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V-2 rocket

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German test launch.

The V-2 rocket was an early ballistic missile used by Germany during the latter stages of World War II against mostly British and Belgian targets.

Table of contents

Pre-operational History

As early as 1927 members of the German Rocket Society had started experimenting with liquid fueled rockets. By 1932 the Reichswehr started taking notice of their developments for potential long-range artillery use, and a team led by General Walter Dornburger[?] was shown a test vehicle designed and flown by Wernher von Braun. Although the rocket was of limited ability, Dornberger saw Von Braun's genius and pushed for him to join the military.

Von Braun did just that, and eventually most of the other members of the Society did too. In December 1934 Von Braun scored another success with the flight of the A2 rocket[?], a small model powered by ethanol and liquid oxygen, with work on the design continuing to attempt to improve reliability.

By 1936 the team had moved on from the A2 and started work on both the A3 and A4. The later was a full sized design with a range of about 175 kilometers (109 miles), a top altitude of 80 kilometers (50 miles), and a payload of about a tonne. It was clear that Von Braun's designs were turning into real weapons, and Dornburger moved the team from Kummersdorf (near Berlin) to a small island on Germany's Baltic coast, Peenemunde , in order to provide more room for testing and better secrecy.

The A3 proved to be problematic, and a redesign was started as the A5. This version was completely reliable, and by 1941 the team had fired about seventy A5 rockets. The first A4 flew in March 1942, flying about a mile and crashing into the water. The second launch made it to seven miles in altitude before exploding. But the third rocket launched on October 3, 1942 changed things, when the rocket followed it's trajectory perfectly and landed 120 miles away, and became the first man-made object to enter space.

Production started in 1943 on the Vergeltungswaffe 2 (reprisal weapon 2), or the V-2 as it became better known, at the insistence of Goebbels' propaganda ministry. The Allies were already aware of the weapon -- at a test site at Bliza, Poland a fired missile had been recovered by Polish resistance agents from the banks of the River Bug, and vital technical details had been given to British intelligence. They launched a massive bombing campaign against Peenemünde which slowed testing and production considerably.

Dornburger had always wanted a mobile launch platform for the missiles, but following Nazi ideology, Hitler pressed for the construction of massive underground blockhaus structures to launch from. V-2's would arrive from a number of factories in a continuous stream on several redundant rail lines, and launching would be almost continual.

The first such site started construction in the Pas-de-Calais area in 1943, but the British spotted it almost immediately and started a massive bombing campaign that eventually forced the Germans to give up on it. Another site was then started nearby in a huge quarry, but it wasn't long before that too was bombed into submission. Eventually they gave up on the area and moved to the south near Cherbourg, but once again the site was discovered and bombed -- this time while the cement was still wet.

Instead the plan was changed to build large truck-towed trailers for the missiles. The entire convoy for the missile, men, equipment and fuel required about 30 trucks. The missile was delivered to a staging area on a Vidalwagen and then the local crews would fit the warhead. Launch teams would then transfer their missile to their own Meillerwagen and tow it to the launch site. There it was erected onto the launch table, fueled, and launched.

The missile could be launched practically anywhere, roads running though forests being a particular favourite. The system was so mobile and small that not one Meillerwagen was ever caught.

Operational history

Dora : production chain.

Dora : crematorium.

V-2 mass production was conducted at underground slave labour camps named Dora[?], near Nordhausen, Germany. About 10,000 slaves died of overwork or at the hands of their guards from the SS. These slaves were mostly prisoners of war, many were French and Soviet.

The first unit to reach operational status was Batterie 444 . On September 2, 1944 they formed up to launch attacks on Paris, recently liberated, and eventually set up near Houffalize in Belgium. The next day the 485th moved to The Hague for operations against London. Several launch attempts over the next few days were failures, but on the 8th both groups fired successfully.

