The phrase “Nazi V-2” is thrown around a lot, probably because it’s the simplest way to describe the rocket Germany launched against European cities towards the end of the Second World War. But that’s a bit of a misnomer. The short answer is that, no, the V-2 wasn’t strictly speaking a Nazi weapon. The long answer is more complicated, and a lot more interesting.
The VfR Lays Down Roots
On June 5, 1927, Max Valier met with a small cohort of fellow rocket enthusiasts in a the back parlour of an alehouse in Breslau. The group who shared fascination with spaceflight founded the Verein für Raumschiffahrt — the Society for Space Travel — that afternoon. Their goal was eloquently summed up by their motto: “Help to create the spaceship!”
In the fall of 1930, VfR member Rudolf Nebel found the group a home, a two-square-mile vacant property surrounded by a wire fence down a bad road in Berlin’s northern suburb of Reinickendorf. A former ammunitions dump disused since the First World War, it as a perfect spot for testing rockets. On September 27, Nebel mounted a sign out front naming the site “Raketenflugplatz Berlin,” and the rocket men soon followed. They moved into Spartan living quarters and set to work developing liquid-fueled rockets, launching 87 rockets and making 270 static firing tests during their first year. But resources were hard to come by. The group was forced to rely on donations garnered during public demonstrations.
Rockets for the Reich
Eventually, word of these demonstrations reached the German army. In the spring of 1932, three plain-clothed military personnel arrived at the Raketenflugplatz: the army’s Chief of Ballistics and Ammunition Colonel Karl Becker; ammunitions expert Major Ritter von Horstig; and chief of the Army’s powder rockets development program Captain Walter Dornberger. They were there to watch two simple rockets fly, the Mirak 1 and Mirak 2. The Mirak 1 was simple with a copper rocket engine inside a cylindrical fuselage behind the bullet-shaped cover and an aluminum tube sticking out the back as a guiding stick. The Mirak 2 was a larger and more sophisticated version. But neither rocket launched that day, leaving the VfR without a rich benefactor.
But one man had made a favorable impression. Though the youngest of the group, Wernher von Braun struck Dornberger as shrewd, technically proficient, and incredibly determined. The young engineer went so far as to deliver VfR results to Becker personally in the hope of securing funding. It worked, sort of. The army colonel who made von Braun an offer: a job developing liquid rockets for the army and a doctorate degree at the University of Berlin; Becker could arrange it so that his work reports would be accepted in lieu of a thesis. Leaving the amateur world behind, von Braun was formally hired by Dornberger and began working for the army on October 1, 1932. A handful of others from the VfR soon followed.
Working under Dornberger at the army’s research site called Kummersdorf West, von Braun and his colleagues developed the Aggregate series of rockets. The A-1 debuted the arrangement of having the rocket engine below the fuel and oxidizer tanks when the rocket stood vertically making it look like a giant artillery shell 1-foot in diameter and 4.6 feet tall. It also had an 85 pound flywheel in the nose for in-flight stability. The A-2 was the same though larger and featured a gyroscope in the centre of its body for better stability in flight.
By the mid 1930s, the team was working on the next in the series, the A-3, gearing up for the combat-ready rocket, the A-4, but the program on the whole was facing financial problems. A pending move to the coastal site of Peenemünde was threatened when cost overruns forced the air force out of the joint arrangement, and the army couldn’t foot the bill alone. Dornberger needed a patron for his work and found a potential match in Adolph Hitler, leader of the Nazi party that had been in power since 1933.
On March 23, 1939, Hitler arrived at Kummersdorf West to discuss what role rockets might play in Germany’s future. The Führer watched static fire engine tests and examined cutaway model of rockets, but was ultimately unimpressed. He left without any support from the Nazi party for the army’s weapons. But other factions within the Nazi regime were interested in not only the rockets but the rocket engineers as well, namely the SS, the muscle behind the Nazi party.
On the first of May, 1940, the Second World War had been going for a little more than six months when SS Colonel Mueller met with von Braun on behalf of Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS. Mueller had orders for von Braun to join the SS. The engineer politely refused, citing a busy work schedule. But he could only keep Himmler at bay for so long. Rather than forfeit his position and risk transfer to a work camp, von Braun ultimately accepted the offer. The SS and the Nazi party had gained its first direct line of control over the rocket program.
Hitler Takes Notice
Work on the A-4 continued without much support at the war escalated, and eventually the Allies found out about the weapon. In the early hours of August 18, 1943, the British Royal Air Force staged a partially successful raid on Peenemünde. The Allies did bomb the rocket site, but a navigational error meant the bulk of their bombs landed miles from their key targets, sparing key personnel and their vital documents. The raid also spooked Hitler, driving him to take new measures to protect the rocket. He ordered the A-4 program moved to underground facilities in central Germany and decreed that only concentration camp labour could be used in construction. POWs were too likely to leak details on the secret program.
As the war turned to favor the Allies, the Führer was becoming increasingly interested in the rocket program. In early July, he invited Dornbeger and von Braun to discuss their work at the Army’s Guest House in East Prussia, and this time the presentation left Hitler impressed. He wanted to know whether the A-4 could carry a bomb as heavy as 10 tons and how many rockets Peenemünde could produce each month. Hitler finally believed in the project and saw the A-4 as his secret weapon that would force his enemies into submission and win him the war. The Führer granted the A-4 the priority the priority status Dornberger had coveted for so long.
But Dornberger’s control was waning. On August 20, Hitler appointed Himmler as his new Minister of the Interior, which also made him the leader in the new effort to move the A-4’s production underground. Himmler also persisted in his efforts to recruit von Braun to his staff, an invitation the engineer continued to refuse out of loyalty to Dornberger and the army, earning him an arrest and brief incarceration.
The Nazis Take Control
On June 6, 1944, the Allies landed at Normandy to begin the final invasion of Europe. Less than two months later, Hitler promoted Himmler to Head of the Home Army, and because Dornberger’s group reported to the Home Army, he now reported to Himmler. Himmler in turn appointed Hans Kammler as special commissioner for the A-4 program, a level of authority that Dornberger had never had.
Kammler was now the first man with the authority to deploy the A-4 as a combat missile, and Himmler had overarching control over the whole program. Dornberger likened the change in command to the heartbreak a musician must feel after spending a lifetime lovingly crafting a violin then seeing its strings scraped with a block of wood. By the fall of 1944, the A-4 rocket was firmly under the command of the Nazis and SS, and with underground camps building the weapons, Von Braun and Dornberger became by default an integral part of the SS program and could be held responsible for deaths on both sides of their rocket’s flights.
This is a VERY shortened version of the story. I get into it in far more detail in my book, Breaking the Chains of Gravity, out now in the UK and coming out on January 12 in the US/Canada/Australia. I’m also selling signed hardback editions on my website if you want to get one a little earlier, say, in time for the holidays! Source: Breaking the Chains of Gravity.