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Last Updated: Tuesday, 7 September 2004, 16:48 GMT 17:48 UK
V-2: Hitler's last weapon of terror
By Paul Rincon
BBC News Online science staff

V-2 on apron at Peenemuende   Science Museum
Peenemuende laid the foundations of modern rocketry (Image: Science Museum)
John Clarke was six years old when the first V-2 rocket to hit London landed outside his house in Chiswick in the west of the capital.

"The best way of describing it is television with the sound off. You're deafened, that's what it boils down to. Seeing an airing cupboard crumple in front of you without a sound is an eerie experience," he says.

John's sister, Rosemary Ann, was killed that Friday in 1944. She was three.

"There wasn't a mark on Rosemary. The blast goes up and comes down in a mushroom or umbrella shape," Mr Clarke explains.

"But in the process of that, my sister's lungs collapsed. She was deprived of air."

Rosemary had been in the front upstairs bedroom of the Clarke family residence at 1, Staveley Road, when the explosion ripped their house apart. John was in the bathroom, upstairs at the rear of the house.

"I got a piece of the bomb casing in the back of my hand which has created a scar. But I still have full use of my hand - I was very fortunate. The bathroom upstairs didn't collapse. But one of the bedrooms next to it did, which I found very strange as a boy."

Space dreams

The V-2 that shattered Chiswick 60 years ago on Wednesday took just five minutes to travel there from its launch site in the Netherlands.

At 6.44pm, the tonne of high explosives it carried detonated in the centre of the road, gouging a crater 10m (30ft) across and 2.5m (8ft) deep. The blast killed three people, injured 22 and demolished six houses.

The attack marked the beginning of a terror campaign by Adolf Hitler against targets in Allied territory that would claim at least 5,000 lives.

Staveley Road, Chiswick after the V2 strike - and today

The rocket's original title was the A-4, but propaganda minister Josef Goebbels named it Vergeltungswaffe zwei (Vengeance Weapon 2), or V-2.

The Nazis hoped the V-2, and other weapons like it, would rain down on their enemies causing physical destruction and psychological shock.

Yet one of the most curious and - to some - disquieting stories in the development of this ultimate weapon was the crucial role played by amateur space flight enthusiasts inspired by romantic ideas of manned travel out into the cosmos.

At the end of the 1920s, Lieutenant-Colonel Karl Emil Becker of Germany's Army Ordnance Office began to investigate the revival of the rocket as a weapon.

Amateur beginnings

"The Army was looking for a replacement to heavy artillery, which had been forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles after World War I," explains Konrad Dannenberg, 92, an engineer who worked on the German Army's rocket programme.

"The amateur people just didn't have the means to build large rockets. It took this special support from the government to really sustain the activities that led to the A-4."

Becker's relationship with one of the amateur groups - the Raketenflugplatz Berlin - established the nucleus of the team behind the V-2.

Inspired by the work and mentorship of pre-war rocket pioneer Hermann Oberth, the Raketenflugplatz had been experimenting with liquid-fuel rockets. These worked by mixing an oxidiser (liquid oxygen) with a fuel (petrol or alcohol) and burning them in a combustion chamber to provide propulsion.

In 1932, Becker invited the amateur group to make a demonstration launch, which was an embarrassing failure. But Becker was impressed with a young member of the group - a charismatic aristocrat named Wernher von Braun - and offered him a job.

The 20-year-old space flight enthusiast accepted and immediately began work on a liquid fuel rocket, named Aggregat-1, or A-1, at the Army Ordnance Office in Kummersdorf.

Von Braun was soon joined by another young rocket enthusiast called Walter Riedel. They were to work under the direction of an engineering-savvy army officer named Walter Dornberger.

Intentions clear

"Von Braun always saw this as a detour; he'd rather have been building space vehicles. But he also said this was the only way we were going to get the money. From the very beginning, he knew he was there to build weapons," says Michael Neufeld, curator of World War II history at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, US.

Konrad Dannenberg
Konrad Dannenberg worked on the German rocket programme
"He hoped that the weapons investment would lead to a technological investment that would then make possible space flight."

