Early Days of Enthusiasts—The Road to Peenemünde

   Autumn 1942. The dining table was full of revelers. In Usedom this day, the spirit of camaraderie was strong. Walter Dornberger glanced around the room. These were men that he had hand chosen and during this night of celebration at Dornberger's home the feeling of personal accomplishment was strong for each of them. They had achieved something together, as a team, something heretofore unimaginable to even the most celebrated scientific minds of the day. Dornberger rose to make a toast;

   “For the first time we have invaded space with our rocket. Mark this well, we have used space as a bridge between two points on the earth; we have proven rocket propulsion practicable for space travel. This third day of October, 1942, is the first of a new era of transportation: that of space travel.”

   But this accomplishment was born out of the necessity to build the ultimate weapon for the Führer and Nazi Germany—not space travel. The speech most probably continued by exalting the creation of this ultimate long-range artillery piece; designed to serve the Fatherland and to bring victory to the German people by striking the enemy with swiftness and invulnerability. There is no doubt that many of the men present pocessed a romance with the notion of space flight, but there is also no mistaking what their project mission was.

   In recent years the Vergeltungswaffe Zwei (Vengeance Weapon 2) has been portrayed as Germany’s last desperate hope. However, planning and production of the rocket weapon was extensive and wide ranging. It was the culmination of years of strategic thinking. The majority of this black-project research was conducted at a super-secret location named Heeresversuchsanstalt Peenemünde (Army Research Center Peenemünde)known today simply as "Peenemünde".

   The statement has often been made that the space age started in 1957 with the launch of the Russian Sputnik 1 satellite into orbit, but the fact is; it was really just another step in what had been ongoing in the field of rocketry since the late 1930s. Many of the pioneers in rocketry were German.

   In the early 1920s a number of young Germans became very passionate about the use of rockets to achieve space travel. Hermann Oberth, a medical student in Munich, published a book in 1923 entitled Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen (The Rocket Into Interplanetary Space). He attempted to prove, by using scientific and mathematical evidence, that launching rockets into space was practical. Oberth was born in Transylvania and became a medical student at Munich. He had become greatly interested in the development of space vehicles. His book sparked great interest in Germany for the use of liquid-fuel rockets to travel into space. The book discussed real physics and aerodynamics of a rocket using liquid propellant (that could be throttled). It proposed an instrument carrying rocket and a vehicle that might carry humankind into outer space.

   In 1926 German sensationalist Max Valier intrigued the German public. Valier had become caught up in the fever spurred by the writings of Oberth and others. Valier wrote numerous scientific articles for magazines and journals of the day. In 1924 he wrote Der Vorstross in Weltraum (The Drive to Outer Space), a book capitalizing on Oberth’s success of a few months earlier. Even less scientific than Oberth’s work, Valier’s writing contained many errors. However, the excitement in his writing and the nontechnical language he used made it even more appealing to the average space enthusiast. Growing quickly in popularity, he soon would propose rocket-powered cars, railcars, and gliders. Along with collaborators such as Fritz von Opel (of German Opel cars), Valier built rocket-powered experimental vehicles of many varieties. His publicity stunts drew hundreds of spectators to see the huge plumes of white smoke and hear the deafening roar of solid-propellant rocket motors. Around 1930 Valier started experimenting with liquid-fuel rocket engines. He was killed on May 17, 1930, during an experimental engine test in Berlin.

   In 1926 the book Die fahrt ins Weltall (Journey into Space) by Willy Ley was published. Ley’s writings were based in reality and offered good explanations into rocketry theory. On July 5, 1927, while sitting in the back of a Breslau restaurant, a group of engineers, theorists, and science students formed an association to conduct real research into rocket design and applications. They formed the Verein für Raumschiffahrt, or VfR (Society for Space Travel). In 1927 this group of enthusiasts actually set a goal to build the types of rockets described in Oberth's book. The group grew in size to about 500-800 members and even had their own support journal called Die Rakete (The Rocket). During the society’s monthly meetings, much discussion, arguing, and brainstorming preceded a short meeting, which was followed by the distribution of the club’s newsletter called Die Rakete (The Rocket). The VfR membership included such notables as Hermann Oberth, Johannes Winkler, Dr. Walter Hohmann, and (not so notable at the time) a teenager named Wernher von Braun. The society obtained permission to use an abandoned military ammunition storage site in Reinickendorf, a suburb of Berlin, to test their projects. The facility soon became known as the Raketenflugplatz (rocket airfield).

  On October 15, 1929 the movie "Frau im Mond" (Woman in the Moon) premiered in German theaters. Directed by Fritz Lange, the film assisted popular awareness of rocket potentialities in Germany. Lange was determined that his story about the first expedition to the Moon would avoid the sort of fantasy technology so he hired Hermann Oberth as technical adviser. Oberth helped Lange to design a moon rocket that was remarkably accurate down to the fine details. This influential film introduced to the screen many of the elements familiar to space enthusiasts, such as the stage rocket, and the effects of acceleration and weightlessness. The most enduring legacy of this film was the dramatic device of the countdown of the last seconds before the ignition of the rocket. The movie sparked the imaginations of thousands of young German school boys.

__Early Days

HAP 11

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October 3, 1942

RAF Operation Hydra

Peenemünde Desolation
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Images from futiristic movie "Frau im Mond," directed by Fritz Lange, 1929. Click on thumbnail to enlarge.

