Byzantine Fire on the Water

The low state of medieval maritime technology ensured that battle tactics were just as basic. They had hardly progressed since Roman times. Confrontations at sea remained messy affairs that almost invariably devolved into unpredictable ship-against-ship mêlées. This helps explain why large-scale naval engagements were rare during the Middle Ages. Few naval commanders were willing to risk all in a single battle subject to so many uncontrollable variables. As on land, clashes at sea normally occurred only when one side or both could not avoid it.

The fact that there was no reliable ship-killing weapon compounded the uncertainty surrounding the outcome. The waterline ram or rostrum of the classical era was ineffective against the sturdier, frame-first hull construction which began to develop in the Mediterranean as early as the seventh century and found full implementation by the eleventh century. It proved utterly futile against the more robust ship architecture of the northern seas, even in Roman times. In his Commentarii de Bello Gallico (‘Commentaries on the Gallic War’), Julius Caesar said of the dense oak vessels of the Gauls, ‘Our ships could not damage them with the ram (they were so stoutly built).’ As a result, no warship in either the north or the south was known to have sported a ram by the seventh century. It was replaced on the Byzantine dromōn by a spur, a sort of reinforced bowsprit used to assist in seizing and boarding an enemy ship. The only weapon developed in the medieval period capable of destroying an entire vessel was ‘Greek fire’, a secret petroleum-based incendiary invented by a Syrian artificer named Kallinikos in the seventh century. Documentary and graphic sources indicate that it was spewed from specially constructed siphon tubes mounted on the bows of dromōns. Unfortunately its utility was extremely restricted. It had limited range and could only be deployed in calm or following winds.

Siphons for spewing ‘Greek fire’ were eventually mounted on protected platforms at the bow and possibly amidships. The parapeted forecastle (xylokastron) housed the main siphon, called the ‘raven’ (katakorax), while the castle amidships was the kastelloma. The aftercastle contained the kravatos, a structure to shield the kentarchos or captain.

The First Siege of Constantinople and the Advent of ‘Greek Fire’ (672–7)

Once Muawiyah had moved his capital to Damascus and consolidated his grip on power, he began preparations for an enormous expedition against Constantinople itself. In 672 he was ready. The caliph unleashed at least two separate fleets on the south coast of Asia Minor. Their activities must have kept the Karabisian fleet fully occupied. Both Crete and Rhodes were raided. One Arab fleet wintered in Cilicia (the southeastern coast of Anatolia) and the other in Lycia (on the south-central coast). Word of these incursions galvanized Constans’ son and successor, Constantine IV, into action. According to Theophanes, the emperor ‘built large biremes bearing cauldrons of fire and dromones equipped with siphons and ordered them to be stationed at the Proclianesian harbour of Caesarius [Constantinople’s Theodosian harbour]’. In 673 Muawiyah’s fleets surged into the Sea of Marmara and ravaged the Hebdomon district just southwest of Constantinople, then captured Kyzikos on the south shore of the sea. Here they established a base camp for incessant attacks on the city.

Constantinople would endure this maritime assault for the next several years, but the emperor was in possession of a terrible new weapon which would finally – and precipitously – end it. Residing in the city at that time was a Christian refugee from Heliopolis in Syria (modern Baalbek in Lebanon) named Kallinikos. Theophanes described him as an ‘architect’ or ‘artificer’ who had ‘manufactured a naval fire [or sea fire]’ which floated on the surface of the sea and could not be extinguished by water. Its precise ingredients were kept a closely guarded state secret and remain a mystery to this day. This has led to endless speculation through the ages and repeated attempts at replication. A similar Muslim concoction of the twelfth century was said to have included ‘dolphin’s fat’ and ‘grease of goat kidneys’. Early scholarly conjecture centred on saltpetre as the main component (as in gunpowder) or some form of quicklime, but recent empirical investigations, particularly by renowned Byzantinist John Haldon, have revealed that its primary ingredient was probably petroleum-based – most likely naphtha or light crude oil. The Byzantines had access to the oil fields of the Caucasus region northeast of the Black Sea where crude seeped to the surface. The theory is that Kallinikos may have distilled this into a paraffin or kerosene, then added wood resins as a thickening agent. The mixture was then heated in an air-tight bronze tank over a brazier and pressured by use of a force pump. The final step was the release of the flammable fluid through a valve for its discharge from a metal-sheathed nozzle, affixed with a flame ignition source. In a 2002 clinical test of this theory, Haldon and his colleagues, Colin Hewes and Andrew Lacey, were able to produce a fire stream in the neighbourhood of 1,000 degrees Celsius that extended at least 15m (49ft).

It was very probably a compound similar to this that Constantine caused to be loaded onto his dromōns in the autumn of 677. The fearsome new weapon was unleashed from swivel-mounted siphons in the forecastles with horrific results. Theophanes testified almost matter-of-factly that it ‘kindled the ships of the Arabs and burnt them and their crews’. To the Arab victims of his frightful invention, it must have seemed like some early version of ‘shock and awe’. The fact that they would have had no idea of how to combat the weapon must have compounded their panic. Water would have been ineffective. At that point they could not have known that the only way to extinguish the ‘liquid fire’ was with sand, vinegar or urine. The siege soon collapsed. What was left of the Arab armada withdrew, only to be severely mauled by a violent winter storm while passing abeam Syllaem in Pamphylia (on the south coast of Asia Minor between Lycia and Cilicia). Theophanes said, ‘It was dashed to pieces and perished entirely.’

The Second Siege of Constantinople and the Fall of the Umayyad Dynasty (717–50)

The continuing turmoil in Constantinople could not have gone unnoticed in Damascus. Earlier that same year Sulayman ibn Abd al-Malik assumed the caliphate and inaugurated his rule by propelling his brother, Maslamah ibn Abd al-Malik, into Asia Minor at the head of 80,000 troops, while a huge armada of reportedly 1,800 vessels made its way around the south coast. Constantinople was about to experience its most dire confrontation with Islam until its final fall over seven centuries later.

The details of the ensuing epic engagement are discussed in a separate section at the end of the chapter as an example of sea combat in the period, but it suffices to say here that it unfolded in a manner similar to the siege of 672–8, with much the same result. As the Arab forces approached Constantinople in the spring of 717, Leo the Isaurian, the strategos of the Anatolikon Theme, engineered a coup to replace the ill-suited Theodosios III on the throne. Under his inspired leadership as Leo III, the Byzantines then used dromōns spewing ‘Greek fire’ to break up an Umayyad attempt to blockade the Bosporus. The besieging Arab army fared even worse. A particularly harsh winter ravaged it with deprivation and disease. And the following spring offered little relief. Nearly 800 supply ships arrived from Egypt and Ifriqiyah, but their Coptic Christian crews switched sides en masse. Without the precious provisions which these ships carried, Maslama’s troops fell easy prey to the Bulgars of Khan Tervel, with whom Leo had formed a propitious alliance. The Bulgars butchered some 22,000 of the Arabs. Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz, the new caliph, had little choice but to recall his forces. It was a battered Umayyad army that retreated across Asia Minor in the autumn of 718 and only five vessels of the once massive Muslim armada managed to run the gauntlet of autumn storms in the Hellespont and Aegean to reach their home port.

It was a disastrous Muslim defeat, which should have put Islam on the defensive for decades to come, but inexplicably Leo chose this time to delve into the religious controversy that was to be the bane of Byzantium. In 726 he inaugurated Iconoclasm (literally, ‘the smashing of icons’) by ordering the removal of the icon of Christ over the Chalke entrance to the imperial palace in Constantinople. In 730 he followed up this action with an imperial decree against all icons. This polemical policy was to rend the fabric of the empire for the next fifty-seven years. It proved particularly unpopular in Italy and the Aegean areas. In early 727 the fleets of the Hellas and Karabisian Themes revolted and proclaimed a certain Kosmas as emperor. Leo managed to devastate and disperse these fleets with his own, again using ‘Greek fire’, the secret of which was apparently restricted to Constantinople at the time.

The episode, nonetheless, prompted the emperor to dissolve the troublesome Karabisian Theme and restructure the provincial fleets in order to dilute their threat to the throne. Leo placed the south coast of Asia Minor, formerly a responsibility of the disbanded Karabisian Theme, under the authority of the more tractable droungarios of the Kibyrrhaeot fleet, whose headquarters was transferred to Attaleia (present-day Antalya). Land-based themes, like the Hellas and Peloponnesos, were also allowed to maintain fleets of their own. These modifications to fleet organization were probably intended to help defuse naval power and make it more subservient to the emperor.

Despite their humiliating failure before the walls of Constantinople, the Umayyads took advantage of continued Byzantine upheaval both in the palace and in the Church to nibble away at the edges of the empire. A long period of raid and counter-raid ensued between Damascus and Constantinople, mostly involving either Egypt or Cyprus. But ultimately the Byzantines’ advantage in naval organization, possession of ‘Greek fire’ and virtual monopoly of such critical shipbuilding materials as wood and iron ensured they would prevail, at least in the eastern Mediterranean. The climax of the contest came in 747, when the Kibyrrhaeot fleet surprised an enormous armada from Alexandria in a harbour on Cyprus called Keramaia (exact location unknown). ‘Out of 1,000 dromōns it is said only three escaped,’ professed Theophanes. This was undoubtedly a chauvinistic exaggeration, but Umayyad naval power was evidently broken by the outcome of the battle and never again posed a serious threat to the Byzantine Empire. The Umayyad Dynasty came to an end just three years later when the Abbasids led by Abu al-Abbas as-Saffah crushed Caliph Marwan II at the Battle of Zab (Mesopotamia) in late January 750. The subsequent Abbasid Caliphate moved its capital from Damascus to Baghdad and focused its initial attention on the East.

War Winner: ASDIC

This pictorial illustrates the shape of the detection area for the 144 ASDIC, the ‘Q; attachment and the 147 Asdic.

Asdic dome, oscillator and housing equipment The oscillator, a quartz crystal disc which converted electrical impulses into sound and echoes back to electrical impulses , was lowered into the water under the ship’s hull, protected from extraneous sounds by a streamlined dome which allowed operation at speeds of up to 20 knots . At full speed or in rough seas the dome and oscillator could be retracted into the hull.

The ultimate solution to sinking more U-boats depended not on listening for the sounds that U-boats themselves emitted, but on generating a pulse of sound that could be bounced off a U-boat’s hull to give an echo that could be picked up by the transmitting ship. This was the principle of the device that the British called Asdic (after the Allied Submarine Detection Investigation Committee that sponsored the development). It involved a transducer that could be made to send out a fan-shaped pulse of acoustic energy through the water. If this struck a submerged object, enough of the energy would be reflected towards the transmitting ship to be picked up as a sound echo. The ship’s heading gave the bearing of the submarine (later, the transmitter head of the detector could be turned by the operator to cover any direction from the ship carrying the equipment) and the delay between the original pulse and the receipt of the echo gave the range of the submarine.

Like the hydrophones, Asdic had its disadvantages, but they were less restrictive. It could only be used when the transmitting ship was moving at less than fifteen knots, and it tended to produce echoes from many different kinds of submerged objects, only some of which were submarines. It could give little indication of depth, and as the ship closed in on the target, it lost contact when the range dropped to less than 100 yards. It was no use at all against submarines on the surface.

Finally, it was too late for the war – only seven ships were fitted with the equipment by the Armistice, and none used it against U-boats. The result of this last-minute development of the one weapon that would have made a genuine difference was that up to the end of March 1917, British destroyers had made 142 attacks on U-boats, but had only succeeded in sinking half a dozen of them. The chances were therefore 23 to 1 in favour of the U-boat escaping its attackers, though simply forcing it to dive would usually make it lose contact with potential targets.

Yet Asdic promised much for the future. In time, skilled operators could learn to distinguish between echoes reliably enough to be sure when a U-boat was in their sights. They could also estimate its depth well enough for accurate attacks. It could also cause severe damage to the morale of the U-boat crews: the shrill ping of the Asdic pulses travelling through the water and striking the submarine hull told them escorts were searching for them and very probably knew exactly where they were; crippling depth charge explosions could be expected at any moment.

It would be 1920 before warships were equipped with Asdic in quantity. In fact, it was developed at exactly the wrong time for British ASW operations. Too late for the First World War, it was still early enough in service to cause immense and crippling complacency over its effectiveness during the inter-war years. The Royal Navy came to assume that if submarines could not be abolished at the stroke of a pen in the clauses of the postwar treaties, then any resurgent threat could quickly be seen off by Asdic and depth charges. Had there been a chance to use these weapons to a larger extent before the end of the First World War, it would have become clearer how difficult it remained to sink U-boats, even with the aid of these powerful new weapons.

While this undoubtedly promised well for the future, the Germans were already working on tactics of their own to reduce the advantages conferred by Asdic. Since a U-boat’s speed and endurance while on the surface were so much greater than when submerged, more and more skippers were choosing to carry out attacks in darkness, when all the enemy would see was the small silhouette of the conning tower against the blackness of the night. At the time, this was advantage enough: when Asdic came into general use, it would be even more powerful a tactic, since Asdic could not pick up the echo of a surfaced submarine.

The fashion spread quickly, even among as individualistic a group as submarine commanders. During the final year of war, more than a third of U-boat attacks in the Atlantic and British home waters were night surface attacks, and in the Mediterranean the proportion was almost doubled. Like Asdic, this was a development that would prove even more effective when the fighting resumed after the uneasy peace.

Because Asdic had been developed just too late to come to the rescue in the First World War, its effectiveness had never been tested under combat conditions, which would have revealed its very real limitations. As a result, it had come to be regarded as the panacea for future ASW; sound location and the depth charge were assumed to have virtually rendered the submarine obsolete as a threat.

Nevertheless, some work had been done to develop tactics to use this new combination to sink submarines, and these had been tested at sea, using Royal Navy submarines as targets. The anti-submarine warfare specialists at HMS Osprey at Portland, under the direction of ‘that devoted father of the Asdic, Professor Jack Anderson’, had devised what came to be known as the ‘pounce’ and ‘MRCS’ tactics, which set out to reduce the freedom of a submarine to take evasive action during the last stage of a depth-charge attack, when Asdic effectively became deaf. The ‘pounce’ attack involved the attacking warship moving at slow speed to avoid being picked up on the submarine’s hydrophones. In the meantime another escort monitored the submarine’s movements. When the time was right, the first escort would accelerate to full speed for the attack, being homed in on the target by its sister ship.

At first this seemed to work quite well, until the skippers of the target submarines realised how the tactic worked and became adept at outwitting it once they realised the high-speed dash had begun. The next step was the Medium Range Constant Speed, or MRCS attack, which involved shadowing a submarine at low speed from half a mile away, and then accelerating to the limiting speed at which Asdic could still hold the echo of the submarine, adjusting the escort’s course to match the submarine’s movements. This succeeded in reducing the area of uncertainty between the point at which the echo was lost and the dropping of the depth charge pattern to some 250 yards, but this was still ample for a skilled submarine skipper to take successful evasive action.

One of the Royal Navy’s particularly strong suits was in the field of training aids, and before the war they introduced an Asdic mobile target and a depth-charge attack analyser, which could be used to assess the success or failure of anti-submarine exercises. The Admiralty Research Laboratories also developed a course plotter as a navigational aid, but it also proved valuable when plotting the course of an antisubmarine attack.

The first attack teaching aid for training officers and ratings in anti-submarine tactics and drills was set up at the Portland Anti-Submarine School by 1925, and consisted of the control equipment of an Asdic set together with a glass-topped attack table covered with a sheet of thin plotting paper. Two spots of light were projected on to this representing the positions of the escort and the submarine, and these were moved independently under the orders of the pupil and the instructor. Each Asdic pulse was represented by beams of light corresponding with the settings of the Asdic controls, and if one of these struck the submarine the sound of the echo was triggered through the pupil’s headphones. Other aids trained operators in the techniques of sweeping for a possible target and what to do if a target was lost.

