Operation Backfire

A list of desired German scientists—“List I”—accompanied the memo. It included 115 rocket specialists. When the British learned about the U.S. Army’s intentions to hire the German rocket scientists, they asked to first be allowed to conduct two rocket exploitation projects of their own. The Americans agreed and released into British custody a group of scientists, engineers, and technicians including Wernher von Braun, Walter Dornberger, and Arthur Rudolph.

The first British project was called Operation Backfire, a V-2 field test that took place on Germany’s north coast, at a former Krupp naval gun range in Cuxhaven. Operation Backfire was designed to analyze technical data about the V-2 by having the Nazi rocket engineers fire four rockets, also taken piecemeal from Nordhausen, at a target in the North Sea. This would allow the British to evaluate various technical elements, from how the rocket was launched to its flight controls and fuels.

Operation Backfire, succeeded in examining and experimentally test launching, with the assistance of German technicians, three V-2 rockets. The Backfire launches took place in the British zone of occupation, at a former Krupp armament proving ground at Altenwalde, near Cuxhaven, Germany, on the North Sea coast. The launches were made on 2, 3, and 15 October 1945. The last launch was known as Operation Clitterhouse and included foreign (U.S., French, and Soviet) observers. The data acquired from all the launches and contained in five illustrated manuals was shared with the U.S.

Arthur Rudolph, the former Mittelwerk operations director, was considered an expert in launch techniques, and to his biographer, he later recalled a scene from Operation Backfire: “The V-2 ran on alcohol of the same chemistry as that appearing in say, Jack Daniels and Old Grandad [sic]. The people at the test site apparently knew that.” One night, according to Rudolph, a group of British and German V-2 technicians got drunk together on the rocket fuel. A British officer came upon the group arm in arm, “apparently comrades now, and lustily singing, Wir Fahren gegen England, or ‘We Will March Against England.’ ” General Dornberger was not part of the drinking and singing. The British kept him on a short leash, away from the test firing and always under a watchful eye. The British had alternative plans for Walter Dornberger. They were not interested in the knowledge Dornberger possessed. They wanted to try him for war crimes. After the test, he would not be returned to the Americans as the British had originally promised.

“The British pulled a sneaky on us,” explained Major Staver, who attended Operation Backfire. The Americans were not permitted to take Dornberger back after the Operation; instead, Dornberger was declared “on loan” and was taken to England. There, he and von Braun were “interrogated for a week by the British and then kept behind barbed wire in Wimbledon for four and one-half weeks while waiting to be picked up by the Americans.” Eventually, von Braun was returned but General Dornberger was not. Instead, he was issued a brown jumpsuit with the letters “PW” for Prisoner of War stenciled on the back. Under armed guard, he was taken to the London District Cage near the Windermere Bridge for interrogation. From there, General Dornberger was transferred first to a castle in Wales and then to Special Camp XI in Island Farm, South Wales, where he was an extremely unpopular prisoner.

“Walter Dornberger was definitely the most hated man in the camp,” Sergeant Ron Williams, a prison guard, recalled. “Even his own people hated him. He never went out to the local farms to work like other prisoners.” Wherever General Dornberger went while he was at Special Camp XI, he required an escort. The British feared that other prisoners might kill him.

Report of Operation Backfire


The drawing from the “Backfire” report shows the positions and the movements of the Artillery Regiment z.b.V. 901 during their use of the V-2 rockets at Hachenburg in the Westerwald in the spring of 1945

Von Braun

At the end of July 1945 von Braun’s group finally got word that the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington had approved a plan to bring the Germans to the United States. Under the secret “Project Overcast,” 350 German specialists were to be sent, with the nominal rationale being assistance for the war against Japan, although its surrender four weeks later changed little. But with that news came a shock: this number did not encompass only Ordnance’s Peenemünders. In fact Colonel Toftoy, who had been called back to Washington in late June to take over the rocket branch, was given a quota of one hundred; the USAAF and the navy had their own long lists of desirable specialists. Toftoy returned to Paris for meetings in late July and then visited Witzenhausen. He heard firsthand about the urgency of finding long-term family accommodations, especially as contracts were to be for a year only and family members were to stay behind. Ultimately, after another round of consultations with Staver, Porter, von Braun, and the leading Germans, Toftoy decided to accept about twenty extra, his orders notwithstanding. The first version of “List I,” as the Germans called it because they believed more would come later, had 124 names and was completed on 2 August. One of those names was Magnus von Braun, by then living in Eschwege.

One of the complications in drawing up a list was that, after a behind-the-scenes tug-of-war, the British had succeeded in getting the U.S. Army to lend some of its rocketeers to “Operation Backfire.” Based at the North Sea port of Cuxhaven, Backfire aimed to give the British Army experience with V-2 handling and launching. Dornberger was sent to Cuxhaven in mid-July, but he was soon shipped off to a POW camp in England for high-ranking generals, where he was threatened with a war crimes trial for the indiscriminate bombing of civilians. Hans Kammler was nowhere to be found and likely died near Prague at the end of the war, so Dornberger was the chosen scapegoat, but the whole idea ultimately foundered on its hypocrisy in the face of Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, and so on. Neither the British nor the Americans connected Dornberger, von Braun, Rudolph, or any of the others to the horrors found at Dora and Nordhausen, however. Allied officers and specialists automatically assumed it was the sole responsibility of the SS and that there was a fundamental distinction between technical experts and Nazi war criminals. In his 17 June report to Ordnance in Washington, Staver described the rocketeers as “top-notch engineers” no different from Allied “scientists” in developing weapons of war.

