Drawings of the M-25, its rotating firing chamber and magazine. Army art
The innovative weapon quickly disappeared
In the face of increasingly powerful German tanks, the U.S. Army spent much of World War II searching for more powerful anti-tank arms. As the conflict ended, the ground combat branch had two different bazookas, as well as a recoilless rifle for infantrymen.
After the war, Army leaders tried replacing all of these weapons with a single new design. The service’s weaponeers delivered a rapid-firing, lever-action rocket launcher.
But despite being an innovative concept, the M-25 repeating rocket launcher quickly disappeared from the American arsenal. Today it’s an historical oddity.
The European Theater Board—which the Army established in 1945 in order to critique the ground combat branch’s performance against the Nazis—felt the “the bazooka had performed extremely well,” Army major Robert Doughty writes in The Evolution of U.S. Army Tactical Doctrine, 1946–76.
“A 3.5-inch bazooka had been introduced toward the end of the war to replace the 2.36-inch weapon,” Doughty adds in his official monograph.
The M-25 was a logical extension of these earlier launchers, offering a faster-firing alternative to single-shot bazookas. The new weapon even incorporated a number of features that its designers lifted straight from the 3.5-inch M-20 “Super Bazooka.”
The repeating rocket launcher had the same trigger, sights and front barrel as the single-shot M-20. Both the M-20 and M-25 could break in half for easy transport.
The quick-firing weapon M-25 also fired the exact same type of 3.5-inch ammunition as the M-20. The ground combat branch could rest easy knowing that existing stockpiles of tank-busting, smoke-generating and training rockets would not go to waste.
The biggest difference between the two designs was the M-25’s rotating firing chamber. With two flips of a handle, an infantryman could drop a fresh round into place, seal the mechanism back up and be ready to shoot.
The projectiles dropped into position from a top-mounted magazine. With all the rockets fired, a soldier could clamp on a fresh magazine or troops could open the top of the hopper to load up individual rockets.
Compared to the M-20, “loading time is greatly reduced, since a rocket may be inserted into the magazine while the weapon is being aimed and fired,” the official operator’s manual notes.
In addition, “the magazine loading feature … improves the safety of the weapon over the rear loading single shot rocket launcher, since reaching behind the launcher during the loading operation is avoided,” the handbook adds.
Unfortunately, the new launcher was also significantly beefier. The M-25 weighed almost 50 pounds—more than three times as much as the shoulder-fired M-20.
As a result, the repeating rocket launcher need a tripod to keep it stable, making it even bulkier. A single infantryman would not have been able to operate it alone.
But the weapon wasn’t any more powerful than the single-shot models. The Army quickly became confused about what to do with its new contraption.
In 1948, the Army had been blind-sided by North Korea suddenly standing up its first tank formations. The ground combat branch demanded better anti-tank weapons. But by the time the Army adopted the M-25 three years later, the threat had largely subsided.
“Due to the enemy’s lack of armor in winter operations [in] 1950–1951, this group of weapons had little decisive effect in the local fighting,” according to a Johns Hopkins University report.
We don’t know if any of the quick-shooting weapons ever actually made it to Korea.
“Since it was standardized and given an M-designation, and there were 1,500 made, I think that in all probability it saw at least limited combat testing in Korea,” says Gordon Rottman, author of The Bazooka.
But if they did occur, the experiments couldn’t save the new launcher. None of the Army’s official organizational documents ever called for the lever-action weapon to be issued to troops.
Instead, soldiers kept their lighter M-20s ready for at least another decade, with some units even taking them to Vietnam. The ground combat branch eventually replaced the shoulder-fired rockets with a combination of disposable rocket launchers and recoilless rifles.
No one seems to know exactly what happened to the remaining M-25s. But the Texas Military Forces Museum in Austin has at least one of these innovative arms in its collection, according to Rottman.
For all of their deficiencies, knights proved their mettle against Byzantine and Muslim forces, and for nearly 250 years after the Battle of Hastings (1066) they were all but invulnerable to the weapons used by European infantrymen. At the Battles of Courtrai (1302) in the Franco-Dutch War and the Morgarten (1315) in the First Austro-Swiss War, however, Flemish and Swiss pikemen demonstrated that the proper choice of terrain allowed resolute foot soldiers to defeat French and Austrian knights respectively. By then the use of powerful crossbows and longbows also put knights at greater risk of death on the battlefield at the hands of commoner bowmen. The combination of archer and dismounted knight used by the English throughout the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) proved deadly effective against French knights. Men-at-arms responded to their new vulnerability by using plate armour for themselves and their horses, which were more likely than their riders to be killed in battle. Plate armour presented several problems. It was too expensive for the less wealthy nobles, so that the near equality in knightly equipment that had marked the previous era disappeared. Its weight required larger and more costly warhorses, which were slower and less maneuverable, allowing the men-at-arms to do little more than a straight-ahead charge. Despite defeat by the Swiss infantrymen in numerous battles throughout the fifteenth century, culminating at Nancy (1477) in the death of Charles the Bold (1433-1477), the duke of Normandy, armoured horsemen remained a potent element, especially in the French army.
Body protection for soldiers in the 14th century saw a general trend away from the use of mail and towards the use of plate. In Scandinavia and eastern Europe lamellar armour composed of small plates laced or riveted together became widespread; it was worn under a leather jerkin. Elsewhere soldiers increasingly wore pieces of solid plate strapped onto their mail hauberks or attached to the inside of a leather jerkin to protect vulnerable joints and limbs. For mounted soldiers, whose legs were an easy target for foot soldiers, plate leg protection was evolved, comprising sabaton (foot), greave (shin), poleyn (knee), and cuisse (thigh) sections. By the end of the century armourers were attaching the pieces of limb protection to each other by metal strips known as lames, rather than to another garment. Leather straps and loose riveting provided the necessary flexibility. Armourers also began to demonstrate their skill in designing surfaces curved in such a way as to deflect an enemy’s weapon point away from vulnerable body areas.
Two distinct styles in western European armour emerged during the 15th century-the Italian and the German. Italian armour is characterized by smoothness and roundness in the modeling of the individual pieces. Milan was an important center of manufacture. The German style, more angular and spiky, is often referred to as “Gothic”; its main centers of manufacture were Innsbruck, Nuremberg, and Augsburg. These differences are exemplified in two common forms of head protection: the smooth cylindrical shape of the Italian barbut, based on ancient Greek helmet designs, and the prominent projections of the German sallet with its pointed neck guard. However, as both countries exported armour and armourers (HENRY VIII employed first Italians and then, from 1515, Germans in his Greenwich workshops) elements from both soon blended in European armour.
Arms and armour changed significantly during the Renaissance, with improvements in one of them often leading to modifications in the other. New military tactics and techniques triggered some developments, while others were based on fashion. Armour and weapons were not simply tools of war; they also served important social and artistic functions.
The most popular form of armour during the Middle Ages was mail—sheets of interlocking iron rings. Though flexible and strong, mail did not protect as well as solid plates. In the 1200s armourers began making plate armour out of materials such as leather and, eventually, steel. The earliest plate armour protected the lower legs and knees, the areas that a foot soldier could easily attack on a mounted knight. Over time, armour expanded to cover more and more of the body.
By the early 1400s, knights were encased in complete suits of overlapping steel plates. A full suit of armour might weigh as much as 60 pounds, but its weight was distributed over the entire body. A knight accustomed to wearing armour could mount and dismount a horse fairly easily and even lie down and rise again without difficulty. A foot soldier wore less armour than a knight. He might have an open-faced helmet and a shirt of mail with solid plates covering his back and chest.
Armour changed again as firearms became more common. Rigid armour would crack when hit by a shot from a pistol or musket. Some armourers responded by making their armour harder, while others produced plates that would dent rather than breaking. However, the only really effective technique was to thicken the armour, which made it too heavy to wear in battle. As armour became less useful, soldiers tended to wear less of it. By 1650 most mounted fighters wore only an open-faced helmet, a heavy breastplate, and a backplate. By 1700 armour had all but disappeared from the battlefield.
Tournaments called for special armour. Since participants did not have to carry the armour’s weight as long as they would in battle, they wore heavier armour that offered them greater protection. Each specific event in a tournament required its own type of armour. Some contests involved battles between mounted knights, while others featured hand-to-hand combat on foot.
Most armour, even that worn in battle, was decorated in some way. The decoration ranged from etched borders around the edges of plates to detailed images of saints or ancient heroes. Some very expensive armour was inlaid with patterns in silver or gold. Highly decorated weapons and suits of armour were status symbols, worn only at court or on special social occasions.
In Germany in the early 16th century the armourers’ craft received strong encouragement from the informed patronage of Emperor MAXIMILIAN I. Among the famous makers who worked for Maximilian and his successors were the SEUSENHOFER FAMILY of Innsbruck and the HELMSCHMIED FAMILY of Augsburg. Maximilian’s name is associated with the type of ridged plate that represented the most advanced scientific design attained in European armour, combining strength and flexibility to a marked extent. A curious vagary in this period was the attempt to reproduce in metal the puffed and slashed garments of contemporary civilian fashion, even down to simulation of the stitching. From the mid-16th century changes in military strategy and increasing deployment of firearms made mobility more desirable than all-over body protection; plainer suits, often without the lower leg protection, became more common for practical purposes, while the parade or ceremonial armour of princes became increasingly ornate. The use of etching (in northern Europe) or embossing (predominantly an Italian fashion) for decoration naturally negated one of the primary functions of plate armour-to present a smooth surface off which a weapon point would glance.
Besides suits of armour for the battlefield, armourers also evolved specialist equipment to meet the rather different demands of the tournament. Heavily reinforced pieces protected the knight’s left shoulder and arm, as the side that would take the brunt of his opponent’s attack. A premium was placed on helmet design that protected the wearer against an opponent’s lance; the English great helm and German frog-mouth helm are examples of this specialist type. For foot combat this kind of helmet restricted visibility to an impractical degree, so a helmet with a visor was used instead. The need to adapt armour for different purposes led to the evolution of the garniture, in which the basic suit of armour is provided with additional matching pieces for special applications, such as a tournament or a parade. Garnitures such as those made for Henry VIII of England and Emperor Charles V and preserved in such collections as the Tower of London or the Armeria Real, Madrid, exhibit the armourers’ ingenuity in the design and decoration of these sets, which of course only the rich and powerful could afford or needed. Sometimes matching sets of horse armour were provided as well; one such set was the ceremonial armour made for Eric XIV of Sweden in 1563.
Missaglia family Italian makers of weapons and ARMOUR. In the 15th century their workshop in Milan was a European leader in this field. Tommaso (died c. 1454), who retired in about 1451, handed over to his son Antonio (died c. 1495), who fulfilled commissions for a number of important clients. Some of his work is preserved in the Wallace Collection, London. After Antonio’s death the family’s place as leading armour manufacturers in Milan was taken by the NEGROLI FAMILY.
Negroli family Italian makers of weapons and ARMOUR. They succeeded the MISSAGLIA FAMILY as the leading Milanese manufacturers in this field in the first half of the 16th century. Leading members were Jacopo and Filippo (active 1525-50) who made embossed parade armour as well as more practical suits. Among their clients were Emperor Charles V and Francis I of France.
Helmschmied family (Kolman family) A family of Augsburg armourers, successive generations of which worked for emperors and princes from the last quarter of the 15th century. Their work is signed with the mark of a helmet. Lorenz Helmschmied (1445-1516) made a complete set of ARMOUR for horse and rider for Emperor Frederick III (1477; Vienna) and in 1491 was appointed chief armourer to Frederick’s son Maximilian (I), for whom he made many fine pieces. Lorenz’s son Kolman (1471- 1532), who worked independently from 1500, produced complete garnitures for Charles V, such as the “K. D.” garniture (c. 1526), parts of which survive in the Armeria Real, Madrid. The family workshop’s tradition of creating richly decorated parade armour was further developed by Kolman’s son Desiderius (1513-c. 1578) under the patronage of Philip II.