However, the greatest defect of this sound practical training is that so few of the people who would use the equipment in wartime were ever persuaded to specialise in ASW before the war. In spite of the lessons of 1917–18, ASW remained more of a career backwater in the Royal Navy than U-boats in the Kriegsmarine. Captain Donald Macintyre, who became one of the Royal Navy’s foremost sub-killers and who sank the U99 and captured the ace Otto Kretschmer, spent the pre-war years flying with the Fleet Air Arm and commanding fleet destroyers (apart from a stint running HMS Kingfisher, the experimental ship of the Anti-Submarine School). The greatest submarine hunter of all, ‘Johnny’ Walker, suffered being passed over for both promotion and command for selecting to specialise in ASW in a navy still dominated by the battleship and the big gun.

Ironically, the Germans themselves were to prove they had their blind spots. Since the end of the First World War, they had concentrated much more on passive developments like hydrophones because for several years active sound location methods were seen as being linked to attack rather than defence and were therefore proscribed by the Versailles Treaty. As a result, they had little knowledge of what Asdic and the other ASW weapons could do. Doenitz was firm in his conviction that the British were too complacent regarding Asdic’s value and capabilities. Werner Fürbringer disagreed, on the grounds that the Royal Navy’s defences would be too formidable to risk wasting U-boats and their crews on a blockade campaign. The problem, from Doenitz’s point of view, was that Fürbringer was a rear-admiral, was responsible for submarine planning at the Naval High Command, and was effectively his boss.

All Royal Navy destroyers were fitted with ASDIC during the early 1930s. This underwater detection device to locate U-boats using sound echoes was refined before and during World War II by British and other anti-Nazi scientists. Improved hydrophones had long been able to detect a U-boat’s bearing. When grouped to receive echoes of sound pulses, they also determined range. ASDIC worked by sending out acoustical pulses that echoed off hulls of U-boats, but also sometimes off the sides of whales or schools of fish. The echoes were heard by grouped hydrophones on the sending ship, so that an ASDIC screen and operator provided the escort’s captain with estimated range and position of the enemy submarine. It was limited by the sounds of other ships’ screws, rough seas, and onboard machinery of its host ship. Such interference enabled U-boats to hide from escorts inside the “noise barrier” created by a convoy. More importantly, even in optimum conditions early ASDIC could not determine a U-boat’s depth.

British and Commonwealth ASDIC operators could locate U-boats to a distance of 2,000 meters by 1940. However, from 200 meters range to source, pulse and echo merged. That meant U-boats were lost to detection before the moment of attack, just as a destroyer closed on its position. Because forward-throwing technology for depth charges had not been developed, the explosives were dropped astern of the charging destroyer across the last known position of the U-boat. Loss of contact, stern attack, and the time it took charges to sink to explosive depth combined to permit many U-boats to escape destruction simply by turning hard away from the closing destroyer or corvette. Admiral Karl Dönitz, head of the Kriegsmarine U-boat arm, countered the threat from ASDIC by instructing U-boat captains to attack only on the surface and at night. That countermeasure was lost to U-boats once the Western Allies deployed aircraft equipped with Leigh Lights. Dönitz next ordered research into absorbent coating and rubber hull paints to reduce the ASDIC signature of his U-boats, but with little success. Similarly, release of a Pillenwerfer noise-maker only tricked inexperienced ASDIC operators. An advanced Type 147 ASDIC set was developed later in the war that tracked U-boats in three dimensions, giving readouts of bearing as well as range and depth. Note: All Western Allied navies adopted the U. S. Navy term for ASDIC in 1943: sonar.

Major wartime sonar developments attempted to address these deficiencies. Power rotation and improved displays enhanced operating rates, and streamlined steel domes raised useful search speeds. Dual-frequency sets (operating at either 14 or 30 kilocycles) enhanced ranges, and tilting transducers eliminated the dead zone. Britain also developed a specialized sonar (Type 147B) for accurate depth determination. A simultaneous line of development, the scanning sonar using an omnidirectional transmitter coupled to an array of fixed receiving transducers, offered a possible solution to the search problem. Such equipment required greater power to maintain its range but could be larger (since rotation was eliminated) and hence could operate at lower frequencies, enhancing performance.

Wartime submarines also carried sonar. Most navies relied on active sets for target detection, but Germany pursued a different course with its Gruppen-Horch-Gerät (GHG) equipment, a standard installation from 1935 on. An array of sound-receiving diaphragms on each side of the bow connected to a pulse-timing compensator provided bearings of received noise. This apparatus could detect single ships out to 16 miles and large groups to 80 miles, but the bearings it provided were insufficiently precise for accurate attacks. At short ranges, however, a supplemental swiveling hydrophone (Kristall-Basisgerät) generated bearings accurate to within 1 degree. Finally, to obtain ranges U-boats carried an active sonar (SU-Apparatus) developed from surface warship sets, although this device was rarely used because its emissions would reveal the submarine’s presence. Late-war trials, however, using GHG together with SU-Apparatus demonstrated that as few as three active impulses sufficed to determine target distance, course, and approximate speed.

Fixed-array scanning formed the basis for active sonar development after World War II, while passive systems evolved from the original German GHG. In the process the two types converged; most modern ship-mounted sonars operate in both active and passive modes, often simultaneously.


WWII Air-to-Ground Special Purpose Weapons

‘Mistel’ (mistletoe) was the name the Germans gave to their combination system whereby a fighter aircraft was attached to an old bomber loaded with explosives. The fighter, in this case an Me 109, flew its charge to the target, broke contact and guided the bomber to impact by radio control.

The ‘Weary Willie’ idea of packing old B- 17s with explosive and crashing them on to a target was abandoned in favour of more modest plans involving these Grumman F6F Hellcats. Too late for service in 1945, they saw action in the Korean War.

The Förstersonde consisted of a pair of 77-mm recoilless guns mounted vertically in the wing of an FW 190 and triggered by the electro-magnetic field created by the mass of metal in a tank. It was successful in penetrating the armour of a captured T-34 tank. Very little is known of this project except that trials were made in early 1945 on the fire control system which proved that it was feasible if not immediately perfect, but the weapon never got into service.

Many of today’s air-to-ground weapons can trace their ancestry back to munitions designed in World War II. Most nations experimented with guided weapons, the Germans deploying some to great effect. There were also unique ideas such as the Dambusters’ ‘Bouncing Bomb’ produced for special operations.

Weary Willie and ‘ Tired Tim’ were a couple of much-beloved strip cartoon characters in the days before World War IL , and it was probably the America custom of describing time-expired operational airframes as ‘war weary’ that led to the name Weary Willie for the Boeing B-17s modified for remote-control crashing onto targets such as the underground lairs (No-ball targets) of weapons like the V-1 flying bomb . The relegated bombers were never in the event used for such work, but would have been packed with explosive and taken under radio control on their last mission.

But if such outsize flying bombs as these represent the larger of the special purpose weapons, the other end of the scale is surely and ably represented by the tiny Razzle (and the larger Decker). These were incendiary devices intended for use against enemy crops and forests and consisted of a small piece of wet cotton wool wrapped round a phosphorus pellet and enclosed within two sheets of celluloid about 7.6 cm (3 in) square. Some 450 such devices were carried in a drum of liquid and dropped over enemy territory, to lay on the ground undetected until they dried out and ignited

Yet undoubtedly the most famous special device of the entire conflict is the cylindrical bomb used to destroy the vital Ruhr dams.

Simple in concept, this Barnes Wallis design was little more than a cylinder, set spinning by means of a VSG Hydraulic motor via a ‘V’ belt. With 2994 kg (6,600 lb) of RDX explosive making up, the greater part of the 4196 kg 2994 kg (9,250 lb) total the bomb was capable of skipping total the over the protective booms at 500 rpm once released by the parting of the pair of suspended trusses, to sink against the target wall and be fired by the hydrostatic fuses set to operate at a depth of 9.14 m (30 ft).

Another special Weapon of similar concept was that intended to sink the Tirpitz. This preceded the larger bomb, and was codenamed ‘Highball’. Of spheroidal shape, it was intended to be carried in pairs by an adapted de Havilland Mosquito. The delivery journey and dash back to base would be carried out at 4572-m (15,000-ft) altitude which, although probably alerting the enemy radar, would permit an enhanced range and improved flexibility of the actual attack. Unfortunately all came to naught although tests had been satisfactorily concluded, political pressures finally winning the day so that not even the squadron of special Mosquitoes despatched to operate against the Japanese fleet was ever used.

The supply of special weapons was not in any measure confined to the Allies. For example , the Luftwaffe boasted that its largest convention 5,511-lb SC 2500 nicknamed ‘Max’ which was 3.895 m ( 12 ft 9.3 in ) long and had a diameter of 0.829 m (2 ft 8.6 in), was too large to fit in the internal bay of any German bomber and thus had to be carried externally.

One of the special weapons associated with the night raids against the UK was that popularly known as the ‘land mine’. This was an adapted device that was commonly spoken of in some awe because of its high blast effect; this was partly the result of the weapon’s lack of penetration, since it was dropped under a large parachute of coarse green material secured to the thin-walled casing with plaited lines some 12.7-mm (0.5- in) thick. These weapons were frequently dropped in company with a percentage of ‘oil bombs’, fire-raising devices distinct from the normal thermite incendiaries of which an explosive version was introduced. The oil bombs carried both fuel-oil and phosphorus within a single casing. Another contemporary special weapon was the so-called Molotov cocktail, which consisted in the main of a high-explosive bomb with an attached container for conventional incendiaries which opened before making impact and thus scattered its load.

But perhaps the most dangerous special weapon to come from the German aerial armoury was quite small, the ‘butterfly-bomb’ or SD-2 which consisted of a cylinder no more than a few centimetres in diameter. Semi-circular wings so that the bomb spun to the ground in the manner of a sycamore seed. These weapons proved particular value against soft-skinned vehicles or troops in the open, detonation taking place on impact or after a delay; the weapons could also act as ‘booby-traps’, lying in undergrowth etc. until disturbed. Fighters or Junkers Ju 87s could lay a trail of up to 96 of these SD-2s, while twin-motor bombers could deposit some 360, a contrast in size and scope with such special weapons as the explosive-laden Grumman F6F Hellcats earmarked to fly unmanned against targets in the Pacific area.


Without doubt, though, the glide bomb to end all glide bombs was Mistel (`Mistletoe’). It is said that this idea was put forward by the chief test pilot of the Junkers company in 1941 as a method of putting war-weary Ju 88 bombers to some practical use. In the 1930s Britain’s Imperial Airways had proposed an air mail service on the Atlantic and other routes by using a seaplane mounted on top of a flying-boat. The flying boat took off, carrying the seaplane, transported it some distance along its route, and then the seaplane released itself and flew off to continue the trip while the flying boat returned to base. The object was to use the greater power of the flying boat to get the heavily laden (with fuel and mail) seaplane into the air, as well as carry it some distance without using any of its fuel.

The proposal that now came forward in Germany was a reversal of this. The Ju 88 bomber was stripped of its interior fittings and had the cockpit space filled with a gigantic shaped charge weighing about 3,500kg. A fighter aircraft was attached above the bomber and the controls connected. All engines were started and the fighter pilot flew the combination off. On approaching his target he put the whole combination into a dive calculated to deliver the bomber to the target, then disconnected himself. He then flew an accompanying course, correcting the bomber’s flight by radio until he had steered it into impact with the target, after which he flew home satisfied with a job well done.

As might be imagined, such a revolutionary concept in 1941 was promptly thrown out, but in 1942 it re-appeared but as a means of lifting a glider into the air and then releasing it. This appeared to work successfully, then somebody in the Reichsluftministerium remembered the fighter/bomber combination and brought the idea forward again. In 1943 it was put into development and a combination Ju 88A/Messerschmitt Bf 109 flew a series of tests, leading to an order for 15 sets to be built under the code-name Beethoven. The shaped-charge warhead was built and tested, first against a redundant French battleship and then against reinforced concrete, against which it could defeat 18 metres thickness.

Once the design was perfected and made operational, it became Mistel 7, and the machines were operated in 1944 from a base in France against Allied shipping in the Bay of Biscay. It is reported that several hits were made, though no ship was sunk as a result. Now a crash programme was begun to assemble 100 units, to be called Mistel 2, which were to be used in Operation Iron Hammer against the advancing Allied forces nearing Germany. The order was then increased to 250, and several other combinations of fighter and bomber, according to what machines could be rounded up and converted, were put in hand, but, as with so many other last-minute schemes, the war ended before the force could be built and assembled.

Gliding Torpedoes

Blöhm und Voss, being primarily a firm with naval interests, became involved in the development of a gliding torpedo in the middle 1930s. Dropping torpedoes from aircraft was by that time a commonplace, but it was a rough and ready technique which simply took a standard naval torpedo and dropped it in the water from as low as the pilot dared to go. The Blöhm & Voss Luft-Torpedo (LT F5b) began with a standard 750 kg fleet torpedo and added tail surfaces and apparatus for setting the steering and depth controls from the aircraft. This worked well and improved the accuracy of the aviators, and it was followed by the LT 10 Friedensengel (Angel of Peace’) which used the same torpedo but added wings and tail-planes so that it could make a long glide before entering the water at the proper speed and angle. About 450 of these appear to have been manufactured during the war years, though accounts of their employment are certainly very scarce. Production was halted in 1944 and changed to the LT 11 or Schneewittchen (`Snow-white’), a rather more advanced model, but few of these were ever made.

The German bouncing bombs

There was an immediate response to the bomb by the Germans. After the Lancaster crashed from hitting high-tension power lines, the intact mine was removed from the wrecked plane by the local troops, who initially thought that it was a reinforced auxiliary fuel tank. Once its true nature was realized it took just ten days for the German engineers to draw up detailed blueprints of all the design features and they set out to build a bouncing bomb of their own. The first constructed was code named Kurt and was a 850lb (385kg) bomb built at the Luftwaffe Experimental Centre in Travemünde. The initial trial was from a Focke-Wulf Fw-190 but the importance of backspin was not recognized by the designers, and the bomb leaped high in the air after release, posing a danger to the aircraft.

To obtain more range, and thus provide safer conditions for the dropping aircraft, which, it appeared, would usually be above the bomb when it detonated, a rocket rail unit was fitted. This increased the range but also showed a tendency to push the bomb off course if it happened to be yawing at the instant of ignition. To cure this a gyroscope stabilising unit was designed, which would have been run up before the bomb was dropped but while the aircraft was aimed at the target, and which would subsequently detect any tendency to veer off-course and apply the necessary corrections to the tail unit to steer it back again. But, in November 1944, before this could be built and tested, the project was closed down. The one thing that remains to be discovered about Kurt is what target the Luftwaffe planned to use it against?

The fact that the Germans found an intact bomb was due to a vital factor overlooked by the British designers. As we have seen, these were essentially mines fitted with depth charges. The bomb that overshot – because it was never immersed in water – was never going to explode, and so it was recovered intact. A conventional time fuse should have been fitted, and then the weapon would have functioned as conventional bomb if it overshot the dam. And the Germans missed something equally crucial – the fact that the bombs were spinning. It was the backspin that gave the bouncing bombs their awesome ability to ricochet so far across the water. This remained a military secret long after the war; indeed, you will note that there is no mention of spin even in the movie of the Dambusters. Although Barnes Wallis advised on the film, and it is painstakingly accurate in many respects, he was prohibited from releasing this vital piece of information and the public never knew.

The drawings and diagrams were ultimately all lost, and little technical detail remained. In 2011 Ian Duncan, a director with the British documentary company Windfall Films, recreated a scaled-down version of the bouncing bomb, with Dr Hugh Hunt of Cambridge University in charge of the experiments. They began logically (as did Barnes Wallis) with small spheres leading onto increasingly large projectiles, ending up with a half-size bouncing bomb with which they successfully targeted a purpose-built dam. The physics proved interesting: just as Barnes Wallis had calculated, the lower the bomb was dropped, the further it travelled.

The Americans had tried to make use of this principle immediately after World War II. Because they were sent every British military secret, their designers were aware of the need for backspin, and they also knew that a low launch altitude helped maximize the trajectory of the spinning mine. They copied the British design of the Highball weapon, renaming it Baseball. Initial investigations were promising, so – to maximize the distance the bomb would travel – they decided to launch it at 25ft (7.6m), less than half the altitude of the British Dambusters. This was such a success that the officials reckoned the pilot should fly even lower and see how far the bomb went this time. As the plane sped above the water at the perilously low level of 10ft (3m) the bomb was dropped and bounced perfectly – so much so that it smashed up through the fuselage, completely severing the aircraft’s tail. The plane flew on momentarily and then smashed into countless fragments as it hit the water at speed. The surviving film of the incident makes the whole event so obviously predictable, and one can only sympathize with the compliant pilot who either thought it would be good idea at the time or was simply following orders.

