Part 1 > Wernher von Braun – Part 2
GERMANY’S V2 ROCKET
Peenemünde and the V2
From 1937 to 1945, Dr. Wernher von Braun was the technical director for the German army’s new rocket test facility (Heeresversuchsanstalt) at Peenemünde on the Baltic island of Usedom. It was here on the isolated north German coast that von Braun and his team would develop the world’s first ballistic missile, the A4, later known as the V2. The Nazi German military poured money and people into the rocket effort, and soon the new testing facility would swallow up and spread beyond what was once a small fishing village known as Peenemünde (“mouth of the Peene river”) on the northwestern tip of Usedom.
Although it was not public knowledge during most of von Braun’s heyday in the US, we now know that he joined the NSDAP (Nazi party) on 1 December 1938. In May 1940 he joined the SS, eventually achieving the rank of Sturmbannführer (equal to the army rank of major). Despite that, in March 1944 Himmler’s Gestapo accused von Braun of treason (and the intention of escaping to England). He was arrested and spent time in jail, only being released because of his special status and the intervention of his boss Walter Dornberger and armaments minister Albert Speer.
At the ever-expanding Peenemünde facility, and later at the notorious underground Dora (Mittelwerk) complex near Nordhausen in the Harz mountains, von Braun and his team developed the V2 (Vergeltungswaffe 2), the world’s first liquid-fueled ballistic rocket weapon. The first successful test firing of the V2 took place on 3 October 1942 at the Peenemünde site. The V2 carried a 2,000-pound (980 kg) warhead and had an operational range of 320 km (about 200 mi). (There were plans for longer range rockets that could cross the Atlantic and strike the USA, but they were never developed.) The first V2 to be used against the Allies took off for London on 7 September 1944 (flight time: 320 seconds, about 5 minutes). Eventually over 3,000 V2s were launched against targets in England, Belgium, France, and the Netherlands. (More V2s struck Antwerp  than London .) An estimated 8,000 people, most of them in Antwerp and London, died in the V2 attacks. Another 12,000 people or more, mostly slave-labor prisoners, died as a result of the horrible working and living conditions at the Mittelwerk V2 plant. Although von Braun had no direct control over Mittelwerk, he was well aware of the deplorable situation there and at the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp. He later admitted shame that such things could happen in Germany, even in war.
As a rocket, the V2 (A4) was a major success. As a destructive weapon, the V2 was less successful. For its massive development costs, each V2 yielded only modest destruction and an average of two deaths per V2 rocket fired. (This was in part due to many V2s missing their targets.) Despite a few rare “successes,” including a V2 strike on a Woolworth’s store in New Cross, England (160 deaths) and another that hit a packed cinema in Antwerp (567 deaths), in the end the V2 was not really the “miracle weapon” (Wunderwaffe) that Hitler had promised the Germans. Its military value was modest. A V2’s explosive power was only half of a single B-17’s 4,000 lb (1814 kg) bomb load dropped during a typical Allied raid. More people died making the V2 than in actual V2 attacks. The terror effect of the V2 only made the Allies more determined to defeat the Germans.
Going over to the Americans: Operation Paperclip
When the war ended in 1945, von Braun and most members of his team decided they wanted to work for the Americans rather than the Soviets, who were also actively trying to get former German rocket engineers. To avoid the Russians, von Braun and about 500 team members traveled south to Bavaria, which was an American occupation zone. Wernher’s brother Magnus was chosen to contact the Americans because he spoke the best English. On 3 May 1945, in Reutte, Austria, just across the border from Bavaria, von Braun and his team surrendered to US Army officers. (Photo in Part 1.)
As part of what was dubbed “Operation Paperclip,” von Braun and over 100 of his contingent were sent to the United States in late 1945 and early 1946. The German rocket team was first assigned to Fort Bliss in Texas and the nearby White Sands Proving Grounds in New Mexico, where they helped test several captured V2 rockets.
Dr. von Braun began his work in Texas with a supersonic ramjet project (first named “Comet” and later “Hermes”) while assigning some of his team to work on getting rusty recovered V2 rockets ready for testing at White Sands. At first, the Fort Bliss scientists were alone, with their wives and families still in occupied Germany. This, combined with a lack of financial and technical support from the army, soon led to a crisis in the group’s morale. Conditions later improved and von Braun began to feel more at home in his new country. It was during this time that von Braun, raised as a Lutheran in Germany, converted to evangelical Protestantism as a member of a small Texas church.
In December 1946, von Braun and his team gained some fame when the War Department finally announced their presence in the United States. The El Paso Times headline read: “118 Top German V-2 Experts Stationed in E.P.” Von Braun was in New York on business when the story broke. Pictures of the young German scientist appeared in major American newspapers and Life magazine. But the Germans would become frustrated by a lack of funding and support for advanced guided missile development during the Fort Bliss years. It would take the Korean War to finally get the US truly interested in turning the V2 into an advanced weapon.
Coming: Part 3 – Marriage and Family – NASA
AT THE GERMAN WAY
- Wernher von Braun – Part 1 – von Braun’s early years in Germany
- Featured Biographies – More detailed bios of notable people from the German-speaking world
- Mini Bios A-Z – More brief biographies of people from the German-speaking world
- Notable Women from Austria, Germany, Switzerland
- Famous Graves in Germany – Where are they buried?
- Also see Germans in Hollywood – German, Austrian and Swiss people in Hollywood