   In 1929 Rudolf Nebel joined the VfR society at the urging of Willy Ley. Nebel had been involved with Oberth on an earlier failed project, and since that time, he and Oberth had been on bad terms. There were some tense moments at the next few club meetings as the two men offered differing opinions on how to go forward with the development of a liquid-fuel rocket. Nebel was not a scientist, but he brought a practical engineering viewpoint to the rocketry discussions of the VfR. Believing it best to begin with the basics, he proposed a small liquid-rocket design. The proposal was accepted by the membership with the exception of Oberth, who felt the design too faint. Nevertheless, work moved forward on the project called Mirak. The society was at first very excited to seek publicity for their upcoming Mirak engine tests. However, that summer, after the tragic death of Max Valier, public opinion concerning rocketry changed somewhat, and the group decided to conduct their trials in private. Nebel and Klaus Riedel moved to a farm in Saxony, away from view, to conduct the rocket tests. Reports detailing the test results were published and distributed to the VfR membership. Society members waited anxiously for word of the next successful firing or unexpected explosion.

   By this time, it was plainly obvious that the VfR needed a better location to conduct their experiments. The not-so-rural open field they had been using at Bernstadt suddenly seemed inadequate. It was in late 1930 when the society happened upon a deal they could not pass up. In the northern Berlin suburb of Reinickendorf, Nebel located an abandoned ammunition storage complex, four square kilometers in size, complete with roads and buildings. The society was able to rent the complex from the municipality of Berlin for the modest sum of ten reichsmarks annually. The VfR’s Raketenflugplatz (rocket airport) was opened on September 27, 1930. By March of the following year, the site was ready for operation. Many improvements had been made to the facility along with the construction of a basic test stand for static firings.

   In May of 1931 Klaus Riedel designed a new rocket, the Mirak II or Repulsor series, using the thrust chamber developed for the Mirak, fed by two long tanks containing liquid oxygen and gasoline, which would form guiding sticks for the forward-mounted engine. Test results were so encouraging that some in the group were talking about the possibility of actually launching a version of their new one-stick Repulsor rockets. On May 10, 1931, Riedel was alone at the Raketenflugplatz running tests on the flying variant of the design, when suddenly, to his surprise, the rocket lifted slowly and rose to about 18 meters. Then the motor shut off, and it fell to the ground, damaging it slightly. The Repulsor was repaired and on May 14, 1931, made its first official flight.

   The first year of experiments at Reinickendorf saw a flurry of activity. On the first anniversary of the Raketenflugplatz, a newsreel company came to film the launching of the one-stick Repulsor with the latest motor design. The rocket launch started out well but ended in disaster. After climbing to over 4,000 feet, the parachute stripped from the rocket upon deployment and the rocket fell on top of a barn belonging to the local police department, some 3,000 feet across the road. Remaining hot fuel from the motor ignited the roof, and there was a small fire to deal with. It was shortly thereafter that the local police chief banned all rocket flights going forward. However, by the middle of October Nebel had convinced the authorities to let the experiments continue under slightly tighter safety regulations. Soon the testing continued, and by the end of the first year, the group had launched more than 80 rockets and conducted over 250 static firings of varying motor designs. Conspicuous at many of these tests was a fair-haired youth who seemed to be in the middle of every discussion.

   Wernher Magnus Maximilian von Braun was born to Baron Magnus von Braun and Emmy von Quistorp on March 23, 1912, in Wirsitz, a town in the eastern German province of Posen. Wernher's father was a wealthy farmer and a provincial councilor and served as Minister for Agriculture during the 1930s in President Hindenburg's Weimar Republic. From childhood, Wernher revealed an interest in both science and music. At age 11 he enrolled in the Französisches Gymnasium that had been established two centuries earlier by Fredrick the Great. There, the boy showed only a modest ability in mathematics and physics, subjects in which he would later excel. In 1928 Wernher's father placed him in the progressive Hermann Lietz schools. Wernher's grades and abilities improved. Oberth’s book captured the young boy's attention. However, von Braun soon learned that he would have to excel in mathematics to even understand the concepts and principles in the book. Even during these younger years of his life, von Braun was experimenting with rockets and propulsion.

   Von Braun once strapped a cluster of solid rocket motors to a wagon and shot it down a crowded street. Many in the crowd were not amused.
“I was ecstatic,” von Braun later recalled. “The wagon was wholly out of control and trailing a comet’s tail of fire, but my rockets were performing beyond my wildest dreams.” The fire-breathing wagon diverged onto the Tiergarten Strasse, a very crowded Berlin city street. An angry police officer grabbed the young rabble-rouser and threatened to arrest him. “Fortunately, no one had been injured, so I was released in charge of my father.”

   A pivotal point occurred for the then 18-year-old von Braun when he entered the Technische Hochschule in the Berlin district of Charlottenburg. While in Berlin, von Braun’s interest in astronomy and space travel continued to grow. He had become acquainted with Hermann Oberth, writer and spaceflight promoter Willy Ley, and rocket experimenters Rudolf Nebel and Johannes Winkler. He also followed the solid-fuel exploits of Max Valier. Von Braun quickly joined the VfR and was soon participating in rocket experiments in Berlin.

   It was in Charlottenburg that von Braun studied under Professor Doktor Karl Emil Becker, a friend of his father. Becker was also a Lieutenant Colonel in the Reichswehr (German Army). As head of the Ballistics and Munitions Branch of the Army Weapons Department, Becker had long been involved with research and development of long-range artillery. During the First World War, he assisted in the creation of the Paris Gun and believed strongly in the importance of innovative new weapons development.

   German forces deployed the Paris Gun (German Kaiser Wilhelm Geschutz’ long-range gun) in the later stages of WWI. It was commonly called the Paris Gun because of its use to bombard Paris from March to August of 1918. The gun was positioned on railway mountings 77 miles from the city of Paris. The 21-centimeter gun was manufactured using 38-centimeter naval guns fitted with special 40-meter-long inserted barrels. The shells weighed 265 pounds and were fired by a 400-pound powder charge, giving them a range of up to 81 miles. The humongous nature of such a weapon limited its mobility and strategic usefulness. Long-range artillery guns soon reached the point of being so massive that they were becoming impractical.

