Book Review: Hitler’s Rockets

HitlersRocketsThmbby Timothy Lane10/3/15
Historian Norman Longmate discusses the German V-2 project (as a sequel to a previous book, which I unfortunately don’t have, on the V-1) in this book. He covers the development work itself (an extensive history), the British effort to deal with the potential threat (which was bedeviled by a lot of office politics — Longmate has little use for Frederick Lindemann, Lord Cherwell, who was Churchill’s favorite science advisor), and the campaign itself. Unlike some writers (and Cherwell hiumself), Longmate thinks the V-2 was a useful war weapon. One must remember that by the time the Germans started using them (the first V-2 attacls were on September 8, 1944), they were no longer capable of bombing Britain otherwise. So while the V-2 was cost-inefficient compared to Allied bombing at that time, it was (like the Japanese kamikazes that would shortly appear off Leyte) very cost-efficient compared to other alternatives available to them.

The project was actually an Army project, run by Walter Dornberger. Dornberger had an interest in rockets, but he was also an artillerist who had been part of the unit that fired the “Paris gun” (sometimes called Big Bertha, though the Germans actually applied that nickname to a different HitlersRocketsLgartillery piece). Dornberger’s goal was to come up with a weapon that would fire a larger warhead a lot further — and, ultimately, he succeeded. Most of the other top figures, such as Werner von Braun, were actually more interested in rockets going into space than in rocket artillery — but this was what they had available. Support from the Nazi hierarchy was iffy at times; not until relatively late would Hitler completely come around. But there was always enough support from the Army to keep the project running.

The Army name for the V-2 was the A-4, one of a series of experimental rockets. Longmate goes through the various versions and tests along with the political efforts to keep the project operational. Eventually, they came up with a usable weapon and began to pepare to produce it — at which point the SS largely took over (helped by the consequences of a British bombing raid on the main development center at Peenemünde on the island of Usedom in the Oder delta). As new test centers were placed in Poland (which would be a problem later on), the SS started up a concentration camp at Nordhausen to provide labor for a large facility to build the rockets.

Meanwhile, the British had been putting whatever information they had to use figuring out what this secret weapon was (not to mention if it really existed). They tried a varity of responses, most of which involved heavy bombing — of the proposed launch cites in France, and of whatever fuel factories could be located. (The A-4/V-2 used a mixture of alcohol and liquid oxygen; the former was distilled from potatoes, but the latter required quite a bit of effort to produce and then to keep from evaporating before it could be used.) Lord Cherwell, though skeptical about the rockets, figured that if the Germans went to the trouble of building a large facility, it was worth the Allies’ while destroying it. Others (such as R. V. Jones, something of a protegé of Cherwell’s who became an expert on scientific intelligence during the war and later wrote a book about it, variously titled Most Secret War and The Wizard War) were much less skeptical. Eventually, despite all the diffiulties (such as the loss of intelligence from slave laborers at Pennemünde after the bombing), they developed a reasonably accurate estimate of what the V-2 could do.

Finally, on September 8, 1944, the first V-2s landed in London. The V-1 was already no longer able to reach the city due to Allied advances, though it would continue to be used against other targets (such as Antwerp). A British spokesman had even infelicitously proclaimed the end of the bombing of London the day before. Whereas the V-1 had been launched from France (especially the Pas de Calais), the V-2 was launched from Holland. (One result was that V-1s that fell short usually landed in Kent, whereas V-2s that fell short usually landed in Essex.) The new campaign was thus a further encouragement to Operation Market-Garden, and indeed the bombardment of London was interrupted by it as the rocket batteries withdrew to a safer location when they could only reach Norfolk and Suffolk (both mostly rural, so the rockets did little damage). Once it became clear that the offensive had failed, the batteries returned to Holland and the bombardment of London intensified.

Longmate covers the effect the bombardment had on its victims. Although only about half of the rockets landed in London, 90% of the deaths occurred there. Many others were injured, often severely, and of course there were also many buildings destroyed. (One couple were unhappy to discover that their house had been destroyed just after they’d finished paying for it.) Overall, the V-2 did more damage and killed more people than the V-1 or a bomb of comparable size — on average. No doubt part of this reflects the choice of targets.

