Operation Backfire, organized by the British authorities immediately after the end of hostilities in Europe, was designed to completely evaluate the entire V-2 assembly, interrogate German personnel specialized in all phases of it, and then actually launch several missiles across the North Sea. The Allies Learn To Launch an Aero–Ballistic Guided Missile was a British project officially designated as “Operation Backfire” was initiated to provide the knowledge and skills of guided ballistic missiles. Following the successful conclusion of the tests, the War Office in London issued a 5-volume report detailing these operations.

   The race to discover and capture the secrets of the German missile began even before the hostilities in Europe ended. On April 10, 1945, the spearhead of the advancing American troops, Combat Command B (CCB) of the U.S. Third Armored Division, entered Nordhausen. Here CCB was to pause and link up with the U.S. 104th Infantry “Timberwolf” Division before continuing its drive to the east. Several miles further, as they approached the foothills of the Harz Mountains, American troops discovered Dora and the entrances to the Mittelwerk tunnels.

   When walking into the first long tunnel, they were stunned to see railway freight cars loaded with V-2s and the thousands of finished and unfinished parts and assemblies. When word came of the incredible find, U.S. Colonel Holgar Toftoy, Chief of Army Ordinance Technical Intelligence, immediately began arranging for “Special Mission V-2” from his office in Paris. Its purpose would be the evacuation of 100 complete V-2s and specialized parts back to the United States. To support his mission, Toftoy had organized special rapid-response Ordinance Technical Intelligence teams attached to each Army group. These teams organized the available specialists in the field to quickly address the task given to them.

Download 5 Volumes of Operation Backfire

   These teams were equipped with cameras, radios, transport trucks, and qualified personnel whose job it was to ferret out interesting weapons technology and record it. The team designated to investigate the Mittelwerk was headed by Major James Hamill of Ordinance Technical Intelligence. He was assisted by Major William Bromley in charge of technical operations and by Dr. Louis Woodruff, an MIT electrical engineering professor, as special advisor. The team was headquartered in Fulda, about 80 miles southwest of Nordhausen.

   After rounding up captured German rolling stock and clearing a path into the tunnels, Special Mission V-2 succeeded in loading up and sending off its first 40-car trainload of V-2 parts and machine equipment on May 22, 1945. Nine days later, the last of the 341 rail cars left the Mittelwerk bound for Antwerp. Although the British properly protested that by prior agreement, half the captured V-2s were to be turned over to them, the Americans ignored these protests. Sixteen Liberty ships, bearing the components for 100 V-2 rockets, finally sailed from Antwerp, destined for New Orleans and then White Sands. Hamill was not told that the factory would be in the Soviet zone of occupation. Consequently, quite a number of missile parts were left for the Soviets to discover.

   Major Robert Staver from the Rocket Section of the Research and Development branch of the Ordinance Office was tasked in directing the effort to find and interrogate the German rocket specialists who had built the V-2. Since April 30 he had been in the Nordhausen area searching the smaller laboratories for V-2 technicians. On May 12, Staver located his first V-2 engineer, Karl Otto Fleisher, who began to put him in touch with other Mittelwerk engineers who had not been part of von Braun’s caravan to Bavaria. On May 14, Staver found Walther Riedel, head of the Peenemünde rocket motor and structural design section, who urged the Americans to import perhaps 40 of the top V-2 engineers to America. After their surrender to U.S. forces in Bavaria, Wernher von Braun’s V-2 specialists were moved to a prisoner enclosure in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, where a variety of Allied interrogators questioned them. At this point the Americans had the missiles, they had the top scientists, but they were still missing the all-important Peenemünde documentation. Fourteen tons of Peenemünde documents had been hidden by Peenemünde engineer Dieter Huzel in an abandoned iron mine in the isolated village of Dornten in early April.

Allied document detailing the surrender
of Von Braun's rocket team to Americans

   Von Braun had ordered the documents hidden to prevent their destruction by SS General Kammler, and to also use them as a bargaining chip in negotiating their fate with the Allies. As it happened, Karl Otto Fleisher was the only person remaining in the Nordhausen area who was aware of the general location of the V-2 documents hidden by von Braun’s group. Staver tricked him into revealing the location of the papers on May 20. In less than a week, the Dornten area was scheduled to fall into the hands of the British. A frantic scramble then ensued to transport the documents back to Nordhausen, where they were quickly shipped to Paris, and then to the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.

   At the beginning of June, Staver requested that some of von Braun’s senior engineers be sent to the area of Nordhausen to help identify which of the thousands of German technicians should be offered evacuation to the American zone before the scheduled handover of Nordhausen to the Soviets on June 21, 1945. On June 20, some 1,000 German V-2 personnel and their families were selected and gathered up, then placed aboard a long train, which eventually made its way to the small town of Witzenhausen, some 40 miles to the southwest and just inside the American zone.

   Von Braun and his team were heavily interrogated and jealously protected from Russian agents. Dornberger later told British interrogators, “The Russians sent one of my former engineers to me when I was with the Americans, who told me he had an offer to make on behalf of the Russians. We were to go back to Peenemünde and it would be rebuilt, along with a parallel factory in Russia, and they offered to pay us double what the Americans were offering us. We also could move our families with us, etc. We turned it down flat. Afterward, in the town Witzenhausen, they tried to kidnap our leading men such as Dr. Wernher von Braun. They appeared at night as British soldiers in uniforms; I guess they didn’t realize it was the American zone. Somehow they had obtained a proper pass, but the Americans quickly realized what was happening and sent them away. That’s how those Russians operated, real kidnapping, they had no scruples at all.”

Von Braun surrenders in Bavaria with arm in
cast from recent automobile accident

Photos above show an abandoned railway shipment of V-2 rockets discovered on a siding outside of Ditfurt, Germany

   At the close of the war in Europe, the Americans were not the only ones hunting for rocket booty. After the German surrender, the British attachment of the Allied Air Defense Division became known as the Special Projectile Operations Group (SPOG). The Air Defense Division had been charged with the task of collecting information about the secret German rockets to formulate effective countermeasures before the close of the war. With the war ended, much was known about the V-2, and most of this information had been gathered through intelligence. When the wayward V-2 crashed in Sweden late in 1944, the British government gained a small glimpse of the German missile after securing the wreckage. From this mangled mass, British intelligence obtained a small amount of information, but the Allies could only speculate how the missile was transported, fueled, and fired during the wartime attacks.