Meanwhile, Guy Gibson’s 617 Squadron remained together and they were subsequently given the opportunity to deliver Barnes Wallis’s later weapons. The Cookie 5-ton bomb was carried by Lancaster bombers and used with great effect to attack submarine pens in France and German warship bases in the fjords of Norway. Although it proved a success, it was no more than a vast, conventional blast bomb. Barnes Wallis had in mind a very different secret weapon which would penetrate the ground and deliver such powerful shockwaves that it would bring down buildings and bunkers for a considerable distance around. Whereas a conventional bomb (no matter how large) did its damage through air-blast, Barnes Wallis’s revolutionary new bomb would generate a miniature earthquake, by setting up huge ground waves of energy. These could demolish a building from below.

Other solutions were sought to increase the penetrating power of high-explosive bombs. Towards the end of the war, a rocket-assisted high-impact bomb was conceived by the Royal Navy’s Captain Edward Terrell as an alternative answer. The rocket could give a smaller bomb the velocity needed to penetrate thick concrete. The weapon weighed only 4,500 lb (2,000 kg) and could be dropped from a safe altitude of 20,000 ft (about 6,000 m). When it had descended to 5,000 ft (1,500 m) a barometric fuse would fire a rocket motor in the tail. This accelerated the bomb to give it a final speed of 2,400 ft/s (730 m/s). This secret weapon was first carried under the wings of B-17 Flying Fortress bombers used by the 92nd Bomb Group on 10 February 1945 against the S-boat pens at IJmuiden, Netherlands. Altogether, 158 of these so-called Disney bombs were used operationally by the end of the war in Europe.

Barnes Wallis scaled down his proposals for his gravity-assisted penetrating bomb, and in 1944 designed instead the 12,000 lb (5,400 kg) Tallboy bomb, which could be carried by the current bombers. Later in the war, the Avro Lancaster improved to such an extent that it could just support a 10-ton payload and so, as we shall see, the 22,000 lb (10,000 kg) Grand Slam bomb was finally put into production. It was a secret weapon of unprecedented power. As in the case of the Tallboy bomb, the Grand Slam was spin-stabilized by its fins and was built with a thick, heavy steel case to allow it to penetrate deep layers of the ground unscathed. Dropped from high altitude, it would impact at nearly the speed of sound. During manufacture, hot liquid Torpex explosive was poured in to fill the casing and this took a month to cool down and solidify. Torpex (named because it had been developed as a TORpedo EXplosive) had more than 150 per cent the force of TNT. The finished bomb was so valuable that aircraft that could not drop their weapon in an abortive mission were ordered to return to base and land with the bomb intact, instead of jettisoning it over the open sea. Barnes Wallis had planned to create a 10-ton weapon in 1941, but it was not until June 1944 that the bomb was ready for use. It was first dropped on the Saumur rail tunnel from Lancaster bombers of 617 Squadron. No aircraft were lost on the raid, and one of the bombs bored 60 ft (18 m) through the rock into the tunnel, blocking it completely. These massive ‘earthquake’ bombs were also used on the great concrete structures that the Germans were building to protect their rocket storage bunkers and submarine pens, and caused considerable damage. The Valentin submarine pens at Bremen, Germany, were made with reinforced concrete roofs some 23 ft (7 m) thick yet they were penetrated by two Grand Slam bombs in March 1945.

Ultimate penetration bombs

These ground-penetrating bombs are among the secret weapons that have gone on to give rise to present-day developments. Remote guidance was added to the Tallboy bomb by the United States during the Korean War. The resulting weapon was the 12,000 lb (5,400 kg) Tarzon bomb, used with devastating effect against a deep underground control room near Kanggye. Bunker buster bombs were also dropped at the Ali Al Salem Air Base, Kuwait, in 1991 as part of Operation Desert Storm. At the outbreak of the First Gulf War none of the NATO forces possessed such a weapon, so some of the original Barnes Wallis bombs were brought out of museums and used as templates for the construction of 2-ton bombs. They were laser guided by the United States forces and proved highly effective.

During the late 1990s a nuclear bomb was being designed by the United States for use in tactical warfare. Known as the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator it underwent extensive design and development even though the use of nuclear weapons was prohibited by international agreement. Work on the project continued until it was finally cancelled by the Senate in 2005. Meanwhile, in 2007 the Boeing Company announced that they had carried out successful tests of their Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP) weapon at the White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. This bomb, also known as the Big Blu and Direct Hard Target Strike Weapon, is a 30,000 lb (14,000 kg) penetration bomb designed to be delivered by a B-52 Stratofortress or a B-2 stealth bomber against heavily protected subterranean targets. This is a project for the United States Threat Reduction Agency, and is designed to hit the ground at supersonic speeds so that it can penetrate deeply prior to detonation. Most of the mass is in the casing, not the explosive component. All of his stems from the work of Barnes Wallis during World War II, so once again the legacy of these secret weapons remains with us to this day.

USA guided missiles

One of the first guided missiles designed in the United States was the Dragon, a radio-controlled aerial torpedo with a television camera mounted in the nose. Development proved difficult, however, when private television and electronics related firms attempted to merge their designs with the air- frames developed by the military. To overcome some of the ensuing technical difficulties involved in systems integration, the NDRC enlisted the aid of the National Bureau of Standards, which formed a special research group for the project. But before development advanced to the production stage, the project became sidetracked when the navy requested the National Bureau of Standards to design an effective antisubmarine guided missile. Using a scaled- down version of the Dragon, late in 1944, the National Bureau of Standards produced the Pelican, a radar-guided antisubmarine missile.

By this time, however, the German U-boat threat had subsided greatly, and despite its excellent performance in flight tests, the navy scrapped the Pelican, declaring that the missile was of “no operational use.” The technical knowledge gained from the development of the Pelican was subsequently applied to a more advanced model, the SWOD Mk 9 air-to-surface guided missile, also known as the Mk 57 Bomb, or Bat. The Bat, developed by the Navy Bureau of Ordnance in cooperation with the Radiation Laboratory at MIT, was a low- angle glide bomb equipped with a radar bombsight for active homing. The Bat entered service in January 1945 and was first used on 23 April 1945 at Balikpapan, Borneo. Although the Bat was the only completely automatic target- seeking missile developed during the war, its efficacy in combat proved less than satisfactory.

The R4M rocket

Me 262 with R4M underwing rockets on display at the Technikmuseum Speyer, Germany

The 5.5cm R4M aircraft rocket; drawn from a British report on its discovery. This is the air-to-air version with a shaped-charge warhead for antiaircraft use.

The R4M had two shaped-charge warheads: PR-3 for aerial fighting and the larger PB-2, used for attacking tanks.

The R4M rocket – from the German Rakete (rocket), 4-KiIogramm, Minenkopf (mine-head) – was nicknamed the Orkan (Hurricane) missile. It weighed 8.51b (3.85kg), measured 32in (812mm) in length and 2.16in (55mm) in diameter. It was developed in 1945 and a few were fitted to Me-262 and Fw-190s aircraft. It was highly effective and in April 1945 a squadron of Me-262 jets are reported to have brought down 30 American B-17 bombers in a single mission.

The fighter version of the Me262 could fly at 540 mph – it could far outstrip the Mustangs, and it could reach 30 000 ft in seven minutes. It could fly for only an hour, which was a drawback, but its 30-mm guns could pack an awful punch. Later it added the new R4M rockets to its armament, being able to carry 24 of these high-velocity air- to-air rockets which were ripple-fired to form a dense pattern. Fired at a B17 formation, a single rocket was usually more than enough to cause lethal damage.

The tactic used by Me262 pilots when attacking US bombers was generally to place themselves about three miles behind the bomber `box’ and about 6000 ft above. From this position they began a dive to reach a speed of over 540 mph with which to penetrate any fighter screen. Continuing down to 1000 to 1500 ft below the `box’ the German pilot would then pull up, throttle back in order to lose some of this forward speed, then level out some 1000 yards behind the target at about 100 mph, firing rockets (if carried) at 650 yards’, then following up with his 30-mm from closer range. The pilot would accelerate away and over to avoid flying debris, as his target bomber disintegrated.