Seusenhofer family One of the most important German families of armourers in the 15th and 16th centuries. Konrad Seusenhofer (1460-1517) moved from Augsburg to Innsbruck in 1504 to set up a court armoury for Emperor Maximilian I, and was later succeeded as court armourer by his brother Hans (1470-1555) and Hans’s son Jörg (c. 1505-80). During the 16th century, when plate ARMOUR had become ceremonial rather than practical, the family made richly elaborate armour, often decorated by inlaying, gilding, etching, or carving, for the European monarchies. Konrad was instrumental in evolving the type of fluted armour, known as “Maximilian,” popular in the first three decades of the 16th century (a fusion of the German and Italian styles of armour). A fashion in armour during the 1520s was to simulate the puffing and slashing of the dress of the period, an early example being the armour made by Konrad for Archduke Charles in 1514. Other clients of Konrad’s included Henry VIII of England and James IV of Scotland.
Another fashion of the mid-16th century was for garnitures- complete “wardrobes” of matching pieces of armour for different occasions. A famous example of this is the “Eagle” garniture made by Jörg Seusenhofer for Ferdinand, Archduke of Tyrol, in 1547, which comprised over 60 separate pieces.
Further reading: David Edge and John Miles Paddock, Arms and Armour of the Medieval Knight: An Illustrated History of Weaponry in the Middle Ages (New York: Crescent Books, 1988); Alan Williams, The Knight and the Blast Furnace: A History of the Metallurgy of Armour in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period (Leyden, Netherlands: Brill, 2003).
The fundamental changes, including manufacturing and financial practices, that came about during the Industrial Revolution greatly speeded machine-gun development. The first patent using the term “machine gun” was issued in the United States in 1829 to Samuel L. Farries of Middletown, Ohio. This grant seems to imply that the term was to be assigned to any mechanically operated weapon of rifle caliber and above, regardless of whether the energy necessary for sustained fire was derived mechanically or from some other source of power. As it turned out, however, the weapons of the nineteenth century would all be manually operated. Because it was always necessary for a gunner to aim the weapon, there seemed to be no reason why he should not also furnish the power to feed and fire the gun. The challenge for inventors was how to devise a mechanism to make that possible.
In the 1850s, Sir James S. Lillie of London attempted to combine both the multibarrel and the revolving chamber systems. He arranged 12 barrels in two rows. Each had a cylinder, as with a revolver, behind it. A hand crank tripped the hammers of each unit, either simultaneously to produce a 12-barrel barrage of fire, or consecutively to produce a continuous ripple of fire from each barrel in turn. The problem with Lillie’s gun was that it took a long time to reload. Thus it had little appeal for the military and the only specimen ever made now resides in the Royal Artillery Museum at Woolwich in London.
In the United States, other inventors continued to work on perfecting a multifire weapon. Improvements to percussion caps and subsequent developments in the evolution of the cartridge paved the way for new advances. Ezra Ripley, of Troy, New York, took advantage of the paper cartridge developed by Samuel Colt and the Ely brothers of England to patent a hand-cranked machine gun. Ripley achieved sustained volley fire by a compact firing mechanism that allows the gunner to fire one shot, or the whole volley, with a quick turn of the handle. The weapon consisted of a series of barrels grouped around a central axis. The breech lock, made in the shape of a revolving cylinder, was loaded with the conventional paper cartridges of the time. The breech was then locked into place by securing the operating handle. This aligned the chambers containing the cartridges with the rear of the barrels. With a turn of the handle, the firing pin was cocked and released, firing the weapon. Once the weapon was fired, the gunner then pulled the firing assembly rearward, removed the empty cartridges and reloaded the empty chambers. As preloaded cylinders were made available, a single operator was able to produce more sustained fire than a company of men using the standard muzzle-loading musket of the day. However, U. S. military observers evaluating Ripley’s prototype expressed serious doubts about overheating of the barrels and ammunition resupply. In the end, the U. S. Army, which ordered little more than conventional arms like muskets and cannons during this period, was not interested in Ripley’s invention. Nevertheless, it was a promising weapon that had many features that greatly influenced machine-gun design for years.
Some of the difficulties incurred by arms inventors in marketing their ideas were reduced with the onset of the U. S. Civil War; the needs of industrialized warfare spurred weapons inventors and added new impetus to the development of volley-fire weapons and ultimately the mechanical machine gun. One of the most effective of the volley-fire weapons during the Civil War was the Billinghurst-Requa battery gun, built in late 1861 by the Billinghurst Company of Rochester, New York. Designed by Joseph Requa of Rochester, this weapon was yet another revival of the fourteenth-century ribauldequin brought up to date. The weapon consisted of 25 rifle barrels mounted side-by-side on a light wheeled carriage. The barrels were each loaded with a brass cartridge containing gunpowder and a bullet and having a hole in the base. A steel block closed all 25 breeches and was perforated to allow the flash from a single cap, which was placed on a nipple on the iron frame and fired by a hammer, to pass through and ignite the 25 cartridges in a ragged volley, after which the 25 barrels had to be emptied of the spent cartridges by hand and reloaded before the gun could fire again. It produced a blast of fire that could cut down a charging enemy.
The Billinghurst-Requa battery gun, although primitive by later standards, had a few unusual features that merit mention. Requa had solved the inevitable long pause for reloading by making his weapon a breechloader. The clip-loading feature and quick means of locking and unlocking the bolt allowed for a decent rate of fire. The gun was demonstrated in New York shortly before the Civil War broke out, and several were purchased by the Union and the Confederacy. They were used to protect vulnerable points, notably bridges and similar places where an enemy attack could be channeled into a narrow space and a sudden blast of fire delivered. As a result, these weapons became known as bridge guns. Despite its potential, the battery gun had its limitations and did not represent a great leap forward in rapid-fire technology. Additionally, there were questions about how such guns would best be used on the battlefield. The gun was demonstrated for the Ordnance Select Committee in London in 1863, and the observers attending were less than impressed. The committee thought that the gun could not be a substitute for any existing field guns and questioned its utility for the infantry. Ian V. Hogg, a modern expert on weapons and their development, maintains that “this short report pinpoints the greatest problem facing the early development of machine guns: how were they to be used?”1 Most military observers saw them as some sort of artillery weapon and contended that they should be handled in the field in the same manner, that is, setting up some distance from the enemy to take him under fire. According to Hogg, “It was this ques tion of method of employment that was to be the greatest brake on the early development” of the machine gun. Very few observers realized the potential of these weapons and how they would change the nature of armed combat.
A different approach during the Civil War was taken by Wilson Ager (sometimes spelled Agar). His invention was called the Coffee Mill because the ammunition was fed into the top through a funnel-shaped hopper resembling an old-time coffee grinder. Ager’s gun, also known as the Union Repeating Gun, was unique in that it had only one barrel. A number of steel tubes, into which powder and a bullet were loaded, provided the firepower; on the end of each tube was a nipple on to which a percussion cap was placed. The tubes were then dropped into the hopper and gravity-fed one at a time by rotating the crank. This pushed the first tube from the hopper into the chamber of the barrel, locked the breech block behind it, and then dropped a hammer onto the cap and fired the caliber .58 Minié-type bullet out of the barrel. Continuous rotation of the crank withdrew the empty tube and ejected it, then fed the next tube in, and so on. The gunner’s mate had the job of picking up the empty tubes and reloading them as fast as he could, dropping them back into the hopper.
The gun, which Ager described as “An Army in Six Feet Square,” worked reasonably well, particularly for its day. The inventor claimed that the weapon could fire 100 shots per minute. This was probably an exaggeration, and that claim was no doubt received with great skepticism. This response was probably well-founded, because 100 shots per minute meant exploding a pound or so of gunpowder every minute. In truth, the gun probably could not have withstood the heat generated. (The problem of heat buildup in the barrel would be one of the recurring difficulties that had to be overcome in the development of an effective machine gun.) Nevertheless, Ager conducted a demonstration firing for President Abraham Lincoln, who was so impressed with the weapon that he authorized the purchase of 10 units on the spot. Eventually Ager sold more than fifty Coffee Mills to the Union Army. Generally, they proved to be unreliable in combat and were never employed en masse. According to one reference, they were incorporated into the defenses of Washington and were only occasionally fired at Confederate positions along the Potomac River. 3 They were usually relegated to bridge duty, like the Requa. In the end, the Coffee Mill was not adopted in great numbers because contemporary authorities, failing to see its great potential, condemned it as requiring too much ammunition ever to be practical.
Captain D. R. Williams of the Confederate Army invented a mechanical gun that was also used during the Civil War. This weapon, a 1-pounder with a bore of 1.57 inches and a 4-foot barrel, was mounted on a mountain howitzer-style horse-drawn limber. This weapon was really a cross between a machine gun and a light repeating cannon. The firing mechanism was operated by a hand crank located on the right side. The weapon used a self-consuming paper cartridge and was capable of 65 shots per minute. It was fairly reliable but had a tendency to overheat when fired for extended periods. The Williams gun was first employed on 3 May 1862 at the Battle of Seven Pines in Virginia. Some historians maintain that this was the first machine gun to be used in battle, but weapons historian Ian V. Hogg disputes this claim, arguing that the Williams gun cannot be classed as a true machine gun, since it was necessary to put each round into the feedway by hand. The Williams, according to Hogg, “was simply a quick-firing breech-loader, operated by a hand crank.” Nevertheless, these weapons were used by the Confederacy for the rest of the Civil War with some success.
Another American, General O. Vandenberg, also invented a new weapon, a volley gun designed for “projecting a group or cluster of shot.” This weapon employed 85 to 451 barrels, depending on the size of the projectile for which it was designed. Each barrel was loaded with a bullet and then the breech was closed. When the operator manipulated a lever, measured charges of powder were dropped simultaneously into each chamber. The method of ignition was percussion: a centrally located charge ignited the whole volley simultaneously. With so many barrels, the weapon was extremely heavy. Vandenberg built the first guns in England and tried to market them there. The British showed some interest in it for use aboard ships but believed that it had little potential as a land weapon due to its weight. Vandenberg, at the outbreak of the Civil War, made many attempts to sell the weapon to the U. S. government. He even gave three weapons to the secretary of war for testing. After very comprehensive field trials, it was found that it took nine hours for one man to clean the bore and chambers of the weapon adequately after firing. This maintenance problem and the weight issue doomed the weapon, and it was deemed unacceptable for Union service. Several of these guns were used by Confederate forces, but they were stamped with the name of the British manu facturing company, Robinson and Cottam. There is a record of one being used in the defense of Petersburg, Virginia.
The Gatling Gun
The most famous and successful of the mechanical machine guns was invented by Richard Jordan Gatling. Rather than practice medicine after completing medical school, Gatling spent his life inventing things, including a steam plow, a mechanical rice planter, and a hemp breaker. However, it was in the area of repeating arms that Gatling made his name. In 1861, taking advantage of the progress that had been made in machine tooling, he combined the best principles of the Ager and Ripley guns (although he denied that he had been influenced by either weapon), overcoming their more objectionable features. Because of his successful designs, Gatling has generally been credited with being the progenitor of the modern mechanical machine gun.
Gatling was fully aware of the problems with heat buildup from multiple explosions in a rapidly firing weapon. To overcome this, he designed the weapon with six barrels that would be fired in turn. This ensured that with a total potential fire rate of 600 rounds per minute, each barrel would only fire 100, allowing them to cool down.
The first Gatling gun, patented in November 1862, consisted of six barrels mounted around a central axis in a revolving frame with a hopper-shaped steel container similar to the Ager. The barrels were cranked by hand. The weapon used small steel cylinders that contained a percussion cap on the end, the bullet, and paper cartridges for the charge. It was loaded by placing the steel cylinders into the hopper above the gun, which fed the rounds into the breech by gravity. As the handle was turned, the six barrels and the breech mechanism revolve, each barrel having a bolt and a firing pin controlled by a shaped groove in the casing around the breech. As the breech revolved, the bolts were opened and closed and the firing pin released from the action of studs running in the groove. When any barrel was at the topmost point of revolution, the breech bolt was fully open and as it passed beneath the hopper a loaded cylinder was dropped into the feeder. As the barrel continued to revolve, the bolt was closed, leaving the firing pin cocked; as the barrel revolved to the bottommost point, the firing pin was released and the barrel fired. Further revolution caused the bolt to open and the empty case to be ejected, just in time for the barrel to reach the top again with the bolt open, ready to collect its next cartridge and casing.
Gatling made arrangements for six weapons to be manufactured for an official test by the Union Army. Unfortunately, the factory in which the guns were being made was destroyed by fire, and the guns and all his drawings were lost. The inventor was not deterred, however, and he was able to raise enough money to manufacture 12 new guns. This time he did away with the metal cylinders, using rim-fire cartridges instead. This made the newer weapon easier to load and more reliable. Gatling boasted that the gun could be fired at the rate of 200 shots per minute.
Despite Gatling’s claims, which were to be borne out by subsequent events, the Union Army failed to adopt the gun for two reasons. First, the army’s chief of ordnance, Colonel John W. Ripley (later brigadier general), strongly resisted any move away from standard-issue weapons. The other reason was suspicion that Gatling’s sympathies lay with the South. Although he had located his factory in Cincinnati, Ohio, Gatling had been born in North Carolina, which had joined the Confederacy. Therefore, to many among the Union leadership, his politics and sympathies were suspect. Gatling even appealed directly to President Lincoln, pointing out that his deadly invention was “providential, to be used as a means in crushing the rebellion.” Despite Gatling’s offer to help the North win the war, many in the Union high command felt there was something odd about a Southerner offering a new gun to the Union and thus refused to even consider Gatling’s invention. The only use of the Gatling gun during the Civil War occurred when General Benjamin F. Butler of Massachusetts personally purchased 12 guns for $1,000 each and later put them to good use against Confederate troops besieged at Petersburg, Virginia.
In 1864, Gatling completely redesigned the gun so that each barrel was formed with its own chamber, thus doing away with the separate cylinder and its attendant gas-leak problem. The gun now fed center-fire cartridges from a magazine on top. The cartridges were gradually fed into the chamber by cams as the barrels revolved, then fired at the bottom position, and were extracted and ejected during the upward movement. As the barrel reached the top it was empty and ready to take in the next round. The great advantage of this system was that it divided the mechanical work among six barrels so that all the machinery operated at a sensible speed. By this time, Gatling had refined the gun’s design considerably, increasing the rate of fire to 300 rounds per minute and improving reliability.
Gatling intensified efforts to sell the gun to the U. S. government. He published a publicity broadsheet in 1865 that informed the world that his gun bore “the same relationship to other firearms that McCormack’s Reaper does to the sickle, or the sewing machine to the common needle. It will no doubt be the means of producing a great revolution in the art of warfare from the fact that a few men can perform the work of a regiment.” At Gatling’s urging, the U. S. Army finally agreed later that year to conduct a test. Pleased with the results, the Army formally adopted the Gatling gun in 1866, ordering 50 of 1-inch caliber (with six barrels) and 50 of 0.50-inch caliber (with 10 barrels). Gatling entered a contract with Colt’s Patent Fire Arms Company of Hartford, Connecticut, to manufacture the guns for delivery in 1867. Gatling was so pleased with this arrangement that for as long as the U. S. government used the Gatling gun, it was manufactured by Colt.
Even though the U. S. Army had adopted the Gatling gun, there were two schools of thought among military men, both in the United States and elsewhere, about the best way to use it. One believed they should be used as artillery fire support; the other advocated its use for defending bridges and for street defense. Neither side recognized its true potential was as an infantry support weapon. This would be a recurring theme within the world’s armies regarding the Gatling gun and subsequent machine guns, as doctrine and tactics failed to keep pace with technological advances.
With the Civil War over and the arms embargo enacted during the war lifted, Gatling and the Colt’s Patent Fire Arms Company began marketing the weapon overseas, aggressively entering arms competitions throughout Europe. In each case, when a properly designed cartridge was used, the Gatling gun out-shot every competing design. In Great Britain, some military leaders had recommended the adoption of the machine gun, but cost considerations led Parliament to refuse to appropriate funding to develop such weapons. Nevertheless, the British Army tested Gatling’s weapon at Woolwich in 1870 in competition with the Montigny Mitrailleuse, a 12- pounder breechloader firing shrapnel, a 9-pounder muzzleloader firing shrapnel, six soldiers firing Martini-Henry rifles, and six soldiers firing Snider rifles. The Gatling fired 492 pounds of ammunition and obtained 2,803 hits on various targets; the Montigny 472 pounds for 708 hits; the 12-pounder 1,232 for 2,286 hits; and the 9-pounder 1,013 pounds for 2,207 hits. The British were impressed with the Gatling’s accuracy, its economy, and the fact that in timed fire it got off 1,925 rounds in 2.5 minutes. The test went so well that the British adopted the Gatling in caliber .42 for the Army and caliber .65 for the Royal Navy.
Great Britain became one of the first countries not only to recognize the utility of the Gatling gun but also to put it into action. After some initial difficulties with the new weapon during the Ashanti campaign of 1873 in the territory that is now Ghana, West Africa, the British Army wholeheartedly endorsed it. Events elsewhere in Africa contributed toward the acceptance of the Gatling gun. In South Africa on 22-23 January 1879, the British had suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Zulus under Cetshwayo at Isandlwana. In retribution for this defeat, a force of 4,000 infantrymen and 1,000 cavalry under the command of Lord Chelmsford set out to punish the Zulus. On July 4, the British, armed with two Gatling guns, engaged the Zulu warriors at Ulundi. The Gatlings wrought havoc among the Zulus, who had never gone up against such devastating fire. When the battle was over, more than 1,500 Zulus lay dead, most due to fire from the Gatlings. From then on the Gatling gun became a mainstay of British expeditionary forces in places like Egypt and the Sudan. Modern-day historian Robert L. O’Connell maintains that the Gatling and subsequently the Maxim machine gun were so popular with British colonial forces because “from an imperialist standpoint, the machine gun was nearly the perfect laborsaving device, enabling tiny forces of whites to mow down multitudes of brave but thoroughly outgunned native warriors.”
Over the next few years, most major armies in Europe, as well as those in Egypt, China, and much of South America, purchased Gatling’s weapon. The Russian government, preparing for war with Turkey, ordered 400 Gatlings. A Russian general was sent to the United States to oversee their manufacture and inspect the units before acceptance and shipping. With considerable cunning, he replaced the original Gatling nameplates with his own before the guns were shipped to Russia. Not surprisingly, some Russians claimed that Gatling had stolen important elements of the Gorloff model, which was called the Russian Mitrailleuse.
Despite Russian claims of originality, the Gatling was popular and saw use in many theaters. The inventor continued to work for 30 years on improvements and conducted many exhibitions throughout Europe and South America. Various models of varying calibers were introduced. By 1876, a five-barreled caliber .45 model was firing 700 rounds per minute and even up to 1,000 rounds in a short burst. By the mid-1880s, the armed forces of almost every nation in the world included Gatling guns among their inventories.
The Gatling was an effective design and remained in use until technology evolved such that a single barrel could be manufactured to withstand the heat and wear of multiple firings. After that advance, the Gatling disappeared. Before then, however, the Gatling saw long war service in countries, primarily as a instrument of colonialism, whereby small numbers of European soldiers could defeat large masses of native troops in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere.
Despite the increased firepower of the Gatling, it had some limitations technically and tactically. The multiple barrels prevented excess heat buildup, but they were also a liability due to their weight. The weapon was best used in defensive situations because it was too heavy and unwieldy to use on the attack. For that reason, Gatlings were usually relegated to the artillery to be used in batteries, rather than distributed to infantry and cavalry units. There were a few instances where this was not the case. The Americans first used the Gatling against a foreign enemy during the Spanish-American War in 1898. Under the leadership of Captain John H. “Gatling Gun” Parker, a Gatling unit was organized and employed against the Spaniards at Santiago, Cuba. Parker took it upon himself to push the guns, mounted on carriages, forward on the flanks of the attacking force, keeping up with the advancing infantry and effectively clearing a path for them. This was the first use of the machine gun for mobile fire support in offensive combat. Parker quickly became one of the pioneers in the development of a tactical doctrine built around the use of the machine gun in support of the infantry.
The Gatling gun and its inventor were way ahead of their times. It was the only weapon in history to progress from black powder to smokeless powder, from hand power to fully automatic, and eventually to an electric-drive system that allowed 3,000 rounds per minute. All this was accomplished without any change to its basic operating principle before being abandoned as obsolete in 1911. It was also a design that would have applications in the modern era.
This picture taken and released on July 4, 2017 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un inspecting the test-fire of the intercontinental ballistic missile Hwasong-14.
The North Korean ballistic missile program traces its start back to the 1980s with the acquisition of Soviet-era Scud technology. At present, no dedicated ASAT program exists separate from the country’s ballistic missile programs. North Korean systems comprise two primary components: rapidly maturing ground-launched ballistic missile capabilities and the development of some radar systems.
North Korea has multiple ballistic missiles systems, including those in the intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) and ICBM class, which could possibly be used as the basis for future DA-ASAT capabilities. The first is the Pukguksong family of IRBMs, which include the KN- 11 (Pukkuksong-1) and the KN-15 (Pukkuksong-2). The KN-11 is a two-stage solid-fuel SLBM with a purported range of 500-2,500 km, while the KN-15 is the land based variant. North Korea conducted a successful cold launched test of the KN-15 in May 2017.
The Hwasong-10 (Musudan) is an IRBM reportedly modeled off of the Soviet R-27/SS-N-6 missile system. The system is liquid-fueled with a maximum range of 3,500 km. The Musudan has a spotty testing record, but the sixth test of the system reportedly was a success.
The Hwasong-12 (KN-17) is a newer ballistic missile, tested May 14, 2017, August 28, 2017, and September 14, 2017, using liquid propellant and a high-thrust engine and mounted on a TEL. An additional, possibly ICBM-relevant flight test, using a similar engine to the KN-17, was conducted in March. This was possibly just a larger variant of the existing Hwasong-10 IRBM, but the test indicates the ability to comfortably overshoot Guam and reach lower satellite orbital altitudes. The Hwasong-12 is presumed to be a one-stage missile with a range of 3,700-4,500 km.
Kim Jong Un announced in the annual 2017 New Year’s Address that the country was nearly ready to flight- test an ICBM. There have since been two ICBM tests in 2017 of a relatively new system, the Hwasong-14. North Korea tested the Hwasong-14 (KN-20) on July 4, 2017, and July 28, 2017, using a lofted trajectory. Several estimates place the range around 10,000 km, placing American cities and targets in space above LEO potentially at risk. The Hwasong-14 is a two-stage liquid fuel design.
The Hwasong-15 (KN-22) was launched for the first time on November 29, 2017, when this liquid-fueled ICBM flew on a lofted trajectory to an altitude of 4,500 km. If flown on a standard trajectory, it could have a feasible reach of 13,000 km, which, according to David Wright of the Union of Concerned Scientists, “is significantly longer than North Korea’s previous long-range tests.” According to North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), this flight test was of “an intercontinental ballistic rocket tipped with super-large heavy warhead” which could reach “the whole mainland of the U. S.”