   When the war ended, more than 8,000 German rocket troops had been captured along with hundreds of Peenemünde scientists. A proposal was put forward by J. C. C. Bernard, A.T.S., Personal Assistant to Major-General Cameron, head of the British Air Defense Division, that the German rocket troops be forced to demonstrate their V-2 handling and firing procedures by actually preparing and launching some V-2 rockets. On June 22, 1945, General Eisenhower sanctioned the series of tests and the Air Defense Division was given the go-ahead with the procedure under the new organization of Special Projectile Operations Group. Major-General Cameron was instructed by Eisenhower to ascertain the German technique of launching long-range rockets and to verify it by actually firing some V-2s.

   In addition to launching rockets, the operation would provide opportunities to study particular supplementary topics such as the preparation of the rocket and supplementary equipment, the handling of fuels, and flight control. It would be a comprehensive investigation conducted by the military to completely evaluate the V-2’s innovative technology, to interrogate German personnel specialized in all phases of its operation, and then to actually launch several missiles across the North Sea. The project would be known as Operation Backfire. The program was under the command of Major-General Cameron, along with SPOG General Staff Colonel W. S. J. Carter, who was in charge of operations and documentation.

   On August 11, 1945, the British War Office assumed responsibility for the operation after the dissolution of Allied Supreme Headquarters. Cameron was instructed by the British War Office that the objective of the operation remained the same—discover as much possible from the German launching troops and scientists while they were still together and the details were still fresh in their minds. This should be done by carrying out the operation of assembly, fueling, and firing, using the captured Germans who would be supervised by British technical experts. He was instructed to record the operation using film and written records. The United States was represented by Colonel W. I. Wilson, United States Army Ordinance Department, as senior U.S. Officer with the role of watching U.S. Interests and assisting S.P.O.G., by procuring from the United States sources such as personnel and material that were required.-

   On June 29, 1945, British intelligence officers were allowed to question General Dornberger at Garmisch–Partenkirchen in the hopes of obtaining any information that might helpful in the pursuit of Operation Backfire. In particular, they wanted to know Dornberger’s opinion of potential hazards associated with the planned firings.

   The former commander of Peenemünde was at first reluctant to deal with the British, but thought it best to cooperate—if only for the safety of his former troops and colleagues. Dornberger gave the British his recommendations in regards to propellant storage, transport, loading, and operational safety precautions. He listed his concerns about the launchings, including the selection of a proper firing site, erecting the rockets, while detailing his own accident and failure experiences. Dornberger also provided a list of 30 people, held at Garmisch–Partenkirchen, who would be qualified to take part in the various stages of firing procedures.

General Dornberger photographed
during his time in British custody

   Operation Backfire resulted in one of the most comprehensive evaluations and documentation of the total V-2 weapons architecture—not only by the Allies, but also the Germans. To the great surprise of the British, the task would prove to be far more difficult than first thought. Dieter Huzel, a close aid to von Braun and a witness to the Backfire project, wrote in 1962: The full meaning and understanding of the fact that in addition to the missile itself, at least as much equipment is also needed to prepare it for flight was formulated here, probably for the first time.

   Considerations includeda safe and capable launch site; facilities; ground support equipment; flight hardware; and a knowledgeable and skilled work team. The location the British selected was an abandoned German naval gun range near Cuxhaven, Germany, on the coast of the North Sea. Since the location already had radar sites, it was well suited for testing this new rocket technology. Also, the site already had rail sidings and had some of the infrastructure needed for the operations. The area of Cuxhaven had already been used for amateur rocket tests in the 1930's.

   After the German V-2 Division surrendered at the end of April 1945, 107 of its officers and men had been selected by Military Intelligence for interrogation. They were chosen from amongst those with the longest practical experience and the most knowledge of improvements and simplifications in launching methods. They included officers who held important operational, administrative and technical appointments in the division. These men were segregated from the other troops in a camp near Brussels, and interrogated extensively, not only with the view of finding out what further personnel would be required, but also with a view to locating rocket equipment abandoned by the division.

   The support tasks of Operation Backfire were enormous yet carried out with relative expediency. For example, it took 3 weeks for 2,000 Canadian engineers to construct the V-2 assembly facilities and the test and checkout hangars, including a 300-foot-long facility completely outfitted with a 10-ton overhead crane. The Canadians had succeeded in constructing a vertical checkout stand for the launch system made from sections of a military Bailey bridge in 2 weeks.
   The last days of the V-2 Division led to the formation of Altenwalde Versuchskommando (AVKO) for Backfire tests. This was a group of captured V-2 field troops—men who had launched V-2s in combat, who retained the most practical knowledge of field logistics and operations.

   The end for V-2 troops of Division z.V. (Division for Retaliation) came in April of 1945. Everywhere in the Germany the fires were burning. It was a signal of the incessant and unstoppable penetration by enemy forces from the east and west. Berlin had been surrounded for days, yet somehow the German war effort continued—even as the Allies rolled across Germany. The retreating Germans formed up to fight against the Allies, having been rallied by fanatical commanders still sworn to Hitler. However, in the end, the soldiers submitted to the overwhelming Allied supremacy, usually without much resistance.

   Hitler had ordered a breakthrough to rescue Berlin from the Russians who were squeezing the city. When the orders were given this plan was already an illusion. The orders received by the German commanders were impossible to carry out, as it was no longer possible to amass effective combat-ready troops. Tasked with this was the German 12th Army under General Walther Wenck. Wenck's forces were piecemealed together using the scattered remains of broken regiments and divisions—including the V-2 Division. On the evening of March 23, 1945, British troops under Montgomery...

