The move to Poland

As the Germans sought to recover what they could from Peenemünde, the top-secret development work on the V-2 was immediately transferred to the SS training base near Blizna, deep inside Poland, where it would be undetected by the British and less easily reached by air. Meanwhile, a launch site at Watten, near the coast of northern France, had already been selected as a V-2 base. Work had started in April 1943 and was duly reported to the British by agents of the French resistance. Dörnberger had long recognized that a V-2 could be launched from a small site – it would be a case of ‘shoot and run’. But after the raid on Peenemünde, Hitler decided that further major new launch and storage sites were the prime requirement. At d’Helfaut Wizernes, a site inland from Calais in northern France, they constructed a huge reinforced concrete dome, La Coupole, within a limestone quarry. The idea was to store the rockets within reinforced bomb-proof concrete chambers and bring them out for firing in quick succession. In May 1943 reconnaissance photographs disclosed details of the work, and by the end of the month bombing raids had been sent to the site. The timing of the bombing was set to coincide with freshly laid cement, so that the ruins would harden into a chaotic jumble that would be difficult for the Germans to repair. Repeated bombing by the Allies led to the idea being abandoned. The V-2 bombardment was then carried out from small scattered sites, as Dörnberger had always envisaged. The vast German bunkers were never fully operational, and they stand to this day as a World War II museum.

After the raid on Peenemünde, the main manufacture of the V-2 rockets was transferred to the Mittelwerk in Kohnstein. The rockets were manufactured by prisoners from Mittelbau-Dora, a concentration camp where an estimated 20,000 people died during World War II. A total of 9,000 of these were reported to have died from exhaustion, 350 were executed – including 200 accused of sabotage – and most of the rest were eventually shot, died from disease, or starved. By the war’s end, they had constructed a total of 5,200 V-2 rockets. On 29 August 1944 Hitler ordered V-2 attacks to commence with immediate effect. The offensive started on 8 September 1944 when a rocket was aimed at Paris. It exploded in the city, causing damage at the Porte d’Italie. Another rocket was launched the same day from The Hague, Netherlands, and hit London at 6.43pm. It exploded in Staveley Road, Chiswick, killing Sapper Bernard Browning who was on leave from the Royal Engineers. A resident, 63-year-old Mrs Ada Harrison, and three-year-old Rosemary Clarke also perished in the blast. Intermittent launches against London increased in frequency, though the Germans did not officially announce the bombardment until 8 November 1944. Until then, every time a V-2 exploded in Britain the authorities insisted it was a gas main that had burst; but with the German announcement the truth had to emerge. Two days later, Churchill confessed to the House of Commons that England had been under rocket attack ‘for the last few weeks’.

Over several months more than 3,000 V-2s were fired by the Germans. Around 1,610 of them hit Antwerp; 1,358 landed on London, and additional rockets were fired into Liege, Hasselt, Tournai, Mons, Diest, Lille, Paris, Tourcoing, Remagen, Maastricht, Arras and Cambrai on continental Europe. In Britain, Norwich and Ipswich also suffered occasional V-2 attacks. The accuracy of the rockets increased steadily, and some of them impacted within a few yards of the intended target. The fatalities were sometimes alarming. On 25 November 1944 a V-2 impacted at a Woolworths store in New Cross, London, where it killed 160 civilians and seriously injured 108 more. Another attack on a cinema in Antwerp killed 567 people. This was the worst loss of life in a single V-2 attack.

The V-2 falls into Allied hands

The Allies were receiving regular intelligence reports about the rockets, but knew little of the precise design details until a V-2 was retrieved from Sweden and examined in detail. On 13 June 1944, a V-2 on a test flight from Peenemünde exploded several thousand feet above the Swedish town of Bäckebo. The wreckage was collected by the Swedes and offered to the British for reconstruction. Officially neutral, Sweden was also secretly supplying the German weapons factories with up to 10,000,000 tons of iron ore per year. To maintain their ostensibly neutral stance, the Swedes asked for some British Supermarine Spitfire fighter aircraft in exchange. In August 1944 reconstruction of the rocket was begun, and the resulting insight into the construction of the missile was highly revealing to the Allies. As it happens, this particular rocket was fitted with a guidance system that was never installed on the rockets raining down on Britain, and so the British were more impressed with the technology than they might otherwise have been. Yet the fact remained: although the design of the V-2 was now thoroughly understood, it was abundantly clear there was no defence against them. These weapons arrived at supersonic speeds, so there could be no advance warning and it seemed as though there was nothing that could be done to resist the onslaught.