Produced by the Rheinmetall Company, the Rakete 4 Minenkopf (R4M) air-to-air rocket, nicknamed Orkan (Hurricane), was developed to deal with Allied heavy bombers. The projectile was composed of a simple steel (later cardboard) tube with eight flip-out fins for stabilization. It was 82 cm (32.2 in) in length and 5.5 cm (2.16 in) in diameter. It was powered by a diglycol, solid-fuel, fast-burning rocket propellant. It mounted a 0.50 kg (1.1l b) war- head, either high-explosive for anti-aircraft use or armor-piercing against tanks. It was usually used in a battery of twelve or twenty-four, mounted and fired from a wooden launch rail attached under wing. The projectiles were unguided and aimed by a cockpit gunsight. They were provided with enough fuel to be fired effectively from 1,000 m, thus beyond the range of bombers’ defensive weapons. The rockets were serially fired in four salvos of six missiles each, at intervals of 0.07 seconds, from a range of about 600 m to 1,000 m and at a speed of 1,700 ft/s. One single hit often meant a kill, but it was not an easy task to take accurate aim on a target which was taking evasive action. Simple and easy to manufacture, the R4M was used operationally only for a brief period just before the end of World War II.


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.

Wernher von Braun (center), the technical director of the Peenemünde Army Research Center with German officers at Peenemünde, March 21, 1941. The British attempt to incapacitate the leadership of the German rocket program was unsuccessful. Von Braun and most of the important German scientists survived Operation Hydra.

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.

Aerial photograph of Peenemunde (AIR 34/184) – Transcript Peenemunde Site Plan/Target Map, (AIR 34/632)

Operation Hydra, the raid on Peenemünde. Targets shown are

    A: Experimental station

    B: Factory workshops

    C: Power plant

    D: Unidentified machinery

    E: Experimental establishments

    F: Sleeping and living quarters

    G: Airfield

Date: April 1943

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.

The Soviet option

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

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

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

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

Moving to America: Operation Paperclip

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

V2 The A4 Rocket from Peenemunde to Redstone

Author: Murray R Barber

Publisher: Crecy Publishing Ltd ISBN: 978 19065 365 24

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

www. crecy. co. uk

Spezialfahrzeuge Peenemünde 1942-45 V2 rocket book.

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

What Drove the Rise of the English Longbowman?

The answer to this question can be found in the stories of the various ways people used bows and arrows in the times between the Norman Conquest and the Black Death. Sometimes their activities are lost to history because of the lack of records, at other times the royal administration may have discouraged popular archery either deliberately or by neglect. But an English tradition of popular archery existed throughout the period.

Much has been made of the Anglo-Norman experience of archery in their wars against the Welsh and its influence on the development of military archery in England. The Norman kings and Marcher Lords gained control of large parts of Southern Wales through conquest and alliance by the middle of the twelfth century. Then they used the archery skills of their new tenants and allies in their assault on Ireland. Part of the reason why the Southern Welsh archery skills have been emphasised is because of the graphic accounts of its effectiveness left us by Giraldus Cambrensis. Meanwhile there is evidence of archery skills developing in the English border counties, or more likely being discovered and exploited by the Anglo Norman rulers. But as accounts of military archery in Stephen’s reign make clear, there was an active English archery tradition at the same time as the Welsh archers were impinging on the Anglo Normans. But it is probable that the Welsh contribution to the development of military archery was to demonstrate the effectiveness of more powerful bows than were commonly used in the contemporary English tradition. At the same time, the Battle of the Standard strongly suggests that there was a tradition of archery in Northern England, probably encouraged by two centuries of Norse influence, and more centuries of warfare with the Scots. While the Norsemen did not make extensive use of military archery, they understood the value of archery. Their tradition of archery may well have concentrated more on longbow use, since there are tenth-century finds of longbows from Hedeby in Norway and Ballinderry in Ireland.

After King John lost the wealthiest parts of his cross-Channel kingdom to Philip Augustus of France military tactics in England developed surprisingly slowly. Despite the rapid expansion of both the types of weapons and the social classes included in the Assizes of Arms under Henry III it took until the end of the thirteenth century for the beginnings of the English tactical system became apparent. Edward I tended to use archers in the same way that William I and Stephen had: to provide general harassing or covering fire and to weaken bodies of stalwart infantry until the mailed horsemen could destroy them. That is men that might turn a battle their way rather than win it outright. The battles of the Standard in 1138 and Boroughbridge in 1322 are much more significant stages in the development of military practice in England. In both these battles, the small numbers of knights present dismounted to stiffen the infantry line while relatively large numbers of archers were placed in and around the front line to rebuff the oncoming enemy with arrow shot. But, for as long as the Norman and Plantagenet kings kept their focus mainly on Continental European matters, military practice continued to follow the Continental tradition with knights and mailed horsemen being the masters of the battlefield. As a result, the lessons of the Battle of the Standard were largely forgotten until the thirteenth century when a solution had to be found to a major military problem. England was no longer able to raise the numbers of mailed horsemen necessary to match those that could be raised in France and the German states.

The thirteenth century was the key period for the development of popular archery in England. Henry III and Edward I progressively extended the reach of the Assizes of Arms to include men from more social groups. Between 1230 and 1285 the duty of arms ownership for peacekeeping and military service was extended to include both free and serfs, so that by 1285 no healthy non noble layman aged between 16 and 60 was specifically excluded. Significantly, the most numerous groups were those that were expected to have bows and arrows. This was the time when the major official recognition and encouragement of archery happened; and by doing so it marked the recognition that an English tradition of popular archery existed. Edward III’s 1363 proclamation requiring archery practice only had force because the bow had been established as the legally required weapon of a majority of the population in the previous century. But a century earlier Henry III’s advisers must have discerned some level of interest in archery among the population of England when they added bows and arrows to the weapon types required by the Assizes of Arms. The reach and influence of the medieval kings of England was not sufficiently powerful that they could make men take up weapons that they had no interest in. This became apparent in the second half of the thirteenth century when Edward I was disappointed by the number and quality of knights coming forward in answer to his summons. While in part this had an economic cause, knightly arms were not cheap, there was also an element of weariness and resentment with Edward’s demands since he was at war so often. But it shows very clearly that it was difficult to force men to take up arms if they felt it was against their interests.

The main reason Henry III expanded the scope of the Assizes of Arms was the need to increase the pool of competent men available to recruit English armies from. With the loss of many of the his European lands, and resulting loss of both revenue and manpower, Henry and his advisers were left in a weak position in comparison with the king of France. So they had to look more closely at the potential military resources available in England. This led them to begin to include the English tradition of archery and so undo Henry II’s omission, after he had left archery out of his English Assize of Arms in 1181. They might well have remembered the ‘foundation myth’ of the Norman and Plantagenet kings of England, that an archer struck the fatal blow at the Battle of Hastings, they may have recalled the effectiveness of archery in Henry I’s and Stephen’s reigns as well as that of the Welsh archers. So they probably felt that the inclusion of military archery would help to balance the relative lack of mailed horsemen. The staged inclusion of archery in the Assizes of Arms may show that the royal administration didn’t realise initially the potential of the English tradition of archery to provide fighting men, and in particular were ignorant of the amount of archery practised by the peasantry, both free and unfree. Although there is very little evidence of archery as a sport in the eleventh to thirteenth centuries, what little there is shows that members of the population at large enjoyed archery. While they were nowhere near as widespread and numerous as was the case in the late fourteenth, fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, they showed that popular archery existed. Whatever their motives, Henry III and his advisers could hardly have foreseen the fearsome power that the archers of England and Wales would bring to European battlefields in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

