Lehr und Versuchsbatterie 444 in Serooskerke/Walcheren, The Netherlands
After being transferred from Gruppe Süd to Gruppe Nord, the Lehr und Versuchsbatterie 444 (Training and Experimental Battery 444), which had been previously stationed near Houffalize in Belgium, moved to Walcheren on the Dutch coast during the days of September 10-15, 1944. Traveling via Germany, the trucks entered Holland at Nijmegen, then via Den Bosch to Breda - via Bergen op Zoom, then to Walcheren, where they arrived on September 15 (after Engineering Battalion 211 had repaired the damage to roads at Rilland). Battalion 3 Technical Abteilung 91 was soon added to the forces of Battery 444 at Walcheren.
The rockets were brought to the area from the Beveland Causeway, through Middleburg to Ter Hooge, where they were temporarily stored on trailers under the trees before being moved to the firing sites located in a park near Serooskerke named Vrederust. When one of the rockets was brought through the main streets of Serooskerke, the daughter of the local blacksmith secretly snapped several photos the the rocket on the Meillerwagen. The film rolls were later passed on to London, giving British officials their first up-close look at the V-2.
After setting up operations Battery 444 launched 6 rockets towards London on the days of September 16-18, 1944. Of the six, only three reached England. Two more rockets failed to ignite and were taken down and sent back for repairs. There were two launching sites (at this time Battery 444 had only two firing tables) northwest of Serooskerke, on the estate of Vrederust, now known as Welgelegen. The large house of the estate had been occupied by German soldiers since 1942 and featured several large concrete and earth air raid shelters, which were used as cover by the rocket soldiers during the launches. Two small launching areas, each about 25 feet in diameter, were cleared out amongst the 70 foot-tall beech trees near the house. One site was about 200 yards south from the house, while the other was only 30 yards to the east. Civilian eyewitnesses reported that the rocket operations were carried out by a group of about 70 German soldiers. —PRO AIR.37/1253
On September 19, 1944, SS General Kammler, fearing the unit might be overrun
by Allied Troops during "Market Garden," ordered the Battery 444 to proceed
north to Gaasterland. Little more is known about the secret V-2 activities
at Serooskerke because of the very, very short time period that Battery
444 was operating there. —Division z.V. War Diary
Lehr und Versuchsbatterie 444 in Rijs/Gaasterland, The Netherlands
Training and Experimental Battery 444, after spending only two days at Walcheren, was ordered to travel north to Gaasterland in southwest Friesland, where it could continue operations against England. The battery traveled under the cover of darkness, as it was very risky to be on the roads during daylight hours because of Allied air superiority. After arriving in Friesland, Battery 444 set up operations in a small forested area called Rijs, south of the city of Balk. The Rijsterbos (Rijster Forest) was just off the waters of the IJsselmeer (Zuider Zee), a huge shallow lake in the center of Holland.
Moving by train, the rockets left the Assen railway station bound for the town of Heereveen. At Heereveen they were placed on Vidalwagen road transport trailers of the supply troops and then towed by truck into Balk. Dutch residents witnessed many vehicles and rockets parked beside City Hall in Balk. The rockets had to pass over a small bridge and make a difficult turn via the roads Van Swinderenstraat and Houtdijk. The Germans cleared trees away for maneuvering the trailers over the bridge that lead to Kippenburg. Even today, one can still see the scratches on the bridge where the V-2 trailers clipped the railing upon making the turn.
At Kippenburg the rockets were prepared with their warheads and transferred to the Meillerwagen erector trailer. Behind the large estate house at Kippenburg, the propellant and warheads were stockpiled. The rockets were then moved a few kilometers southwest to the launching sites. Strung over the dark, unpaved, forested lanes of Murnserleane and Middenleane were large camouflage nets suspended high in the trees for further concealment from Allied aircraft. —Balk City Hall Records
With the V-2 having a maximum range of approximately 200 to 230 miles, it was not possible to target London from the location at Rijs. Instead, Battery 444 turned its attention to East Anglia and the territory surrounding Norwich in eastern England. Kammler was determined to continue the strikes on the British public from wherever possible, even it if meant targeting lesser cities. On September 25, at 18:05 hours, after the trees and shrubs were sprayed with water to lower the fire danger, Battery 444 launched its first rocket toward northern England from Murnserleane. Approximately five minutes later, it impacted at Hoxne in Suffolk. The rocket hit a farm field, inflicting only minor damage to a few buildings nearby.