Or was there? The resourceful officers at British Intelligence had a simple response. Because the area of damage was small, they began releasing fictitious reports that the rockets were over-shooting their targets by between 10 and 20 miles (16 to 32km). As soon as these covert messages were intercepted by the Germans, the launch teams recalibrated the launch trajectory to make good the discrepancy … and from then on, the rockets fell some 20 miles short of their target, most of them landing in Kent instead of central London. The final two rockets exploded on 27 March 1945 and one of these was the last to kill a British civilian. She was Mrs Ivy Millichamp, aged 34, who was blown apart by the V-2 at her home in Kynaston Road, Orpington in the county of Kent, just 20 miles from the centre of London.

As the V-2 was proving the reliability of the ballistic missile, larger rockets were soon on the drawing-board. The A-9 was envisaged as a rocket with a range of up to 500 miles (800km) and an A-10 was planned to act as a first-stage booster that could extend the range to reach the United States. The original development work had been undertaken in 1940, with a first flight date set for 1946, but the project – as so often happened – was summarily stopped. When the so-called Projekt Amerika re-emerged in 1944, work was resumed, and the A-11 was planned as a huge first stage that would carry the A-9 and A-10. The plans (which were released in 1946 by the United States Army) were for a rocket that could even place a payload of some 660lb (300kg) into orbit. The proposed A-12 fourth stage would have a launch weight of 3,500 tons and could place 10 tons into orbit. In the event, all these plans were to fall into Allied hands as the European war drew to a close. During the spring of 1945 the Allies advanced from the west, and the Russians closed in from the east. When news reached Peenemünde that the Soviet Army was only about 100 miles (160km) away, Von Braun assembled the planning staff and broke the news. It was time to decide by which army they would be captured. All knew that the world would regard them as war criminals, and the decisions were not easy.

The dreadful destruction and the mass killings reported early in the campaign make the V-2 seem like a terrifyingly successful rocket, but was it really valuable as a weapon of war? Let us look at the figures. It has been estimated that 2,754 civilians were killed in Britain by the 1,402 V-2 attacks. A further people 6,523 were injured. These simple facts reveal that the V-2, as a weapon of war, was a costly failure. Each of these incredibly expensive and complex missiles killed about two people, and injured roughly six more, indeed it has been calculated that more casualties were caused by the manufacture of the V-2 than resulted from its use in war. The reality was that they were inefficient in terms of killing the enemy – but they had proved how successful they were as rockets. Von Braun had always wanted to build rockets, and had held in his heart the ultimate ambition of building a space rocket. The Nazis held onto the propaganda value of their successful launch series, even though remarkably few people were being killed by the V-2 attacks. The Nazis had been used by Von Braun to fund his private ambitions; Hitler’s doubts about the V-2 as an agent of warfare were right after all.

One of the first initiatives after the Allies invaded Peenemünde was to test the V-2 rockets before any were moved to other countries. In October 1945, the British Operation Backfire fired several V-2 rockets from northern Germany. There were many reports of what became known as ‘ghost rockets’, unaccountable sightings of missile trails in the skies above Scandinavia. These were from Operation Backfire: not only did the Nazis fire their monster rockets from Germany, so too did the British.

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.

Moving to America: Operation Paperclip

Most of Von Braun’s team opted to surrender to the Western Allies, rather than the Russians. With the position of Germany deteriorating rapidly, conflicting orders began to arrive. The rocket technicians were ordered to move en masse to Mittelwerk; then they received orders to join the Army and stay to fight the invading Allies. Von Braun opted to hide in the mountains, out of harm’s way and nearer to the advancing American and British forces. Several thousand employees and their families left their homes, voyaging south in ships and barges, by rail and road. They had to dodge Allied bombing raids and deal with Nazi officials at checkpoints. Von Braun was fearful that the defeated SS might try to destroy the results of their work, so he had blueprints of all their designs hidden in an abandoned mineshaft in the Harz mountains where he could later retrieve them.

In March 1945, his driver fell asleep at the wheel and Von Braun was left with a compound fracture of his left arm. Insisting on being mobile, he had the fracture roughly set in a cast. It was unsatisfactory, and so in the following month he had to return to hospital where the bone was broken again and re-aligned correctly. He was still in plaster as the Allied troops advanced.

