Germany early rocket history


  • On July 5, 1927, the Verein für Raumschiffahrt [VfR] (Society for Space Travel) was founded by Johann Winkler in Breslau, Germany. Its membership included Klaus Riedel, Rudolf Nebel, and Max Valier. On March 12, 1928, in Rüsselsheim, Germany, Kurt Volkhart drove the first rocket car. It was powered by solid rockets, and had been designed by Max Valier and Fridrikh Tsander.
  • This was followed by a rocket glider flown by Fritz von Opel at Rebstock, near Frankfurt on September 30, 1929. The glider was powered by 16 solid rockets of 50 pounds (22.7 kg) of thrust each. The glider reached a speed of 95 mph (153 km/h), was airborne for about 75 seconds, and traveled 5,000 feet (1525 meters).
  • In 1929, Hermann Oberth published Means to Space Travel. In 1930, the VfR acquired part of an old military training field in Berlin-Reinickendorf for rocket testing. They named this Raketenflugplatz (Rocket Air Field), but because of lack of funds their testing was severely limited. During the year, Werner von Braun joined the VfR and Dr. Walter Dornberger, then a captain, established an unofficial Army relationship with the VfR at Reinickendorf. In 1932, the cognizant Army Ordnance department, Wa Prüf 1/I, under Becker, renewed its interest in liquid propellant rockets. Wernher von Braun was hired and assigned to Dornberger, who had already been active in the solid propellant field for some time. On November 1, Army Ordnance activated Test Station West at Kummersdorf, twenty miles south of Berlin. The staff included von Braun, Klaus Riedel, and Arthur Rudolph. During the year, VfR dissolved itself, the result of a long-drawn-out internal conflict. On August 18, a new German Society for Space Research, Gesellschaft für Weltraumforschung, was founded by H. K. Kaiser in Berlin. Its activity remained limited, however.
  • On January 30, 1933, Hitler came to power in Germany. Under his sponsorship, rockets were put into crash development for use in warfare. The rocket scientist most instrumental in the rapid development of rocketry in Germany was Wernher von Braun. Small projects were the Wasserfall (C-2) winged anti-aircraft rocket developed at Peenemünde. It could be directed to targets from ground using a joystick-operated radio transmitter system. Another was the Taifun, a small salvo-launch-type anti-aircraft rocket. At Kummersdorf, von Braun and his team built the first of the planned A series of rockets, the A-1. The A-1 was the grandfather of most modern rockets. It used a pressure-fed propellant system burning liquid oxygen and 75% alcohol. The A-1s regeneratively-cooled motor had a thrust of 300 kg (660 pounds), and a burning time of 16 seconds. It weighed 330 pounds, was four and a half feet long, one foot in diameter, and was stabilized by a 90 pound gyroscope located in the nose. The first attempt at a static test firing was made on December 21, 1932. Within half a second, the rocket exploded. Development was subsequently abandoned.
  • At Kummersdorf, the A-2 rocket was developed in 1934. The A-2 burned ethanol and LOX. It was similar to the A-1, but had the gyroscope located in the center of the rocket to avoid the noseheaviness of the A-1. Two A-2 rockets dubbed Max and Moritz were launched from Borkum Island in the North Sea in December, 1934. The reached altitude of about 1.5 miles (2.4 km).
  • The A-3 was the first Peenemünde design. In 1936, Army General von Fritsch witnessed a static firing of an A-3 at Kummersdorf, and was sufficiently impressed to lend his support to the rocket program. Since ground was not broken until August, 1936, von Fritsch's viewing must have been in September through December. The A-3 also used a pressure-fed propellant system, using the same liquid oxygen and 75% alcohol mixture as the A-1 and A-2. It generated 3,300 pounds of thrust for 45 seconds. It used a three gyroscope system to deflect tungsten alloy jet vanes. Several A-3s were launched, reaching a maximum downrange of 7.5 miles and maximum altitude of 11 miles. Three A-3s were launched from Greifswalder Oie in Autumn 1937. They carried a three-axis gyro control system which actuated exhaust vanes. On the first launch, the parachute opened after five seconds, causing the rocket to crash into the sea. Parachutes were omitted on the second and third launches, but both rockets still went out of control.
  • In April 1936, Air Force General Kesselring and Army Col. Becker made a decision to build a joint Army-Air Force rocket development center. The northern tip of Usedom Island was selected as the site: the mouth of the Peene River, Peenemünde. As a part of this development, Dornberger's section was made into a separate department, Wa Prüf 11, Department for Special Ordnance Devices. At this time the first A-4/V-2 concepts began to take shape. In August, ground was broken at the Peenemünde site. By 1937, the majority of the Kummersdorf crew, which had grown from eight in 1932 to approximately one hundred, was transferred to Peenemünde. During the summer of 1940, the remainder of the Kummersdorf personnel were transferred to Peenemünde. Peenemünde was divided into an Air Force Area (Werk West: V-1, He 176, Me 163, and other development efforts), and an Army Ordnance Area (Werk Ost and Werk Süd: A-4, Wasserfall, Taifun, and other developments. At Peenemünde, German rocket scientists developed the A-4 and A-5. After the first RAF bombing raid (Operation Crossbow) on August 17-18 on Peenemünde, under cover of the night, mass-production was moved to a secret underground facility in Mittelwerk, the Harz Mountains. The move proved wise, since three addition raids, all during daylight, were conducted on July 18, August 4, and August 25, 1944.