   By June 1945, General Eisenhower issued the instructions to guide the upcoming operation: “The primary object of this operation is to ascertain the German technique of launching long-range rockets and to prove it by actual launch.” In doing so, the Allies hoped to learn the secrets of the “preparation of the rocket, the ancillary equipment, and the handling of fuel.”

   As soon as it became apparent that building rockets was going to be very complicated, it was decided to supplement the V-2 Division soldiers with civilian scientists and technicians. Permission was therefore obtained to select 79 technicians from amongst those whom the United States had concentrated at Garmisch-Partenkirchen. On the afternoon of July 21, 1945, von Braun’s specialists were called to a meeting. It was announced that from among them a select group would be surrendered to the British to conduct some type of specific work with rockets. Most of the rocket scientists were horrified at the thought of being turned over to the British. Some felt that the British attitude towards the V-2 specialists might be less than cordial considering the fact that London had been on the receiving end of the V-2s.

   Ultimately, they did not want to remain in British hands and feared they might miss their opportunity to work for the Americans. However, they had no choice. In July Dornberger was transferred to the British Interrogation Camp Dustbin at Schloss Krauntzburg in Taunus, Germany, just outside of Frankfurt. Later several of Peenemünde's top men were transferred from from Garmisch–Partenkirchen to Camp Dustbin. These included the likes of Kurt Debus, Hans Fichtner and Al Zeiler. Dr. Debus had been involved in training German Army and SS firing units on Prüf Stand VII, while Zeiler helped field-test the procedures developed at Peenemünde in Poland. By the time of the evacuation from Peenemünde, Dr. Debus had become the superintendent of the test stands and the firing stands of the V-2. Debus would later be instrumental in design of Cape Canaveral and Complex 39 Saturn-Apollo launch facilities.

   Early on the morning of July 22, 1945, several trucks arrived to transport the German technicians to Altenwalde/Cuxhaven. Upon arrival, they were split into two groups and interrogated. The information given by each group was then compared. Dr. Debus led the “Interrogation Camp,” Camp C, at Altenwalde. Separate from Camp C, the British also established a Working Camp that was ordered to assemble eight missiles and fire five of them. Dr. Debus became both a technical and diplomatic liaison between the two camps and between the detained Germans and the victorious Allies. Wernher von Braun and General Walter Dornberger were also brought to Cuxhaven, but they were not taken to the actual firing site. Dornberger was kept separate from the Germans as it was feared that his considerable influence would be embarrassing for the British authorities.

   A comprehensive evaluation of the A-4/V-2 had never been undertaken, not even by the Germans. German security would not allow such broad coverage, feeling that no single person should know more about the entire system than the absolute minimum required for their own duties. The captured Germans were fairly willing to demonstrate their V-2 firing procedures and soon around 130-150 Peenemünde scientists, along with approximately 100 V-2 firing troops and 600 ordinary POWs were transported to Cuxhaven. To keep the Germans happy, permission was obtained to increase their pay and rations, and towards the end of the operation, the Germans would receive a bonus for their work.

   Allied air attacks and German sabotage, not to mention the American heist at the Mittelwerk, had consumed almost every assembled V-2 in Europe. Therefore, finding intact V-2s was a great problem. A small British advance party, led by Colonel T. R. B. Sanders, secured several missiles outside of Nordhausen before the Americans arrived in the area, but more were needed. The Americans later removed enough parts from the underground Mittelwerk facility to assemble 70 to 100 rockets in the United States. After the Americans were finished, the British were given another opportunity to salvage what was left before the Russians took over the Mittelwerk. At Nordhausen the British scoured over what remained at the plant. They found a multitude of parts; however, no complete subassemblies remained. Later, a small group of intact V-2s was later discovered on an abandoned railway shipment in the British zone of occupation. Officials determined they had enough rockets and parts to assemble about eight complete rockets for testing. However, they also found that they were missing several key rocket components as well as the support vehicles needed to fuel and launch the rockets.

   After checking all the former operational launching sites in Holland and Germany, not one single piece of equipment was found remaining. The retreating German rocket troops had made their way eastwards in the face of the Allied advance and scattered their equipment all along the route. What followed was an amazing search all over Europe for the missing items. Search parties were sent out everywhere with soldiers who were fluent in German, each with a convoy of trucks, to seek out the missing parts. The logistics of acquiring the needed flight hardware were not necessarily difficult; however, the acquisition of usable ground support equipment was certainly troublesome.

   Luckily, the British were able to locate 18 incomplete rockets on an abandoned rail shipment outside of Jerxheim in the British zone. In late August, twelve more rockets were found near Lesse, including one almost complete specimen. After the rockets were recovered, the British set about locating various ground support equipment. This was done by interrogating the POWs for information about the whereabouts of control cars, fuel tankers, firing tables, transport and erection vehicles, test vehicles, generators, cranes, ladders, air compressors and other ancillary equipment, such as cables, connecting plugs, hoses and igniters. Most of this serviceable equipment was found in and around the areas of Lesse, Celle and Fallingbostel. It was to this locality that most of the equipment used by the launching troops from The Hague and Burgsteinfurt had been evacuated. The recovery of one critical piece of equipment, which had been dumped into a river, required the use of dredging machinery.

   Additional equipment withdrawn from Peenemünde during the German evacuation and was found in the area near Nordhausen. When the hunt was finished, 400 railway cars and 70 Lancaster flights were used to bring the 250,000 parts and 60 specialized vehicles to Cuxhaven. However; no complete undamaged and serviceable rockets were found. The most elusive components were the batteries that powered the guidance gyros. Intact tail units were also very difficult to locate, and because of the difficulties in manufacturing the tail sections, some of the captured tails were transferred from American stockpiles after a request from the British. The liquid oxygen plant at Fassburg, 130 miles from Altenwalde, was opened again to produce liquid oxygen for the Backfire tests. Five 20-ton railway tankers were discovered containing 70 tons of ethyl-alcohol were found near Nordhausen and dispatched to Cuxhaven, with hydrogen-peroxide coming from reserves at Kiel.

