The V-2 (German: Vergeltungswaffe 2, “Retribution Weapon 2”), technical name Aggregat 4 (A4), was the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile. The missile with a liquid-propellant rocket engine was developed during the Second World War in Germany as a “vengeance weapon“, assigned to attack Allied cities as retaliation for the Allied bombings against German cities. The V-2 rocket also became the first artificial object to cross the boundary of space with the vertical launch of MW 18014 on 20 June 1944.
Research into military use of long range rockets began when the studies of graduate student Wernher von Braun attracted the attention of the German Army. A series of prototypes culminated in the A-4, which went to war as the V-2. Beginning in September 1944, over 3,000 V-2s were launched by the German Wehrmacht against Allied targets during the war, first London and later Antwerp and Liège. According to a 2011 BBC documentary, the attacks from V2s resulted in the deaths of an estimated 9,000 civilians and military personnel, and a further 12,000 forced laborers and concentration camp prisoners died as a result of their forced participation in the production of the weapons.
As Germany collapsed, teams from the Allied forces—the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union—raced to capture key German manufacturing sites and technology. Wernher von Braun and over 100 key V-2 personnel surrendered to the Americans. Eventually, many of the original V-2 team ended up working at the Redstone Arsenal. The US also captured enough V-2 hardware to build approximately 80 of the missiles. The Soviets gained possession of the V-2 manufacturing facilities after the war, re-established V-2 production, and moved it to the Soviet Union.
After the defeat, German engineers were moved to the United States and the USSR, where they further developed the V-2 rocket for military and civilian purposes. The V-2 rocket also laid the foundation for the liquid fuel missiles and space launchers used later.
At the end of the war, a race began between the United States and the USSR to retrieve as many V-2 rockets and staff as possible. Three hundred rail-car loads of V-2s and parts were captured and shipped to the United States and 126 of the principal designers, including Wernher von Braun and Walter Dornberger, were in American hands. Von Braun, his brother Magnus von Braun, and seven others decided to surrender to the United States military (Operation Paperclip) to ensure they were not captured by the advancing Soviets or shot dead by the Nazis to prevent their capture.
In October 1945, British Operation Backfire assembled a small number of V-2 missiles and launched three of them from a site in northern Germany. The engineers involved had already agreed to move to the US when the test firings were complete. The Backfire report remains the most extensive technical documentation of the rocket, including all support procedures, tailored vehicles and fuel composition.
Post-war V-2s launched in secret from Peenemünde may have been responsible for a curious phenomenon known as ghost rockets, unexplained objects crossing the skies over Sweden and Finland.
In 1946, the British Interplanetary Society proposed an enlarged man-carrying version of the V-2, called Megaroc. It could have enabled sub-orbital spaceflight similar to, but at least a decade earlier than, the Mercury-Redstone flights of 1961.
In his book My Father’s Son, Canadian author Farley Mowat, then a member of the Canadian Army, claims to have obtained a V-2 rocket in 1945 and shipped it back to Canada, where it is alleged to have ended up in the Canadian National Exhibition grounds in Toronto. There was a V-2 stored outside at RCAF Station Picton, Ontario in June 1961.
- United States
Operation Paperclip recruited German engineers and Special Mission V-2 transported the captured V-2 parts to the United States. At the close of the Second World War, over 300 rail cars filled with V-2 engines, fuselages, propellant tanks, gyroscopes, and associated equipment were brought to the railyards in Las Cruces, New Mexico, so they could be placed on trucks and driven to the White Sands Proving Grounds, also in New Mexico.
In addition to V-2 hardware, the U.S. Government delivered German mechanization equations for the V-2 guidance, navigation, and control systems, as well as for advanced development concept vehicles, to U.S. defence contractors for analysis. In the 1950s some of these documents were useful to U.S. contractors in developing direction cosine matrix transformations and other inertial navigation architecture concepts that were applied to early U.S. programs such as the Atlas and Minuteman guidance systems as well as the Navy’s Subs Inertial Navigation System.
A committee was formed with military and civilian scientists to review payload proposals for the reassembled V-2 rockets. This led to an eclectic array of experiments that flew on V-2s and paved the way for American manned space exploration. Devices were sent aloft to sample the air at all levels to determine atmospheric pressures and to see what gases were present. Other instruments measured the level of cosmic radiation.
Only 68 percent of the V-2 trials were considered successful. A supposed V-2 launched on 29 May 1947 landed near Juarez, Mexico and was actually a Hermes B-1 vehicle.
The U.S. Navy attempted to launch a German V-2 rocket at sea—one test launch from the aircraft carrier USS Midway was performed on 6 September 1947 as part of the Navy’s Operation Sandy. The test launch was a partial success; the V-2 went off the pad but splashed down in the ocean only some 10 km (6 mi) from the carrier. The launch setup on the Midway’s deck is notable in that it used foldaway arms to prevent the missile from falling over. The arms pulled away just after the engine ignited, releasing the missile. The setup may look similar to the R-7 launch procedure but in the case of the R-7 the trusses hold the full weight of the rocket, rather than just reacting to side forces.
The PGM-11 Redstone rocket is a direct descendant of the V-2.
The USSR also captured a number of V-2s and staff, letting them set up in Germany for a time. The first work contracts were signed in the middle of 1945. In 1946 (as part of Operation Osoaviakhim) they were obliged to move to Kapustin Yar in the USSR, where Gröttrup headed up a group of just under 250 engineers. The first Soviet missile was the R-1, a duplicate of the V-2. Most of the German team was sent home after that project but some remained to do research until as late as 1951. Unknown to the Germans, work immediately began on larger missiles, the R-2 and R-5, based on extension of the V-2 technology.
In the autumn of 1945, the group M. Tikhonravov K. and N. G. Chernyshov at NII-4 rocket artillery Academy of Sciences developed on their own initiative the first stratospheric rocket project. BP-190 called for vertical flight of two pilots to an altitude of 200 km using captured German V-2 rockets.