North Korea has other presumed ICBM-range systems that have not yet been flight-tested or deployed. The first is the Hwasong-13 (KN-08), a three-stage roadmobile ICBM first seen in the 2012 military parade, and a variant of this missile known as the KN-14, shortened to two stages. These are alleged road-mobile ICBMs displayed in past military parades but have not yet been flight-tested or deployed.
North Korea’s only known operational satellite launch vehicle is the Unha-3. It appears to derive design components from the Taepodong-2, which was originally believed by U. S. intelligence to be a possible ICBM. Although operational, the reliability of the Unha-3 is not assured. The TD-2 failed in several tests throughout the 2000s, raising some questions regarding both its relationship to the Unha-3 and the latter’s reliability. The first attempt to use the Unha-3 to launch the Kwangmyongsong 3 satellite in April 2012 resulted in failure, but in December 2012 the Unha-3 successfully placed the first North Korean satellite (Kwangmyongsong 3-2) in orbit. The Unha-3 was used to put the second satellite (Kwangmyongsong 4) into orbit in 2016. Commercial imagery in March 2019 of North Korea’s Sohae Satellite Launching Station indicated that it may have returned to normal operations.
The Unha-3 is known to be a multi-stage rocket with liquid propellant requiring conventional launch pad and extensive visible preparations. The first stage consists of four Nodong engines, making it too large for mobile use.
Aside from the active ballistic missile and SLV programs, North Korea also has active solid motor and liquid fuel programs and uses both in active missile systems and in development tests. Work is underway on the creation of more advanced rocket engines. This has been evidenced in attempts to create a compact SLBM with two Hwasong-10 engines, similar to that in the Soviet R-27 SLBM, in a single stage, and known now as the March-18 engine after testing at the Sohae Satellite Launch Center. The March-18 engine in particular is intended as a “high-thrust engine [to] help consolidate the scientific and technological foundation to match the world-level satellite delivery capability in the field of outer space development.”
Some have speculated that North Korea could be able to combine a ballistic missile and a nuclear warhead into an EMP weapon, targeted against either U. S. satellites or domestic infrastructure. However, it seems unlikely at this point that North Korea would dedicate one of its limited nuclear warheads to an unproven task. Additionally, it is unknown how large of a yield from a nuclear warhead is necessary to affect the U. S. electrical grid. Although North Korea likely has demonstrated a thermonuclear capability as of March 2018, the country’s nuclear warheads do not approach the megaton range yield that would likely be necessary. Additionally, North Korea’s ICBM force, while growing in technical sophistication and performance, is not currently capable of carrying such a heavy warhead. Historical nuclear tests, such as the U. S. Starfish Prime test in 1962, are known to have generated effects that damaged or destroyed satellites in orbit at the time. However, it would be difficult to predict the ability of creating such effects against military satellites, particularly since many U. S. military satellites are hardened against radiation and EMP effects.
Co-Orbital ASAT Technologies
North Korea currently possess a very rudimentary satellite development and command and control capability, but they have not demonstrated any of the rendezvous and proximity operations or active guidance capabilities necessary for a co-orbital satellite capability.
There are currently six objects in orbit as a result of two North Korean space launches. Two of these objects are satellites. The first successful launch of a satellite into orbit occurred in December 2012 from the Sohae Satellite Launching Station. Initial reports at the time suggested that the satellite, along with a third-stage rocket body and two small pieces of associated debris, were placed into orbit, but that the satellite was “spinning out of control” and there were no ultra-high frequency (UHF) radio signals detected from the satellite. This suggest the satellite was either not under any stabilization or was not functional after deployment. However, the satellite was still following a relatively predictable orbital trajectory and did not pose a collision threat to other space objects.
North Korea launched a second satellite in February 2016, named Kwangmyongsong-4. Both the rocket body and the satellite (pictured below) entered into a stable orbit. As with the 2012 satellite, this satellite was purported to be for earth observation purposes. The 2016 version reportedly weighed almost twice as much as the 2012 satellite, at around 200 kg. The satellites and associated objects are in a normal and predictable orbit and do not pose a significant collision threat to other space objects.
Neither of the two Kwangmyongsong satellites is considered to be operational. Both are thought to have failed soon after launch. This is evidenced by the lack of detected signals and instability of the platforms. Kwangmyongsong 3-2 was reported to be tumbling on December 17, 2012, five days after launch, and Kwangmyongsong 4 was reported to be tumbling as early as February 9, 2016, only three days after launch. The satellites can be determined to be tumbling by space tracking radars systems, or even by amateur astronomers observing periodic variations of the intensity of the light reflected from the sun as the objects pass over observers near local dawn and dusk.
Although both satellites were announced as remote sensing systems, it is doubtful if they conducted much sensor activity due to their early failures. The North Korean satellite expertise is considered to be rudimentary, with the payloads likely being capable of only producing low resolution imagery at best, and it is doubtful if either of the two satellites would have been militarily useful, even had they not failed prematurely.
There is no indication that the Kwangmyongsong series of satellites had any counterspace capability nor that there is any indication of intent, on the part of North Korea, to attempt to develop such a capability. Neither of the satellites conducted orbital maneuvers. Any serious attempt at orbital counterspace would require a sophistication that is far beyond the capacity of North Korea for the foreseeable future.
On numerous occasions, North Korea has demonstrated the capability to interfere with civilian GPS navigation used by passenger aircraft, automobile, and ship systems in the vicinity of the South-North border and nearby coastal areas. This type of interference (downlink jamming) targets GPS receivers within range of the source of the jamming signal but has no impact on the GPS satellites themselves nor the service provided to users outside the range of the jammers. The area affected will depend on the power emitted by the jammer and the local topography. In the case of the reported North Korean incidents, the range was estimated to be several tens of km.
According to unnamed U. S. officials, this type of jamming would not affect U. S. military members who use the military GPS signals. The GPS interference incidents along the South-North border appear to have been deliberately targeting civilian receivers, presumably as part of a North Korean political strategy or tactic. Some events have coincided with joint South Korea – U. S. military exercises. North Korea could also be developing jammers that are effective against the military GPS signals, but to date there is no public evidence of such development, testing, or use.
There is no public information indicating North Korea has the ability to jam satellite communications. North Korea does routinely jam terrestrial broadcasts from foreign sources, such as the BBC, Voice of America, Radio Free Asia and South Korea’s KBS, to prevent their citizens from listening, but there is no public information on the DPRK’s capabilities to jam satellite broadcasts. It is assessed that uplink jamming of communication satellites have not, or rarely, occurred since that would likely have been reported by the targeted satellite operators. Downlink jamming, which affects only the receivers in a local area, may be occurring within North Korea, but there is no information available on that.
Space Situational Awareness
There is little publicly available information about North Korea’s SSA capabilities. North Korea does have a General Satellite Control Building, which is its headquarters for its National Aerospace Development Administration (NADA), and the facility from which it tracks and monitors its own satellite launches. Since May 2017, imagery has detected construction on an adjacent facility (which most likely is intended to be a space environment test center and most likely does not have SSA capabilities). North Korea has been reported to have Iranian phased array radars as part of its air defense network; their capabilities are unknown.
Counterspace Policy, Doctrine, and Organization
As of yet, there is no clear doctrine for counterspace weapons in the DPRK. In fact, there is a curious absence of discussion on counterspace weapons in the DPRK state media. Surveying the archives since 2010 does not reveal a single mention of ASAT or counterspace. Satellites and space are only mentioned in the context of peaceful programs in the DPRK parlance.
Potential Military Utility
North Korea likely possess very limited military counterspace capabilities. Its lack of Space Situational Awareness (SSA) capabilities, Hit-to-Kill (HTK), and rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO) capabilities and very limited space launch capabilities very likely limits it to broad area attacks, such as space-based Nuclear Detonation (NUDET) Detection Systems in low earth orbit (LEO) that could damage large numbers of satellites over long periods of time. Such an attack would have very limited military utility in a conflict.
A definitive historical account of the origins of the Russian A-bomb has never been published, but by consulting various sources a brief account can be gleaned. Only a summary can be provided here.
Research into nuclear physics had gone on in the Soviet Union as far back as the 1920s, and some scientists such as Igor Kurchatov had at the beginning of the Second World War recognized the atom’s potential military application and had recommended funding for laboratory work. The war prevented such research from taking place, but when Josef Stalin heard the Americans had driven down that road, he decided Russia should follow suit. Stalin had heard from his spies working in key American labs that the research they were engaged in was ultimately to be used in an atomic weapon. But it was really only the United States government’s test and only after two bombs were dropped on Japan in the summer of 1945 that the Russians began seriously focusing on their own weapons. The secrets passed onto Moscow from those American individuals greatly helped the Russians in their endeavour, and in August 1949, years earlier than the Americans had predicted, they detonated their first bomb.
The next step in Soviet weapons development was to find ways to deliver those bombs. Air dropping was the first mode of delivery, but since the bombers the Soviet air force then possessed had a limited range, other methods were contemplated. Research on rocket technology had progressed well, thanks mainly to captured German scientists and information, and tests were made with missiles that carried conventional warheads. By the 1950s, Soviet rocket technology had so advanced that by 1957, it succeeded in placing a Sputnik satellite into space. At the same time, rockets were being examined as nuclear delivery platforms, and more than a full year before Sputnik said ‘hello’ to the world, the first ballistic missile regiments were deployed. Within a few years, the Soviet Union’s first operational rocket, the R-5M, would be supplemented with the R-7, the R-12 and the R-14. The rockets then became so plentiful Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev claimed they were coming out of the factories like sausages.
By the late 1950s, Soviet missile production was running at full speed. Rockets were being deployed on launch pads in bases throughout Russia. The missiles represented such an important element of the Soviet Union’s warfighting machine that some generals thought a new and separate branch of the armed forces should be created specifically for them. At first, all rocket units belonged to the artillery corps, but eventually some were assigned to Long-Range Aviation forces and others to the Soviet Supreme High Command. On 17 December 1959, however, history would be made and the new Strategic Rocket Forces (RVSN) were born. It would soon become a military service on a par with the army, air force, air defence service and navy.
The RVSN would be Russia’s first line of action against the West, and in consequence it recruited the best and the brightest among Russian conscripts. Throughout its history, it would have the best facilities, the best equipment and the smartest and most loyal officers. The officers and men were treated so well that in return, Moscow expected utmost dedication from them. To expect anything less, in the Kremlin’s mind, would have invited disaster.
The RVSN’s organizational structure follows a pattern very similar to that of the USAF. In the United States, numbered ‘Air Forces’ consist of Wings and Wings are made up of Squadrons. The latter are further divided into Flights. Since the Strategic Rocket Forces were an outgrowth of the artillery corps, it adopted the army structure of numbered Armies, Divisions and Regiments. The latter are composed of Battalions where each consist of a single launcher. Armies and Divisions have their own primary underground headquarters, and the Armies have apparently also a secondary command post that is airmobile. Regimental headquarters are located in launch tubes on remote properties. The missiles are either silo-based or rail or road-mobile. Following the standard Soviet practice, the various units are identified by both ordinal and five-digit numbers. Some units use the prefix ‘Guards’ to indicate a form of eliteness. Divisions are normally numbered, although some carry names. The RVSN has its own test and support sites such as the No. 4 Central Research Institute at Bolshevo in the suburbs of Moscow, and the No. 25 Central Military Clinical Hospital at Odintsovo, again outside Moscow. Training of staff takes place at military engineering institutes at Perm, Rostov-on-Don, Krasnodar, Serpukhov and at the Peter the Great Military Academy in Moscow.
In 1985, the RVSN consisted of the following six Armies:
Headquarters Missile Army Location
Vladimir 27th Russia
Orenburg 31st Russia
Omsk 33rd Russia
Vinnitsa 43rd Ukraine
Smolensk 50th Belarus
Chita 53rd Russia
It then had 1,398 missiles in service, 6,840 warheads and counted 415,000 men and women on its payroll. Today, however, only the first three armies remain, and its population is only a fraction of what it used to be. In 2008, the RVSN had 430 ICBMs in service.
