In September 1944, Germany launched its brand-new wonder weapon for the first time – the V2.

Designed to destroy the morale of the Allies, the so-called vengeance weapon was an awesome technological achievement. Hitler genuinely believed it could turn the war back in his favour. Instead, the first V2 crashed soon after lift-off - a preview of things to come. 

The V2 was expensive, resource intensive and had little strategic value. Few weapons better exemplify Germanys fixation with the wonder weapon, a fictional magic bullet for a war they had already lost.

In this video, IWM's Ian Kikuchi takes a closer look at the V2, how it worked, why it was built and what impact it had on the Second World War. 

With grateful thanks to Eric Horne for his kind donation and to Colin Welch of Research Resource Archaeology for his expertise and assistance. 

The V2 rocket was a huge mistake, and here's why


Voice over: “In September 1944, Germany launched its new 'wonder weapon' for the first time – the V2. Designed to destroy Allied morale, the so-called vengeance weapon was an awesome technological achievement. Hitler genuinely believed it could turn the war back in his favour. Instead, the first V2 crashed soon after lift-off - a preview of things to come. The V2 was expensive, resource intensive and had little strategic value. Few weapons better exemplify Germanys fixation with the 'wonder weapon', a fictional magic bullet for a war they had already lost.

Today we’ll take a closer look at the V2, how it worked, why it was built and what impact it really had on the Second World War.

Ian Kikuchi, IWM Curator: “The story usually goes that the German Army became interested in rockets because, unlike artillery and tanks, rockets were not restricted by the Treaty of Versailles. However, in reality, the legality of rockets was not an important part of the equation. In Germany after the First World War ideas around rocketry and human space travel became highly popular. Amateur inventors conducted experiments with small rockets and staged publicity stunts with rocket-powered cars and other vehicles. These demonstrations of technological innovation met with great public enthusiasm.”

Voice over: “That enthusiasm soon reached the German Army. Some officers believed that rockets could supplement or even replace conventional artillery and by the late 1920s amateur rocket clubs, universities, and the German Army were experimenting heavily with rocket technology. One rising star in the field was Wernher von Braun.”

Ian Kikuchi: “From an early age he developed an interest in space flight and rockets and was a member of an amateur rocket club. Aged 18 he began university studies in engineering and in December 1932 started working on his doctoral thesis on liquid-fuelled rockets and also on the German Army's secret rocket program. The next month the Nazi leader Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor, the head of German government. Intelligent, charismatic, and an effective administrator, von Braun quickly became a leading figure in the German Army's rocket program.”

Voice over: “In 1933, von Braun began work on a series of rocket designs called the Aggregate series, or A series. Over the following decade, von Braun and his colleagues would be provided with an immense variety of technical challenges to solve. They needed to build an engine that was both powerful and efficient, find the most aerodynamic shape for a twelve-ton rocket, stabilise that rocket in supersonic flight and guide the rocket to a target over 200 miles away.”

Ian Kikuchi: “Through their work on the aggregate series the German Army rocket program began to answer these questions. But the development was immensely difficult. Speaking of the testing of the A1 rocket, von Braun said it took ‘half a year to build and half a second to blow up’. But in the middle of the 1930s, with the Nazis having consolidated their grip on power, Germany embarked on a course of military rearmament. Now money began to flow into the rocket program and a large research facility was built at Peenemünde. Here on the Baltic Coast, they began to make real progress.”

Voice over: “By 1941, von Braun and his colleagues were working on the A4 rocket, a weapon that showed real promise. However, Hitler was initially unimpressed. For the first two years of the war, his army had mounted triumphant campaigns, seeming to win easy victories. It had little need for, what he saw an expensive artillery shell. But by the end of 1941, the balance of the war had shifted. Germany’s army had been repulsed from the gates of Moscow, and the United States had entered the fight on the Allied side. Now, the rocket started to look like a useful weapon. Large scale production was ordered in January 1943, and the programme was given top priority in July of that year.”

Ian Kikuchi: “By the time the rocket was ready for action it had been dubbed the Vergeltungswaffe Zwei – Vengeance Weapon 2 or V2. The name reminds us that, for the Nazis, weapons weren't merely tools for fighting, but also for propaganda. In an article published in July 1944 after the start of attacks with a V1 flying bomb, Nazi propaganda Chief Joseph Goebbels claimed that the new weapons had struck a 'paralysing fear' into English hearts and hinted at newer and even more impressive weapons still to come. The V weapons were meant to crush the morale of the British people and boy up them of bomb battered Germans. By that time Germany found itself in an increasingly hopeless strategic situation. It was typical of Nazi irrationality that they put so much faith in these so-called 'wonder weapons'.”

Voice over: “Development continued into 1944 and in June an A4 test rocket travelled 176 miles from the earth and became the first man-made object to reach outer space. By September of 1944 the V2 was ready. The Germans had initially planned to launch the rockets from fortified bunkers on the French channel coast, however these were destroyed by Allied bombers. Instead, the V2s were launched by mobile batteries which could operate from almost anywhere. The first successful launches occurred on the 8th of September, first on a newly liberated Paris and then on London.”

Ian Kikuchi: “Most of the body of the rocket is taken up with two large tanks. The top tank holds a mixture of alcohol and water. Below that is a second tank containing liquid oxygen. These are then ignited in the rocket engine's combustion chamber and the resulting reaction generates thrust. At the nose of the rocket is a contact fuse to detonate the rocket's one ton explosive warhead. Behind the warhead is a compartment containing the weapons analogue guidance computer and gyroscopes. The gyroscopes are connected by electrical relays to graphite veins mounted within the rocket's thrust, allowing the thrust to be vectored or directed to alter the rocket's flight. When launched the motor would burn for 60 or 70 seconds, propelling the V2 to a maximum height of 80 kilometres or 50 miles. After that the flight continued in a ballistic trajectory up to an impact of almost 2,000 miles an hour. With the rocket flying at supersonic speed, people living in a targeted area wouldn't hear the rocket approach until after the shattering explosion.”