   Colonel Becker’s focus included liquid-fueled rockets. One year earlier, Becker had hired a young German Army Captain, fresh out of Charlottenburg with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering, named Walter Dornberger. Captain Dornberger joined Becker’s assistant, Captain Ritter von Horstig, along with Captain Leo Zanssen to form the nucleus of the fledgling German Army Rocket Program.

Members of the Verein für Raumschiffahrt, circa 1930. Left to right: Rudolf Nebel, Franz Ritter, unknown, Kurt Heinisch, unknown, Hermann Oberth, unknown, Klaus Riedel, Wernher von Braun, unknown.

Beginning in 1930, several members conducted liquid-fuel rocket experiments and the society itself founded the Raketenflugplatz (Rocketport) Berlin in fall 1930. It survived until the Nazi government put it out of business in 1934.

   The Treaty of Versailles placed severe restrictions on Germany’s military strength. It limited the overall size of the German Army along with the total number and types of weapons it could maintain.Preceding Hitler’s rise to power, the German military tried to operate within the framework of the restrictions, taking advantage of any omissions unforeseen after the end of WWI. This fostered new research into innovative weapons technologies such as rockets. The advancements in amateur rocketry of the 1920s caught the eye of several key individuals involved in German military arms research. However, skirting the Versailles Treaty was not the primary reason for rocket research, especially later on, after Hitler began violating its terms incessantly. Rockets were seen as potentially superior weapons to artillery, having a longer range and greater mobility. This was particularly true for liquid-fuel rockets because they offered much greater range with heavier payloads than solid-fuel rocket motors.

   The development of the rocket had its roots in the enthusiastic amateur German rocket societies, which cultivated emerging specialists such as Wernher von Braun; however, it was the German military, using the emerging technology as a weapon for war, which shaped the V-2. The Ballistics and Munitions Branch was solely interested in collecting real scientific data on rocket propulsion. Becker was not opposed to providing funding to private individuals or organizations if said individuals could produce usable data. The problem was usually that these groups drew a huge amount of publicity, something the Army wanted to avoid at all costs.

   The VfR members may not have known it at the time, but soon their existence would come to an end. Late in 1931, one of the society’s main financial backers withdrew funding from the VfR. The coming winter saw worsening economic conditions, which also contributed to the slow dissolution of the VfR membership. Increasingly, members were saying that they could not afford the club dues of eight marks. At the beginning of 1932, membership dropped to approximately 300. In desperation, Rudolf Nebel wrote a report touting the benefits of using long-range rockets as artillery. A few days later, Becker, along with Dornberger, traveled to the Raketenflugplatz at Reinickendorf to inspect the facilities. The rockets they were shown seemed very small and elementary. When Becker asked to be shown collected data such as thrust curves, fuel consumption, and internal temperatures, none could be given. On April 23, 1932, the Army visited the Raketenflugplatz again and gave Nebel a small contract for 1,367 marks if he could build a rocket that would successfully reach 3,000 meters in altitude while ejecting a red flare to be tracked with Army instruments.

   The launch would take place on a date in the near future to be specified by the Wehrmacht (German Army) at Versuchsstelle West (Experimental Station West), the new Army proving grounds at Kummersdorf. The Army facility at Kummersdorf could provide the logistics and security they needed. The necessary funds were procured through the Army Weapons Office, and in early 1931 work began at the Kummersdorf artillery range. Soon a test stand for solid-fueled rocket motors was erected, followed by installation of the latest measuring equipment that could be found.

   It was a sunny July morning in 1932 when a handful of VfR members, including von Braun, loaded into their cars and drove south out of Berlin. They arrived near Kummersdorf, where they met Captain Dornberger at a designated rendezvous point. Dornberger led the group to an isolated location on the artillery range. The group was surprised to see numerous scientific measuring instruments already in place at the location, some of which were unknown to the amateur rocketeers. The VfR rocket was in place and fueled by mid-afternoon. At ignition the rocket vaulted a few hundred feet into the air, then it abruptly veered horizontally as it became unstable. It crashed nearby before the parachute could deploy. Disgusted with the pathetic spectacle, Becker refused to pay Nebel the agreed-upon price, saying the rocket’s performance in no way met the requirements stipulated for the test. With the establishment of Kummersdorf, the Army now decided to cut all ties with Nebel and the VfR.

For amateur rocketry enthusiasts outside the realm of the German military or German companies, things were about to get tough. The perceived need for utmost secrecy and the desire to garner the most ingenious minds for a new military weapon generated a climate whereby any discussion or research from the outside had to be commandeered or suppressed.

   By December of 1932, the Experimental Station West at Kummersdorf was growing. New buildings such as workshops, offices, drafting rooms, darkrooms, and a measurement room were constructed. In addition to the existing solid-fueled engine test stand, a new liquid-fueled engine test stand was added—the first ever established in Germany. Plans were finalized for their first designs and tests. For the next several months everyone on Dornberger’s Section 1 team was either busy designing or constructing the components for their first rocket engine tests.

   During 1932, political circumstances in Germany were in chaos, even worse than just one decade before, because of the worldwide economic depression following the crash of the American stock market in 1929. The Nazi Party almost won the presidency under a radical new revolutionary leader named Adolf Hitler. Only a year later, Hitler would be appointed chancellor of the German nation, and he would quickly seize full dictatorial powers, pronouncing himself Führer of the German people. His powerful words struck a cord that the German public wanted to hear. Hitler promised that Germany would regain its world status and power. German prosperity would rebound. However, he also stirred the innermost prejudices and hatred within the German society. Hitler promptly crushed any potential political opposition. He formed around himself a circle of criminals and thugs who used assassination and intimidation to increase their stranglehold on power. The Schutzstaffel, otherwise known as the SS, became an army of personal bodyguards for Hitler. The ranks of the SS included some of the most ruthless and ardent Nazis. Heinrich Himmler was named head of this organization, which eventually carried out some of Hitler’s most reprehensible proclamations. Bigotry directed against minorities was encouraged, even fostered by the state, especially against Jews. This penchant would eventually figure prominently in the story of the A-4/V-2 rocket.