Ultimate use of nuclear weapons is decided upon by a very small number of individuals: the President, the Minister of Defence and the Chief of the General Staff (the Nachalnyk Generalnovo Shtaba or the NGS). All three have access to a nuclear football, called Cheget or more colloquially chemodanchik, that is nearby at all times in the hands of an officer from the General Staff’s 9th Directorate. According to Peter Pry in his book War Scare, only one person, the President, needs to issue the order. He does not need, ‘in all likelihood’, the consent of the other two, although he would certainly consult with them. If the President was unavailable or dead, the Minister of Defence would likely assume command, and if the Minister was incapacitated, he would probably be replaced by the NGS. This line of succession seems to confirm that only one person needs to issue the go signal from the Cheget.
The Russian command and control system is predicated on the concept of ‘launch on warning’, which states that nuclear forces should act only when there are definite indications that an attack is under way. Orders to launch can be passed through the footballs (or from some of the underground command posts around Moscow) via a special communications network called Kavkaz, to the General Staff’s and to the military services’ command centres. At the General Staff’s bunker, the orders are transmitted via the Signal-A multifaceted communications system to the RVSN main staff, then to Armies, Divisions and Regiments. Here, they are received by special equipment called Baksan. The orders are then transmitted to the launchers by launch crews. At the same time, missile unlock codes (which are nicknamed ‘goschislo’) and authorization codes are passed onto the regimental command posts. One key feature present in the Russian command and control system not present in the American system is the ability of the Russian high command to bypass intermediate stages using a radio system called V’yuga and transmit orders to fire directly to launch control centres. As Bruce Blair put in in his book The Logic of Accidental Nuclear War, the General Staff is not only the band leader but can also play the instruments.
Before the missileers shoot their loads, several steps must take place throughout the command and control system. First, a preliminary command must be sent from Moscow. The command is really generated from two parts, one that originates from the General Staff and the other from the RVSN main staff, and is then validated, combined and transmitted down the chain of command. This order can only be created after enemy launches have been detected by at least two types of sensors and only after the President has so decided. Once this order is received at the regimental Launch Control Centres, launch consoles are activated. Next, a permission command is generated by the same three individuals (the President, Minister of Defence and the NGS) and transmitted to the Commander-in-Chief of the RVSN. Its only role is to provide legality to the launch order. Finally, a direct command is generated in two parts, one from the General Staff and the other from RVSN Headquarters. The command is later combined and again sent down the chain of command. Once received by Baksan equipment at the LCCs, it is authenticated by launch crews. The same crews then check certain computer symbols against a list kept in their safe, choose their targets (probably from a coded list) and set launch times. The command also allows any missile blocking device to be disabled. It then only remains to turn the two keys. Some Russian experts estimate that launch can take place within twenty-one minutes from the time of initial missile detection. Since an American ICBM takes thirty minutes to reach Russia, this would still give a nine minute window of reaction time. On the other hand, this would prove of little comfort to Russian forces if SLBMs were fired from American or British submarines from the Barents or Mediterranean Sea.
Individual missiles contain the target co-ordinates in the memory of their re-entry vehicles. The co-ordinates are chosen from a set listed in the ‘Plan of Operations of the Strategic Rocket Forces’, a document that parallels the American SIOP. In the 1990s, the two superpowers agreed to de-target their missiles as a gesture of goodwill, but this is only a symbolic move as the rockets can be reprogrammed within minutes thanks to computerization. During an attack, some writers have speculated that silo-based missiles would be fired first because of their susceptibility to a first strike, and that mobile missiles, which can relocate to virtually any point, would be used in a retaliatory assault.
The command and control system in Russia has a feature that guarantees near-total reliability. Should the various communications systems be rendered inoperable, or should the human decision triad described above be unavailable, the RVSN would still be able to launch its missiles. In the early 1970s, a decision was made by Moscow to develop a system that would allow the launch of missiles if most of the human input was erased. In 1974, work began on a system that would see special UHF radio-equipped rockets take off if certain conditions were satisfied and that would automatically transmit pre-recorded voice commands to launching crews. Other missiles would then fire after a pre-set time interval. Called Perimetr, this system was implemented to give Russian leaders an insurance policy against decapitation. This ‘Doomsday Machine’, as it is often called in the Western press, was declared operational in 1985. It is also referred to as ‘Dead Hand’.
The Perimetr system operates in three stages. First, once duty officers located in a special underground radio command post receive the proper order, they must turn the system on. Second, they must determine if communications are still available with the Supreme High Command (e.g. the President). If they are not, they are to assume the leadership no longer exists. Third, the officers are to determine if any detonations have taken place on Russian soil. If all three conditions are met, they are to load a message into the radio warhead and launch the rockets, one from each end of the country. Over the next fifteen minutes, these rockets will broadcast the order to fire to the launch crews. There is apparently no way to stop the Perimetr rockets, which means the responsible officers must be sure of themselves before launching them.
Automated systems notwithstanding, the value of human input in the Russian command and control system was clearly demonstrated in 1983. On 25 September of that year, Lieutenant-Colonel Stanislas Petrov was working as a missile warning officer in one of the nation’s early warning facilities, called Serpukhov-15, south of Moscow. The facility received inputs from a series of detection satellites flying high over the planet. At 12.15am on the 26th, one of the warning panels in the control centre flashed the word ‘launch’. It had originated from the United States.
This had never happened before to Petrov. A launch from the US required the Colonel to contact higher authorities and brace for the worst. He and others began to wonder if the United States was using the NATO exercise Able Archer which was then in process as an excuse for a missile attack. Petrov’s staff began to worry and looked to him for guidance. Another indicator panel in the room showed ‘high reliability’. The electronic map in front that showed all the American missile bases had one lamp turned on showing from which base the missile had come from. Petrov’s duty was to alert the Kremlin and the General Staff, but he held off until he could confirm the systems were working properly and that the launch was real. He knew the system was not perfect, and he began to have doubts when the map showed only one missile launch and when the optical telescopes could not confirm that launch. Petrov’s instincts told him it was a false alarm, and said so to his staff. Soon, however, the system showed five more missiles on the way. Again, knowing the system was full of glitches, he assumed it was giving false readings. Petrov knew that if the United States was to attack, it would do so with hundreds of missiles, not just five, so this knowledge served to reinforce his suspicion. He thus refused to sound the alarm, and the world was spared from a potential Armageddon.
One would think that Soviet generals would have thanked Petrov for using his judgment. Not so. A few hours after the event, senior Army officers dropped in not to congratulate him, but to berate him for not passing on the warnings. Had he done so, however, who knows what actions would have been taken by the leadership? For his actions, Petrov was soon transferred to less sensitive duties, and within a year, he would be gone from the military. Eventually, it would be learned that the warnings were generated from the sun’s reflection from the clouds.
When it comes to Russian targeting policy, very little has been revealed about it. What has been divulged has often been based on educated guesswork, limited military writings and, on rare occasions, on information from defectors. What is known is that during the Cold War, the Soviets’ targeting plan called for the destruction of every single enemy nuclear device, preferably in one massive sweep. The most important targets were bomber airfields, submarine bases, nuclear weapons depots and strategic command and control centres. Secondary targets included radar stations and tactical air and missile bases. Other less important aimpoints would have been large army bases, conventional munitions stores and fuel depots. Civilian sites such as political centres and economic facilities (such as power stations and petroleum stockpiles) would also have been wiped out. Early Russian missiles were not very accurate, so they were likely reserved for large facilities such as air and naval bases, although when the Americans began building missile-launching facilities in the 1960s, the rockets’ quick reaction time meant they too would have to be knocked out in the first wave. To ensure their destruction, some installations, such as ammunition depots (of which there were many in West Germany), could have required up to eighteen bombs to destroy because of their hardened igloos. Russia therefore had a clear incentive to build up its arsenal and to increase the accuracy of its weapons.
While it was always clear that the United States and Canada were prime targets for the Strategic Rocket Forces, some have wondered how Western Europe would have fared. Some academics thought that part of the continent might have been spared the use of strategic weapons during an all-out attack for a number of reasons. First, if the Soviet Union’s goal was annexation, they obviously would not want to occupy a smouldering radioactive ruin. Second, more than likely the Russians would have wanted to take over heavy industries for their own use, as they did with Germany after the Second World War. (This would have also applied to Japan.) Third, if the Russians had indeed attacked with ICBMs, normal west-to-east wind patterns and the resultant radioactive clouds would have meant that they themselves would have been contaminated. For these reasons, theorists believe the Soviets would have restricted their attacks to mostly military targets using tactical weapons only.
When it comes to actual missiles, Russia has developed a much larger array than the United States. Victor Suvorov in his book Inside the Soviet Army claims that one of the reasons was that the Soviet Union was not capable of manufacturing a large quantity of rockets because of the dearth of key components; it was therefore forced to produce limited runs. Whereas the United States had only two ICBMs deployed in 1975–the Minuteman and the Titan II–the RVSN had nine models. The larger number of types was not necessarily a disadvantage, though, since one could make up for the shortcomings of another.
The year 1975 also saw three new missiles come off the assembly line; the UR-100, R-36M and the UR-100N. The UR-100N, known in the West as the SS-19, is described here as an example.
The UR-100N was a two-stage UDMH-fueled ICBM with a range of 10,000km. It was designed by the OKB-52 development facility at Reutov outside Moscow and built in two models: the first carried six independent warheads of 550 kiloton yield each and the second, a single 5 megaton re-entry vehicle. The Russians claim it had a circular error of probability (or impact accuracy level) of 350m, but in his book Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces Podvig claims it is 920m, which is still better than older ICBMs. The UR-100N was a leader in fourth-generation missiles since it incorporated new microprocessor technology and improved launch techniques. Some thought that the heavy warhead model was aimed at American missile silos, until it was realized too few were produced and that their high yield made them more suitable for deeper targets such as Mount Weather. Both models were manufactured at the Krunichev machine plant outside Moscow and fitted into modified SS-11 silos, such as at Pervomaysk, Ukraine, or into new silos such as at Tatishchevo. The UR-100N was also eventually put in Derazhnaya, Ukraine, and Kozelsk, Russia. When hints of the missile first appeared in the 1970s, Jane’s Weapons Systems asserted it was hot-launched–launched from within its silo–while the US Department of Defense claimed it was raised first, then fired, or cold-launched. As it turned out, Jane’s was right. The UR-100N was replaced with the UR-100NU in the 1980s due to its launch instability.
The pattern of missile deployment in the Soviet Union seems to have paralleled, up to a point, American patterns. The rockets were either placed in earth-covered bunkers, kept on launching pads or installed in groups of silos, but later models were placed in individual silos. One of the early ICBMs, the R-7, was kept on launching pads and supported by four masts, while some of the R-12Us were put in Dvina complexes that consisted of four silos. One variant of the R-14U was placed in a Chusovaya complex of three silos located less than 100m apart, while the R-16U was deployed in threes in a Sheksna-V complex of three silos forming a straight line 60m from each other. All these complexes included an underground command post. Newer missiles, such as the UR-100 and the RT-2, were placed in individual silos, and their LCCs were located separately.
Russian engineers would end up devising unique ways to install and launch a missile. The R-16U, for example, was placed in a silo in a tube that could be rotated to align the missile’s guidance system. The UR-100 was delivered to the launch facility in a sealed container that was simply lowered in a silo and fastened. In the case of the UR-100U, the missile and its tube were suspended from the top and stabilized at the bottom. Unlike American missiles, some Russian missiles are launched first by ejection from the tube by forced gas, followed by ignition of their motors once outside.