  The Krupps proving grounds were taken over for the operations. The gun-testing range at Altenwalde in northern Germany, which was in the British zone of occupation, was an ideal location. This location was found suitable because of the sea to the north, with good radar tracking points downrange. The Germans had discovered the advantages of this site prior to the close of the war. Test flights of the Fi-103 flying bomb (V-1) had already taken place there and in early 1945, following the devastating air raids at Peenemünde. Also in 1944, Kurt Debus had been sent there to investigate the area as a potential new site for testing V-2s, as a replacement for Test Stand VII.

   The British utilized the hangars and other facilities of the former German artillery range for handling, logistics, and preparation of the missiles. A Marston shed was erected to serve as the main assembly shop. It was fitted with a 10-ton overhead traveling crane to handle completed rockets and heavy assemblies. A giant proofing tower was constructed out of Bailey bridge panels for testing of the rockets in the vertical position.

   In addition to the missile itself, at least as much attention would need to be focused on ground support equipment and vehicles, all of which would need extensive repairs to make them serviceable. The repair of special vehicles used for transporting rockets was set up in a shop equipped with a portable forge, power saw, and electrical welding apparatus. A large concrete firing point was created at the site so that there was ample room for the operations. More than 2,500 additional British troops were brought in to complete the various construction projects.

During the second week of August the final German rocket specialists arrived at the British camp at Altenwalde. Their apprehension of the situation was overpowered by the delight of rejoining their former colleagues to once again work with rockets. Although the work of assembling and testing of rockets was to be carried out by the German technicians, it was appreciated early on that British technical officers would also be required.

   After months of inactivity, the V-2 specialists were all happy to be working once again. Each day at 5:00 PM, after a rigorous day of work, the siren announced the end of the shift. The Germans flowed out of the offices and shops and walked the road to their quarters. The reality that the operation was a technical show contributed to the overall satisfactory mood of the captured Germans; but also the fact that they were well-fed, well-housed, and generally well-treated by their captors added to their contentment. The Germans were frequently given permission to go into the nearby hamlet of Brockeswalde, or even into Cuxhaven, where a movie theater had recently been reopened, and a small library was available. In the opposite direction the beach was little less than an hour’s walk away. The camp became “home.” This sentiment was reinforced in those who were allowed to travel on official business to other areas of war-ravaged Germany. At Altenwalde, a place untouched by the storm of war, they felt a sense of community. The Germans still received no mail, but were often given reports of disturbing developments in the eastern provinces.

   In the end it was decided to organize the Germans into two parties. There was a “Camp-A” where the business of the launchings was staffed. Comprised of all soldiers and civilians required to work in the shops and launching unit, these men were organized into a military unit under the command of senior German officer Lieutenant-Colonel Weber, who commanded a V-2 battalion and had previously been in command of the Training and Experimental Battery 444. Camp-A adopted the old operational jargon and called itself AVKO or Altenwalde Versuchskommando. These men were tasked with the assembly of eight rockets, five of which would supposedly be launched during the tests (in reality only three were launched).

   The explosive material in the missile warheads was steamed out and replaced with sand. For tracking purposes, the rebuilt rockets were painted in a black-and-white checkered pattern, similar to the early Peenemünde rocket schemes. The second party, or “Camp-C,” was comprised mainly of von Braun’s civilian experts who were kept at a separate camp a few miles away in the village of Brockeswalde. This group of 15-20 men had been set aside to put down on paper what they thought was noteworthy of their activities at Peenemünde. At times Camp A and Camp C got together to discuss the preparations of the coming V-2 test launchings. Occasionally, rumors came in of German negotiations with U.S. authorities at Witzenhausen for employment contracts in the United States.

   By the middle of August 1945, the operation had crystallized itself into two parts; (1) the production of the completed rockets, and recording of all technical lessons which gradually came to light in doing so; (2) and the other, the field operation of handling the completed rocket, setting it up on its firing site, launching it, recording so far as possible the behavior of its flight.  

   Very soon September arrived. The work of the Germans was coming to a conclusion with a total eight V-2 rockets being produced. The date of the first firing was announced as September 27, 1945. Everyone was striving to reach this high point—the first shot. A nervous tension was felt experienced by everyone as the day approached. The first rocket was towed to the firing position a few days prior to launching. It was placed under a storage tent and protected by a British special guard.

   Beginning a few days late, the first rocket was finally ready. October 1, 1945, dawned with gray skies and increased tension in the German camp. Everyone questioned whether of not the launch would occur this day. The English officers express their doubts, but an attempt was mounted anyway. The results were unsatisfactory. After two failed ignition attempts, the rocket had to be defueled. During the first attempt the steam unit valves would not open. Later in the day, on the second attempt, the igniter was thrown out before ignition. However, in the face of this the German firing crews were not discouraged. Many delays such as this had been experienced by the firing crews during wartime operations; nonetheless, some of the British officers condemned the device as too complicated.

Sketches of the V-2 and Meillerwagen made by the British and German engineers at Operation Backfire

   October 2 began with bright sunshine. Confidence was high and the launch went off perfectly. The rocket was seen rising into the blue sky, almost three years to the day of the first successful German test at Peenemünde. The scientists from Camp-C, from their vantage point a few miles away, watched the rocket travel all the way through to engine shut down. Emotional rejoicing swept through both camps and this was matched by the enthusiasm of the British soldiers. Sincere words of congratulations and acknowledgment were given on both sides. A few days later the second Backfire launch took place on October 4.

   The third and final launch, known as Operation Clitterhouse, took place on October 15, 1945. This firing was also billed as a demonstration for representatives of the United States, Russia, France, officials from Whitehall and the press. Weather conditions were poor, with a low cloud cover and 30-mph surface winds. But the launch went off exactly on time with no hitch. The V-2 performed flawlessly and landed near its target point in the North Sea. Watching the V-2 that day at Cuxhaven was a certain Russian Army colonel named Sergei Korolev. He had been a part of the Soviet intelligence team sent to investigate battered Peenemünde following its capture by Russian forces and was responsible for the exploitation of what remained at Nordhausen. Only ten years later, Korolev would be championed as the Soviet Union’s chief spacecraft designer and the grandee responsible for building the Vostok, Voshkod, and Soyuz spacecraft, which since the 1960s have carried all Soviet cosmonauts into orbit.