Max Valier rocket car

Popular Mechanics

VfR experiments

Nebel and Von Braun

Paris Gun

Karl Emil Becker

   Wernher von Braun had received his bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the Charlottenburg Institute of Technology in the spring of 1932. Dornberger later wrote about his first encounters with the young, vivacious von Braun, “I had been struck during my visits to Reinickendorf by the energy and shrewdness with which this tall, fair, young student with a broad, massive chin went to work, and by his astonishing theoretical knowledge. It had seemed to me that he grasped the problems and his chief concern was to lay bare the difficulties. When General Becker later decided to approve our Army establishment for liquid-propellant rockets, I had put Wernher von Braun first on my list of proposed technical assistants."

   On November 1, 1932, von Braun signed a contract with the Reichswehr to conduct research leading to the development of rockets as military weapons. In this capacity, he would work for Captain Dornberger. In the same year, under a Wehrmacht grant, von Braun enrolled at the Friedrich-Wilhelm Universität from which he graduated two years later with a Ph.D. in physics. His dissertation dealt with the theoretical and practical problems of liquid-propellant rocket engines. Dornberger also began to recruit other VfR standouts such as Heinrich Grünow, an exceptional mechanic; Arthur Rudolph, a former colleague of Max Valier and engine designer; and Walter Riedel, an accomplished researcher previously employed by the Heylandt Company. In 1933 Colonel Becker was promoted to chief of the Heeres-Waffenamt Prüfwesen of the Army Weapons Office. He was now in charge of allocating funds to various testing branches. This brought in a bit more money to Kummersdorf, but the funds were still limited.

   Very slowly the operation grew in size. Preparations were underway to construct a rocket that would finally take flight. Fuel mixture, flow, cooling, and ignition had been studied, but only in static test conditions. A new rocket would be proposed using the moniker Aggregat (assembly) number 1 (A-1). Inherent in the proposed design of this rocket was the idea that the rocket or a portion of the rocket should spin to maintain stability. The rocket would stand 55 inches tall and be one foot in diameter with a weight of just around 330 pounds. Different from previous designs, the Heylandt-produced rocket engine was to be located at the bottom of the rocket, contained inside a portion of the alcohol fuel tank. At the top of this tank was an insert to accommodate a container for the liquid oxygen. Nitrogen was used to pressure feed the propellants to the engine. The overall weight of the A-1 came in at almost 400 pounds, and the spinning flywheel in the nose caused instability. It was not going to be a device that could fly, but it did provide valuable information about fuel mixtures and cooling. Fuel and oxygen-valve inconsistencies caused delayed and explosive ignitions. Three examples of the A-1 were built and test fired.

   Next came a redesign of the basic A-1, renamed the A-2. This prototype maintained the same proportions and performance, but the stabilization device was moved to the center of the rocket. The 300-kilogram thrust engine was retained, but a separate liquid oxygen tank was added to prevent an explosion from mixing during powered flight. After preliminary tests were conducted, the team at Section 1 decided to test launch two prototypes of the A-2 design. The range at Kummersdorf was too small to conduct these tests in secrecy, so in December 1934, the two rockets, nicknamed Max and Moritz, were transported to the North Sea island of Borkum. The winter weather was somewhat forbidding; however, the group managed to successfully launch the first rocket on December 19, 1934. Climbing to just over one mile in altitude, the rocket fell onto the beach not too far from the launch tower. The following day the second example was launched. The 300-kilogram thrust engine burned for 16 seconds, and the rocket attained about the same height as the first. The rocket team was ecstatic. Here was a real rocket that had performed up to their expectations. Word of the success was sent to Dornberger at Königsbrück, who was on duty as commander with the first Nebelwerfer solid-rocket artillery batteries. Dornberger was pleased. They now had something to show for the investment made by the Army.

   In mid-January 1935, Kummersdorf received a visit from Major Wolfram von Richthofen. Von Richthofen was the head of aircraft research for the German Luftwaffe. He was interested in developing rocket-powered aircraft, as well as jet-assisted launching pods for Luftwaffe heavy bombers. He asked the Kummersdorf team if they could design such systems. Working as a contractor, the Kummersdorf staff accepted the challenge—mainly because the Luftwaffe provided more research funds. A contract was signed, and within a few weeks, the Heinkel aircraft company brought their own engineers to Kummersdorf, helping to install a 1,000-kilogram thrust rocket engine in a Heinkel He 112 fighter aircraft. In early April of 1937, a modified He 112 was successfully test flown.

   All during this time, Section 1 at Kummersdorf was developing larger and more powerful rocket engines. Showing great promise, these new engines provided thrusts of 1,000 and 1,500 kilograms. Several new test stands were constructed to accommodate these larger engine designs. The most advanced of these was a test stand designated for the prototype Aggregat 3 (A-3). The purpose of the A-3 was to conduct further tests with larger, more powerful rocket engines and to incorporate initial tests in fledgling guidance systems.

   By 1936, it had become clear to most everyone at Kummersdorf that the seemingly small confines of Experimental Station West were unsuitable for test flights. The Kummersdorf range was not only too small for launching liquid-fueled rockets, it could no longer be expanded. In addition, security could be easily compromised if the populace of Berlin looked to their south and witnessed test missiles soaring skyward. Also, things were crowded. Section 1 workshops and facilities were crammed with over 80 people by this time. Dornberger eventually persuaded Major General Werner von Fritsch, head of the Reichswehr, to visit Kummersdorf in March of 1936. The trip must have made an imprssion, because when the visit was over, von Fritsch simply stated, “How much money do you want?”