But one question remains: why did the Henry III and Edward I encourage military archery through their Assizes of Arms and the Statute of Westminster in the thirteenth century? Contemporary experiences of powerful infantry in North Wales, Scotland and Continental Europe all demonstrated the effectiveness of steady bodies of pike armed infantry. They could resist and even defeat mailed cavalry, the ‘battlefield kings’ of the time. Infantry armed with close-quarters weapons such as swords axes and shields found bodies of pike-armed men very difficult to defeat. Perhaps more importantly, steady pike-armed infantry could be raised and trained much more quickly than effective military archers regardless of whether the archers were using, shorter bows, longbows or crossbows. So why didn’t the English kings and their military advisors take the easier and more widely followed path and develop pike armed infantry? It was a sort of medieval military ‘scissors, paper, stone’. Good numbers of archers could negate pike-armed infantry and menace the horses at least of mailed cavalry. Pike-armed infantry could negate mailed horse but not archers. Infantry armed with close quarters weapons were not decisive forces in armies of the period because they were vulnerable to both mailed horse and archers. Mailed horse could negate unprotected archers (as the Scots managed at Bannockburn) and disordered pike-armed infantry. If the archers were protected by either infantry, including dismounted knights as at the Battle of the Standard or by mounted knights as at Falkirk they could to all intents and purposes win the battle. In addition to these abilities, archers were very useful as garrison troops, and light infantry for foraging and harassing the enemy. Looked at in these terms the real question becomes why was it only among the English and Welsh (and some English ruled lands like Gascony) that large numbers of men developed the ability to use increasingly heavy hand bows in war? This is particularly surprising since Henry II’s Assize of Arms issued in Le Mans in 1180 allowed those men belonging to the lowest income group included the option of having bows and arrows. It is believed that the robust tradition of popular archery in England and Wales is part of the explanation.

When did longbow archery become the dominant form of archery in England and Wales? The evidence recounted in this book makes it clear that shorter bows, between about 4 and 5ft in length, were in widespread use up to the middle of the fourteenth century at least. The most telling evidence comes from two legal reports mentioning bows and ell and a half in length (about 54in or 1.37m in length) and various illustrations. At the same time, direct evidence of longbows about two ells or yards in length also comes from other legal reports. Ireland has provided archaeological evidence of complete bows of both lengths; a shorter bow from twelfth-century Waterford and a longbow from late tenth-century Ballinderry. Yet by the start of the fifteenth century at the latest it is very difficult to find any trace of shorter bows still being use. They may well have been but longbows were the predominant form by then. Longbows are more demanding on the bowyer who has to find and work longer staves, and on the archer, who will have to master the long draw, and likely greater draw weight of the bow. The benefit is greater power in the arrow, and, vitally from the point of view of military archery, greater weight in the arrow and arrowstrike.

Evidence begins to emerge in the last two decades of the thirteenth century onwards of significant activities which point to deliberate development of the power of the bow used in England. It is possible that the archer freeman of York, Robert of Werdale made a small contribution to this change to the use of longbows in war, but we have no proof. This is a significant period in English military history since it marks the time when the Statute of Winchester completed the legal recognition of the English tradition of archery begun fifty years earlier. This royal encouragement of archery begins to be complimented by the development of an archery equipment industry in England. The earliest clear records of the import of bowstaves come from this time. The existence of craftsmen bowyers is confirmed in the records of expenditure on bows by royal officers for selected men that also comes from these decades. In the case of these purchase records the prices paid for the bows in the 1280s was the same as that paid by Edward III’s administration in the 1340s, implying a particular standard of bow was required. Evidence of this trend to more powerful bows also comes from stratified finds of arrowheads, where arrowheads with a socket diameter of at least 10mm become more common in the late thirteenth century and into the fourteenth century, demonstrating the more widespread use of heavy bows.

There is one piece of clear evidence of how and when long-draw bows that could be drawn to at least 30in, like those found on the Mary Rose, came to be the standard for military archery. It is a royal order made in 1338 to Nicholas Caraud, the King’s Artillier. He was instructed ‘to buy 4000 sheaves of arrows of an ell in length with steel heads.’ There would be no need for arrows a yard long if they were not going to be shot from longbows. As the Waterford bow and the description of John of Tylton’s bow and arrow show, bows around an ell and a half (c.54in or 1.37m) in length, shot arrows of around 26–27in (66–68cm) in length. Edward III was determined that the archers in his armies would have powerful bows, this was why the English and Welsh archers shattered the French armies. The first half of the fourteenth century was a time of significant technological change in the archery equipment used in the English tradition of archery. Long-draw bows became the norm; heavier arrows evidenced by arrowheads with larger socket diameters became the norm; stringers became more skilled at making strong thin strings that no longer required arrows to have bulbous nocks. Evidence of the way the royal administration drove these changes in the fourteenth century can also be found in the increasing number of records of imports of bowstaves including Edward II’s order for Spanish yew bows in the 1320s. By the 1340s the royal administration was issuing substantial orders for bows and arrows which give no measurements for the bows and arrows required. This suggests that bowyers and fletchers knew what the king expected by this time.

But this was also the time when the Luttrell Psalter showed some men shooting shorter bows at the butts. A reasonable deduction from all this is that the Royal standard for military bows was the longbow, and that this standard brought about a shift in the English archery culture to almost total practice with the longbow in the second half of the fourteenth century. This change might explain in part the complaints of both Edward II and Edward III between 1315 and the 1340s that the Arrayers were dilatory, corrupt and sending feeble, poorly equipped archers to muster. While the Arrayers may have been both dilatory and corrupt, they may also have been sending archers equipped with shorter bows like those shown in the Luttrell Psalter and other illustrations; men who were competent enough with shorter bows, but who struggled with the longbows in use in the royal armies.

How active and pervasive was the English tradition of archery? It is difficult to find much trace of it before the beginning of the thirteenth century, except for military archery mainly in Stephen’s reign, particularly the Battle of the Standard. This lack of evidence arises for two main reasons: lack of records and a general tendency to restrict the activities of much of the population through a rigid understanding of the significance of free and unfree status. Once Henry III started to erode this separation by including unfree men in the Assize of Arms, the wider tradition of archery was brought forward into national significance. The thirteenth century marks the time in history when written records increased enormously in number which gives us so much more information about the practice of archery in England. Much of this information is peripheral, just recording the ownership and use of bows and arrows. As such it provides illumination of the practice of archery by Englishmen of the time in a way that a tract from an enthusiast does not. The ordinariness of some of the records illuminates a tradition of archery among ordinary men which was the foundation of the near legendary skills and reputation of the English and Welsh archers in the coming decades.

Magna Carta and the Forest Charter restricted the physical penalties that could be exacted for offences against the aw in general and Forest Law in particular. This meant that more of the men engaged in illegal activities in the royal forests with bows and arrows survived to repeat their offences and develop their skills. Since the forests covered maybe a quarter of England in the thirteenth century, this was likely to be quite a large number of men. Moreover the vast increase in the number of private parks presented even more opportunities for men to practice archery illegally. In addition, the forests and parks provided opportunities for men with archery skills to gain good work as foresters, parkers and hunters. It is difficult to know how many foresters and foresters’ men used archery skills in their work in the royal forests, but given the number and size of the forests 1,000 would be the likely minimum. As has been noted above there were perhaps 3,200 private parks in the early fourteenth century, meaning at least 3,200 skilled archers could have been employed as parkers and hunters. In addition to these men there would have been a good number of men employed as hunters full or part time by noble and gentry households both lay and clerical. All these made up an elite in terms of skill, almost certainly men capable of using powerful longbows. Writs of summons and the pay records for Edward I’s Welsh and Scottish campaigns show larger numbers of archers being required than could have been supplied from this skilled group. He expected men who were conforming to the demands of the Assizes of Arms and the Statute of Winchester to come to his armies. These men would have had more variable levels of skill and quality of equipment and it is quite likely that many of them used shorter bows, 4 to 5ft in length. But as their achievements proved these bows were effective.

Huntsmen in England, regardless of class were more likely to practise bow and stable hunting than par force hunting. It is noteworthy that this was not just the case among the English before the Conquest but was also generally true in the reigns of the Norman and Plantagenet kings. The ‘Laws of Cnut’ noted above allowed all men the right to hunt on their land encouraging and acknowledging popular hunting before the Conquest which in turn suggests the existence of a popular archery tradition in England. After the imposition of Forest Law by William I this tradition was repressed, particularly where it related to hunting. Although the vast extent of the royal forests under the Norman and Plantagenet kings meant that forestry and hunting continued to provide employment opportunities for archers whether English or Norman. But when Magna Carta and the associated Forest Charter banned the imposition of ferocious physical penalties for illegal hunting in the royal forests in the first quarter of the thirteenth century popular archery grew. The importance of hunting to this growth of popular archery should not be underestimated.