Suddenly the team was ordered to move to Oberammergau in the Bavarian Alps. They were placed under guard by the SS who had orders to shoot everyone if they were about to fall into Allied hands. Von Braun got wind of this, and persuaded the SS officer in charge that keeping them together made them a sitting target for Allied bombing raids. Since they were important personnel, Von Braun argued, it would surely be safer to distribute the members of the team among the nearby villages. In one of these villages, on 2 May 1945, Von Braun’s brother Magnus – also a rocket engineer – suddenly encountered an American private of the 44th Infantry Division named Fred Schneiker. Magnus von Braun rode up on his bicycle, and announced: ‘My name is Magnus von Braun. My brother invented the V-2. Please, we want to surrender.’ Von Braun was immediately locked up, and so were thousands of the others, as war criminals. The factories were quickly overrun and between 22 and 31 May 1945 a total of 341 railway trucks were used to move as many V-2 rockets as possible and the manufacturing equipment to Antwerp, from where 16 Liberty ships transported them to the port of New Orleans. From there the rockets and equipment were transferred to the New Mexican desert under conditions of extreme secrecy.

The German rocket engineers themselves were also taken to the United States covertly, as part of Operation Paperclip. This secret scheme was set up by the United States Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which in turn gave rise to today’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). It had been assumed that the personnel involved in creating the weapons of mass destruction would be put on trial for war crimes, but during the closing stages of the war it was decided instead to see if the United States could secretly harness their knowledge. Agents within the United States resolved to bring these people to America and use the benefits of their research, at the same time denying the benefits to their allies, the Soviet Union and the British.

Although relatively unknown, there was a similar scheme operating for the British. This was code named Operation Surgeon and it was intended to bring promising research engineers to Britain and to deny them to the Soviet Union. The official policy was not to involve suspected war criminals, but to capture some 1,500 research personnel and to remove them forcibly. The document setting this out was entitled Employment of German Scientists and Technicians: Denial Policy, and it survives to this day at the National Archives, Kew, United Kingdom. It was explicit about the need to obtain personnel, and said they would be removed ‘whether they liked it or not’. Many of the individuals on the lists offered their services to other Commonwealth countries, with some opting to go to South American countries (including Brazil) and others going to Scandinavia and Switzerland. The scheme was the first to come into operation, and ran from the time the British forces overran the German research establishments until all the scientists and engineers had been accounted for.

Not until September 1945 was Operation Paperclip authorized by President Harry S. Truman. The President’s orders stated that nobody should be included who had ‘been a member of the Nazi Party, and more than a nominal participant in its activities, or an active supporter of Nazi militarism’. Included under that clause as Nazi sympathizers were many of the senior figures like Von Braun who was stated, at the time, to be ‘a menace to the security of the Allied Forces’.

As a result, the aims of Operation Paperclip were clearly unlawful and what is more OSS agents acted in direct defiance of the President’s orders. In order to make the most desirable personnel seem acceptable, the representatives of the OSS constructed false employment and faked political biographies for the chosen scientists. All references to Nazi party membership, and any political activity in Nazi Germany, were removed from the record, and new résumés were concocted by the American secret service. At the end of each exercise, a German specialist – often with enduring Nazi sympathies – had been provided with a fictitious political history and an imaginary personal life. The documents were typed up, carefully countersigned, and attached to their birth certificates with paperclips – which gave the operation its name. In the meantime, Von Braun had disappeared. He found himself secretly jailed at a top-secret military intelligence unit at Fort Hunt, Virginia, in the United States. It had no name, and was referred to only by its postal code ‘PO Box 1142’. This was a top-secret confinement facility undeclared to the Red Cross and was thus in breach of the Geneva Convention.

Another of the senior scientists who was taken to America by the Allies was Adolf Thiel. Before he had joined Von Braun at the Peenemünde research laboratories, Thiel had been Associate Professor of Engineering at the Darmstadt Institute of Technology. After the war, as part of Operation Paperclip, Thiel was taken with Von Braun to Fort Bliss, Texas, and later to the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico and on to Huntsville, Alabama. His prime responsibility in America was the refinement of the V-2 design into the Redstone missile, and he later adapted it to become the Thor ballistic missile, which was the first stage rocket for the Explorer spacecraft. Thiel was made a Fellow of the American Astronautical Society in 1968 and died in Los Angeles in 2001 aged 86. So he lived into the new millennium, and saw the realization of the dream of space exploration.