Operation Backfire Launches

Date: October 2, 1945
Time: 14.41 hrs
Maximum height: 69.4 km
Range of flight: 249.4 km
Date: October 4, 1945
Time: 14.16 hrs
Maximum height: 17.4 km
Range of flight: 24 km
Engine failure after launch
Date: October 15, 1945
Time: 15.06 hrs
Maximum height: 64 km
Range of flight: 233 km

   With tests concluded, the British removed all of their installations and equipment. It was rumored (but never confirmed) that many unused rocket parts were dumped into the waters of the North Sea just off the coastline. The former men of the V-2 division filtered back into German society to begin new lives. The British treatment of the German soldiers, which included AVKO, enlisted men, technicians, and officers, was generous. But only a small percentage of V-2 personnel from the wartime operational batteries were invited to the Backfire trials. Following their surrender to the Americans at the Elbe, most spent their time in Allied POW camps before returning to their families in Germany in 1946–1947. Similarly, only a handful of von Braun’s team participated in the experimental launches at Cuxhaven.

   With the operations concluded, von Braun’s specialists were to be returned to American custody again, where contracts with the U.S. Army had been in preparation at Witzenhausen, Germany. On October 22, 1945, all scientists of Camp C were transferred to Camp A, then on October 25 thirteen of the most important Peenemünde specialists, including Dieter Huzel, Kurt Debus, and Hans Lindenberg, left Cuxhaven via U.S. Military transport aircraft. Landing in Munich, they were then trucked to the provincial town of Landshut on the Isar River 40 miles east of Munich. A former German barracks had been selected by the U.S. Authorities to house the rocket specialists and their families. It was nicknamed Camp Overcast. Approximately 150 of the top technicians were rounded up, and after preliminary interrogation and background investigations, they were offered five-year contracts to come to the United States and work for the U.S. Army. In return, the Americans promised to provide housing at Camp Overcast for their families, who would remain in Germany until provision could be made to bring them to the United States. This was the beginning of Operation Overcast (later renamed Operation Paperclip). After realizing the tremendous strides made by the German scientists in the field of guided weapons, American military officials wanted to seize that knowledge and incorporate it into their future arsenal. For the Americans it was imperative to retain the data acquired by the Germans and to go forward.

Audio: The late Konrad Dannenberg speaks about his situation at the end of hostilities in Europe (1.8 MB)

   Some feel this whole operation was as much about convincing the German rocket scientists to come to Great Britain and work for the British in the development of a rocket program as it was about testing the V-2 systems. The British and Americans began fighting over the German scientists even before the war’s end. The Americans agreed to “lend” many of the top German rocket personnel for the Backfire tests and later found that the British were trying to convince the Germans to stay after the tests. In August the United States requested that the British return many of von Braun's specialists. It took a considerable amount of prodding by the U.S. War Department to gain the return of many Germans to American custody. Eventually, the British agreed to return the Germans on the condition that four or five of the top scientists could be fully interrogated in London about technical information. As it turned out, there was never a technical discussion for the Germans in London. Von Braun, Dornberger, and several other Peenemünde department chiefs were driven through the streets of London to show them the destruction that the missile had wrought. Von Braun and the other chiefs were returned to American custody in Germany soon after, but General Dornberger was kept by the British. Dornberger probably knew more about the V-2 organization and systems than anyone else, but the British didn’t want his technical knowledge, they wanted to execute him. Since SS General Kammler was nowhere to be found, the British fully intended to bring Dornberger to trial at Nuremberg as the person responsible for the bombardment of London with V-2s. It was not until 1947 that Dornberger was quietly released from British custody. It would have been hard to make a case against him in light of all the deaths caused by Allied bombing raids on Japanese and German civilians during the war.

A few of the German scientists were disappointed with the American offer of employment in the United States. When the Soviets began broadcasting offers to German engineers using large megaphones, several of the Germans accepted and crossed over to the Soviet zone, most notably Helmut Gröttrup. Gröttrup, who claimed he was upset with the American offer because his family would have to remain in Germany, had never really gotten along with Wernher von Braun. Gröttrup was eventually named head of the new rocket institute at Nordhausen, which was established by the Russians the following year. The Soviets allowed Gröttrup to build up his research institute until October 22, 1946, after which they forced the Germans to move east to Russia along with thousands of other specialists from Eastern Europe. The most experienced German specialists were ordered to board trains and were sent to various locations throughout the USSR to assist in the organization of missile production and design.

   By the beginning of the 1947, the Soviets had completed the transfer of all rocket technology from Germany to various secret locations in the USSR. A year later, beginning on October 30, 1947, the Soviet-German team launched 11 V-2 (R-1) rockets near the village of Kapustin Yar, north of the Caspian Sea. The R-1 was manufactured from scratch, as Stalin had ordered that no German-manufactured parts would be used on the Soviet rockets. Once the Soviets had acquired the German knowledge, Stalin’s military tossed Gröttrup and his assistants aside in favor of the many capable Soviet engineers. Never fully integrated into the Russian missile program, Gröttrup was eventually sent back to Germany. The first of the Operation Paperclip scientists arrived at Fort Strong, New York, on September 20, 1945, and then were moved to Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. The study at Aberdeen was centered on the processing of captured guided-missile documents.

   At Aberdeen the Americans and Germans went over thousands of documents, putting them in order and creating accurate translations of the most important. By this time, most of the other Peenemünders had moved in at Fort Bliss, near El Paso, Texas. The components for the V-2s had been shipped from Germany to the desert near Las Cruces, New Mexico, and  then to the newly established White Sands Proving Ground, where the work of assembling and launching test missiles for the United States government began. By February of 1946, almost all of von Braun’s Peenemünde team had been reunited at White Sands; and on April 16, the first V-2 was launched from New Mexico. The U.S. ballistic missile program was underway.