  • The A-5 was an improved A-3, designed primarily as a test vehicle for A-4 guidance equipment, which it preceded. It was the same size as the A-3, and was fitted with graphite jet steering vanes and a parachute recovery device. It also had an improved gyro control, which operated the exhaust vanes. According to Huzel, approximately 80 A-5s were launched, including some refurbished after previous launchings (Huzel 1962, p. 236). According to Gatland, approximately 25 of these test rockets were launched between 1939 and 1941, some of them several times (Gatland 1989, p. 11). In any case, the A-5 routinely reached altitudes of 13 kilometers. Three different guidance systems were tested. The launches were vertical at first, reaching altitude of 13 km. Later, they were inclined. Radio guide beacons were also tested. The first A-5 was launched from Greiswalder Oie Island, near Usedom, in Autumn, 1939 and was recovered by parachute.
  • The A-4 was a large powerful rocket capable of long-range flight, and the focus of development at Peenemünde. Because of their shape and dull olive green painting, they were sometimes dubbed cucumbers. The A-4 used a turbopump to combust liquid oxygen and 75% alcohol. At sea level, the A-4 developed 56,000 pounds of thrust for 65 seconds. It weighed 28,500 fully fueled, and was 46.2 feet long and 5.4 feet in diameter. Its nominal range was 200 miles, although some special versions reached up to 250 miles. At engine cutoff, the A-4s velocity was 3,600 miles per hour. The highest point in its trajectory was 60 miles. A-4s were transported on a special trailer serving as both erector and service platform, called a Meiller-Wagen.
  • The first A-4 static firing was conducted on Test Stand P-1 (Prüfstand 1) at Peenemünde. Static firings on Stand P-7 were begun in August, 1940. The first launch attempt of an A-4 on June 13, 1942 was only partially successful. The first successful A-4 launch was on October 3, 1942. It traveled 190 km downrange and 85 km in altitude. The A-4 was given the new name of Vergeltungswaffe 2 (Revenge Weapon 2), abbreviated V-2, by Hitler. This name was applied on June 16, 1944. On this day, Revenge Weapon 1, German flying buzz bombs, were first used against England (four of them). The V-2 became the worlds first long range ballistic missile.
  • Operational test launchings were made at Blizna, Poland, in May-June, 1943. Flight tests at Peenemünde were then conducted, with the rockets launched over the ocean. Upon splashdown, they would release a bag of intense green dye to mark the location in the water. These flights were identified by the letter V and a number. The number indicated the assembly rather than launch number. The launch of V-43 is recounted by Huzel (Huzel 1962, pp. 68-76). The first production missile was Number 17,001. Number 17,003 was the first to pass evaluation, however, because of defects in the first two. Shortly after takeoff, 17,003 took off, settled back onto the pad, collapsed, toppled, and struck the ground. A huge explosion followed, ruining the launch table. Huzel describes the failure and his subsequent narrow escape from the falling 17,047. On June 13, 1944, V-89 was launched carrying guidance elements of the ground controlled anti-aircraft Wasserfall rocket. All seemed to be going well, until word came that it had impacted in southern Sweden. Apparently, the rocket had exploded several feet above the ground. The Allies could have no doubt now that Germany was developing along-range bombarding missile. The first A-4 was fired against Britain less than one month later.
  • During development, the unforeseen phenomenon of Luftzerleger (air or reentry bursts) was discovered. Quoting from Huzel (1962): ``Many of the missiles were not impacting in one piece but were breaking up before striking the target. During the time that we launched the A-4 over the Baltic Sea we had never noticed this fact. The dye spot was always there in the water, and the fact that occasionally there were several spots in a large cluster we attributed to dispersion under water after impact.
  • ``But then we started conducting launchings with solid ground impact points, firing from the area of Blizna is southwestern Poland into the uninhabited Pripet Marsh region. We soon discovered the air burst phenomenon. The regularity with which impact was characterized by a shower of missile parts scattered all over a large area, rather than in the familiar deep funnel, was disturbing, to say the least.
  • ``For better observation of the last seconds of the missiles trajectory, some of the experimental launchings were made straight up into the air from Oie Island. This gave the launching crew a weird feeling, but as planned, the earths rotation inevitably resulted in a water impact or air bursts a mile or so west of the island.... It was on one of these shots that a world altitude record of 117.44 miles was established with an A-4 and a burning time of 67 seconds.'' (Huzel 1962, p. 128).

German A-4 Launches:

# Date L. Vehicle L. Site Status
1 06-13-1942     first launch; partially successful
  10-03-1942     first successful launch
  05 to 06-1942   Blizna, Poland operational test launchings
  11-09-1943 V-43    
  01-27-1944 17,003   exploded on launch
  03-17-1944 17,047   engine cut off at 600 feet
  06-13-1944 V-89   exploded and impacted in Sweden

  • V-2s were repeatedly launched against the British in World War II. The first launch against England occurred on September 7, 1944 as retaliation for Allied air attacks on Germany. It carried a one metric ton amatol warhead, and impacted at 5000 kilometers (1750 miles) per hour. Civil Defense records show that approximately 4,320 V-2s were launched between September 6, 1944 and March 27, 1945. About 1,120 V-2s, were fired at London and its suburbs (Gatland 1989, p. 12). At the end of the war, missiles in the 22,000s were being made.
  • All told, there were 264 developmental A-4 launchings during the life of Peenemünde starting on June 13, 1942 and terminating on February 19, 1945. Of these, 165 were launched from Test Stand P-7, 39 from Test Stand P-10, 23 vertical launchings from Oie, and 37 launchings from other locations such as Test Stand P-6 and Siedlung, where family housing was located prior to Operation Crossbow. Of these, 117 were production missiles made at Mittelwerke, two were Peenemünde-made A04bs, and all the rest were A-4s produced right at Peenemünde. The breaking point in these launchings came in the spring of 1944 when the proportion of successes began to rise rapidly. Approximately 3,550 V-2 missiles were launched operationally, of which some 650 did not reach their target, owing primarily to air burst. The proportion of failures on the ascending side of the trajectory from these military launchings was four percent, providing the missile had been stored properly and was launched within a few days of its manufacture. Since the number of launchings per month was only slightly less than the production rate, there was seldom much delay. Production at Mittelwerke from September 1944 through March 1945 averaged 650 per month. Based on a study of 1,200 V-2 launchings, an impact reliability of 78 percent was established (Huzel 1962, pp. 128-129).
  • The explosive payload of the V-2 was always 2,200 pounds (one metric ton). Experimental rockets with extended propellant tanks achieved a maximum range of 298 miles, though the final effective range of the operational V-2 was 220 miles (Huzel 1962, pp. 128-129).
  • The A-4b was a modification of the A-4 prompted by the loss of seashore launching bases in Holland. It was a winged A-4 with an A-9 aft section. Two preliminary models, still with the A-4 aft section, were launched vertically in late 1944. Approximately 1,460 miles per hour (Mach 2) was achieved. An additional five were under construction at the end of the War. German plans extended beyond the A-4 to more ambitious projects. The A-7 was planned as a research tool for the A-9. It was essentially a winged A-5, conceived in two models. The first was to have had no propulsion system and to have been dropped from a plane at an altitude of 26,000 feet. A range of 28 miles was expected. Two unsuccessful drops were made in the Fall of 1942. The second model would have had an engine capable of delivering 4,000 pounds, giving it a range of 16 miles. It was never built.
  • The A-6 was to have been a subsonic missile. However, it never passed beyond the preliminary analysis stage. The A-8 was a planned improvement of the A-4 to have 66,000 pounds of thrust for 90 seconds. It was to have burning nitric acid and kerosene, but was never built. The A-9/A-10 combination was the final goal of the A series. The A-9 was planned as the second stage rocket for use atop an A-10. The A-9 was essentially a winged A-4. Without the booster, it was planned to have a 500 mile range. It would have used air vanes capable of steering it during both powered and unpowered flight. It was planned to have a 2,200 pound payload (1 metric ton), but the concept never went beyond preliminary analysis. The A-10 would have been used as the first stage of the A-10/A-9 combination. Together, these represent the first intercontinental ballistic missile design, with a projected range of 2,600 miles. The combination would have been 72 feet long. The A-10 was to produce 440,000 pounds of thrust for 50 seconds.
  • As the War drew to a close, Peenemünde was evacuated during January and February of 1945, prior to its capture by the Russian army in March. Von Braun and most of his group defected to the advancing American armies. The story of their exodus to American-controlled southern Germany, and concealment of tons of vital rocket documents in a mine shaft in Dörnten, is told by Dieter Huzel (1962). The scientists were temporarily taken into custody in Gamisch-Partenkirchen, southern Bavaria.
  • Following their detention, many of the scientists were taken by the British to the former German Naval Artillery Range at Altenwalde on the North Sea. Here, they participated in the British Operation Backfire which, according to Huzel, p. was designed simply to completely evaluate the entire V-2 system, interrogate German personnel specialized in all phases and subsystems of it, and then actually launch several missiles over the North Sea. The first Backfire launching occurred on October 2, 1945 across the Baltic, and was a complete success. The second occurred two days later on October 4, 1945, but did not achieve full range. The third and final launch occurred on October 15, 1945, and went off without major difficulties.