Dörnberger was also brought to America and went on to work for the United States Air Force developing guided missiles. Later he was a key figure in developing the X-20 Dyna-Soar which was, in many ways, the ancestor of the space shuttle; he also worked on the Rascal, an air-to-surface nuclear missile used by the Strategic Air Command. He later retired to Germany and died in 1980 at home in Baden-Württemberg. On 8 July 1944 he had received a handwritten note from Hitler: ‘I have had to apologize only to two men in my whole life,’ the Führer had written. ‘The first was Field Marshal von Brauchitsch. I did not listen to him when he told me again and again how important your research was. The second man is yourself. I never believed that your work would be successful.’

V2 The A4 Rocket from Peenemunde to Redstone

Author: Murray R Barber

Publisher: Crecy Publishing Ltd ISBN: 978 19065 365 24

The German A4 rocket, or V2 – ‘Vergeltungswaffen Zwei’ (Vengeance Weapon 2), was the most sophisticated and advanced weapon developed in Europe during the Second World War. From September 1944 to March 1945, German army launch teams fired more than 3,000 V2 rockets at targets in England, France, Belgium and even within Germany itself. Many V2s were fired from mobile launch sites and from concealed wooded areas, using fleets of transporters and trailers with sophisticated ancillary and support vehicles. Travelling at the edge of space, the V2 rockets fell without warning at supersonic speeds, turning buildings and streets into cratered rubble, and terrorizing the civilians targeted by these attacks.

Drawing on a wide range of archive sources, rare personal accounts and interviews conducted with personnel associated with the A4/V2 program, rocketry expert Murray R. Barber traces the origins of the V2 and presents a detailed view of the research conducted at the secret, experimental rocket-testing facility at Kummersdorf West and the vast, infamous base at Peenemunde. This important new work reveals the transformation of the rocket into a weapon of war and describes the A4 in detail as well as the intense and often difficult intelligence effort by the Allies to discover more about this highly secret and unprecedented weapon, and to destroy it.

The author also describes the field-testing of the A4 rocket, its reliability problems and the remedies and compromises employed to deal with them. He reveals the activities of the SS and their machinations to gain control of the rocket program from the Wehrmacht, as well as the subsequent operational deployment of the V2 in Operation Penguin, the ‘vengeance’ offensive against the British Isles.

Illustrated throughout with rare and many previously unseen images (including color photographs), technical drawings and maps, this is the most comprehensive book ever on the V2, and includes important new details of the post-war development and testing of the rocket and its role in the dawning of the space age.


There are arguably two major developments that changed the lives of the population of planet earth during World War II. One was the atom bomb and the second the intercontinental rocket. It was up to the Germans to perfect a long-range rocket. Around 3,000 were produced and were used both against the civilian population of Southern England and the invading forces. Morals aside, this volume deals mainly with the design, development and operations of this weapon.

The first chapter deals with the development of German rocketry as a propulsion system. They were not unique is this field. Rockets were used worldwide to give extra power to aircraft when needed and batteries of rockets armed with high explosives were used by both sides in World War II. What was really wanted was a sophisticated guidance system. That, coupled with range, made this a formidable weapon. This book will tell you everything you wanted to know about it.

The text is enormous and the book is packed with excellent photographs in both black and white and colour. Like the V1 this missile had one major law, it being a big target for roaming allied aircraft. Like its predecessor it moved from static launch sites to mobile units, this portability being needed because not only was it used as a terror weapon, but against the advancing Allies. They could be positioned in woodland areas and the missile would be camouflaged and you will find a number of these in the artwork.

As with other conflicts enemies become best friends if they provide valuable information to the victor. None more so than Wernher von Braun and his team of scientists who were transported to America to work on long distant rockets for them. Thus we now have a missile that can reach anywhere in the world with enough power to destroy it. This book is the twenty ninth in the classic series and stands alone on this subject.

www. crecy. co. uk

Spezialfahrzeuge Peenemünde 1942-45 V2 rocket book.

This V2 rocket book covers the various vehicles for fire control, supply, testing, fuel, trailers such as the ‘Meillerwagen’ and ‘Vidalwagen’, trailers for liquids, gantry cranes and rail cars including the launching railroad wagon. All vehicle types are shown; photographs, detailed drawings, designs and technical specifications based on historical documentation, production rate and deployment of the Division z.V. are part of this documentation. 320 pages, hardcover in landscape format, text in English and German with over 250 (TBC) rare and unpublished photographs of these unique vehicles and devices. Additionally, there are copies of rare original documents and a set of detailed 1/35 scale drawings that will give historical (technical) researchers and scale modellers a tremendous new source of valuable information.


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