World War II: V-2 Rocket

V-2 Rocket taking off
V-2 Rocket during launch. US Air Force

In the early 1930s, the German military began to seek out new weapons that would not violate the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. Assigned to aid in this cause, Captain Walter Dornberger, an artilleryman by trade, was ordered to investigate the feasibility of rockets. Contacting the Verein für Raumschiffahrt (German Rocket Society), he soon came in contact with a young engineer named Wernher von Braun. Impressed with his work, Dornberger recruited von Braun to aid in developing liquid-fueled rockets for the military in August 1932.

The eventual result would be the world's first guided ballistic missile, the V-2 rocket. Originally known as the A4, the V-2 featured a range of 200 miles and a maximum speed of 3,545 mph. Its 2,200 pounds of explosives and liquid propellant rocket engine allowed Hitler's army to employ it with deadly accuracy.

Design and Development

Commencing work with a team of 80 engineers at Kummersdorf, von Braun created the small A2 rocket in late 1934. While somewhat successful, the A2 relied on a primitive cooling system for its engine. Pressing on, von Braun's team moved to a larger facility at Peenemunde on the Baltic coast, the same facility that developed the V-1 flying bomb, and launched the first A3 three years later. Intended to be a smaller prototype of the A4 war rocket, the A3's engine nonetheless lacked endurance, and problems quickly emerged with its control systems and aerodynamics. Accepting that the A3 was a failure, the A4 was postponed while the problems were dealt with using the smaller A5.

The first major issue to be addressed was constructing an engine powerful enough to lift the A4. This became a seven-year development process that led to the invention of new fuel nozzles, a pre-chamber system for mixing oxidizer and propellant, a shorter combustion chamber, and a shorter exhaust nozzle. Next, designers were forced to create a guidance system for the rocket that would allow it to reach the proper velocity before shutting off the engines. The result of this research was the creation of an early inertial guidance system, which would allow the A4 to hit a city-sized target at a range of 200 miles.

As the A4 would be traveling at supersonic speeds, the team was forced to conduct repeated tests of possible shapes. While supersonic wind tunnels were built at Peenemunde, they were not completed in time to test the A4 before being put into service, and many of the aerodynamic tests were conducted on a trial and error basis with conclusions based on informed guesswork. A final issue was developing a radio transmission system that could relay information about the rocket's performance to controllers on the ground. Attacking the problem, the scientists at Peenemunde created one of the first telemetry systems to transmit data.

Production and a New Name

In the early days of World War II, Hitler was not particularly enthusiastic about the rocket program, believing that the weapon was simply a more expensive artillery shell with a longer range. Eventually, Hitler did warm to the program, and on December 22, 1942, authorized the A4 to be produced as a weapon. Though production was approved, thousands of changes were made to the final design before the first missiles were completed in early 1944. Initially, production of the A4, now re-designated the V-2, was slated for Peenemunde, Friedrichshafen, and Wiener Neustadt, as well as several smaller sites.

This was changed in late 1943 after Allied bombing raids against Peenemunde and other V-2 sites erroneously led the Germans to believe their production plans had been compromised. As a result, production shifted to underground facilities at Nordhausen (Mittelwerk) and Ebensee. The only plant to be fully operational by war's end, the Nordhausen factory utilized labor stolen from enslaved people from the nearby Mittelbau-Dora concentration camps. It is believed that around 20,000 prisoners died while working at the Nordhausen plant, a number that far exceeded the number of casualties inflicted by the weapon in combat. During the war, over 5,700 V-2s were built at various facilities.

Operational History

Originally, plans called for the V-2 to be launched from massive blockhouses located at Éperlecques and La Coupole near the English Channel. This static approach was soon scrapped in favor of mobile launchers. Traveling in convoys of 30 trucks, the V-2 team would arrive at the staging area where the warhead was installed and then tow it to the launch site on a trailer known as a Meillerwagen. There, the missile was placed on the launch platform, where it was armed, fueled, and the gyros set. This set-up took approximately 90 minutes, and the launch team could clear an area in 30 minutes after launch.

Thanks to this highly successful mobile system, up to 100 missiles a day could be launched by German V-2 forces. Also, due to their ability to stay on the move, V-2 convoys were rarely caught by Allied aircraft. The first V-2 attacks were launched against Paris and London on September 8, 1944. Over the next eight months, a total of 3,172 V-2 were launched at Allied cities, including London, Paris, Antwerp, Lille, Norwich, and Liege. Due to the missile's ballistic trajectory and extreme speed, which exceeded three times the speed of sound during descent, there was no existing and effective method for intercepting them. To combat the threat, several experiments using radio jamming (the British erroneously thought the rockets were radio-controlled) and anti-aircraft guns were conducted. These ultimately proved fruitless.

V-2 attacks against English and French targets only decreased when Allied troops were able to push back Germans forces and place these cities out of range. The last V-2-related casualties in Britain occurred on March 27, 1945. Accurately placed V-2s could cause extensive damage and over 2,500 were killed and nearly 6,000 wounded by the missile. Despite these casualties, the rocket's lack of a proximity fuse reduced losses as it frequently buried itself in the target area before detonating, which limited the effectiveness of the blast. Unrealized plans for the weapon included the development of a submarine-based variant as well as the construction of the rocket by the Japanese.


Highly interested in the weapon, both American and Soviet forces scrambled to capture existing V-2 rockets and parts at the end of the war. In the conflict's final days, 126 scientists who had worked on the rocket, including von Braun and Dornberger, surrendered to American troops and assisted in further testing the missile before coming to the United States. While American V-2s were tested at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, Soviet V-2s were taken to Kapustin Yar, a Russian rocket launch and development site two hours east of Volgograd. In 1947, an experiment called Operation Sandy was conducted by the U.S. Navy, which saw the successful launch of a V-2 from the deck of the USS Midway (CV-41). Working to develop more advanced rockets, von Braun's team at White Sands used variants of the V-2 up until 1952. The world's first successful large, liquid-fueled rocket, the V-2 broke new ground and was the basis for the rockets later used in the American and Soviet space programs.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: V-2 Rocket." ThoughtCo, Sep. 6, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, September 6). World War II: V-2 Rocket. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: V-2 Rocket." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).