   The Army began contemplating the possibility of a large research center, a center that would be unique. It should be devoted to the development of a weapon unlike any seen before. Dornberger set the standards for selecting the new proving ground. It must be located on the coast near the water. The firing trajectory should be equidistant to a coastline for tracking purposes. The location should be flat and large enough for an airfield. Lastly, the center should be constructed in a remote location, away from view for the utmost secrecy and security. Von Braun had been conducting a search on his own initiative for the past several months all along the Baltic coast. A location on the island of Rügen was at first thought to be suitable, but there was no way it could be wrestled from the German Labor Front, as it was destined to be the official Nazi beach resort for all union workers. While visiting his parents, von Braun’s mother suggested he look at Peenemünde. She said her father used to go duck hunting there. Von Braun followed her advice and took a trip to see the area himself. It was perfect. The location met all of the requirements set forth for the new research center.

   The most important benefit from the rocket group’s association with the German Air Force was the enthusiasm shown by the Luftwaffe officials. The Air Ministry was keen to expedite the development of rocket-powered aircraft. In a meeting with von Braun, the Luftwaffe’s von Richthofen nonchalantly offered five million reichsmarks to the Army’s rocket group toward the construction of the new facility. When word of this reached Army Ordinance, it caused an uproar. The unprecedented breech of military etiquette angered General Becker. Vowing not to be upstaged, Becker told Dornberger the Army would not be outspent by the “junior” service and pledged six million reichsmarks to the project.

   In the spring of 1936, a meeting was arranged at Luftwaffe headquarters. The northern tip of Usedom was to be divided between the Luftwaffe’s Peenemünde West and the Army’s Peenemünde East. The construction project was given to the Luftwaffe engineers. The rocket group appreciated the energy of this new, nonbureaucratic service. Many believed the project would move faster and more efficiently if carried out by the Luftwaffe’s Air Ministry. Soon construction started.

   It would take a few years to complete the construction at Peenemünde. In the meantime, work continued at Kummersdorf. The A-3 was still a priority, but now, assured of an establishment of such grandiose scale in the near future, the engineers turned their attention to a much larger project: the A-4, later to be known as the infamous V-2. The specifications for the A-4 were compulsory for the creation of an artillery round, not a spaceship. To make the A-4 look attractive to the Army, Dornberger decided the A-4 should have twice the range of the Paris Gun of the First World War. It should have a one-ton warhead and be easily transported on existing German infrastructure. The thrust required to propel a missile of this size would be about 25 metric tons. Thinking as a military man and artillerist, not as a space visionary, Dornberger prescribed a weapon intended to surprise and demoralize an unsuspecting enemy. He was very restrictive in his demands relating to accuracy requirements: for every 1,000 meters in range, a deviation of only two or three meters was acceptable. At a range of 230 to 250 kilometers, this would mean the A-4 should impact no further than 750 meters from the intended target. It would be much harder to achieve this than maybe he realized at the time. However, if it could be accomplished, the weapon would be quite formidable.

Versuchsstelle Peenemünde a.U.
Heeresversuchsstelle Peenemünde a.U. (HVP)
Heeresversuchsanstalt Peenemünde (HVP)
Heeresanstalt Peenemünde (HAP)
Heimat-Artillerie-Park 11 Karlshagen (HAP 11)
Elektromechanische Werke GmbH Karlshagen (EMW)
Versuchsplatz Karlshagen
Elektromechanische Werke GmbH Peenemünde (EMW)
Arbeitsgemeinschaft Peenemünde (A.G.P.)

   05/1937 – 31.03.1938
01.04.1938 – 14.09.1941
15.09.1941 – 06.01.1942
07.01.1942 – 31.05.1943
01.06.1943 – 31.07.1944
01.08.1944 – 04/1945
01.08.1944 – 02/1945

   After the A-2 success in late 1934, von Braun planned the A-3, a larger and heavier rocket. The A-3 designers adopted the validity of many A-2 components. The 1,500-kilogram thrust engine in the A-3 was simply a scaled-up version of the A-2 power plant. Slight variations were made, a double-wall cooling method was introduced whereby the alcohol circulated around the combustion chamber, and the injection system utilized a different method of mixing the fuels, which created more efficient combustion and higher exhaust velocities. Along with more powerful engines, the difficult problem of guidance needed to be addressed to achieve the goals outlined for the future A-4. The expertise needed to manufacture a three-dimensional gyroscope was beyond the capabilities of the Kummersdorf staff in the early thirties. A stabilization device of this kind would be required for guidance and control of the A-4 to realize the accuracy requirements stipulated by Dornberger. An outside company specializing in naval gyroscopic manufacturing—Kreiselgeräte GmbH (Gyro Devices, Ltd.)—was contacted by the rocket team in hopes that it could produce a similar device to meet the needs of rocket guidance.

A-3 test at Kummersdorf

Aerial view Island Oie

A-3 being raised

A-3 pre-launch

A-3 readied on Oie

A-3V1 during launch

   By late 1936, after several design revisions, the device was delivered for installation in the A-3. The gyro platform would send signals to jet vanes situated directly in line with the rocket’s exhaust, which would deflect the aspect of thrust. Connectors that extended from servos in the control compartment controlled the vanes. The A-3 was also equipped with long but narrow fins for aerodynamic stability. The idea was to design a fin with enough surface area to maintain the center of pressure behind the center of gravity but at the same time not present a heavy drag inhibiting the speed of the rocket. The shape of each fin would also need to maintain stability at supersonic velocities.

   As early as January 1936, the A-3 design had been undergoing wind-tunnel tests under the supervision of Dr. Rudolf Hermann at the Technical University at Aachen. The tunnel used for the tests was extremely small, but the data indicated some disturbing issues concerning the overall A-3 configuration. It revealed that the A-3 was stable but so stable that it was susceptible to crosswinds that would cause flight deviation. Also, the fins did not provide a large enough profile to control the rocket at high altitudes and were going to burn up in the rocket exhaust, which would expand as the air density decreased. However, because it had taken more than six months to gather the information, the A-3 was more or less complete by the time von Braun received the results. It was apparent to Dornberger and von Braun that a larger, more sophisticated wind tunnel would need to be constructed at Peenemünde.