Where launch facilities are concerned, from satellite photos these appear simple. They are often located in wooded areas far from major highways. The properties are large and clear of nearby trees. They include a small number of buildings–one to house guards–and a square landing pad nearby for helicopters. The silo hatches are often circular-shaped and open on a hinge, unlike American silo hatches which travel horizontally on rails. The facilities are connected to their control centres by underground cable. They can be spotted relatively easily on the Internet; two of the facilities associated with the Tatishchevo base can be seen west of Saratov near Petrovo and Bolshaya Ivanovka respectively.
To say that security arrangements at Russian missile bases are tighter than in the US is an understatement. The precautions taken against enemy intrusion are more than adequate and leave practically nothing to chance, as the following shows.
Both launch and control sites are ringed with three or four coils of barbed wire, an electrified fence and in the internal perimeter POMZ-2 anti-personnel and MON-type directional mines. The first coil of wire is 200m to 300m from the silo giving guards much response time and latitude for action. The fence normally carries 800V but this can be increased to 1,600V when conditions require. In between the coils of wire, another fence responds to large objects through a change in capacitance, and the approximate point of disturbance is registered on the guards’ security control panel. The entire site is kept clear of obstructions and mowed to give the greatest possible field of fire.
Inside the perimeter of a launch site, the only structure seen is a bunker for the guards. As stated above, the bunker houses intrusion detection equipment that is continuously monitored. The guards are armed with submachine guns, night vision goggles, floodlights, radios and loudspeakers. The bunkers are topped with either armoured turrets or concrete heads with small arms slits. The land mines can either detonate when tripped or be remotely activated from this position. The launch sites also include an antenna, the main role of which is to receive emergency war orders. The silos are very survivable since they can reportedly withstand thousands of pounds of overpressure.
A command post consists of much more. The property is divided into two parts where the first contains a number of buildings such as the guards’ quarters and a vehicle garage, and the second, a defensive bunker, office hut, a buried LCC (called globes, or in Russian, shariki) and an ICBM launcher. A tunnel that connects the launch control centre to the guards’ barracks provides protection against enemy fire and radiation. The entrance to the LCCs came in two basic forms. The older model, which is no longer used, consisted of only a round metal hatch set on a concrete pad from which one descended by way of ladder. The newer entrances are hidden in camouflage-painted buildings. The mode of descent, whether stairs or a lift, leads to a very long and narrow tunnel that terminates at three consecutive blast doors. The two-man launch crew, a captain and a lieutenant, sit in chairs a few feet apart at desks surrounded by consoles and indicator lights. Two of the most important features of the consoles are the launch-key slots and the square ‘launch’ indicator light. Working in six-hour shifts, these ‘raketchiki’, or missileers, routinely practise drills and continuously monitor the various systems. A third man, a warrant officer, mans a communications panel. At any given time, the trio can be subject to inspections and exercises where the focus could even include armed attacks on their posts. During the Cold War, the two launch officers carried sidearms and had to surrender these to the warrant officer for safekeeping, but nowadays, they no longer carry these. Also, it was the KGB, not the missileers, that armed the warheads, but again, this is no longer the case. Two of the Tatishchevo LCCs can be seen near Chernyshevka and Radishchevo northwest of Saratov.
The support bases contain all the amenities found on a typical military base. There are offices, dormitories, schools for dependents, a store, a gym and dining halls for the missileers where food is served by young women wearing short black skirts. Several missile bases are located near large cities, such as Saratov and Novosibirsk, which provide additional shopping and recreational convenience. The bases have their own motor pools that include a fleet of green trucks used to ferry launch crews to their posts. All three Missile Armies have their own aviation squadrons that use helicopters to ferry such personnel as security response teams and VIPs. Some of the helicopters can serve as airborne command posts.
Some of the key questions that have dogged defence analysts about Soviet/Russian warfighting capability regard the reliability of the RVSN. How reliable are the weapons and how dependable is the personnel? What changes are going on in the Russian nuclear world that will guarantee that the forces will work as required? Of the hundreds of ICBMs, how many will actually launch? Initially, the RVSN counted on the fact that while its missiles had low accuracy, they compensated for this by outfitting them with high-yield warheads. Nowadays, we see the opposite. Accuracy has increased and yields have been lowered. One of the early missiles, the R-9A, had a 5 megaton warhead with a maximum error of 20km, but later on, one of the variants of a newer missile, the MR UR-100, had four 550 to 750 kiloton warheads with a maximum error of 400m. The RT-23UTTH (SS-24) road-mobile missile’s accuracy is even better at 200m. Also, some of the weapons in the RVSN’s arsenal now have the capability to deliver an EMP pulse, which would be particularly useful in knocking out an enemy’s electronic systems. On the other hand, in Soviet times some scholars estimated that during a nuclear war, perhaps only 50 per cent of the missiles would fire, and this may have been the reason why they had so many of them deployed. Bruce Blair in his book The Logic of Accidental Nuclear War writes that the Russian armed forces have established three tiers of nuclear forces, first echelon, operational reserves and uncommitted reserves, where the second category is meant to compensate for launch failures of the first, and where the uncommitted reserves are simply surplus weapons. What they lacked in quality, they made up for in quantity.
When it comes to the reliability of the command and control system itself, besides its high redundancy (radio, radio relay, satellite, cables), new technology developed in the 1990s was designed to enhance threat data collection and analysis. The RVSN tried to establish a system that reduced guesswork partly, no doubt, because of the early warning mishap of 1983. On the other hand, the RVSN has suffered from the same funding problems as have other military services, a situation that has sometimes put it in a precarious position. Throughout the 1990s, articles appeared in the press on the RVSN’s reduced effectiveness. Not only were bases put at risk for not paying their electricity bills, some parts of the command and control system were said to still suffer because they relied on older technology or because of crime. For example, the system has been known to put itself into combat mode for no reason, and thieves have been found to steal underground cables that link the LCCs to the silos for their metal. The armed forces have made up for the decline of its strength by deploying new weapons such as the EMP device previously mentioned, nuclear earth-penetrating weapons, ABMs and precision low-yield warheads, but it is not known how they have tackled the issue of theft. In the final analysis though, if the RVSN command and control system works well enough, and if the new rocket technologies it has acquired have increased firing probabilities, Russia may very well have the ability to meet its attack objectives.
Concerned about the security of its weapons, the RVSN has established its own personnel reliability programme. The missileers are tested for personality defects, not only before they enter the service, but also routinely once accepted. Membership in the ‘nuclear club’ is restricted to those who would turn the keys unhesitatingly and who possess no serious vices. During Soviet times, the staff was also checked for political reliability, but these days the requirement no longer exists: gone is the annoying zampolit. In the offices of missile commanders, one will no longer find the ubiquitous red star but perhaps rather a picture of St Barbara, the patron saint of the RVSN. On the other hand, Deborah Yarsike Ball writes in Jane’s Intelligence Review that since the end of the Cold War, the Russian armed forces have seen a dramatic increase in diseases and drug abuse in its soldiers. If such individuals were to be put in charge of nuclear weapons, the West could be put at risk. Russian officers claim the West does not need to worry since those in charge of the nuclear arsenal are ‘different’.
For a few years following the end of the Cold War, the two superpowers enjoyed a spirit of co-operation. Both the United States and Russia sent officers to each other’s country to see first hand how their armed forces worked. Both have also witnessed the destruction of each other’s silos, and in 2001 a Joint Data Exchange Center was created in Moscow as a point of contact when the USAF and NASA want to warn the Russians when they are launching missiles. This spirit, however, soon disappeared when the relationship between the two superpowers began to freeze; even though its ICBMs are supposed to be de-targeted, the RVSN still conducts exercises where the main enemy is the United States. At the doctrinal level, while the Russian government has dropped its ‘no-first-use’ policy on nuclear weapons employment in 1993, it has stated that it would be willing to use such weapons in a conventional conflict, this to make up for the reduction of its conventional forces. Some say that if the United States began such a war and later decided to use atomic weapons, Russia would respond in kind. Both sides would then end up with a conflict no one wants.
Missile development in Russia is still taking place. The new single-warhead Topol RS-12M Model 2 ICBM (the SS-27) was put into active service in existing silos in 1997–98, despite long delays and financial cutbacks, at the 104th Missile Regiment at Tatishchevo. At the same time, a road-mobile version was developed. The Topol is a three-stage rocket with a single 550 kiloton warhead and comes equipped with protection against ABMs. It is thought to have a CEP of 100m to 200m. The RVSN was expected to have 160 to 220 RS-12Ms in active service by 2005, but in 2007, only 47 of both the fixed and mobile variants were found on the roster.
Today, with modern air power operating inside the atmosphere, we can impose kinetic effects at the speed of sound. With the maturing of hypersonic weapons, we will be able to do that at multiples of the speed of sound.
The March 19 test of a hypersonic glide body at the Pacific Missile Range Facility in Hawaii is just the start for the Defense Department, the assistant director for hypersonics in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering said, and after ample flight testing, the department will move toward developing weapons from the concepts it’s been testing.
“Over the next 12 months really what we will see is continued acceleration of the development of offensive hypersonic systems,” Michael E. White said today during an online panel discussion hosted by Defense One.
Hypersonic weapons move faster than anything currently being used, giving adversaries far less time to react, and they provide a much harder target to counteract with interceptors. White said DOD is developing hypersonic weapons that can travel anywhere between Mach 5 and Mach 20.
The March test of the hypersonic glide body successfully demonstrated a capability to perform intermediate-range hypersonic boost, glide and strike, he said. That test, White added, begins a “very active flight test season” over the next year, and beyond, to take concepts now under development within the department and prove them with additional tests.
“A number of our programs across the portfolio will realize flight test demonstration over the next 12 months and then start the transition from weapon system concept development to actual weapon system development moving forward,” he said.
Also part of the department’s efforts is the defense against adversary use of hypersonic missile threats — and that may involve space, said Navy Vice Adm. Jon Hill, director of the Missile Defense Agency. Land-, silo- or air-launched hypersonic weapons all challenge the existing U.S. sensor architecture, Hill said, and so new sensors must come online.
“We have to work on sensor architecture,” Hill said. “Because they do maneuver and they are global, you have to be able to track them worldwide and globally. It does drive you towards a space architecture, which is where we’re going.”
DOD is now working with the Space Development Agency on the Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor to address tracking of hypersonics, the admiral said. That system is part of the larger national defense space architecture.
“As ballistic missiles increase in their complexity … you’re going to be able to look down from cold space onto that warm earth and be able to see those,” he said. “As hypersonics come up and look ballistic initially, then turn into something else, you have to be able to track that and maintain track. In order for us to transition from indications and warning into a fire control solution, we have to have a firm track and you really can’t handle the global maneuver problem without space.”
Hill said the department already has had a prototype of such satellites in space for some time, and is collecting data from it. In the early 2020s, he added, additional satellites will also go up to demonstrate tracking ability.
Flight at five times the speed of sound and above promises to revolutionize military affairs in the same fashion that the combination of stealth and precision did a generation ago. Hypersonic air weapons offer advantage in four broad areas. They counter the tyranny of distance and increasingly sophisticated defences; they compress the shooter-to-target window, and open new engagement opportunities; they rise to the challenge of addressing numerous types of targets; and they enhance future joint and combined operations. Within each of these themes are other advantages which, taken together, redefine air power projection in the face of an increasingly unstable and dangerous world.