That same day, the rocket troops encountered their first misfire. A rocket had to be drained of its remaining fuel after the engine failed to generate full thrust. The ignition cable was burnt as the engine continued to fire while not leaving the launch table. Upon inspection, it was discovered that the rudders and tail section had been severely scorched, so the rocket was sent back for refurbishing. Closer investigation of other rockets from the Mittelwerk had revealed many additional problems. Bad welds, missing parts, short-circuited electrical connections from inferior soldering—these were just some of the mechanical errors discovered. Not only did the crews face difficulties from the quality of the rockets, there also existed an acute shortage of liquid oxygen. German production had only reached a level of about 200 cubic meters per day, which is only enough to launch 24 rockets. The logistical problems of firing batteries on the move and V-2 units spread out from northern Holland to western Germany did not help matters.
Late in the afternoon on September 26, a loud double boom was heard near the English village of Ranworth. The rocket plowed into a field about eight miles outside of town. The sound of the explosion was followed by another loud sonic boom and then the whine of rushing air. Windows of cottages were shattered within a half-mile radius of the blast. Officials in Britain quickly knew that the V-2 campaign had come to East Anglia. There had been a reduction in the frequency of V-2 attacks since the beginning of the Market Garden offensive, but still no word concerning the nature of this new German weapon had passed from British authorities to the populace. These mysterious bangs were new to the citizens of Norwich. Even some of the nearby military establishments were unfamiliar with the new threat and recorded these first impacts as aircraft crash sites. —Bob Ogley, Doodlebugs and Rockets, 1992; Robert Collis & Winston G. Ramsey, The Blitz Then and Now Volume 3, 1990
At Rijs, the Dutch citizens were unsure of just what was going on near their homes. They only knew that it was a dangerous operation. The entry lanes to the Rijster forest were strangely blinded with canvas. They could hear on German radio the propagandists heralding the new Wunderwaffen (wonder weapons) but were unsure what this meant. Weeks later the BBC reported that it was the V-2 rocket falling on England. It was forbidden to come close to the launching sites, and very few people risked being caught near the area. Not only was there the danger of the German guards, there also was the peril of failed rockets crashing in the immediate area.
On the afternoon of September 30, a V-2 was launched from Murnserleane. It rose to a height of 600 feet before an explosion in the rocket’s tail brought it crashing to earth about 20 yards from the firing table. The alcohol and liquid oxygen tanks exploded upon impact, injuring some of the firing crew. The warhead sizzled in the burning fuel and exploded approximately 45 minutes later, digging a huge crater. This failed rocket had ironically destroyed a small shrine in the forest called Vredestempeltje (the little peace temple). Because of failures at Murnserleane, the launch sites were moved a few hundred yards to the roads of Middenleane and Enkuizerlaan. —Henk Koopman, 2001
For the Dutch residents of the surrounding countryside, it was a very nervous time. Every day they could hear the thunderous noise of the V-2 launches and lived in fear that something might go wrong. The farmers soon knew if the rocket did not rise vertically, anything could happen. Failed rockets would fall in the immediate area, sometimes near the residents’ homes. Other V-2s encountered problems at higher altitudes, and the farmers watched them plunge into the waters of the IJsselmeer just off shore.
For the soldiers of Battery 444, the stress of the launches was just as great. Many of them would rather have been occupied with some less hazardous job. However, there was plenty of Dutch gin to help them ease their tensions. British fighter planes searched the area several times; however, the ability of Battery 444 crews to launch and retreat quickly made it difficult to spot anything from the air. The Rijsterbos V-2 sites, with very tall trees, provided excellent camouflage; but there was always the possibility of an air attack, and the rocket troops were very wary of this.