Voice over: “Belgium and Britain bore the brunt of the V2 campaign. At its peak in December the port of Antwerp was being hit by over a hundred V2 rockets a week. The weapons were inaccurate. Some landed in the middle of nowhere, while others caused huge devastation. The deadliest single attack killed 567 people at a cinema in Antwerp. Civilians had varying relationships to the V2. Some found the possibility that they might be blown to pieces at any second completely intolerable. While others seemed to view the risk as being akin to that of being hit by lightning – that there was little point in worrying about it.”

Ian Kikuchi: “We've come upstairs to one of the museum's conservation labs. In rooms like this we look after objects of all kinds, including one that I was able to acquire only recently. One of the smallest objects in our collection which tells an incredible story of the lived experience of the V2. In September 1944 14-year-old Eric Horne was sitting at home in Lewisham, South London. Suddenly a V2 rocket exploded about 50 meters away, the blast showering Eric with wood and broken glass from the window. He had numerous minor injuries but wasn't seriously hurt and had been extremely lucky. 14 people were killed in the explosion. Eric survived the war and would later emigrate to Australia. He would have a career as a policeman, he would marry and have children. And then in 2021, age 92, Eric noticed a small spot or lump on his cheek and with tweezers was able to remove this tiny metal fragment. Eric sent this fragment to an archaeologist who specialises in V1 and V2 impact sites.

Looking carefully at this fragment he was able to identify it as part of the aluminium skin of an electronic condenser. You can even see printed lettering on it, this is a font commonly used in Germany in the mid-20th century. There was only one place this tiny metal fragment could have come from, the V2 rocket explosion which had injured Eric 77 years earlier. Eric donated this fragment to Imperial War Museum, and it is an extraordinary reminder that people carry with them the legacies of wartime violence, sometimes in their minds and sometimes in their bodies for their entire lives.”

With grateful thanks to Eric Horne for his kind donation and to Colin Welch of Research Resource Archaeology for his expertise and assistance.

Voice over: “The Allies knew about the V2 long before it appeared in their skies thanks to the work of Austrian and Polish resistance groups. However, they had few options for countermeasures. Fighters were nowhere near fast enough and it would require so many anti-aircraft shells to down a single rocket that those shells would become a threat to civilians on the ground. They had to come up with new solutions. First MI5 began a deception campaign using its double cross operation. British double agents like Eddie Chapman or ZigZag fed misinformation to the Germans suggesting that the V2s were overshooting London. By some accounts this caused the Germans to readjust and V2 impact sites moved east to less populated areas.

Secondly, they began strikes against the German V-weapons infrastructure including the German research facility at Peenemünde which was attacked by British bombers in August 1943. The physical impact of this raid is still debated, but it undoubtedly changed the course of the V2 program.”

Ian Kikuchi: “The bombing of Peenemünde helped persuade the Nazi leadership to move V2 rocket production underground where it would be safe from Allied air attack. A disused fuel depot in the Harz mountains was selected and with gigantic effort a rocket factory known as the Mittelwerk was constructed. The Mittelwerk factory became a scene of appalling horror. The V2 project had become central to the Nazi regime and the SS mobilised thousands of concentration camp prisoners to build the factory and the rockets. These prisoners faced terrible conditions in which their guards neglect was matched only by their brutality. In all some 60,000 people were deported to the concentration camps, at least 20,0000 died. The V2 killed thousands of people in London, Paris, Brussels, Antwerp, and elsewhere. But many more people died making these weapons. When we look at the V2 we should remember that its technological achievement was built on the slaughter and cruelty of the Nazi regime.”

Voice over: “The last V2s were launched in March of 1945, barely six weeks before the final defeat of Nazi Germany. Despite Hitler’s hopes, the V weapons programme had done little to slow the relentless Allied juggernaut. Arguably in fact, it helped the Allies. The V2 programme was immensely expensive. It was Germany’s largest armaments project of the war costing up to 2 billion Reichmarks. That’s comparable with the Allied investment in the Manhattan Project developing the atomic bomb. And yet, despite Germany’s gigantic outlay, there was never a clear strategic concept for the rocket’s use. It isn't difficult to argue that the money could have been spent elsewhere.” 

Ian Kikuchi: “As impressive as this technology still is, once the rocket burns out the V2 is just a very expensive and inaccurate artillery shell. The entire tonnage of high explosive delivered by the V2 over seven months, 3,000 tons, could be dropped in a single raid by British heavy bombers. More importantly, the V2 was never likely to change the course of the war because the V2 was a response to failure. Large-scale production was ordered in January 1943, the same month as the German Army's catastrophic defeat at Stalingrad. Although advanced, the V2 was immature technology, able to do little more than deliver random destruction at vast expense.”

Voice over: “The story of the V2 did not end with the Second World War. As the Allies advanced into Germany, each nation scrambled to pick up as much rocket technology and as many rocket scientists as they possibly could. They would launch modified V2s for years afterwards, paving the way for the next generation of nuclear armed ballistic missiles with which east and west would face-off for remainder of the 20th century. Wernher von Braun eventually joined NASA and helped create the Saturn V rocket that would send humanity to the moon – he has become one of history’s most controversial figures. The V2 undoubtably helped build our modern world and is a clear example of the rapid technological innovation that conflict brings. But like so many other 'wonder weapons', the V2 was a foolhardy endeavour given Germany’s situation. A programme which caused misery and suffering for civilians and forced labourers alike.”


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