   The first A-3 was ready for launch at the end of 1937. It had been an exciting year for the group. Having moved into the partially completed facilities at Peenemünde in the spring of 1937, they finalized the assembly of four A-3 prototypes and now were ready to launch from their new facility. However, the test flights were actually conducted on the tiny island of Greifswalder Oie, just a short distance from the tip of Peenemünde. Earlier that year, crews constructed a concrete launch platform along with an underground observation bunker, near the edge of the tree line. Control cables ran from the platform to the bunker and a telephone line was connected to the lone lighthouse nearby.

Video: First A-3 test Greifswalder Oie
WMV 2.4 MB
   The weather was abysmal. Conditions on the Greifswalder Oie were the worst imaginable. Rain, wind, and cold delayed the launches. It was not the most ideal setting to conduct important rocketry experiments. The fact that the trials went on in these horrible conditions was evidence of how important the pace of rocket development was; the feeling existed that schedules must be adhered to, come rain or shine. In spite of the conditions, excitement and camaraderie among the crew kept spirits high as they prepared for the tests. The first A-3 was launched on the morning of December 4, 1937.

   The liftoff was good, then unexpectedly, the parachute deployed prematurely. The rocket turned into the wind and crashed some 300 meters from the launch site. The early parachute deployment caused a misdiagnosis of the flight deviation, and this was only confounded when it happened again a few days later during the second A-3 test flight.

   The parachute was removed during the third launch on December 8, but still the rocket turned into the heavy winds and crashed. A fourth launch attempt yielded the same results. Dornberger and von Braun remembered the predictions of Dr. Hermann; the A-3 wind-tunnel tests were proven correct. The rocket was susceptible to high winds, and the new three-axis-gyroscopic control system was not adequate to make the necessary adjustments to correct the course.

Video: Second A-3 test
WMV 1.2 MB

   A new test missile was needed to iron out the steering problems still facing the rocket team at the conclusion of the A-3 tests. The wind-tunnel tests at Aachen and subsequent suggestions for improving the overall A-3 design convinced Dornberger to pressure Dr. Hermann to join the experimental staff at Peenemünde. In April 1937 Dr. Hermann was persuaded. The world’s most sophisticated supersonic wind tunnel, which would ultimately simulate a running speed of over Mach 4, was built in the heart of the laboratory and workshop area of Peenemünde East.

   After joining Peenemünde, Dr. Hermann quickly recruited the best aerodynamicists he could find. One of the first to join Rudolf Hermann in Peenemünde was Dr. Hermann Kurzweg. It was Dr. Kurzweg, working with hand-carved models with various fin configurations, who developed the basic design of the A-5 and later the A-4. The designation A-4 was already given to the final production version of a weapon, so the new test-bed missile was given the number A-5, even though it was out of sequence. It would resemble a miniature A-4, incorporating the same aerodynamic design as the future weapon along with a new inertial guidance control system. Internally, many of the A-3 components remained the same, and the engine was powered by the same fuels. But the A-5 would carry a radio-command system for ground control of engine cutoff and remote parachute deployment. While construction moved forward on the wind tunnel at Peenemünde, testing at Aachen continued. Small-scale models were launched to test the different fin designs, followed by the first actual test flights of the A-5 in October of 1938.

   Dornberger had dictated a regimented schedule for A-5 production and testing. The A-5 should have the ability to carry out all of the flight research tasks that were essential to final design requirements on the larger A-4. This included the ballistic shape, the ability to pass through the sound barrier, and guidance throughout the burning portion of the missile’s flight. While waiting on industrial contractors to put the finishing touches on the new gyroscopic equipment, the Peenemünde team launched four unguided A-5s from Greifswalder Oie and was pleased with the results of each flight.

   The political factions in Germany were now dominated by the Nazi Party. The rocket team, in their daily bustle, paid only slight attention to the international struggles taking place at the time. On January 25, 1938, Hitler was shown a document in which Reichsführer SS Himmler accused General von Fritsch of criminal homosexual activities. Von Fritsch was replaced by Colonel General Walther von Brauchitsch. Hitler abolished the War Ministry, reorganized the armed services, and created the Armed Forces High Command (OKW). The Führer assumed full command. Von Brauchitsch understood Hitler’s intentions. If Hitler was determined to take the country to war, von Brauchitsch would strive to make sure Germany’s armed forces were ready.

Audio: Von Braun speaks about Kummersdorf and the need for larger facilities (.5 MB)

   It was a cold, rainy day in the spring of 1939 when Hitler visited the Kummersdorf Experimental Station with Field Marshal von Brauchitsch and General Karl Becker of Army Ordinance. Others in attendance included Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess, Martin Bormann, and several others. By this time, Peenemünde would have been more representative of contemporary rocket research, but because of the extreme secrecy surrounding the new rocket center, the Führer did not visit Usedom. After some introductions, Dornberger, now a colonel, proceeded to escort the entourage around the old facility. Dornberger described to Hitler the research at the station, providing a basic outline of the group’s history and current objectives. To some in the tour, Hitler seemed to be somewhat disinterested. They followed Dornberger to the captive test stands, where in preparation for the Führer’s visit, several engine tests had been readied. With cotton stuffed into his ears, Hitler peered through the observation slot of a protective wall as a 300-kilogram thrust engine was fired. Those accompanying Hitler were smiling and excited by the demonstration, while Hitler said nothing. Next was another static firing of a more powerful 1,000-kilogram thrust engine. The noise from the second engine made Hitler wince, but otherwise he showed no emotion whatsoever.

