The V-2 Rocket - Wernher Von Braun

Rockets and missiles can serve as weapons systems that deliver explosive warheads to targets by means of rocket propulsion. "Rocket" is a general term that describes any jet-propelled missile which is thrust forward from the rearward ejection of matter like hot gases.

Rocketry was originally developed in China when firework displays and gunpowder were invented. Hyder Ali, prince of Mysore, India, developed the first war rockets in the 18th century, using metal cylinders to hold the combustion powder needed for propulsion.

The First A-4 Rocket 

Then, eventually, came the A-4 rocket. Later called the V-2, the A-4 was a single-stage rocket developed by the Germans and fueled by alcohol and liquid oxygen. It stood 46.1 feet high and had a thrust of 56,000 pounds. The A-4 had a payload capacity of 2,200 pounds and could reach a velocity of 3,500 miles per hour.

The first A-4 was launched from Peenemunde, Germany on October 3, 1942. It reached an altitude of 60 miles, breaking the sound barrier. It was the world's first launch of a ballistic missile and the first rocket ever to go into the fringes of space.

The Rocket’s Beginnings

Rocket clubs were springing up all over Germany in the early 1930s. A young engineer named Wernher von Braun joined one of them, the Verein fur Raumschiffarht or Rocket Society.

The German military was searching for a weapon at the time that would not violate the Versailles Treaty of World War I but would defend its country.

Artillery captain Walter Dornberger was assigned to investigate the feasibility of using rockets. Dornberger visited the Rocket Society. Impressed with the club’s enthusiasm, he offered its members the equivalent of $400 to build a rocket. 

Von Braun worked on the project through the spring and summer of 1932 only to have the rocket fail when it was tested by the military.

But Dornberger was impressed with von Braun and hired him to lead the military's rocket artillery unit. Von Braun's natural talents as a leader shined, as well as his ability to assimilate great quantities of data while keeping the big picture in mind. By 1934, von Braun and Dornberger had a team of 80 engineers in place, building rockets in Kummersdorf, about 60 miles south of Berlin. 

A New Facility

With the successful launch of two rockets, Max and Moritz, in 1934, von Braun's proposal to work on a jet-assisted take-off device for heavy bombers and all-rocket fighters was granted. But Kummersdorf was too small for the task. A new facility had to be built.

Peenemunde, located on the Baltic coast, was chosen as the new site. Peenemunde was large enough to launch and monitor rockets over ranges up to about 200 miles with optical and electric observing instruments along the trajectory. Its location posed no risk of harming people or property.

The A-4 Becomes the A-2

By now, Hitler had taken over Germany and Herman Goering ruled the Luftwaffe. Dornberger held a public test of the A-2 and it was successful. Funding continued to flow in to von Braun's team, and they went on to develop the A-3 and, finally, the A-4.

Hitler decided to use the A-4 as a "vengeance weapon" in 1943, and the group found themselves developing the A-4 to rain explosives on London. Fourteen months after Hitler ordered it into production, on September 7, 1944, the first combat A-4 -- now called the V-2 -- was launched toward Western Europe. When the first V-2 hit London, von Braun remarked to his colleagues, "The rocket worked perfectly except for landing on the wrong planet."

The Team's Fate

The SS and the Gestapo ultimately arrested von Braun for crimes against the state because he persisted in talking about building rockets that would orbit the earth and perhaps even go to the moon. His crime was indulging in frivolous dreams when he should have been concentrating on building bigger rocket bombs for the Nazi war machine. Dornberger convinced the SS and the Gestapo to release von Braun because there would be no V-2 without him and Hitler would have them all shot.

When he arrived back at Peenemunde, von Braun immediately assembled his planning staff. He asked them to decide how and to whom they should surrender. Most of the scientists were frightened of the Russians. They felt the French would treat them like slaves, and the British did not have enough money to fund a rocket program. That left the Americans.

Von Braun stole a train with forged papers and ultimately led 500 people through war-torn Germany to surrender to the Americans. The SS was issued orders to kill the German engineers, who hid their notes in a mine shaft and evaded their own army while searching for the Americans. Finally, the team found an American private and surrendered to him.

The Americans immediately went to Peenemunde and Nordhausen and captured all the remaining V-2s and V-2 parts. They destroyed both places with explosives. The Americans brought over 300 train cars loaded with spare V-2 parts to the U.S.

Many of von Braun's production team were captured by the Russians.