Von Braun later defended his decision: "In 1932, the idea of another war was absurd - there was no reason for moral scruples over the use to which our researches might be put in the future."

The following year, the National Socialist (Nazi) Party seized power under Adolf Hitler. Von Braun's detour would see him become technical director of a programme to produce a guided missile for use against Allied targets during WW II.

Between 1932 and 1935, real progress was made by von Braun and his team, and the programme outgrew Kummersdorf.

Von Braun began looking for a site to build a new experimental centre for their rocket development activities. He settled on Peenemuende on Germany's Baltic Coast.

Incredible site

To justify the move, von Braun, Dornberger and Riedel met to sketch out the specifications of the ballistic missile they planned to build. In late 1935, they proposed the goal of a rocket engine with a thrust of 25 metric tonnes (56,000 lbs).

The new project, designated A-4, would have to overcome significant technical obstacles. Its engine had to be 17 times more powerful than the largest rocket motor at the time, it would have to fly at nearly five times the speed of sound and be guided to targets 300km (186 miles) away.

Due to the high priority now being placed on liquid-fuel rocketry by Army High Command, the programme received lavish funding and vast resources.

In just five years, the team had mastered four technologies key to the rocket's success: its powerful 25-tonne thrust engine, its aerodynamic shape, its innovative "inertial" guidance system, and its radio transmission system.

The first two attempts at launching the A-4 failed. But on 3 October 1942 - the third attempt - the rocket soared to a height of 80km (50 miles), crashing into the sea 190km (120 miles) away.

Werner Dahm, 87, a former aerodynamics engineer at Peenemuende, witnessed the launch from a boat on the Baltic Sea.

"I saw that thing fly high up, with an increadible scream. I always thought it could be done, but it's a complicated business, after all. A lot of things have to go right," he says.

Allied search

Hitler had been slow to see the potential of rocketry but, says Dahm, the successful test probably did much to convince the Fuehrer of its value to the war effort.

Over 18-19 August 1943, the RAF conducted a bombing raid at Peenemuende. The raid missed many key facilities, but it prompted the SS to order that the production side of the A-4 programme be moved to an underground facility in central Germany that became known as Mittelwerk.

Rocket takes off at Peenemuende   Internet
The Baltic site saw the V-2's first flight
The use of slave labour from the Dora concentration camp in the production of V-2 rockets at Mittelwerk would haunt the rocket programme's legacy long after the war had ended.

The V-2 campaign was a last desperate attempt by the Nazi leadership to turn the course of the war.

In all, over 1,300 V-2s were fired at England, killing 2,724 people. Germany struck Antwerp in Belgium with 1,265 V-2s and Paris with hundreds more. An accurate count of casualties on the continent is not available.

It was not to be the war-winning weapon the Nazis hoped for. In March 1945, the western front collapsed and Allied forces swarmed across the Rhine.

But amid the chaos, the major Allied powers were scouring Germany to find out whatever they could about the V-2.

Specialist recruitment

Determined his engineering team should not be broken up, von Braun and his close associates debated what to do. The discussions resulted in unanimous agreement to surrender to the Americans.

"Would you like to work for a guy like Stalin?" Dahm asks rhetorically. "We didn't want to get caught by the Russians. And in Europe, after the war, nobody could afford to build rockets."

US Army intelligence officers soon found many Peenemuenders in and around Oberammergau, in the Bavarian Alps, where they had been evacuated. On 2 May, two days after Hitler's suicide, von Braun, Dornberger and their close associates surrendered to American troops.

The Russians, meanwhile, reactivated Mittelwerk with the help of former staff, many of whom had remained in the surrounding area.

So began a scramble to unlock the secrets of the V-2 that would ensure the rocket had a lasting and profound legacy on the post-war world.

The technology pioneered at Peenemuende would eventually realise dreams of space flight. The V-2 was the forerunner of the booster rockets that would allow humans to escape the shackles of gravity.

But it was also the precursor of all modern guided missiles. As such, rocketry was not to escape the shadow of military exploitation.


Some launch sites and targets omitted for clarity

The technological line to the V-2
10 Sep 04 |  Science/Nature
The technological line to the V-2
09 Sep 04 |  Science/Nature


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