V2Aftermath

A V2 Explosion in Lambeth

One complaints Albert Speer made about the V-2 in his memoirs was that since the Allies couldn’t defend against it, they just endured it and saved themselves the effort. It turns out this wasn’t exactly true. Some efforts were made to stop the rockets in flight, though without any success (except for a single claim of a rocket shot down by the heavy machine-guns of a bomber that came across one at a convenient moment); But even more so, the Allies devoted a lot of effort to bombing V-2 sites (manufacturing, launching, or transporting) as well as trying to overrun them with their armies.

Eventually, the fortunes of war turned sufficiently against the Nazis that they were no longer able to shoot off their rockets. One day they sent several rockets as usual, killing a lot of people. Then the terror stopped, at the end of March 1945. Dornberger brought his team to the Americans, figuring that they would be much nicer to them than Stalin or the British (many of whom thought he and his top scientists should be hanged as war criminals, though this might have led to some interesting questions about Hamburg, Dresden, “dehousing”, etc.). So it proved, as both Dornberger and von Braun retired in America (though “retired” isn’t really the right word for von Braun, who remained involved in rockets — albet for peaceful purposes now — for a long time).

What was the legacy of the A-4? Well, as Tom Lehrer sang, there were “the widows and cripples in old London town, who owe their large pensions to Werner von Braun.” There were also the slave laborers in Nordhausen, and all the Allied and German casualties in the campaign against the V-2. But the rocket was also the forerunner both to modern rocket artillery (though there were several others as well, such as the “Stalin organ”, the “screaming meemie”, and the bazooka) and to modern space rockets (indeed, surviving A-4s were used in American tests after the war, though Longmate doesn’t discuss this). Note that earlier rockets usually had solid propellants (generally gunpowder), but modern space rockets (like the A-4/V-2) use liquid fuels (including liquid oxygen).

And for all the tragedies created by the V-2. even more were created by area bombing with incendiaries — a common practice of the British (and to a lesser extent the Germans and Americans) in Europe and the Americans in Japan. The V-2 didn’t win the war for Nazi Germany and never could have (though many Germans believed earlier production at the intended scale might have done the trick). Of course, today we consider that a good thing. And at least it did help pave the way for the modern space program. NASA owes a great deal to Walter Dornberger.


Timothy Lane writes from Louisville, Kentucky and publishes the FOSFAX fanzine.
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6 Responses to Book Review: Hitler’s Rockets

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Can’t judge a book by it’s cover…but what a cool cover. Sounds like a great book. Also, while looking at his other offerings, If Britain Had Fallen: The Real Nazi Occupation Plans sounds intriguing.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      I believe I have the earlier edition of it. I have a lot of books on that and related subjects, including one by Ian Fleming’s brother Peter.

  2. Anniel says:

    Timothy, I will definitely need to read this.

    I have a very dear friend who was on the last Kindertrain out of Germany. She wound up in England staying with foster families, some good, some bad. She told me of one family who didn’t use her for household chores or babysitting, and at least allowed her to attend school. When she got home it was her habit to sit at a picnic table out in the backyard to do her homework. She would frequently hear the German rockets start to lose power and descend. None came down in her neighborhood so she had grown kind of lazy about heading for a shelter. One afternoon she was out at the table when she needed an eraser so she went into the house to get one. She heard the sound of a rocket and felt the ground shake but heard no explosion because the rocket was a dud. She made a sandwich before she went back out. There was a large crater in the yard where the rocket had landed right on the table where she had been sitting. She says that was the day she decided not to worry anymore because if it’s your time there’s not much you can do about it. She turned 97 a few days ago and has survived unbelievable pain and grief with great good humor and love.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      One thing to note about the V-2 is that (unlike the V-1) it was supersonic. If you heard a V-2, you were safe — it had already missed you. In fact, the survivors often didn’t recall hearing any blast even after it landed, though this no doubt reflected the shock effect.

  3. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    Sounds like an interesting book. It is the first time I have heard anyone make the case that the resources used on the V2 program were well spent.

    Unlike the V2 case, one wonders what might have happened had the Me262 and other jet interceptors been developed by early 1943 instead of mid 1944. The Allies bombing campaign would have been sorely tested.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      True. But one must note that the German jet engines had a short life due to a lack of certain alloy metals (nickel and chromium). Admittedly, there was plenty of chromium in the Balkans (no longer available in late 1944), but nickel was scarce outside of Canada.

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