Operation Backfire V-2 Launches:

Vehicle Launch Date Status
1 10-02-1945 complete success
2 10-04-1945 did not achieve full range
3 10-15-1945 without significant difficulties

  • Subsequently, most of the rocket scientists were offered contracts in America. The scientists were taken to Fort Bliss, El Paso, and then on to White Sands. With them came boxcars of documents and the parts for 64 V-2 rockets (Gatland 1989, 12). The program of bringing rocket scientists and hardware to the United states was dubbed Operation Paperclip. Huzel reports that the reasons for the name was unknown to him (Huzel 1962, p. 216), but von Braun remarks that the project was so named because the dossiers of Germans handpicked during these interviews [by teams of American experts] were marked with a paperclip (von Braun 1976). At White Sands, the scientist test-launched rockets for the Army Ballistic Missile Agency's [ABMA] Project Hermes.
  • The Soviet leaders were far from happy about the removal from under their noses of the bulk of almost the entire German factory and almost all its top scientists. The chief rocket scientist of the Soviet Air Force complained later, The underground factory of V-2 rockets in the Harz Mountains was captured by the U.S. Army, quickly dismantled, and sent, together with its staff, to the United States. Nothing was left behind... The U.S.S.R. did not get a single leading V-2 rocket engineer or administrator (Clark 1968, p. 70). Joseph Stalin himself is reported to have fumed to General I.A. Serov, This is absolutely intolerable. We defeated the Nazi armies; we occupied Berlin and Peenemünde, but the Americans got the rocket engineers. What could be more revolting and inexcusable? How and why was this allowed to happen? Meanwhile, the Soviets also reorganized V-2 production, under ex-Peenemünde engineer Helmut Gröttrup. V-2s were static tested in Lehesten under Soviet rocket engineer V.p. Glushko. On October 28, 1946, German rocket engineers were shipped without prior notice to Moscow. Here they were divided into two groups: one in a Moscow suburb near Datschen, the other on the island of Gorodomlya in Lake Seliger, 150 miles northwest of Moscow (Gatland 1989, 12). The Germans working in Russia did not succeed in launching their first V-2 until the fall of 1947; by that time almost 30 had been fired from White Sands. After German known-how had been absorbed by the Soviets, the Germans were repatriated.

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