The VI & V2 Rockets
Hitler’s reaction to the invasion of Normandy was as if a great burden had been lifted from his shoulders. What he’d been expecting for many months was now a reality, the waiting was over. He could make his move. He exuded confidence, as if he had just won a great battle.
Adolf Hitler’s ultimate deterrent was the V1 Flying Bomb, nicknamed by the RAF the ‘Buzz Bomb’, and by Australian flyers as the ‘Doodlebug’.
Late on the 6th June Hitler ordered their immediate deployment against London. His conceit was that by so doing he could show conclusively that he was still in control of the bigger picture, that he was not worried about the invasion of Normandy, which he now knew to have the operational codeword: ‘Overlord’.
To launch a successful V1 strike against London on the night of the 6th June 1944 was out of the question, but the launch operatives of the fifty-one sites along the Pas de Calais did their best. But it was a disaster, with virtually all of the rockets nose diving into the sea. Not until the 12th of June did the first recorded V1 flying bomb hit London.
But RAF Intelligence had known about the V1 Flying Bombs for months before the invasion, with most of the intelligence information coming back to Britain from the extraordinarily brave French spy, Michel Hollard, who risked his and his family’s life to witness test firings and take photographs of the sites.
The V1, designed by former racing pilot, Robert Lusser, and research scientist, Fritz Gosslau, had been in development from as early as 1934, although its potential was never really appreciated until 1941, when Hitler gave the rocket a top priority rating.
The two designers were then at the cutting-edge of pilotless aeronautical design, with the consequence that virtually everything they did was for the first time. Bad ideas and bad calculations had to be re-thought, and re-calculated, components redesigned, the rockets re-built, and then tested, again and again. It was all very time consuming and very expensive.
In the end Lusser and Gosslau managed to get the V1 to work, with some 8,000 sorties achieved. They were also extremely cost effective compared with the manned bombing raids. The Luftwaffe, in over 90,000 sorties dropped 61,000 tonnes of bombs, destroying and damaging over 1.15million properties.
In the 8,000 plus sorties of the V1 ( the Vergeltungswaffe, or Vengence Weapon) over 14,600 tonnes of high explosive hit its target, and destroyed or damaged over one million buildings, with a great loss of life, but with no loss of aircrew.
With that sort of record, and the invasion of Europe by the Allies begun, Hitler demanded bigger and better rockets.
There is some confusion as to when the V2 bombardment of London actually started — most historians agree that it was the 8th of September 1944 — and if Hemingway did see V2s on the 2nd of September — which he claimed that he did — they were probably heading for Paris, and the ever growing number of allied service personal and vehicles that were gathering there. By the 8th September London became the principle target.
The sleek V2 actually looked like a rocket — or at least the shape we now expect a rocket to look like: with its tall cylindrical fuselage ending in a conical tip, with, at its fuselage base, three large triangular fins positioned just up from the engine’s thrusters that were capable — with their lethal and potent mixture of ethyl, water and liquid oxygen — of creating a white hot propulsive thrust never seen, or experienced anywhere on Earth before.
The shape of the V2 had been much influenced by the American sci-fi comic books that had become so popular in the Germany of the1920s and 30s.
When the V2 had been perfected — after hundreds of disastrous failures — it could, within sixty seconds of take-off, reach the then unbelievable height of 60 miles — climbing at an amazing rate of 4,400 feet per second. When the rocket finally levelled out high above the Earth the revolutionary radio guidance system set the rocket on course for its designated target, which could be anywhere within a 225 mile radius of its mobile launch vehicle. Then, when the fuel was used up, and after an almost silent dive, the V2 would slam into its target at 3,600 kilometres per hour, with the one ton warhead of high explosive — enough to destroy an area one mile square — detonating on impact.
It was a formidable and deadly weapon which, if it had ever been deployed with a nuclear warhead might have destroyed a good proportion of the civilised world in those autumn months of 1944.
The V2 rocket had been designed, developed and eventually built by the brilliant German scientist Wernher von Braun, the eldest of three sons born to Baron Magnus von Braun, and Baroness Emmy von Quistorp, at Wirsitz, Posen, on the 23rd March 1912. At the age of ten Wernher decided his goal in life was to help turn ‘the wheel of life.’
As a dreadfully precocious child he composed several pieces of classical music, and during the summer holidays rebuilt old motor cars. But at school he failed badly in maths and physics.
But it was after reading those American sci-fi comics in the1920s, and more importantly Herman Oberth’s seminal work, Rocket into Planetary Space that Wernher decided to become a space scientist.
In 1930 he enrolled at the Berlin Institute of technology, and two years later received his degree in mechanical engineering, as a result of which he was offered a grant to conduct experiments into liquid-fuelled rocket engines. In 1934 (when the development of the V1 had just started) Wernher received his PhD in Physics from the University of Berlin.
When von Braun graduated from Berlin with his prized PhD Hitler had been in power for less than a year, but was already looking for a way of developing a weapon that could circumnavigate — violate — the Versailles Treaty of 1919, an agreement which Hitler held in contempt. As a result of this desire, and in deadly secret, a young artillery captain called Walter Dornberger was assigned to investigate feasibility of rockets as a weapon.
Dornberger, after visiting all of Germany’s universities, was eventually introduced to von Braun at a party. The two young men hit it off immediately and became great friends. Dornberger soon persuaded the military hierarchy that von Braun was their man, and by the end of 1934 Wernher, and Dornberger had a team of 80 scientists and technicians designing and perfecting plans to build offensive ballistic missiles.
By early 1944 von Braun had his prototype of the V2 (originally known as the A4) ready for its test launch, which ended in disaster. But nothing could stop him now, and in his frustration to get things right he often loudly criticised Hitler and the Nazi Party, which naturally led to his arrest and interrogation by the Gestapo. Walter Dornberger had to use all his significant influence to get Wernher released from prison. On one occasion Dornberger saved the young rocket scientist from the firing squad for having argued that his rocket project should be used for interplanetary exploration and not warfare. When the first V2s landed on London in September 1944, killing several hundred people, he declared, ‘it had landed on the wrong planet.’
We must never forget that hundreds of slaves were used, and died, constructing both the V1 and the V2.
When the American army caught up with von Braun in 1945 — and they had instructions to ensure they did so before the Russians got him — he, along with most of his team, were spirited away by the O.S.S. back to America where they were put to work on the development of the US Army’s ballistic missile programme.
By the late 1950s Wernher, now living in Huntsville, Alabama, was busy developing the Explorer satellite, the Jupiter-C, the Pershing, and the Saturn rockets. By the 1960s he’d also helped develop the Skylab — the worlds first space station. He later became director of NASA’s Marshall Flight Centre. Interestingly, in the early years of von Braun’s work in the US he employed V1 designer, Robert Lusser, as a member of his team.
Lusser’s partner, Fritz Gosslau, stayed in Germany after the war, where he designed motorcycles, eventually becoming a director of Junkers.
Dr Wernher von Braun died in 1977. Lusser in 1969, and Gosslau in 1965.
All three changed the future of aviation and effectively invented space travel.