Wernher von Braun was on British lists as a desirable technical expert too, whether for Operation Backfire, for interrogation in England, or even for long-term employment. On 18 July the Backfire group asked the U.S. Army for the “apprehension” of von Braun, Rees, Schilling, and Steinhoff, “last reported as free civilians in area WITZENHAUSEN-ESCHWEGE.” This request went nowhere. A month later Sir Alwyn Crow, who headed missile projects in the Ministry of Supply in London, asked more realistically for the loan of von Braun, Axster, Steinhoff, and Rees for one week. As of 23 August this request was still under discussion by U.S. representatives. On the twenty-eighth von Braun wrote from Witzenhausen advising Dieter Huzel to marry his fiancée so that she would qualify as a dependent when he went overseas, and Wernher and Magnus together wrote a letter in the blind to their parents, promising them full support if they came to the American zone. They spoke in code of going to the United States: “In the near future we will probably move to Ntino [Constantine Generales] and his people.” Thus it appears that Wernher von Braun’s pleasant interlude in London, his first since his Christmas 1934 trip, probably did not occur until the very end of August or the beginning of September 1945.

He and the three others were flown to England and were interned in a special camp for German experts in Wimbledon, very near the famous tennis grounds. There he ran into Heinrich Klein, a leading designer of artillery and solid-fuel rockets for Rheinmetall-Borsig: “v. Braun, a little superior, let it be known that now the real work in the rocketry field could begin, as the land of unlimited possibilities was contemplating it.” He went on about the A-9 as the “first intercontinental rocket,” but it was only the initial step to a satellite that would orbit at 300 km (186 mi) altitude and 30,000 km/h (18,600 mph) velocity. Apparently nothing of the difficulties of the preceding months had dislodged him from his enthusiasm for, and rather unrealistic expectations of, working in the United States.

He was a little more anxious about how the British would treat him, but he found that as soon as he met Sir Alwyn Crow, “I was hardly inside his office before we were engaged in friendly shop talk.” Crow tried to get a list of people not going to the States whom von Braun might recommend to the British, and he may even have invited him to work for Britain—in both cases without success. One of the most memorable incidents of his London stay occurred during his morning ride between Wimbledon and the city center. The RAF driver silently pulled over and stopped in front of a building demolished by a rocket. “I was unable to tell the precise way in which the V-2 had done its damage, because the rubble had been cleared away,” von Braun later said, never giving any indication that the sight affected him more deeply. Soon thereafter he and his compatriots were flown back to Germany, and he was told of his imminent departure for America. It was time for the great venture into the unknown to begin.

Three A 4s started successfully during “Backfire”


The Russian R-1 rocket project

The Soviet option

It has been widely reported that the Germans unanimously decided to surrender to the Western Allies. This is not the case. Some of the scientists were more impressed by the Soviet system than they were by American capitalism, and Helmut Gröttrup was the most conspicuous of these. Gröttrup was an electronics engineer who no longer wished to ‘understudy’ Von Braun as he had done in the development of the V-2 rocket. Gröttrup decided to approach the Soviets and was offered a senior position in Russian rocket development. Between 9 September 1945 and 22 October 1946 Gröttrup with his loyal team of researchers worked for the USSR in the Soviet Occupied Zone of Germany (later to become the German Democratic Republic). His director of research was Sergei Korolev, Russia’s leading rocket scientist. In the autumn of 1946, the entire team was moved to Russia. Gröttrup had cooperated with Russia in bringing 20 of the V-2 rockets to the newly established rocket research institute at Kapustin Yar, between Volgograd and the deserts of Astrakhan. The base is known today as Znamensk and it had opened on 13 May 1946 specifically to offer facilities to German experts. In charge was General Vasily Voznyuk and on 18 October 1947 they launched the first of the V-2 rockets brought in from Germany.

Gröttrup worked under Korolev to develop the Russian R-1 project; these were in reality V-2 rockets built using Russian manufacturing and materials with the German designs. The People’s Commissar of Armaments, Dmitry Ustinov, requested that Gröttrup and his team of technicians design new missile systems, culminating in the projected R-14 rocket which was similar to the design of long-range missiles that Von Braun was developing during the war. The site at Znamensk developed into a top-secret cosmodrome and the small town itself was expanded to provide a pleasurable and civilized lifestyle for the families of the research teams working on the rockets. It was no longer included on Russian maps, and there were strict rules against disclosure of what was going on.

The value of the German expertise to the Russians proved to be limited and, in due course, the authorities allowed the research workers to return to their homes in Germany. The design of rocket motors in Russia by Aleksei Mikhailovich Isaev was already superior to the German concepts used in the V-2 rockets, and their lightweight copper motors gave rise to the first intercontinental ballistic missile, the R-7. It was this design advantage that gave the Russians technical superiority in rocketry and led to their launching the world’s first satellite Sputnik 1, and subsequently to the launch of Yuri Gagarin as the first man into space.

The same technology gave the Russians the capacity to launch the first lunar probe, and later the spacecraft sent out towards the planets. Indeed, this design of rocket is still in use today. Once it was recognized that there was little point in keeping the German rocket specialists in Russia, on 22 November 1955 Gröttrup was given leave to return to his native Germany. In cooperation with Jürgen Dethloff he went on to design and patent the chip card which was to become so important in modern banking systems, and so his post-war genius is with us today.


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