On October 3, marking the second anniversary of the first successful A-4 launched from Peenemünde, the rocket troops at Rijs fired six missiles toward the Norfolk countryside. Throughout the day, thunderous detonations reverberated at regular intervals. From their homes, the people of Norwich could see huge columns of black smoke in the distance rising high into the air. The strikes were gradually coming closer to the populated sections of the county. Late that evening, an explosion rocked the Hellesdon area. An estimated 400 houses within a two-mile radius were damaged in some manner. The following day British authorities recovered the remains of a V-2, which broke up in the air before impact near Spixworth. The engine and various important parts were sent to Air Institute at Farnborough for analysis. —Robert Collis & Winston G. Ramsey, The Blitz Then and Now Volume 3, 1990
The last rocket to fly westward from the Rijsterbos was launched on the morning of Thursday, October 12. It fell innocuously in the open near Ingworth without much commotion. Just like the rockets launched previously from Gaasterland, it demonstrated the folly of targeting anything less than a large urban city with the V-2. The campaign against East Anglia ended on October 13 after new orders were received to begin targeting the port of Antwerp. Most Battery 444’s initial shots toward Antwerp missed their mark, falling short in and around the suburbs of the port city. However, on October 16, 1944, a V-2 launched from Middenleane at Rijs scored a direct hit, slamming into dock number 201 in the harbor. —PRO AIR.37/1253
After three weeks, Battery 444 disappeared from Gaasterland just as quickly as it had arrived. The last rocket fired from Rijs headed for the port of Antwerp on the morning of October 20. Suddenly the Germans packed and moved south that same day. SS General Kammler had ordered the unit back to The Hague following the failure of Market Garden.
From September 25 to October 20, Battery 444 launched approximately 70 rockets from Rijs. The first 43 rockets were launched toward East Anglia; the others were fired against the port of Antwerp. Without heavily populated English targets within range, the results from the East Anglia attacks were not satisfactory. British casualties from V-2 attacks in East Anglia ended up relatively light. Only one person had been killed as a result of the attacks, and less than 50 people were wounded. The damage in Suffolk and Norfolk counties was limited to only a modest amount of houses, barns, farms, and schools. Many V-2s struck empty fields and even the North Sea.
Ever since the first rocket was fired from Rijs, British radar momentarily tracked the incoming missiles. In addition, Allied pilots reported sightings of contrails from ascending rockets near Gaasterland. However, these only gave an approximate location of the firing positions. After several weeks, an RAF reconnaissance aircraft brought back a photograph showing clear evidence of activity in the forest. On October 21, a flight of seven Tempest fighter bombers of the No. 274 Squadron RAF flew near the Rijsterbos and finally located the launching sites. They flew by heading east, just north of the forest, and after forming up in a line, the seven aircraft turned back to attack the area. Not only did the aircraft drop bombs in the forest, they also shot up the surrounding houses and buildings. Luckily, farm animals were the only victims of this attack, although some civilians narrowly escaped being hit. It was very ironic that the RAF found the launching sites only a few hours after the last Battery 444 vehicles exited the area. The British were unaware that the rocket units were gone, and the bombers returned each of the next few days to attack the forest. By this time, the firing platoons of Battery 444 were arriving in The Hague to join Battalion 485 for operations against London.
The people of Gaasterland were very relieved to see the German V-2 menace
departed. They returned to their everyday life, as it was in wartime, without
the threat of exploding missiles on their homes. Actually, they were very
lucky. There had been no Dutch civilian casualties. If not for the light
population of the area and the fact that the missiles were traveling over
the IJsselmeer after launching, the casualties may have been severe. Moreover,
the relatively short three weeks of operations meant there was very limited
damage. Later, on clear winter days, the people of Gaasterland could see
the V-2s rising from the Eelerberg over 100 kilometers away. They could
easily imagine the terror felt by their neighbors to the south, who must
be enduring the same nightmare they experienced only a few months before.