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
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.-
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
After the Backfire tests 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.
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.
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
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.
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 centre at Westcott, near Aylesbury, while
several influential aerodynamicists and
aeronautical scientists took up posts at the Royal
Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough. Some of these
made important contributions to the British aircraft
programmes that developed such aircraft as the
English Electric Lightning fighter and
Concorde. The migration of
this relatively small number of highly skilled
scientists was out of all proportion to its
influence on postwar history.
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
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. The remnants of the Backfire launching pad and two concrete shelters still exist today near the road between Arensch and Sahlenburg near Cuxhaven.