The Physical Component is the one with which airmen and women tend to be instinctively the most comfortable. It is about the platforms, capabilities, weapons and `stuff’ that, to many, define what the RAF `is’. This applies just as much to the Space domain as it does to the Air domain, and the best way of achieving this may be to address both domains as seamless entities. In years gone by, the reality of doing just that was limited by technology separation: what worked in space did not work in the air and vice-versa. But modern technology – especially with hypersonic engines, pseudo-satellites, high-resolution optics and radar technologies – makes it conceivable that, with appropriate investment choices, future military capabilities could have the potential to be employed in both domains, perhaps even within the same mission. These technological enhancements are also likely to deliver the improvements in speed, reach, persistence, coverage, survivability, and precision necessary to provide an increased range of options for military commanders and political masters alike. But to embrace this new technology will undoubtedly require us to change our preconceived ideas of air power as being delivered predominantly from manned, fixed-wing, air-breathing platforms which operate at relatively low altitude. The blurring of the Air and Space domains allows us to translate our experiences of inner atmosphere aviation into even higher vertical limits and far greater ranges of effect. In the remaining paragraphs of this section, I will explore what I believe to be the four greatest technological developments that will allow us to transform air and space power over the next 30 years.
At a glance, hypersonic engines may appear to be a `silver bullet’ which will unleash air and space power in the twenty-first century. This field of technology shows great promise, and much is possible within the next couple of decades providing there is investment in the emergent technology. So, what can hypersonics offer the Air environment? A good place to start would be to look at what Reaction Engines Limited (REL) has to offer with their experimental Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine, or SABRE. 9 Initial work looks incredibly exciting and could give rise to a working platform by 2030 that is capable of Mach 5+ and offers high cadence space access as well as long range inner-atmosphere flight. Such technology also appears promising because it purportedly offers `speed as the new stealth’ and potentially increases the survivability against an array of current and anticipated anti-access systems. Furthermore, while the technology claims to enable space access it can also, in theory at least, provide a vehicle from which a space payload could be launched. But hypersonic technology is not limited to just platforms. It can be applied effectively to weapons: air and groundlaunched, offensive and defensive. Whatever the manner of its employment, hypersonic technology has the potential to provide significant benefit to all operating domains – a true force multiplier. Thus, even at this relatively early stage in its programme, hypersonic technology represents a very strong candidate to address the physical aspects of the blurred Air and Space domains. While there are numerous hypersonic technologies under development, SABRE is novel, it is British, and therefore offers a sovereign capability with all the accordant benefits for our national prosperity agenda.
Hypersonic Vehicles Aerial vehicles that can travel in excess of five times the speed of sound, or Mach-5, are labelled hypersonic. Hypersonic weapons can be broadly divided into two categories, that is, Hypersonic Glide Vehicles (HGV) and Hypersonic Cruise Missiles (HCM).
Hypersonic Glide Vehicles
The aerodynamic HGV is a boost-glide weapon-it is first `boosted’ up into near space atop a conventional rocket and then ejected at an appropriate altitude and speed. The height at which it is released depends on the intended trajectory to the target. Thereafter, the HGV starts to fall back to Earth, gaining more speed and gliding along the upper atmosphere, before diving on the target.
Hypersonic Cruise Missiles
An HCM on the other hand, is typically propelled to high speeds (around Mach 4 to 5) initially using a small rocket; thereafter, an air-breathing supersonic combustion ram jet or a `scramjet’ accelerates it further and maintains its hypersonic speed. HCMs are hypersonic versions of existing cruise missiles but would cruise at altitudes of 20-30 km in order to ensure adequate pressure for its scramjet. Standard cruise missiles are difficult to intercept-and the speed of the HCM and the altitude at which it travels complicates this task of interception manifold. The United States’ underdevelopment `WaveRider’ is a typical HCM. Russia’s HCM, the aircraft-launched Kh-47M2 `Kinzhal’, (Dagger), has a reported top speed of Mach-10 and a range of about 2000 km. India’s underdevelopment `Hyper Sonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle’ (HSTDV) too, capable of speeds around Mach-7, falls in the category of an HCM.
1. Aerial vehicles that can travel in excess of Mach-5 are labelled as hypersonic.
2. Three nations (Russia, China, USA) have been testing hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs), although a number of other countries are also pursuing hypersonic programmes.
3. An HGV, armed with a nuclear or a conventional warhead, or merely relying on its kinetic energy, has the potential to allow a military to rapidly and pre-emptively strike distant targets anywhere on the globe within hours or less.
4. On account of their quick-launch capability, high speed, lower altitude and higher manoeuvrability vis-a-vis Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles , HGVs are difficult to detect and intercept with existing air and missile defence systems.
5. This capability could tempt a nation to consider using HGVs for a disarming and first-strike on an adversary’s nuclear arsenal.
6. While numerous challenges remain, operational deployment of HGVs would thus compel target nations to set their nuclear forces on a hair-trigger readiness and “launch on warning” alerts, leading also to the devolution of command over nuclear weapons.
7. Overall, this would aggravate strategic instability, and also generate unacceptable levels of instability in crisis management at many levels.
In their early years at Peenemünde, the German rocket researchers had no difficulty in attracting the funds they needed. Money was printed in large amounts and military expenditure for the Army now seemed to have no limits.
Von Braun was in his element at Peenemünde, and the design of the great A-4 rocket proceeded apace. It was to be based on the successful design of the A-5, with a redesigned control system and updated construction. The A-5 had reached an altitude of 35,000ft (10,000m) in tests during 1938, and the A-4 was designed with the benefit of the results of these pioneering tests. But things changed when Hitler began to anticipate an early end to hostilities, with Germany reigning supreme across Western Europe, and as a result research at Peenemünde was reduced. In a scaled-down programme of research, the engineers contented themselves by designing improved servo-control systems and new, high-throughput fuel pumps were systematically developed. Rocket development had essentially been put on hold.
Within two years the tide was turning, and the need for rocket research began to re-emerge. Work on the A-4 picked up again and on 13 June 1942 the first of the new monster rockets was ready for test firing. The rocket was checked and re-checked. Meticulous records were maintained of every aspect of its functioning. It stood 46ft 1.5in (14.05m) tall, weighed 12 tons, and was fuelled with methyl alcohol (methanol). The oxidant, liquid oxygen, was pumped in just prior to launch. The pumps were run up to speed, ignition achieved and the rocket rose unsteadily from its launch pad. In a billowing cloud of smoke and steam it began to climb, rapidly gaining speed, and then – at just the wrong moment – the propellant pump motor failed. The rocket staggered for a moment and crashed back onto the launch pad, disintegrating in a huge explosion. The technicians were terrified and were lucky to escape.
On 16 August 1942 a second A-4 was tested. Once again, the fuel motor pump stopped working but this time it failed later in the flight, after the rocket had already passed through the sound barrier. The third test was a complete success. It took place on 3 October 1942 and this rocket was fired out along the coast of Pomerania. The engine burned for over a minute, boosting the rocket to a maximum altitude of 50 miles (80km). It fell to earth 119.3 miles (192km) from the launch pad. The age of the space rocket had arrived, and the ballistic missile was a reality. The design of the A-4 rocket could now be fine tuned and – given time – the complex design could be optimized for mass production. The Nazis now had their new Vergeltungswaffe (‘retaliatory’ or ‘reprisal’ weapon). The term was important; although Hitler saw these as weapons of mass destruction, he hoped that the world – instead of seeing him as the aggressor – would regard him as simply responding to Allied attacks. The ‘V’ is sometimes translated into English as ‘vengeance’, but that is not right as the term in German connotes reprisal. The first of such weapons was their V-1 cruise missile, the ‘buzz-bomb’ and now they had the V-2. It would surely strike terror into the hearts of those who challenged German supremacy.
Aspects of the design were refined and developed by teams in companies including Zeppelin Luftschiffbau and Heinkel, and the final production version of the V-2 was a brilliantly successful rocket. Over 5,000 would be produced by the Germans. The production model stood 46ft (14m) tall, was 5ft 5in (1.65m) in diameter, and weighed over 5 tons of which 70 per cent was fuel. The tanks held 8,300lb (3,760kg) of fuel and just over 11,000lb (5,000kg) of liquid oxygen at take-off. The combustion chamber consumed 275lb (125kg) per second, emitting exhaust gases at a velocity of 6,950ft/s (2,200m/s). The missile was steered by vanes in the exhaust and could land with an accuracy better than 4 per cent, or so claimed the designers. No metal could withstand the intense heat, so these internal fins were constructed from carbon. They ablated in the heat, but could not burn away rapidly due to the lack of free oxygen and lasted long enough for the entire rocket burn. For the time, the V-2 was – and it remains – an extraordinary achievement made in record time.
Dörnberger tried to take full advantage of the success. Ever since the United States had declared war on Germany on 8 December 1941, the balance of power had begun to tip against the Nazis and Dörnberger knew the time was ripe for official endorsement of his teams’ progress. Hitler had been to see static tests of rocket motors at Kummersdorf but he had not been greatly impressed by the noise, fire and smoke. These were so exciting to the rocket enthusiasts – it was what rocketry was all about – but Hitler could not imagine how these ‘boys’ toys’ could transmute into agencies of world domination and he was reluctant to give the rocket teams the high priority they sought.
Dörnberger was frustrated by the bureaucracy and the lack of exciting new developments. Some of the pressure had been temporarily relieved from Dörnberger on 8 February 1942 when news reached him that the Minister for Armaments and Munitions, Fritz Todt, had died at the age of 50. Todt was aboard a Junkers Ju-52 aircraft on a routine tour when it crashed and exploded shortly after take-off. Albert Speer was supposed to have been on the same flight, but cancelled at the last minute. Speer was immediately appointed by Hitler to take Todt’s place, and he was far more interested in what Dörnberger had to say. Speer was a professional architect and had joined the Nazi party in 1931. He had soon become a member of Hitler’s inner circle and had gained the Führer’s trust after his appointment as chief architect. Speer clearly felt that Hitler could be reconciled to the idea of the V-2 as progress continued.
As luck would have it, the new committee was put under the charge of General Gerd Degenkolb, who disliked Dörnberger intensely. Von Braun said at the time: ‘This committee is a thorn in our flesh.’ One can see why. Degenkolb exemplified that other German trait, a talent for bureaucracy and administrative complexity. He had been in a group including Karl-Otto Saur and Fritz Todt, who espoused Hitler’s policy of being ‘not yet convinced’ by the rocket as a major agent in military success. Degenkolb immediately began to establish a separate bureaucratic structure to work alongside Dörnberger’s. Details of the design of the V-2 rocket were reconsidered in detail by Degenkolb’s new committee, and some of their untried new recommendations were authorized without Dörnberger’s knowledge or approval.
Progress remained problematic even following the successful launches. The Director of Production Planning, Detmar Stahlknecht, had set targets for V-2 production which were agreed with Dörnberger – but which were then unilaterally modified by Degenkolb. Stahlknecht had planned to produce 300 of the V-2 rockets per month by January 1944 – but in January 1943 Degenkolb decreed that this total be brought forward to October 1943. Stahlknecht was aiming for a monthly production target of 600 by July 1944; Degenkolb insisted the figure be raised to 900 per month, and the date brought forward to December 1943. The success of the rocket was encouraging the policy makers to raise their game, and their new targets seemed simply unattainable.
The Capitalist dream
At this point, Dörnberger was presented with a startling new prospect. He learned of a bizarre idea to capitalize on the sudden enthusiasm for the new rockets. He was told that it was being proposed to designate Peenemünde as a ‘land’ in its own right. It would be jointly purchased by major German companies like AEG and Siemens who would pay more than 1,000,000 Reichsmarks for the property and then charge the Nazi government for each missile produced. AEG, in particular, were highly impressed by the telemetry developed for the V-2 rocket and recognized that it had far-reaching implications and considerable market potential.
The guidance systems were remarkably advanced. They had been developed by Helmut Gröttrup, working alongside Von Braun, though there was little friendship between the two. Dörnberger fought to have Peenemünde maintained as an army proving ground and production facility, and won the battle only after bitter negotiations. This had been a narrow victory for Dörnberger, and was one that he would have been unlikely to win without the support of Speer.
