Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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V-2 Rocket

German strategic guided missile, first launched against London on 8 September 1944. Germany's Vergeltungswaffe 2 (Vengeance Weapon 2, or V-2) had its origins in the Versailles Treaty imposed on Germany by the Allied powers after World War I. That agreement prohibited Germany from possessing long-range artillery or military aircraft, limitations that ultimately led to a secret German army program to develop long-range rocket artillery. The program initially focused on relatively simple solid-fuel artillery rockets, but in early 1930, the military's interest shifted to liquid-fueled rockets when Captain Walter Dornberger joined the Heereswaffenamt (Army Weapons Bureau, or HWA). A year later, Dornberger established a small research center at Kummersdorf, south of Berlin, to conduct army-controlled research into liquid-fueled rockets. Progress was slow until he recruited scientist Wernher von Braun and two of his colleagues to the program. The V-2 design team was formed.

Originally designated the Aggregat 4 (or A-4), the V-2 was based on the stated requirement for a 200 mile bombardment rocket to enter service by mid-1943. The team's first liquid-fueled rocket, the A-1, was a static, proof-of-concept design that led to the A-2, first launched in 1934 from Borkum Island in the Baltic Sea. The more powerful A-3 followed, and three years later, the project moved to a new test center at Peenemünde on the Baltic coast. However, most of the A-3's early flights failed, with test rockets rarely getting off the launchpad. The rocket's fins and guidance systems suffered design faults because little was understood about high-speed flight and powerful-thrust rocket engines.

The A-5 was built to resolve these problems. Slightly larger than the A-3 at 16 ft in length, the A-5 incorporated parachute-recovery, telemetry, and radio-control systems to ensure a thorough monitoring of the rocket's flight and problems. These additions and the construction of a supersonic wind tunnel greatly enhanced the designers' ability to discover and correct problems.

Progress slowed significantly in 1940, however, when Adolf Hitler suspended any weapons research projects that could not be placed in production immediately. Things accelerated again in December 1942, when the Army General Staff restored the project's pre-1940 funding. In late 1943, it provided increased support, including a program involving a submerged launch from a U-boat. But on 17–18 August 1944, the Royal Air Force (RAF), which had been made aware of the program in large part by the work of the Polish underground, launched a raid on Peenemünde that killed at least 120 personnel and damaged sufficient facilities there to set back the program by some six months. Development decelerated further as equipment and personnel were dispersed to reduce the program's vulnerability. As a consequence, production of the V-2 did not begin until June 1944.

The V-2 weighed 13.6 tons and was 46 ft in overall length. Its gyroscopic autopilot controlled graphite fins located in the rocket-engine exhaust to direct the missile's flight. The early missiles used a radio-controlled fuel cutoff to control range, but most production models incorporated a gyro-integrating accelerometer for that purpose. The last models used a combination of the two systems. The rocket engine employed alcohol and liquid oxygen to generate some 55,000 lbs of thrust. The warhead consisted of 1,605 lbs of cast amatol, a relatively weak explosive that was chosen because it did not detonate when atmospheric friction drove up the missile's skin temperature. As with the V-1, warhead fuzing was extremely reliable. Of 1,150 V-2s hitting Great Britain, only 2 were duds.

Unlike the V-1, however, the V-2's supersonic speed and ballistic flight profile precluded in-flight intercept, forcing the Allies into an expensive bombing campaign to destroy the missiles before they could be launched. That effort was further complicated by the V-2's reliance on a mobile, quickly set up launch system. The Western Allies directed hundreds of bomber sorties at V-2 production facilities and Germany's transportation network to prevent the missiles from reaching operational units. Hundreds of other fighter-bombers conducted low-level sweeps over suspected launch areas to attack V-2 units before they fired. A later commander would face the same challenge and employ similar tactics in the 1991 Iraq War against the V-2's Soviet-built successor, the Scud missile.

The first V-2 fell on Chiswick, near London, on 8 September 1944, killing 3 people and wounding 17. Between that date and 27 March 1945, 1,054 V-2s fell on England, and 517 of these struck London. Slightly more than 2,700 Londoners died because of the V-2s. The port of Antwerp also came under heavy V-2 attack, with 900 missiles fired on it in the last three months of 1944.

The V-2 was expensive (one estimate suggests it cost about one-third as much as the manhattan Project in the United States), and many have argued that resources expended on it would have been better used to develop surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems to protect Germany from Allied bombing. This argument overlooks two critical elements of the V-2 program. First, it diverted a significant portion of the Allied bombing effort. Second, SAMs require electronic guidance systems that are susceptible to countermeasures, and by 1943, the Allies enjoyed a massive superiority in this area. Viewed in that context, the V-2 was an early asymmetrical warfare system that allowed the Germans to use technologies that circumvented Allied capabilities, forcing them into an expensive countereffort with forces that might otherwise have been employed against German industry or forces on the ground.

Carl O. Schuster


Further Reading
Craven, Wesley Frank, and James Lea Cate. The Army Air Forces in World War II. 7 Vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948–1953.; Hogg, Ivan V. German Secret Weapons of the Second World War. London: Greenhill Books, 1999.; Middlebrook, Martin. Bomber Command War Diaries. New York: Viking, 1985.; Neufeld, Michael J. The Rocket and the Reich: Peenemunde and the Coming of the Ballistic Missile Era. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.; Pocock, Rowland. German Guided Missiles. New York: Arco Publishing, 1967.
 

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