The V2 rocket – the world’s first ballistic missile

The V2 rocket was at least 20 years ahead of the rest of the world – but it has a terrible history

“We have invaded space with our rocket and for the first time – mark this well – have used space as a bridge between two points on the earth. We have proved rocket propulsion practicable for space travel. This third day of October, 1942, is the first of a new era of transportation, that of space travel,” said General Walter Dornberger.

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The Nazi V2 rocket was the first modern rocket, and was decades ahead of every other country in the world. Every rocket that has followed owes a debt to its design. This rocket is at Peenemünde in Germany, at the site of the original research establishment.

Devoted Nazi General Walter Dornberger and German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun were two men with a vision.

The drive, energy and resourcefulness of General Dornberger, mated with the ingenuity and passion of von Braun, created one of the greatest technological achievements of the last century. The fact that this achievement was the product of the ruthless regime of Nazi Germany and the fact that many thousands of people died as a result of its production and deployment, taint the image of what otherwise would be considered a monumental triumph.

World’s first long-range ballistic missile

The V2 rocket was not only one of the most awesome weapons of World War II, it was also the first long-range ballistic missile to be actively used in combat. It provided technology that was directly responsible for the USA’s success in the post-war space race. It was so advanced that immediately after the war, the US, Britain and the USSR had no idea how the rocket worked or how it was even fired…

The V2 was the first unmanned guided ballistic missile. For guidance it used an advanced gyroscopic system that sent signals to aerodynamic steering tabs on the tail fins and vanes in the exhaust. It was propelled by alcohol and liquid oxygen fuel. The two liquids were delivered to the thrust chamber by two rotary pumps, driven by a steam turbine. The steam turbine operated at 5,000rpm and was powered by two auxiliary fuels, namely hydrogen peroxide (80%) and a mixture of 66% sodium permanganate and 33% water.

This system generated about 25,000kg (55,000lb) of thrust at the start, which increased to 73,000kg (160,000lb) when the maximum speed was reached. The motor typically burned for 60 seconds, pushing the rocket to around 4,800km/h (3,000mph). The V2 rose to an altitude of 83 – 93km (52 – 58mi) and had a range of 320 – 360km (200 – 225mi).

Before launch, the empty V2 weighed 4500kg (10,000lb). It was then fuelled with 4900kg (10,0800lb) of ‘A-Stoff’ (liquid oxygen with a temperature of -183°C / -297°F), and 3710kg (8,200lb) of a mixture of 75% ethyl alcohol and 25% water, called ‘B-Stoff’. The air batteries and nitrogen batteries were filled up to 200 Bar (2900psi) pressure, and after this process the rocket weighed 12700kg (28,000lb). Electrical cables were then connected and gyroscopes powered-up by 28 Volts / 60 Amps, DC. The cables remained connected until launch, batteries taking care of power supply during flight.

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The power station is the only large building that remains at Peenemünde – the laboratories, supersonic wind tunnels and accommodation now all gone. The building houses an excellent, thoughtful and nuanced museum.

After everything was set, pressurised air (at 32 Bar / 460psi) pushed the hydrogen peroxide and the sodium permanganate into the 430kW (580hp) turbine. This caused the turbine to rotate at 3,800rpm. This turbine powered two pumps that injected the ethyl alcohol at 23 Bar (330psi) pressure via 1224 nozzles (58 kg/sec / 130lb/sec) and liquid oxygen at 17.5 Bar (250 psi) via 2160 nozzles (72 kg/sec / 160lb/sec) into the burn chamber at 23 Bar (330psi).

The mixture ignited, whereupon a temperature of 2,500°C (4500°F) at 15 Bar (220psi) pressure was reached – but this was not enough to lift the V2. After checking to ensure the propulsion was working properly, the burn speed was then raised and cables electromagnetically disconnected.

The V2 engine burn chamber temperature was about 2,700°C (4,900°F). The chamber wall was cooled by the liquid ethyl alcohol flowing via the double wall of the beam tube and burning chamber, which also resulted in the heating up of the ethyl alcohol.

During burn time, the V2 was steered by four carbon graphite rudders (in the engine exhaust) and four vanes (at the fins), controlled by three gyroscopes.

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A fully-restored, cutaway V2 at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, USA. German scientists and their missiles were brought to the US immediately after World War II, and both played a large part in the development of US missiles and the rockets that powered the space program. White Sands has an excellent visitors’ centre.

Impact speed of over 3,000km/h

This huge German rocket – over 14 metres (46ft) long – hurtled a 975kg (2,100lb) warhead over 80km (50mi) high and hundreds of kilometres down-range to its target. After engine shutdown, the V2 flew to a height of 97km (60mi) and then fell to earth with an impact speed of 3,240 – 3,600 km/h (2,000 – 2,200mph).

When launched against targets close to the operational range of the vehicle, the deviation between target and impact was normally 7-17km (4 – 10mi). This made the rocket suitable only for use against widely populated areas. At shorter targeting ranges, the accuracy of the V2 was improved. The Leitstrahlstellung was a “guiding beam” that improved accuracy of the V2 somewhat during the later days of the campaign. One-quarter of all V2 rockets were guided with the Leitstrahlstellung.

