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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

V-2 Rocket of Nazi Germany: A World War II Terror Weapon Like No Other

Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Image Credit: Creative Commons.

The regime of Nazi Germany was despicable and reprehensible, without a doubt. But it was also incredibly innovative in terms of military technology, giving us among other things the world’s first operational jet fighter and world’s first operational rocket-powered fighter plane.

World War II Germany also spawned the world’s first cruise missile, the V-1 “Buzz Bomb,” which I cover in a separate article. For good measure, that nation came up with the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile: the V-2 rocket.

V-2 Early History and Specifications

The V-2 (Vergeltungswaffe Zwei, “Vengeance Weapon Two”) — official technical name Aggregat 4 — went into development in 1936 and entered into production on March 16, 1942, designed by the Peenemünde Army Research Center and built by Mittelwerk GmbH. The mind behind the V-2’s design belonged to Dr. Wernher von Braun, who during the Cold War would rehabilitate his reputation by working for the American space program. The V-2 and V-1 alike were given the “Vengeance Weapon” moniker because they were specifically earmarked to attack Allied cities as retribution for the bombings of German cities.

As noted by the Australian War Memorial info page: “The final V2 design weighed 12,500 kg, was 14 m in length and 1.65 m in diameter. It was 17 times more powerful than the largest rocket engine at the time and flew at five times the speed of sound [in excess of 3,700 miles per hour]. It was powered by a liquid propellant rocket engine of liquid ethanol (which took 30 tons of potatoes to fuel a single launch) and liquid oxygen.” 

For comparison, the V-1 had a max airspeed of a measly 400 mph. Interestingly, both “Vengeance” weapons had roughly the same-sized warhead, in the 1-ton range.

Combat Usage: Plenty of Terror, but Little Long-Term Effectiveness

Just like the V-1, and just like Saddam Hussein’s Scud missile attacks against Saudi Arabia and Israel decades later during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the V-2 failed to turn the tide of the war in the user’s favor. It functioned as a terror weapon, but it was no gamechanger.

The very first V-2 attack transpired on Sept. 8, 1944. From there, according to a U.S. Air Force fact sheet, “1,115 V-2s hit England, and 1,524 fell on continental Europe. Many V-2s broke up or exploded in the air, and around 15 percent were never launched due to ground malfunctions. The total damage done in England by the rockets included 2,754 killed and 6,523 severely wounded. Some of the worst V-2 attacks included the destruction of a cinema in Antwerp (561 killed), and an impact on a crowded Antwerp street killed 128 people.”

In a cruel twist of fate, the V-2 also caused the deaths of approximately 10,000 forced laborers, who built the missiles under appalling working conditions.

A major advantage the V-2 had over the V-1 was that due to its superior speed, it could not be intercepted by the fighter planes available to the Allies at the time. Over 1,000 “buzz bombs” were shot down by RAF fighters, including the De Havilland Mosquito and the Gloster Meteor jet fighter. By contrast, as far as I’ve been able to ascertain, no V-2 rockets were ever shot down by fighters or anti-aircraft guns — the A-4s flew too fast and too high. (If any of our readers know otherwise, please let us know in the Comments section). 

Ergo, to quote that USAF fact sheet again, “Allied efforts to prevent rocket attacks depended on bombing production facilities and attacking rail transit with fighters. Allied air power destroyed many V-2s before they reached launch sites.”

The last V-2 attack occurred on March 27, 1945, landing in Orpington, in the southeast part of Greater London, and killing one person, 34-year old Mrs. Ivy Milford Millichamp, who thus acquired had the undesired distinction of being the last civilian fatality of the war in mainland Britain.

Zuerst ins Weltall (“First Into Outer Space”)!

If you were to ask most people who have at least a modicum of knowledge about 20th century history what was the first manmade object to reach outer space, they would most likely and understandably answer “Sputnik.” But they wouldn’t be quite correct.

Yes, Sputnik 1 was indeed the first artificial Earth satellite into space, attaining this historical milestone on Oct. 4, 1957, and shocking the world — especially the United States — in the process. But as Alisa Harvey shares in a March 2022 article for Space.Com: 

“According to Science Museum, the V2 rocket became the first to enter space during a test carried out by the Nazis in 1944. During this test, it reached beyond the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space.” This took place on June 20, 1944 — two weeks after D-Day — reaching an apogee of 109 miles, well beyond the 62-mile von Kármán line that is generally, though not universally, accepted as the “edge of space.”

Where Are They Now?

There are approximately 20 surviving V-2 missiles today out of the nearly 6,000 originally built. They are spread out across Australia, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Among the stateside museums hosting the V-2 are the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, the Cosmosphere time and space museum in Hutchinson, Kansas, and the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson AFB near Dayton, Ohio. 

Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force Security Forces officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS)

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Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon).