwell were present, so was Jones, so were the Chiefs of Staff and the Prime Minister. The meeting opened with a presentation of the most recent Peenemünde photographs, described by Sandys as providing conclusive evidence of the rocket’s existence. Cherwell responded by raising again his technical doubts, his warning that the signs observed might be decoys, and concluded by suggesting that, if there were a secret weapon, it was probably a pilotless aircraft. Jones, asked by Churchill to comment, then disconcerted Cherwell by coming down on the side of Sandys. Thitherto he had harboured real doubts, reinforced by the deference he owed to Cherwell as one of his former Oxford pupils. Now he declared himself convinced that the rocket existed. Cherwell raised the final objection that, if so, the ‘flash’ of its launch must have been observed, say by Swedish fishermen in Baltic waters. Since there were no reports of ‘flash’, there could be no rocket. His objection, however, rested on his fixed belief that launch speed could only be achieved by the detonation of a large charge of cordite. The committee chose not to consider the question of whether the Germans might have overcome the difficulty of using liquid fuel. Instead it accepted the probable evidence of the rocket and made three decisions: to continue even more vigorously the examination by every means of the area of northern France within 130 miles of London; to attack rocket-launching sites in that area as soon as they were located; and to bomb Peenemünde.

The Peenemünde raid took place on the night of 17–18 August 1943. It was mounted by 433 Stirling, Halifax and Lancaster heavy bombers of RAF Bomber Command, while eight Mosquitoes staged a diversionary attack on Berlin. Earlier in the day the US Eighth Air Force had bombed Schweinfurt in southern Germany. The Germans were on the alert – a low-level British code they had cracked revealed that a night raid would take place – but they expected the target to be Bremen, another north German city, or Berlin. The sky was clear, though partly obscured by cloud over Peenemünde itself. Cloud would partially disrupt the British bombing pattern. The dropping of radar-confusing foil over Denmark by the Mosquitoes on their way to Berlin would distract the German night-fighter defence.

Soon after midnight, the Pathfinders of the RAF bomber force began dropping their indicators on Peenemünde. Some fell astray, with the result that the aiming point moved southward, away from the test area at the tip of the island. One effect of the misplaced indication was to direct heavy bombing on to the camp occupied by foreign workers, killing several hundred. Nevertheless, many hits were achieved on the laboratories, the rocket factory and the scientists’ housing estate. About 120 of the scientific and technical staff were killed. In the aftermath, it was decided to move the technical facilities to Kochel, in Bavaria – Peter Wegener was one of the scientists transplanted – and the manufacture of the A-4 (V-2) to a new underground Central Works in the Harz Mountains at Nordhausen. Nordhausen was to be built and operated largely by foreign labour; but the destruction of the camp at Peenemünde not only killed apparently all the foreign workers who had supplied London with secret-weapon intelligence – several were Luxemburgers – but also ended the comparatively free conditions which had allowed them to communicate with British intelligence. Nevertheless, A-4 intelligence was not completely ended. The firing range was transferred to Blizna, a remote village in southern Poland, at the confluence of the Bug and Vistula rivers, and Polish agents’ reports were to keep the Crossbow Committee, as the British committee tracking the pilotless weapons’ development was known, supplied with information in the coming months.

Meanwhile, perturbed by reports of ‘long-range guns’ and suggestions that mysterious buildings in both the Pas de Calais and the Cherbourg peninsula might be connected with the enemy’s secret weapons programme, the Allies were led to attack a conspicuous concrete building at Watten, in the Pas de Calais, on 27 August. It was almost completely devastated by the USAAF; later it was discovered to be a rocket store, not a launch site. Other sites, including a bunker at Siracourt and a ‘high-pressure pump gun’ battery at Mimoyecques, were to be destroyed by precision bombing in 1944.

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