   From 1946 to 1952, the United States launched more than 60 V-2s. The once-deadly V-2 was turned into a scientific investigation platform, with its nose and control compartments stuffed with high-altitude research projects. A variant of the V-2 would be known as the “Bumper.” This consisted of the first-stage V-2 mated with the smaller second-stage Army WAC Corporal on top. This two-stage missile configuration would reach altitudes never before attained. The need for more space to test fire bigger missiles quickly became evident. In 1949, the Joint Long Range Proving Ground was established at what was then a very hostile and remote area in Florida named Cape Canaveral. On July 24, 1950, the Bumper configuration became the first of hundreds of test missiles to be fired from Cape Canaveral. Around the same time, the Army’s missile program was transferred from White Sands to a location just outside of the small town of Huntsville, Alabama. Here, von Braun’s team worked to develop the Redstone rocket, named for the U.S. Army arsenal where it was born. The German scientists would call Huntsville home for the next 20 years.

Audio: Willy Ley and Wernher von Braun discuss early days in America and White Sands (10.7 MB)

   Less well known are the substantial moves to bring German scientists to the UK after the war. This resulted in a number of rocket experts going to the new guided weapons research center at Westcott, near Aylesbury, while several influential aerodynamicists and aeronautical scientists took up posts at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, at Farnborough. Some of these made important contributions to the British aircraft programmes that developed such aircraft as the English Electric Lightning fighter and Concorde. German weapons were on-site for study. These included the V-1 flying bomb; V-2; Feuerlilie F-55 subsonic missile; Messerschmitt Me-163B rocket-propelled interceptor; Rheintochter-1 anti-aircraft missile; Ruhrstahl X-4 air-to-air wire-controlled missile; Enzian E-1 3,150-lb missile; Henschel Hs 298 anti-aircraft missile; Hs 293 anti-shipping weapon; and Schmetterling and Wasserfall anti-aircraft missiles. The migration of this relatively small number of highly skilled scientists at the Royal Aircraft Establishment was out of all proportion to its influence on postwar history.

   On December 23, 1946, a study group of the British Interplanetary Society headed by R.A. Smith and H. E. Ross submitted a redesign of the V-2 rocket to the British Ministry of Supply. The adaptation consisted mainly of a pressurized cabin in the nose of the rocket in place of the warhead and control compartment, which would enable a man to be launched as a passenger on the flight. The cabin was designed to detach, allowing the astronaut to experience several minutes of weightlessness before it parachuted back to Earth. The proposal was not adopted. However, the concept was very similar to the one eventually used by NASA.

Scientists at Westcott

   At its conclusion, the resulting reports on Operation Backfire, both in written form, and in the form of motion picture film, were more comprehensive than anything that existed in German records. The rocket project and deployment was so secret during the war that very few actual operational photos were even allowed by the Germans. Also, there had simply never been enough time or manpower at available at Peenemünde—or in the field during combat operations—to conduct an evaluation such as Backfire. In fact, the British film record of Backfire is frequently mistaken as German in origin, as German rocket troops were used exclusively during the testing and filming, even wearing their wartime uniforms. Historically, the film record has proved to be very useful in understanding how the rocket was handled.

   Today the firing position of Operation Backfire is still recognizable in the Wernerwald forest. The remnants of the launching pad and shelters still exist today near the road between Arensch and Sahlenburg, near Cuxhaven. The property is located in a recreational area and is freely accessible to the public. Many new trees have been planted, but the original concrete surface of the firing point is today recognizable as a deep depression in the forest floor, which occurred over time after the removal of the concrete. In the undergrowth the remains of the demolished observation bunker can be seen.

End of War Total V-2 Production and End-Use

   To account for the use or the disposal of all V-2s manufactured by Germany during WWII one must clarify if looking at numbers during the war period or after. If one can account for the location and use of a certain number of rockets as of May 1945, the second question would be, were the remaining ones scrapped or hidden?

PRODUCTIONPeenemunde: 322 approx (based on flight test records and pre-test reports); Mittelwerk: 5,943 (monthly summary data); Total Manufactured: 6,245
END-USE / Tests or CombatPeenemunde Trials: 171 tests between 13 June 1942 and 20 February 1945; Heidelager Trials (Blizna): 215 tests between 5 November 1943 and 28 June 1944; Heidekraut Trials : 246 tests between 10 September 1944 and 20 February 1945; Operational Firings: 3,170 (Antwerp 1,610; London 1,359; other Norwich 43; Leige 27; Lille 25; Tourcoing 19; Maastrict 19; Paris 19; Hasselt 13: Remargen 11; Tournai 9;Arras 6; Cambrai 4; Mons 3; Diest 2 and Ipswich 1); Total Tests/Firings : 3,800
END USE / In-Field Storage at 28 March 1945 according to General Manager of Mittelwerk: Allied Zone : c.1,000; Soviet Zone : c.1,100 (of which 515 salvaged); (Work in-hand at MW: Now accounted for in production numbers at left)

According to V-2 researcher John Pridige (UK) invoiced records indicate 5,789 rockets were produced by the Mittelbau organization between January 1944 and March 1945. This increases to 5,805 if we include 16 rockets which were manufactured in June 1944, but recalled to the factory (according to information released by author David Irving). Additional research from Pridige found further output produced in March 1945 (138 rockets) that brings the figure to 5,943. This correlates with rocket serial number 22943, which left the factory on 24th March 1945. Most probably a few more were produced, but the final number can only be an approximation.

   In view of production and launch serial number records the 2,100 rounds in field storage would comprise mainly abandoned, damaged or new delivery rockets. Towards mid-March the Mittelwerk shipped about 20 rounds per day and the interval between manufacture and launching had extended from some 5 days in September 1944 to some 12 days in March 1945. Accordingly, some 250 new deliveries would be in the pipeline awaiting pre-launch testing. Numerous rockets were delivered to the troops only to misfire. A further 250 or so rounds could be accounted for by the overall average rate of return of defective rounds to Mittelwerk. Also, this is allowing for the 515 V-2's abandoned during the Soviet advance, and about 1,000 V-2's were lost in the field due to the Western Allies' advance from the Normandy beachhead. Rockets were in storage waiting for the bunker-launched (Watten-Wizernes) offensive to begin. Many V-2s resided in ammo dumps at the end of hostilities. One of these ammo dumps was in Siegelsbach. During Allied air attack on Siegelsbach most were destroyed. There are numerous reports of shot up rail shipments, one stating at least 40 rockets were destroyed in on case, but more likely at least 200 were destroyed by allied aircraft. 