This was the tip of the iceberg. Over the next few months the total number fired was:

At Belgium
Antwerp 1610
Liege 27
Hasselt 13
Tournai 9
Mons 3
Diest 2

At France
Lille 25
Paris 22
Tourcoing[?] 19
Arras 6
Cambrai 4

At England
London 1358
Norwich/Ipswich 44

At Germany
Remagen[?] 11

At the Netherlands
Maastricht 19

On 3 March 1945 the allies attempted to destroy V2's and launching equipment near The Hague by a large-scale bombardment, but due to navigational errors the Bezuidenhout quarter was destroyed, killing 500 civilians.

The V-2 was militarily ineffective - its guidance systems were too primitive to hit specific targets, and its costs were approximately equivalent to a four-engined bomber, which were quite accurate, had longer ranges, carried many more warheads, and were reusable. Nevertheless, it had a considerable psychological effect as, unlike bombing planes or the V1 Flying Bomb, which made a characteristic buzzing sound, the V2 travelled faster than the speed of sound, with no warning before impact and no possibility of defense.

Post-War V-2 Usage

US test launch.
At the end of the war a race started to retrieve as many V-2 rockets and staff as possible. Under Operation Paperclip three hundred train loads of V-2s and parts were captured and returned to the United States, as well as 126 of the principal designers, including both Wernher von Braun and Walter Dornburger. For several years afterward, the United States rocketry program made use of the supply of unused V-2 rockets left from the war. One of these modified V2s, in a test flight in the late 1940s, reached a then-record altitude of 250 miles. Many of these rockets were used for peaceful purposes, including upper-atmosphere[?] research.

Von Braun went to work for the US Army's Redstone Arsenal[?], eventually settling in Huntsville, Alabama in 1950. He quickly became the father of almost all US rocketry, working on the Redstone, Jupiter, Jupiter-C, Pershing, and Saturn rockets.

The USSR also captured a number of V-2s and staff, letting them set up in Germany for a time. In 1946 they were moved to the USSR where Groettrup headed up a group of just under 250 engineers. Starting with the V-2 they developed a number of new missile designs which would eventually lead to the SCUD missile. However none of his designs were directly put into production, instead local designer would use the better features in their own designs. The team was eventually repatriated in the 1950s after the local design teams had gained experience.

The British also captured a small number of V-2 missiles, and launched several of them from a site in northern Germany under Operation Backfire[?]. However the engineers involved had already agreed to move to the US when the test firings were complete. The Backfire report however remains the most extensive technical documentation of the rocket, including all support procedures, tailored vehicles and fuel composition.

Technical Details

The V-2 had an operational range of about 200 miles carrying a 2000 lb warhead.

The V-2 was propelled by a mixture of alcohol (ethanol) and water, combined with liquid oxygen. The turbo fuel pumps were propelled by hydrogen peroxide. The water-alcohol mixture was kept in a tank of aluminium to save weight, which put a high pressure on German war economy, as this metal was rare and valuable.

The fuel was pumped through the walls of the main burner, so that it would heat the mixture and at the same time cool the burner, so that it wouldn't melt from the heat. The fuel was then pumped into a main burner chamber through several nozzels, which assured the correct mixture of alcohol and oxygen at all times.

Some later V-2s used "guide beams", i.e. radio signals transmitted from the ground, to navigate the missile toward it's target, but the first models used a simple analog computer that would adjust the azimuth for the rocket, and the flying distance was controlled by the amount of fuel, so that when the fuel ran out "brennschluss", the rocket would stop accelerating and soon reach the top of the parabolic flight curve.

The painting of the operational V-2s was mostly a camouflage ragged pattern with several variations, but in the end of the war a plain olive green rocket also appeared. During tests, the rocket was painted in a characteristic black/white chessboard pattern which aided in determining if the rocket was spinning around it's own longitudinal axis.


The V-2 rocket plays a major part in Thomas Pynchon's novel Gravity's Rainbow.

The lunar rocket in Tintin's comic's books Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon looks like a V-2.

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