1. They travel faster than the speed of sound [M1]
The 1920s and 30s saw Germany in the middle of a rocket craze. Hermann Oberth’s book The Rocket Into Interplanetary Space (1923) had provided the science and practical advice to spark mass interest in space rockets becoming a reality.
Then the German army became interested in rockets, too. To them, rockets were new weaponry that could by-pass the restrictions of the Treaty of Versailles.
When the Nazi regime came to power, they wanted to develop the full potential of rockets as tools of war. This prompted General Walter Dornberger to take a chance on a prodigious rocket engineer, Wernher von Braun, and his colleagues from the Verein für Raumschiffahrt (Society for Space Travel) who were expounding on Oberth’s study on liquid fueled rockets.
To create the intimidating rockets that the Nazi wanted, they required thousands of laborers and billions of dollars. Their patronage created an advanced research facility on rocketry at Peenemünde. At the helm of this top-secret facility was von Braun.
The product of their highly dangerous trial and error sessions became known as the V-2 rocket: the world’s first long-range, unmanned ballistics rocket which can break the sound barrier within 30 seconds! Certain accounts claim it can travel up to four times the speed of sound.
2. They fall on the target from fifty miles up
When these 13,200 kg, 14-meter-long rockets tip over from their arced trajectory, they freefall to their targets carrying a 1-ton warhead.
“First, a whip cracking sound of a blast wave created by the rocket (moving faster than the speed of sound) bounces 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, the whine and rush of whistling air as the sound catches up with the rocket followed by a deafening roar of the incoming rocket, which tapers off to silence. There could be no warning.”
3. One V2 Rocket can destroy one city block
During the last months of the war, Hitler becomes increasingly desperate to turn the tides in his favor. To boost morale, he wanted London, Antwerp and several other Allied-occupied territories to be bombarded with V2s.
London received most of these attacks. The worst of them was at New Cross where a rocket landed on a Woolworths department store on November 25, 1944. The picture below depicts the tragedy 2 hours after impact.
4. Once launched, there is no way to shoot them down
David Johnson’s book V1-V2: Hitler’s Vengeance on London details an account of the only time a V-2 was taken down:
A squadron of four-engine B-24 Liberators of the US 34th Bomb Group was returning to England, flying over the Low Countries at about 10,000 feet, when a V-2 passed right through their formation. To an engineer-gunner aboard one of the bombers, the rocket looked like ‘a telephone pole with fire squirting out of its tail’.
Apparently, one of the gunners in the squadron open fired until it went down. The reward for this impressive feat was a V-2 illustrated on the side of the gunner’s plane.
Zach Rosenberg, in his article for Air & Space Magazine, highly doubts this had actually occurred:
Thanks to its speed and ballistic launch trajectory, it was essentially unkillable. Fighter aircraft were nowhere near fast enough to hit the missile, though at least one serious attempt was made by an enthusiastic Royal Air Force pilot as it took off (he missed).
For context, the picture below shows a V-2 whiz by like lightning compared to a B-17.
The Allies may not have managed to overcome the V-2 rockets in air, but they did succeed in targeting their launch sites. The discovery and subsequent attack on Peenemünde left production to move to an abandoned tunnel in Mittelwerk. When this too was discovered, they loaded the rockets on mobile launch sites. Though this tactic allowed the German’s to allude Allied forces by moving frequently and hiding in forests, it only worked for a while. Allies managed to run them out of range of their targets.
5. V2s rockets are forerunner of America’s space rockets.
Wernher von Braun’s true interest lied in Astronomy. It’s been said that he detested the idea of his rockets being used for war but his involvement with the Nazi party allowed his team to further their research and testing. With the V-2, his vision became a reality when it became first man-made object to reach the edge of space.
When the Allies won the war, there was a scramble amongst themselves to harvest V-2 technology. Most of the Peenemünde team willingly surrendered to America and became instrumental during the ensuing space race.
So what became of von Braun? Here is his NASA biography:
He worked on the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles and led the development team that launched Explorer 1. Dr. von Braun was the chief architect and engineer of the Saturn V Moon rocket. His popular writings and collaboration with Disney on a “Tomorrowland” TV series did much to inspire the next generation of rocket scientists and astronauts.
Wernher Von Braun became a hero. The U.S. downplayed his involvement with the Nazis so it won’t sabotage their efforts against the Soviet Union. Additionally, he eventually became the director of the Marshall Space Flight Center at NASA and the V-2 served as the blueprint for the design of the Saturn V, the rocket that sent man to the moon.
The V-2 rockets did not accomplish its objective of turning the tide for Germany. Many historians would even go on to say that it contributed to its downfall. It was extremely costly to make, inaccurate, and ultimately came too late. Despite its advanced design, it was still imperfect. Rush demand for mass production meant many of the 3,000 launched rockets missed their targets. Tragically, more people died creating the rockets than those who died from the bombardments.
Discussing the V-2 rocket’s game changing capabilities and its place in history, though certainly interesting, brings up ideas for us to ponder. The V-2 rocket’s first successful test launch on the 3rd of October, 1942 ushered an unprecedented advancement for humankind. Yes, the fact that it was considered Hitler’s ‘Vengeance Weapon’ is a regrettable part of its identity, but it cannot undermine the fact that it was a product of cutting edge technology and superb engineering. The V-2 rockets remain relevant 77 years onward and will continue to open new and exciting possibilities for us the future.