   Records from Mittelwerk and field unit reports in the Imperial War Museum combined with others in the Deutches Museum could be usefully analyzed with reference to the serial numbers to provide a more accurate picture since German records are very thorough. However, the task would be daunting for any researcher.

The 5 volumes of Operation Backfire are finally out in public domain, offered by the Smithsonian:

Download 5 Volumes of Operation Backfire

Operation Backfire Photos

(1) Rocket team surrenders to Allies  (2) Wernher and Magnus von Braun  (3) German Lt.-Col. Wolfgang Weber  (4-6) Damaged V-2 rail shipments

(1) Damaged V-2 rail shipment  (2) Collecting abandoned rockets  (3-4) Demolished rockets near Leese  (5-6) More rockets collected

(1-2) Collecting abandoned rockets  (3) Demolished rockets near Leese  (4) Launch table at Altenwalde  (5) Launch table at Leese  (6) Collected LOX trailer at Altenwalde/Cuxhaven

(1) Collecting rockets  (2) Recovered rocket at Bad Hersfeld  (3) Demolished firing table at Steyerberg  (4-5) More rockets  (6) Abandoned Feuerleitpanzer (firing control vehicle)

(1) Collecting rockets  (2) Vidalwagen at Steyerberg  (3-4) V-1 parts at Altenwalde/Cuxhaven  (5) Meillerwagen at Steyerberg  (6) Recovered Feuerleitpanzer at Cuxhaven

(1) Loading collected rockets  (2) Assembled Vidalwagen trailers  (3) Damaged Feuerleitpanzer  (4) Collected materials at Cuxhaven/Altenwalde  (5-6) Engine assembly

(1) Engine and frame assembly  (2) Engine Assembly  (3-5) Guidance control and electrical compartments  (6) V-2 on Meillerwagen in Cuxhaven/Altenwalde

(1) Testing at proofing tower  (2) Bristish instruction  (3) V-2 and Meillerwagen in camp  (4) Meillerwagen tests  (5) V-2 and Vidalwagen  (6) Vertical tests with vehicles in camp

(1-2) Assembly tower testing  (3) V-2 and Meillerwagen  (4) Hanomag SS-100 tractor and Meillerwagen  (5) SS-100 and Vidalwagen  (6) Railhead LOX trailer fuel transfer

(1) Warheads and fuses at railhead  (2) Fries gantry crane erection  (3) V-2 off-loaded to Vidalwagen  (4) V-2 held by gantry crane  (5) Transfer to Meillerwagen (6) Meillerwagen and V-2

(1-3) Rocket raised at launching site  (4) Valve box for regulation of 5-way coupler and oxygen top-off  (5) Bolting on carbon graphite exhuast rudders  (6) Graphite exhaust rudders with igniter inserted

(1) Fueling convoy waits to move up  (2) Pumping hydrogen-peroxide  (3-4) Fueling operations  (5) LOX fueling operations  (6) Final adjustments

(1) Tail art for launch no. 3 "Clitterhouse"  (2) Final inspections  (3) Setting the gyros  (4) Lt.-Col. Wolfgang Weber inspects the launching site  (5-6) Tail art for launch no. 1 and 2

(1) Feuerleitpanzer and table  (2) Feuerleitpanzer firing control vehicle  (3-4) Ignition ot the V-2  (5-6) Lift-off of test rounds from Cuxhaven

(1-3) V-2s prepped for loading at Antwerp Harbor, going to USA  (4) Shipping from UK to Australia after Backfire  (5) Tail units going to America  (6) V-2 launching train shipped to White Sands

(1-2) Workers Marshaling Yard Benelux Antwerp North  (3) V-2 analysis Freeman Field USA  (4) Meillerwagen at WSPG  (5) Leftover Backfire material UK Cosford late '40s  (6) Control bunker in 1948

British personnel relaxing in German restaurant near Cuxhaven 1945.

On the far right with pipe is photographer Frank Micklethwaite.
On the far left is Dr. John Brittain from Woolwich Arsenal, who was the head of the British Scientific team at Operation Backfire.
The man in the center is Jo Salmon who died in the rocket accident at Westcott in 1947 (identified recently by relative viewing these images).
Some of the possible names of the other men are Wilcox, Marriot, or Watson.
Photos courtesy Andy Micklethwaite and John Brittain.

   Recently, while browsing the pages of this website, Andy Micklethwaite of England noticed some familiar images. They seemed curiously similar to those that were in his late father's photo collection from the war. Andy knew that his father, Frank Micklethwaite, was a photographer for the British program to fire V-2 rockets after the war, but not until reading V2ROCKET.COM did Andy discover the full details of the operation.

   Frank Micklethwaite was born in Huddersfield Yorkshire in 1916. He worked in retail photographic shops before and in the early part of WW2, at Dawsons in Huddersfield and then at Coverdales in York. Despite learning to fly Tiger Moths while at York, he still hadn't been called up when he had obtained a position as research scientist at the Projectile Development Establishment in Aberporth, near Cardigan in Wales. Here, at an outpost of the Fort Halstead Research Establishment in Kent, rocket scientists were developing the British rocket effort and Micklethwaite was involved with photo-documentation of the tests. He was also developing techniques for high-speed photography, presumably to find out what happens when rockets fail and explode. After the war he returned to Huddersfield and founded a retail photograph business and a film company. He died in 1977.

   In an effort to preserve these images for history, Andy Micklethwaite graciusly agreed to let his father's photos be posted on V2ROCKET.COM. On closer inspection of some of the photographs Andy discovered images he once thought were taken in Aberporth were actually taken in Germany. Things such as the words "Ausgang" and "Herren," along with road signs labeled "Bederkesa" and "Cuxhaven," were little details missed before now. In the first photo at top left we see a British officer apparently discussing details of the tests with Altenwalde Versuchskommando (AVKO) commander German Lieutenant-Colonel Wolfgang Weber, who commanded a V-2 battalion in the war and had previously been in command of the Training and Experimental Battery 444. Also included are never before seen images of the workshops, assembly tower, railhead, navel gun range and V-2 launching platform.