When bows were used in illegal activities including poaching they seem to have been used by people from a wide range of social and economic groups. Many of the cases noted above were perpetrated by ordinary men and make clear that men carried bows at all sorts of times, not just when they were expecting trouble. This is made particularly clear in the cases where an unstrung bow was used as a club. But in the reports of both poaching and other illegal activities bows were used in a minority of cases. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, bows became more commonly used in crimes, reflecting the greater number of men practising archery in these later centuries. Before the fourteenth century it is fair to suggest that archery was a minority pastime.

There was a blossoming of popular archery in the thirteenth century and that this led to there being enough competent archers for Edward III to achieve great things in his wars. By doing so he ensured that popular archery became a defining characteristic of life in medieval England.

U-Boat Tests with Bombardment Rockets

A small Wurfkorper Spreng 42 rocket used by the Kriegsmarine to test the idea of underwater rocket launching during 1942.

Preparations for underwater rocket launching trials with U-511, a Type IXC submarine.

An hypothetical illustration of the projected modification of type XXI U-boat with a “Ursel” rocket launcher.

These images were taken from an allied report dated 1945, “German Underwater Rockets”, produced by the “U. S. Naval Technical Mission in Europe”. As you could see, of the twelve experimental rockets, five were fitted with the “bugbeluftung”, a device set at the rocket nose meant to create a layer between water and the rocket body. That was made with exhaust gas ( a small fraction diverted, like the present Russian “Skhval” ). According the report the latter designs were functioning well. Range and speed were enough for the purpose initially in mind, to defend the submarine from attacking ships. Mind the sketch, with installation aboard a U-boat. It was to be trained and launched automatically by the SP-anlage.

In 1941 scientists at Peenemunde conceived the idea of launching artillery rockets from the deck of a submarine. The Kriegsmarine showed immediate interest and this led to a series of experiments in 1942 involving U-511, a Type IXC boat. A Schweres Wurfgerat 41 rocket launcher carrying six 12in (30cm) Wurfkorper Spreng 42 rockets was fitted to the upper deck. Surface launches proved successful, but surprisingly the tests also worked well underwater to a depth of 50ft (15m).

Six rocket-launching rails were welded to the deck of the U-511, and waterproof cables were run from the rockets to a firing switch inside of the submarine. The only modification to the rockets was waterproofing them by sealing their nozzles with candlewax. The firing tests from a depth of some 25 feet (7.6 m) were entirely successful. About 24 rockets were launched from the U-511, and additional rounds were fired from a submerged launch frame. The slow movement of the submarine through the water had no effect on the accuracy of the rockets. The 275-pound (125-kg) projectiles had a range of five miles (8 km). The only problem encountered was an electrical ground that caused two rockets to fire simultaneously.

Although these were preliminary experiments, Generalmajor Walter Dornberger, the head of the Peenemünde missile facility, presented the findings to the Naval Weapons Department, contending that rocket-firing submarines could attack coastal targets in the United States. The Navy predictably rejected consideration of an Army-designed weapon, the rocket rails were removed from the U-511, and in July 1942 the submarine departed on her first war patrol.

The potential for a new anti-shipping weapon seemed good, but there were guidance issues and insufficient resources to push ahead with development. Nevertheless, some progress had been made by the end of the war under a Research and Development programme called Project Ursel.

Subsequently, as the Type XXI U-boat was being developed, a rocket system was developed for attacking pursuing surface ships. The key to this weapon was a very precise passive, short-range detection system (S-Analage passir) to detect propeller noise from ASW ships. The submerged U-boat would then launch a rocket at the target. The echo-sounding gear performed well during trials, but the rockets were still in an early stage of development when the war ended.

A V-2 rocket in launch position in the towed submarine barge Prüfstand XII. Note the control room and liquid oxygen storage underneath the rocket.

In 1943 Otto Lafferenz, a director of the Deutsche Arbeitsfront (German Labour Front), suggested the idea of launching V-1 flying bombs from submarines. This was also seriously considered but finally met with rejection for technical reasons. Then in late 1943, during a visit to Peenemunde, Lafferenz put the idea to Dornberger of launching A4 rockets at sea. The missiles were too big to be carried within a submarine and he came up with the idea of developing a submersible container carrying an A4 that could be towed behind a submarine. At a distance of 186 miles (300km) from the target (the A4’s normal range) the container would be moved to an upright position and the rocket launched. The idea met with considerable interest and the codenames Project Prüfstand XII (Test Stand XII), Apparatus F and Life Vest were assigned. But priority was being given to bringing the A4 into operational service with the Army and the development of a submarine-launched missile remained on hold until the autumn of 1944.

Eventually, a submersible torpedo shaped container was designed that measured 98ft (30m) in length and weighed 550 tons (499 tonnes). Access was gained by a hinged nose cap and the A4 missile was housed in the forward section. Behind this was a small control room and fuel storage tanks for the missile and extra diesel oil for the submarine. The container was fitted with water ballast tanks and power for all systems was supplied by a cable from the submarine. When the launch position had been reached, technicians would enter the container, prepare the rocket and finally return to the submarine. Following ignition, exhaust gas from the A4 would be re-directed through conduits around the missile and emerge at the container opening. Once the launch was completed, the container would be scuttled.

It was felt that undertaking launches against targets in Northern England and America would confuse the enemy about German rocket capabilities and make it possible to strike a number of previously inaccessible targets. Several Type XXI submarines would be adapted for rocket launch missions and one of these newer U-Boats could tow three containers, all trimmed for neutral buoyancy. Conversion of the submarines would be undertaken by Blohm & Voss in Hamburg and Wesser AG in Bremen. However, development of the project faltered and only one of three experimental containers had been completed in the Schichau Dockyard at Elbing by the end of the war. The biggest concern was ensuring container stability during launch while the accuracy of the missile’s flight presented a number of challenges that were never resolved. It is also worth mentioning that twelve dismantled A4 rockets were supplied to the Japanese and these were shipped from Bordeaux during August 1944 on U-195 and U-219, arriving in Djakarta in December 1944. What became of the wartime Japanese missile programme is unknown.

Rocket U-Boat Program




Type IXC

Laid down 21 Feb, 1941 Deutsche Werft AG, Hamburg

Commissioned 8 Dec, 1941 Kptlt. Friedrich Steinhoff

Commanders 12.41 – 12.42

12.42 – 11.43 Kptlt. Friedrich Steinhoff

Kptlt. Fritz Schneewind

Career 4 patrols 8 Dec, 1941 – 31 Jul, 1942 4. Flottille (training)

1 Aug, 1942 – 1 Sep, 1943 10. Flottille (front boat)

Successes 5 ships sunk for a total of 41.373 tons

1 ship damaged for a total of 8.773 tons

Fate Sold to Japan on 16 Sept, 1943 and became the Japanese submarine RO 500. Surrendered at Maizuru in August 1945.

Scuttled in the Gulf of Maizuru by the US Navy on 30 April, 1946.


In the Pacific near the end of the war, a U. S. submarine commander, Medal of Honor-winner Eugene B. Fluckey, experimented with launching rockets from his submarine while on the surface. At Pearl Harbor, Fluckey had an Army multi-barrel, 5- inch (127-mm) rocket launcher welded to the deck of the fleet submarine Barb (SS 220) and took on a store of unguided projectiles. she commenced her 12th and final patrol on 8 June.

This patrol was conducted along the coasts of the Sea of Okhotsk. For the first time in U.S. submarine warfare, Barb successfully employed rockets, against the towns of Shari, Hokkaido; Shikuka, Kashiho; and Shiritoru on Karafuto. She also bombarded the town of Kaihyo To with her regular armament, destroying 60 percent of the town.

Early on the morning of 22 June 1945, the Barb surfaced off the coast of the Japanese home island of Hokkaido and bombarded the town of Shari. The rockets were launched while the submarine was on the surface, at a range of 5,250 yards (4.8 km). During the next month the Barb remained in Japanese waters, attacking ships and carrying out five additional rocket bombardments, some supplemented by gunfire from the submarine’s 5-inch and 40-mm cannon.

The Barb’s rocket attacks were the product of one aggressive commander’s action, not part of a formal Navy program.