   As the party walked over to the third test stand, Dornberger briefed Hitler about the progress in Peenemünde. A model of the A-3 was laid out showing the various components, and at this point von Braun began explaining the inner workings of the rocket. Hitler became gradually more interested, inspecting the rocket and listening closely to von Braun’s comments. He even asked a few questions, one about the need for such exotic fuels. Von Braun responded respectfully, explaining the need for high exhaust velocities to obtain the speeds necessary to extend the range of the rocket. At the conclusion of von Braun’s speech, Hitler turned away shaking his head. It is unknown if Hitler discounted the feasibility of the rocket or if he was just overwhelmed by the complexity of it all. Later in the station mess, Hitler was served a light lunch and during the meal talked with General Becker about various details of what they had seen. When finished, Hitler simply said, “Es war doch gewaltig!” (It was nevertheless grand!)

   Hitler’s attitude toward the rocket at this time was certainly perplexing to Dornberger and others. Dornberger recalled later, “He was the only visitor who had ever listened to me without asking questions.” For a man with such zeal when it came to new weapons like warships, guns, and tanks, Hitler’s reluctance to embrace the innovative technology of the rocket was hard to understand. The Führer was always keen on the “next big project,” so why is it he discounted the rocket? His ineptness was not limited to understanding the technology of the rocket, as he would make similar blunders all through the war, imposing his supposedly infallible will on many other innovative projects and thereby negating their usefulness.

Hitler observes engine tests at Kummersdorf

   In the fall of 1939, Heeresversuchsstelle Peenemünde (Army Experimental Station Peenemünde), HVP, was fully staffed after the transfer of the remaining personnel from Kummersdorf. The research center was under the control of Walter Dornberger, while Colonel Leo Zanssen was retained as military commander. However, a new problem arose. Now that Germany was at war with France and Great Britain, manpower at Peenemünde was slowly being siphoned away due to increasing conscription of men for the German military. Dornberger, along with General Becker, met with Army Chief von Brauchitsch at Army headquarters in Zossen to discuss this problem. Von Brauchitsch was persuaded to sign an order stating that “Peenemünde should be pushed forward by all possible means.” It was hoped that such a directive would alleviate the drain of important personnel and skilled workers.

   General Von Brauchitsch had been Dornberger’s superior officer in the 1920s. He viewed Dornberger as his junior protégé and kept a close watch on his burgeoning career. Months earlier, in November of 1938, Dornberger had convinced von Brauchitsch to issue a directive for the construction of a full-scale missile assembly factory at Peenemünde under the auspices of it being “particularly urgent for national defense.” Dornberger had no qualms about using his close relationship with von Brauchitsch to Peenemünde’s advantage. Now that Germany was at war, funding for military endeavors would be quickly consumed by a myriad of new projects, and Peenemünde needed its share.

   By the end of the decade, the German Army’s liquid-fuel rocket program had come a long way. The once-tiny organization had grown beyond the wildest dreams of its early participants. Throughout the late 1930s, activities and personnel continued to grow at the Peenemünde complex. Reichsmarks were being spent at an astonishing rate. A-4 development forged ahead with crucial technological breakthroughs occurring at regular intervals. However, without an operational weapon to show for their efforts, the work was far from finished.

Audio: Willy Ley and Wernher von Braun discuss early German rocketry experiments (9.7 MB)

   The most daunting challenge was the development of the inertial guidance platform. Realizing the old control system installed on the A-3 was inadequate and that the new gyro-autopilot design would not be available anytime soon, the engineers decided to install a heavier, more powerful control device manufactured by the firm of Siemens. The A-5 was under construction after the finalizing of the new tail surfaces, which were redesigned and shortened after extensive wind-tunnel tests. It was thought that with the new tail surfaces being much more streamlined, the speed of sound might be achieved during A-5 test flights. In 1938 several small A-5 models made of solid iron were released from a Heinkel He-111 flying at 20,000 feet. The drop tests were recorded by phototheodolites and revealed that at around 3,000 feet, the dummy A-5s exceeded the speed of sound.

   By the summer of 1939, Peenemünde was ready as a launching station. But it was on the tiny island of Greifswalder Oie that the rocket team set up for the A-5 experiments. Many changes had taken place on the island. Concrete roads, a concrete observation bunker, new sleeping quarters, and a large measurement house were now in place on the island. Special instruments were set up on the neighboring island of Rügen along with more instruments at Peenemünde. Each location was connected to Greifswalder Oie by cables laid under the sea. The closest station for measuring the trajectory of the rockets launched from Oie was located on the eastern end of Rügen, across ten kilometers of open water.

   The first true example of the A-5 was ready for its maiden flight. The previous A-5 rockets launched in late 1938 carried no guidance systems and were launched only to test structural and aerodynamic changes from the A-3 technology. The A-5s would now be put through a regimented series of test flights intended to prove the viability of components and ideas destined to be integrated into the larger A-4 rocket. The weather conditions were good, with very little wind, as the first full test of the A-5 commenced from Greifswalder Oie in late October of 1939. At ignition the rocket climbed straight up, and just as planned, the exhaust vanes directed the A-5 on an easily controlled vertical flight course. The newly installed Siemens gyro-control gear was, so far, working as expected. When the motor shut down 45 seconds into the flight, the rocket was almost five miles high. Its momentum carried it higher until gravity slowed the ascent. At the high point of the trajectory, von Braun sent a radio signal to command the release of a drogue parachute, followed seconds later by another signal that released the main parachute. The rocket drifted slowly down, landing close to the island in the waters just off shore. The rocket was retrieved easily and taken for inspection.

   The following day two more A-5s were scheduled for launch. The results of the morning flight produced almost the same results as those from the previous day. Once again, the rocket made a vertical ascent, straight up, without the complexity of an altered trajectory. However, Dornberger and the engineers were still cautious of celebration. Even though there was reason to be excited about the first two test flights, the A-5 was yet to perform its most crucial task.