Three sites were immediately confirmed for the production of the new rockets: Peenemünde, Friedrichshafen and the Raxwerken at Wiener Neustadt. Degenkolb issued orders at once, but he failed to see that the senior staff were not available in sufficient numbers to train and organize production on such a rapidly expanding scale. Degenkolb refused to be challenged and insisted that production begin immediately – and, when the engineers explained the impossibility of the task at such short notice, Degenkolb issued orders that they be imprisoned if his schedule was not met. Clearly, he meant business.
Although Degenkolb saw Von Braun as a personal rival, and someone he disliked, he recognized that his participation was crucial to the success of the rocket development. Others knew this too. At one stage, Von Braun had even been arrested by the authorities under the suspicion that his covert purpose was not the bombardment of foreign cities for the benefit of the Fatherland, but that he was secretly planning to develop rockets for space exploration at government expense. At first, Von Braun’s protests came to nothing and a lengthy bureaucratic enquiry seemed inevitable, until Dörnberger intervened to say that, without Von Braun, there could be no further progress. At this, Von Braun was released and sent back to his work. Dörnberger reported his frustrations with a lack of progress towards full production. Speer understood that the heavy-handed administrative interference of Degenkolb had introduced an unnecessary hold-up (reckoned by Dörnberger to be a delay of 18 months) and promised to remove him if it would help.
In the event, Degenkolb survived because of the influence of Fritz Todt’s long-standing friend, Karl-Otto Saur. Saur himself had a remarkable instinct for survival and, after the war, he was used as a key witness for the prosecution on behalf of the American authorities and was subsequently released. The fact that Karl-Otto Saur was designated by Hitler to replace Speer as Minister for Armaments was not a sufficient crime for him to be tried as a war criminal, and he eventually set up a publishing house back in Germany named Saur Verlag. The company survives to this day publishing reference information for librarians – a curious legacy from World War II.
The remaining serious challenger to the V-2 was the Luftwaffe’s buzz-bomb, the V-1. Its proponents pointed out that it was cheap to fly, economic to fuel, easy to produce in vast numbers and surely a far better candidate for support than the costly and complex V-2. Dörnberger argued strongly in favour of his own project. The V-1 needed a launch ramp, whereas the V-2 could be launched from almost anywhere it could stand. The flying bomb was easy to detect, shoot down or divert off course, whereas a rocket was undetectable until after it had hit. In the end the Nazi authorities were persuaded by both camps and the two weapons were ordered into mass production. Nonetheless, the delays remained an obstacle to progress, and by the summer of 1943 – with Degenkolb’s production target of 900 per month looming ever closer – the engineers protested that their highly successful engine was still not ready for manufacture in large amounts by regular engineers.
Once again there were conflicting interests and opposing policies. Adolf Thiel, senior design engineer on the V-2, protested that mass production was not likely to be achieved before the war had come to its natural conclusion. Friends of Thiel reported he was close to a nervous breakdown, and wanted to stop work at Peenemünde and retire to an academic career at university. However, Von Braun remained obdurately convinced that they were close to success and, on balance, Dörnberger sided with that view.
Watching from London
Meanwhile, British Intelligence was watching. A major breakthrough for the British came on 23 March 1943. A captured German officer, General Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma, provided timely information that the Allies would find of crucial importance. Back on 29 May 1942 the Nazi Lieutenant-General Ludwig Crüwell had flown to inspect German operations in Libya when his pilot mistook British soldiers for Italian troops and he landed the plane alongside them. Crüwell was taken prisoner and on 22 March 1943 he was placed in a room with General Von Thoma. The room was bugged, and their muffled conversation was partly overheard by the eager British agents, listening in the next room. The notes were recorded in the secret Air Scientific Intelligence Interim Report written up on 26 June 1943, and now held in the archives at Churchill College, University of Cambridge, England:
No progress whatsoever can have been made in this rocket business. I saw it once with Field Marshall [Walther von] Brauchitsch. There is a special ground near Kummersdorf. They’ve got these huge things which they’ve brought up here… They’ve always said that they go fifteen kilometres up into the stratosphere and then … you only aim at an area. If one was to … every few days … frightful! The major there was full of hope – he said, ‘Wait until next year and the fun will start. There’s no limit [to the range]…
Further substantiation came in June 1943, when a resourceful Luxembourger named Schwaben sent a sketch of the Peenemünde establishment to London in a microfilm through a network of agents known as the Famille Martin. This fitted well with the other reports that had been arriving, including eye-witness accounts and notes smuggled out from secret agents about activity at Peenemünde. The intelligence service kept meticulous records of the reports of vapour trails, explosions and occasional sightings that were relayed back to London from those witnesses who were anxious to see an end to Nazi tyranny. Churchill appointed his son-in-law, Duncan Sandys MP, to head a committee to look further into the matter and on 12 June 1943 an RAF reconnaissance mission was sent to fly over the site at high altitude and bring back the first images of what could be seen at Peenemünde. The unmistakable sight of rockets casting shadows across the ground could be picked out in the images. Measurements suggested to the British that the rocket was about 38ft (11.5m) long, 6ft (1.8m) in diameter and had tail fins. The intelligence report estimated the mass of each rocket must be between 40 and 80 tons. It was guessed that there might be 5 or 10 tons of explosives aboard.
This was partly right, and partly a gross exaggeration. The V-2 was actually 46ft (14m) long and 5ft 5in (1.65m) in diameter, so the measurements calculated by the British were reasonable estimates. But the weight of the missile was wildly over-estimated – rather than 40 tons or more, it weighed just under 13 tons and carried 2,200lb (980kg) of explosive rather than ‘up to 10 tons’ of the British estimates. A ‘rough outline’ drawing of the rocket was prepared for this report and it looks more like a torpedo. Perhaps the missile as drawn lacked its 7.5ft (2.3m) warhead nose cone. In that case, the dimensions were surprisingly accurate – though there is no accounting for the gross over-calculation of the weight.
Although the guesswork about the rocket’s weight was wrong, the comments that R. V. Jones added to the secret intelligence report of 26 June 1943 show a remarkably clear analysis of Germany’s position at the time.
The evidence shows that … the Germans have for some time been developing a long range rocket at Peenemünde. Provided that the Germans are satisfied with Peenemünde’s security, there is no reason to assume the existence of a rival establishment, unless the latter has arisen from inter-departmental jealousy.
Almost every report points to the fact that development can hardly have reached maturity, although it has been proceeding for some time. If, as appears, only three rockets were fired in the last three months of 1942, with two unsuccessful, the Germans just then have been some way from success and production.
At least three sorties over Peenemünde have now shown one and only one rocket visible in the entire establishment and one sortie has perhaps shown two. Supposing that the rockets have been accidentally left out in the open or because the inside storage is full, then the chances are that the rocket population is less than, say, twenty. If it were much greater, then it would be an extraordinary chance that this number should always be one greater than storage capacity. Therefore the number of rockets at Peenemünde is small, and since this is the main seat of development, the number of rockets in the Reich is also likely to be relatively small…
Since the long range rocket can hardly have reached maturity, German technicians would probably prefer to wait until their designs were more complete. If, as seems very possible, the genius of the Führer prevails over the judgement of the technicians, then despite everything the rocket will shortly be brought into use in its premature form.
Jones drew this conclusion: ‘The present population of rockets is probably small, so that the rate of bombardment [of London] would not be high. The only immediate counter measure readily apparent is to bomb the establishment at Peenemünde.’
Jones was right, and plans for a massive bombing raid began at once. Three days later, on 29 June 1943, a meeting was convened at the Cabinet War Room at which Duncan Sandys revealed the contents of the photographs. He had short-circuited R. V. Jones’s connections with the photo labs and insisted that they all be sent first to him. One of those attending the meeting was Professor Frederick Lindemann, Viscount Cherwell, who immediately poured scorn on the idea of a rocket base. Lindemann was a German-born physicist and Churchill’s chief scientific adviser. He said at the meeting that a rocket weighing up to 80 tons was absurd. The rockets, he insisted, were an elaborate sham; the Germans had mocked them up to frighten the British and lead them on a false trail. It was nothing but an elaborate cover plan. After his analysis, which left the officials in the room sensing that a dreadful mistake was being made, Churchill turned to R. V. Jones and said that they would now hear the truth of the matter. Jones was crisp and to the point. Whatever might be the remaining questions over the details of these missiles, said Jones, it was clear to him that the rockets were real – and they posed a threat to Britain. The site must be destroyed. The idea of sending further reconnaissance flights was quickly dismissed, for it could alert the Germans to the fact that the Allies had discovered the site.
Peenemünde was too far away to be in contact by radio, and out of range of the fighters; so the Allied bombers would be completely unprotected. German fighters would soon be on the scene, and heavy Allied losses were likely. The conclusion was that the heaviest bombing would be arranged, and it would take place on the first night that meteorological conditions were suitable. The attack was code named Operation Hydra.
On 8 July 1943 Hitler was shown an Agfacolor film of the launch of a V-2 and was finally convinced that the monster rocket could win him back the advantage. Having been sceptical, Hitler was now an enthusiastic supporter. He immediately decided that new launch bases would be needed across the northern coast of continental Europe in order to maximize the range of the rockets and the number of launches that Germany could make against Britain. He also ordered that the production of the V-2 was now to be made a top priority. Hitler believed that with these rockets he could turn the tide of war against the Allies. The Germans were busy working to comply with orders to construct a production line at the Peenemünde Army Research base just as the Royal Air Force was instructed to launch Operation Hydra to destroy the establishment.
The planning of Operation Hydra was meticulous. Bombing would be carried out from 9,000ft (about 3,000m; normally bombing raids were from twice as high), and practice runs over suitable stretches of British coastline were quickly arranged. The accuracy improved greatly during the practice sessions, an error of up to about 1,000 yards (900m) improving to 300 yards (270m). None of the aircrew were told the true nature of their target; they were informed that the installation was a new radar establishment that had to be destroyed urgently. By way of encouragement to be thorough on the first raid, they were also told that repeat attacks would be made, regardless of the losses, if they did not succeed first time. Meanwhile, a decoy raid was arranged, code named Operation Whitebait. Mosquito aircraft were to be sent to bomb Berlin prior to the raid on Peenemünde in the hope of attracting German fighters to the area. Further squadrons were meanwhile sent to attack nearby Luftwaffe airfields to prevent German fighters taking to the air over Peenemünde. As the attack began, a master bomber, Group Captain J. H. Searby, would circle around the target to call in successive waves of bombers.
On the night of 17 August 1943 there was a full moon, and the skies were clear. At midnight the raid began, and within half an hour the first wave was heading for home. Over the target, however, there was some light cloud and the accuracy of the first bombs was poor. Guns from the ground were returning fire, and a ship off-shore brought flak to bear on the bombers, but no fighters were seen. The second wave of Lancasters was directed at the factory workshops and then at 12.48am the third and final wave attacked the experimental workshops. This group of Lancaster and Halifax bombers overshot the target and most dropped their bombs half a minute late, so their bombs landed in the camp where conscripted workers were imprisoned. By this time German fighter aircraft were arriving, but they were late and losses to the British bombers were less than 7 per cent.
However, the laboratories and test rigs were damaged – and the Germans now knew, with dramatic suddenness, that their elaborate plans were known to the Allies. On the brink of realization, the plans to manufacture the V-2 at Peenemünde had to be abandoned. The Germans decided to fool the Allies into thinking that they had caused irreparable damage, so they immediately dug dummy ‘bomb craters’ all over the site, and painted black and grey lines across the roofs to look like fire-blackened beams. Their intention was to fool any reconnaissance flights into believing the damage was much worse than it was, thus convincing the British that further raids were unnecessary. The British still had one further element of retaliation, however; a number of the bombs were fitted with time delay fuses and exploded randomly for several days after the raid. They did not cause much material damage, but the continued detonations delayed the Germans from setting out to move equipment from the site.
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.