A V2 impact would be as follows. First, a whip-cracking sound of a blast wave created by the rocket (moving far faster than the speed of sound) bounced off of the point of impact just split seconds before the flash of impact. This was followed by the chaos of the explosion, with debris and earth churned skyward. Soon, there followed the whine and rush of whistling air as the sound caught up with the rocket, followed by a deafening roar of the incoming rocket, which tapered off to silence.

There could be no audible warning; the V2 impacted at three times the speed of sound….

Since the V2 was not operational until late 1944, the countless funds, materials, and manpower that were used in its construction could have been better used to produce more planes and tanks. It was purely a “Vengeance Weapon”, but there was no countermeasure that the Allies had to stop it. The V2 offensive would last from September of 1944 until March of 1945, with over 3000 rockets launched in this time period. The London area was hit by over 500 rockets and several hundred more dropped in surrounding counties. At first, London and Antwerp were the primary targets, but rockets also fell around Ipswich and Norwich, and many Allied-held targets in France, Belgium and Holland, and even on Germany itself.

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Underground in one of the original tunnels in which V2 missiles were built by slave labour. The Nazis established a slave labour camp – Dora – to supply the labour. Conditions in both the tunnel and camp were horrendous. Each completed V2 missile cost an estimated six terrible deaths. 

Built by slaves working underground

Despite the fact that the V2 was a weapon of war, more slave labourers died building the rockets than people were struck down by the explosive warhead that the V2 carried.

From 1943, the V2 rockets were constructed in an underground system of tunnels under Kohnstein Mountain, near Nordhausen. This move was as a response to Allied bombing of existing works – an environment protected from bombing needed to be found. The new plant became known as Mittelwerk.

After meeting with Hitler on August 18th, SS Chief Heinrich Himmler had informed Armaments Minister Speer that he was personally taking over V2 production and placing SS Brigadier General Hans Kammler in charge of the complex. It was Kammler who had been in charge of building the infamous extermination camps and gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Maidenek, and Belzec.

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Despite the time that has passed, and the fact that the US, Great Britain and the USSR all combed these tunnels for parts to help in their respective rocket development programs, V2 components still litter the tunnels of the underground factory. Tours are available (in German only). It is a daunting, terrible place.

On August 28, 1943, two days after the choice of Mittelwerk, the SS delivered the first truckloads of prisoners from the concentration camp at Buchenwald to begin the heavy labour of expanding and completing the tunnel system. Dora was the name given to the Buchenwald sub-camp.

Along with jet engines and the V1 cruise missile, the Mittelwerk factory produced some 4,575 V2s between August 1944 and March 1945.

Prisoners were divided into two groups of workers: Transport Columns and Specialists. The former did the often backbreaking work of manually transporting much of the material that entered or left the tunnels, while the latter did other more skilled assembly and testing work. Detainees working in the tunnels were divided into day and night shifts, each working for 12 hours straight. Every four weeks, the workers changed shifts. Each prisoner work group, or kommando, was headed by a prisoner leader (Kapo).

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In addition to the use of liquid fuel, the V2 was advanced in its control and guidance system. Pictured here in London’s Science Museum is part of the gyroscopic control system. Missile guidance systems of 1950s and 1960s bear an uncanny resemblance to this.

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Some of the extraordinary engineering of the V2 can be seen in this cutaway view of the turbine fuel pump. It operated at 5,000 rpm and was powered by steam generated by two auxiliary fuels. Photographed at the Deutsches Technikmuseum in Berlin.

Teams of six transport prisoners were assigned to carry into the tunnels the empty aluminium tanks for the rocket from the outside storage depots. Designed to be lightweight for their size, each tank still weighed about 150kg (330lb) – or about 25kg (55lb) per worker. The workers formed two parallel columns and grasped the hand of their counterpart alongside. The tank was then slung on their joined arms. If a group dropped its tank (not uncommon, since these skeletons of men were often already weak and sick), the SS guards and Kapo were there to kick and beat them with truncheons until they could lift their burden and continue once again. Since much of this work was done in the dead of one of the coldest winters on record, the workers were usually slogging though snow, ice, or freezing rain and mud. It is hard to imagine what is must have been like. On their feet they wore wooden clogs, and had very little protection from the elements.

It is estimated that of the 60,000+ detainees employed in and around the Mittelbau complex over a 20-month period, 26,500 did not survive. One author attributes 15,500 of these deaths to the camps or to “transports”, and 11,000 to the period in April 1945 when the camps were evacuated by the SS in the face of the American advance. This evacuation was especially barbaric. The SS shot prisoners, herded them into barns and burned them alive, left them to die if they were too sick to walk, or made them part of walking or rail convoys headed to other concentration camps.

Each operational V2 to come off the Mittelwerk line cost an estimated six terrible deaths.

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The crematorium is the only original building that survives at Dora labour camp. A powerful museum is located at the site, and together with a tour of the tunnels in which the V2s were built, is an incredibly sobering experience.

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Rusting in the rain – the rear of a V2 and part of its engine. New Mexico Museum of Space History, USA.

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