A-5 diagram

Engine tests

A-5 drop tests from He 111

A-5 readied for transport

A-5 fin tests from Oie

Do 17 spotter plane

   The A-5 was a test-bed rocket for all principle features of the proposed A-4. Equipped with the new Siemens control equipment, it was designed to execute commanded guidance during a ballistic (curved) trajectory and have the ability to do so in stable flight. The rocket would maneuver into a ballistic attitude when the gyroscopes tilted in the desired direction of flight, which would cause the autopilot to send signals to the servos attached to the exhaust vanes. They, in turn, would deflect the blast in a manner so as to tilt the rocket slowly over. If wind gusts affected the attitude of the rocket, the autopilot would react in the same manner, always seeking to align the longitudinal axis of the rocket with the fundamental axis of the gyroscopes. Thus, the gyros were responsible for the controlled tilt during a curved flight path and primary flight course correction of the rocket. In laying out the requirements for the A-4, the scientists determined that a 50-degree tilt would be necessary to achieve the maximum range for the future weapon.

   The third A-5 test flight, the second flight that day, was predetermined to test this technique of controlled guidance. The engineers had often tested the procedure during static firings of the rocket at the captive test stands, but now they would be able to see if it really worked in flight. As the rocket blasted away vertically from its launching point, it was only a few seconds later when, gradually, the programmed tilt came from the control system. They watched and cheered as the A-5 canted to the east after four seconds of vertical climb. It crossed over the island gaining speed as it flew in a long arc out to sea. When the motor stopped, the missile continued and flattened out about four miles downrange. Surprisingly, the parachute deployment was again successful, and the rocket dropped slowly from the sky into the waters of the Baltic. Once more, the rocket was recovered and subjected to post flight examination.

   The A-5 guidance test was completely successful. Although the rocket had not achieved supersonic speeds, the calculations and devices worked as planned. In the A-5 the rocket team now had a proven tool for sustained tests with all the varied concepts that would need to be incorporated in the A-4. Later on, the A-5 would achieve a range of around 11 miles at a height of 8 miles. Dornberger was relieved. He later stated, “Now I can see our goal clearly, and the way that lead to it. Then I knew we would succeed in creating a weapon with far greater range than artillery.” The A-5 would be launched again and again to test these concepts as the team moved closer to creating the big missile.

Video: A-5 prep and test launch
WMV 2.7 MB

   The research facilities near the Baltic were not as confidential as the Army might have liked to believe at the time. The recent Peenemünde successes were, in part, the result of cooperation with civilian firms and German universities, all of which were privy to some form of confidential information about the rocket project. The first warning about Germany’s ongoing secret weapons research was delivered to the British as a gift.
On the morning of November 5, 1939, a package was found resting on a window ledge outside of the British Embassy in Oslo, Norway. The package contained seven pages of German text and another small box, which contained a sealed glass tube. When the text was translated it sounded incredible. The document spoke of fantastic new weaponry being developed in Germany. Late in the evening of the same day, the so-called Oslo Report arrived on the desk of Dr. Reginald Victor Jones, the director of the Scientific Department at Air Ministry in London. Dr. Jones scrutinized the documents. No one believed the information to be genuine. It was quickly denounced as a hoax, one designed to intentionally mislead British war planners. Dr. Jones was one of the few who actually retained his copy of the Oslo Report, and its value would become apparent at a later date.

   However, Peenemünde was years away from actually fielding a weapon. Much more research requiring additional funding would be needed before the operational deployment of any future weapon. During Dornberger’s earlier visit with von Brauchitsch in 1939, he expressed the need for more funding to support Dr. Thiel with his innovative research on the large A-4 combustion chamber. With their latest accomplishments, Dornberger was confident they could begin series production of the A-4 by 1943, if not sooner. It all depended on continued funding for the research center, but resources in Germany were already stretched to the limit. Even though Dornberger was able to secure the support of Army Chief von Brauchitsch, who issued two Army directives—one for the construction of the assembly plant at Peenemünde and the other for priority in manpower and material—both directives were made without consulting either Hitler or the Armed Forces High Command (OKW). The incoherent priority system made it impossible to meet von Brauchitsch’s demands. Not only was skilled labor almost nonexistent but the interference of OKW staff resulted in Hitler canceling the directives. The Führer dictated that rocket development should continue at the agreed-upon prewar levels.

   From a distance, Reichsführer SS Himmler kept a close eye on rocket activities in Peenemünde. Any installation, such as Peenemünde, receiving so much attention and funding was bound to be noticed by the head of the SS. It is apparent that Himmler was interested in spreading his influence within the burgeoning rocketry program as early as 1940. Wernher von Braun was contacted by Himmler on May 1 and the Reichsführer SS awarded von Braun the SS rank of Untersturmführer (lieutenant). Dornberger, always looking for support of the rocket program, suggested to his colleague that it would be unwise to decline the offer. Von Braun was hesitant but finally accepted this position so as not to offend Himmler during a time when the rocket program was struggling for priority. During the next few years, Peenemünde would increasingly find itself garnering the attention of Germany’s leadership and industry.

SOURCES: V-2: A Combat History of the First Ballistic Missile, T. Dungan, 2005 — Michael Neufeld, The Rocket and the Reich, 1995Walter Dornberger, V-2, 1954Christopher Lampton, Wernher von Braun, 1988Erik Bergaust, Reaching for the Stars, 1960Winston G. Ramsey, After the Battle No. 6; The V-Weapons, 1974Guido De Maeseneer, Peenemünde, 2001Jan Heitmann, After the Battle No. 74; The Peenemünde Rocket Center, 1991Benjamin King & Timothy Kutta, Impact, 1998Józef Garlinski, Hitler’s Last Weapons, 1978R.V. Jones, Most Secret War, 1978Frederick I. Ordway & Mitchell Sharpe, The Rocket Team, 1979Dieter Hölsken, V-Missiles of the Third Reich, 1994


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