Note: This article gives an in depth description of
the development of the V-2 rocket, a German weapon of
World War II. The historical significance is [sadly]
dramatic but the technical significance still relevant.
A derivative of the V-2 was used in the early 1990's
by Iraq. Part 1 spoke of the early development of the
German Rocket Society and its transition to Nazi weapons
research. Parts 2 and 3 of this article represent a
useful tutorial on rocket science.
article is written by Willy Ley, a member of the 1930's
German Rocket Society and gives us a first hand account
of the history and technology behind rockets.
from last week)....... A-3 was the first project
of the Peenemünde institute,—founded with the backing
of Field Marshal von Brauchitsch for the German army, to the
accompaniment of the most profound disinterest of the Nazi
party and, it is said, against the wishes of Hitler who failed
to see any value in rocket research. The A-3. rocket was fully
five times as heavy as its prototypes A-1 and A2, weighing,
ready for take-off, 1,650 pounds. The rocket motor developed
a thrust of twice the take-off weight or 3,300 pounds at sea
level. The fuel supply lasted for forty-five seconds; the
rocket stood twenty-five feet tall and had a largest diameter
of 2 1/2 feet. Control was achieved by means of vanes operating
in the exhaust jet; when they were set for a vertical course,
the rocket attained an altitude of 40,000 feet. When fired
at the famous ballistic angle for maximum range (45°),
the rocket traveled eleven miles.
This was still
hardly better than the performance of medium artillery, but
a 1,650 pound rocket was still only a rather small rocket.
Count von Braun insisted that the army go ahead. General Dornberger
shared this point of view; von Brauchitsch provided the financial
and priority backing and Colonel Kesselring (who was later
the commander of the German forces in Northern Italy) called
Prof. Oberth from the Mediash in Rumania in order to have
the chief theorist of liquid fuel rockets on hand whenever
his services should be required. Since Oberth’s name
was rather well known through the activities of the not quite
forgotten German Rocket Society, a screening job had to be
provided for him,—the Rector magnificissimus of Berlin
University obligingly provided Oberth with a chair for Physical
Astronomy. It is doubtful whether he ever entered a Iecture
of the original rocket motor of the German Rocket Society.
This was later developed into the powerplant of the V-2.
plants for a new and bigger rocket were drawn up. It was fernrakete
A-4, (Long Distance Rocket, Aggregate No. 4). Using fuel pumps
an idea of Oberth’s), A-4 could he built in a truly
gigantic scale. Applying another idea of Oberth, (keeping
thin-walled fuel tanks under interior pressure to prevent
their collapse) A-4 could be built lightly. Using a model
of a rocket motor originally developed by the German Rocket
Society an unbelievable thrust could be produced.
was to be around fifteen meters long (the final model was
about one meter shorter, or forty-six feet long ), with a
largest diameter of five and a half feet. The big stabilizers
were to measure some twelve feet across: the take-off weight
was to be in the neighborhood of twelve tons; the fuel load
around 20,000 pounds adn the weight of the bomb carried, one
metric ton! The range of the rocket was estimated at 400 kilometers
which is 250 miles. Actually about 220 miles is the highest
figure that was ever observed.
The design of this
rocket grew through the years 1938 and 1939. In 1940 it was
actually built. After some not to important changes this rocket
became the weapon which the German Ministry of Propaganda
called Vergeltungswaffe Zwei, or V-2.
But, at first,
Fernrakete A-4 was what the Germans call a Sorgenkind, a term
which combines the meanings of our words problem child and
amazingly and failed to grow up for a long time. The very
first, fired on July 6, 1942, exploded three feet above the
ground with such violence that it destroyed its testing site.
The second exploded with equal violence, but at an altitude
of about 16,000 feet. The third did the same but the fourth
showed that A-4 was a promising development in spite of everything.
In October, 1942. it covered a distance of 170 miles, The
fifth also functioned well, except that it could not be found
after having been fired.
Number 6 to number
18 constituted a broken series of thirteen bad failures. Some
did not take off at all, some exploded, Some broke into two
shortly after take-off and crashed. No. 19 functioned well—and
a hundred more rockets were built. Most of them worked, but
one out of every five broke up in mid-air and one failure
was particularly unfortunate front the point of view of the
experimenters. They had called a large number of army officers
and party functionaries together to witness a demonstration—it
is said that Himmler presided over the gathering—and
the rocket, after staggering into the air for about 200 feet,
tilted over and crashed.
In 1943 Count von
Braun packed up the films of the experiments and went to see
Hitler at his headquarters at the Eastern Front. By then Hitler
was desparate enough to look even at rockets; they might furnish
a way out. The films impressed him and he ordered mass production
of Fernrakete A-4 which then became the V-2.
Then the Nazis
indulged in an experiment peculiarly their own in design and
execution. The SS evacuated the small Polish town of Blizna
in order to put the V-2 testing station there. And the SS
went to another small Polish town of about 1,000 inhabitants,
Sarnaki. which is situated 150 miles due North of Blizna and
surrounded it in a wide circle. While the inhabitants of Blizna
had been evacuated, those of Sarnaki had to stay in their
town because Sarnaki had been chosen as target city. The Nazi
experimenters wanted to see what V-2s could do to a city living
a more or less normal life.
Over a hundred
V-2’s were fired at Sarnaki during the six weeks front
May 15 to the end of June, 1943. Sarnaki turned out to be
too small a target for rocket fire front 150 miles away. Not
a single rocket ever hit the town directly; the one that came
closest crashed some 300 yards away. A number of houses were
destroyed by the concussion waves of the explosions of a ton
of Amatol (a mixture of TNT and ammonium nitrate) in each
warhead. But the toll of life was small—one old man
was killed and one woman seriously injured.
the test shots gave the Nazis’ big secret away. When
the RAF bombed Peenemünde, that target was mainly one
of V-1 research, although the British did know through their
agents (the are said to have had two right in the institute
itself) that the Germans also experimented with gigantic rockets.
Peenemünde installations, Circle: two V-2s being
readied for test.
But they did not
know details until June, 1944, when a test rocket exploded
many miles above Swedish territory. Two tons of fragments,
most of them small, were collected over an area of square
miles and pieced together by British experts; they then knew
that the weapon which they had to expect was a forty-six foot
In fact, the diagram
which the British had ready when the first V-2 crashed into
a London suburb on September 8, 1944, contained all the essential
features. Some detail has been filled in by W. G. A. Perring,
a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society during a lecture
delivered in London November 1st, 1945.