   The last row of five photographs are additional images sent from John Brittain, the grandson of Dr. John Brittain. These photos were also most probably taken by Frank
Micklethwaite. In these images we see the concrete blockhouse built for the operations behind "Visiting Brass Hats" Col.W I Wilson, Col. J H Weber, Lt Col Ballard & Maj. L D Rockwell. The next image shows more top brass Maj. General Cameron with Brigadier Lockhart and possibly Col W S J Carter at launching site. We also see a closeup of the tail art for V-2 No. 2, while another photo that shows scientists, British Army personnel and German personnel observing a lift off. Finally, we see collected Würzburg radars in the area of Schwandorf.

Download entire Frank Micklethwaite collection CLICK HERE

"I was true to the oath that I made and I have taken the secrets that were entrusted to me to the grave."
   Dr. Warwick Black of Australia recently contacted V2ROCKET.COM after he noticed some familiar photos and one familiar face in particular on this webpage. Warwick's grandfather, Major Charles James Black, was an engineer and a member of the Technical Team sent by the British War Department/Ministry of Supply to Cuxhaven in Germany during the Operation Backfire trials of 1945.

   Born in 1897, Charles Black joined the Royal Navy Signals School at 15 years old and joined the Royal Marine Light infantry before he was 17. During WWI he saw service in France and Belgium and was a recipient of the 1914 Star (with bar) for action between August 5, 1914, and November 23, 1914. He was an "Old Contemptible." He survived ambushes and a train derailment on the retreat from Antwerp after it fell. He survived Gallipoli landing in Turkey, guiding British troops into Anzac Cove. Following the landing at Anzac Cove, the beach became the main base for the Australian and New Zealand troops for the eight months of the Gallipoli campaign. Charles Black later survived some of the biggest battles on the Western Front.

   Major Charles Black was at the forefront of many industries. He was a pioneer in everything from wireless radio to rocket science. Between the wars he was one of a very small team of engineers that set up the BBC in Birmingham and Glasgow. He was one of the first people to operate wireless radio transmissions from tanks. He later described how he and his colleagues converted a tank into a mobile transmission unit. During WWII he was responsible for a series of radar stations along the British Channel coastline, which along with other technical projects elevated him as a technical expert.

   After WWII Charles Black kept a range of documents (many hidden) throughout his life. It wasn't until after his death at the age of 88 in 1986 that his family found the information that he kept locked away in his steel chest. Upon his death he told his wife, “I was true to the oath that I made and I have taken the secrets that were entrusted to me to the grave."

Dr. Warwick Black has generously offered his grandfather's remaining photos and documents to be shared here. His desire is to save these articles from being lost. For a long time his grandfather was reluctant to let them out of his hands, because much has been lost over the years. Years ago, Charles Black donated documents to a military museum that would be incorporated into the Australian War Memorial and those went missing. Some other material, including negatives and photos were lent to others and have vanished. Other material was lost in a massive bush fire that ravaged South Australia several decades ago. Warwick said, "It would be a shame for anything more to be lost from history."

   In these photos we can see some of the houses and sights around the town of Cuxhaven such as the unique old water tower and presumably the location where he stayed. We see some better views of the hangars and other facilities of the former German artillery range along with the collection of excess parts and vehicles gathered for the operation. We see better details of the assembly shops and the testing facilities. Finally we see new images of the range-head and firing preparations. All of these images were digitized from original photos in Charles Black's personal collection. Many photos were quite small in size, but we have attempted to retain as much quality as possible.

British War Dept. Ministry of Supply Technical Team for Operation Backfire

Zimmerman, Lindenberg and Faber

Backfire Report Copy 81

Air Ministry Report PDF
Lindenberg Report 1 PDF
Lindenberg Report 2 PDF
Black Papers PDF

Download entire Charles Black collection CLICK HERE


   Above are three images of the silver Backfire V-2 trophy that is on display in the officer's mess at the Royal School of Artillery, Larkhill, on Salisbury Plain in England. It seems that a group of these were fashioned and given out to high-level officials at the conclusion of the Backfire tests—as evidenced by the same award among the Charles Black Collection images. The award is approximately two feet in height and features a large silver inscription plate which is securely fastened to the wooden base that reads as follows:

Presented to the Royal Regiment of Artillery by the
Officers of Operation Backfire to commemorate the first successful
Allied building and launching of a V-2 Rocket October - 1945


Operation Backfire Video

Operation Backfire Film
Order the Operation Backfire Film

SOURCES: Crossbow & Overcast, James McGovern, 1965 V-2: A Combat History of the First Ballistic Missile, T. Dungan, 2005 PRO WO.208/3121; Ordway & Sharpe, The Rocket Team, 1979 Basil Collier, The Battle of the V-Weapons 1944-45, 1964 Michael Grube, 2002 Michael Keuer, 2003 Dieter Hölsken, V-Missiles of the Third Reich, 1994 John Russell, No Triumphant Procession, 1995 Die Geschichte des Sonderkommandos der Div. z.V.; von Fehrbellin bis Altenwalde, Wolfgang Weber, 1985 PRO WO.208/3153, Surrender of the V-2 Division, SS Lieutenant Colonel Wolfgang Wetzling, 1945 After the Battle #6, 1974 Ministry of Supply, Report on Operation "BACKFIRE", The War Office, London, 1946 John  McAleenan, “NASA’s Dr. Debus: He Runs the Spaceport,” Today newspaper article, 1966 “Threshold of the Stars: The Life of Dr. Wernher von Braun.” Videotape, 1994 Dornberger, Walter Dornberger, V-2, 1954 Records of the War Department, “Life History of Dr.–Ing. Kurt Debus." Dieter K. Huzel, Peenemunde to Canaveral, 1962 Andy Micklethwaite, 2013 John Brittain, 2013 Dr. Warwick Black, 2015