Auburn, Massachusetts March 16, 1926

On this date in 1926 in Auburn, Massachusetts, Dr. Robert Goddard (1882–1945) con­ducted his first suc­cess­ful rocket flight. His liquid-pro­pel­lant rocket rose 41 ft, tra­veled 184 ft, and burned no more than 3 sec­onds, but it proved the con­cept of rocket flight worked. God­dard, who received limited sup­port for his re­search and devel­op­ment work (and quite of bit of ridi­cule from skep­tics), was among a hand­ful of rocket en­thu­siasts in the Soviet Union (Russia), France, the U.S., and Germany.

German amateur rocketry enthusiasts, among them a young Wernher von Braun, began testing rockets at what was once Berlin’s Tegel Airport. Because rockets were not addressed in the 1919 Treaty of Ver­sail­les, which demil­i­ta­rized post-World War I Germany, they attracted in the early thirties, perhaps quite nat­u­rally, the atten­tion of the German Army, which allowed doct­oral can­di­date von Braun to use its proving grounds to conduct experiments on rocket propulsion.

As Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany began to move to a war­like pos­ture in the late 1930s, von Braun became a pro­fes­sional rocket devel­oper. (He also became a Nazi Party mem­ber and a major in the SS (short for Schutz­staffel), a major para­military orga­ni­za­tion of Hitler’s Nazi Party and the fore­most agency of sur­veil­lance and terror within Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe.) It was under von Braun’s direc­tion that the most destruc­tive wea­pon of the Euro­pean con­flict, the 12‑ton V‑2 combat rocket, was developed on the iso­lated island of Peene­muende, a secre­tive site off the North German Baltic coast replete with research labo­ra­tories, testing sites, power plants, and fac­tory com­plexes. The Vergel­tungs­waffe 2 (retali­a­tion weapon 2) was a 46‑ft-tall, single-stage, gyro-stabi­lized, liquid-fuel bal­listic missile produced in two damp, cold, poorly ven­ti­lated under­ground facili­ties by as many as 60,000 pri­soners from Mittel­bau-Dora, the concen­tra­tion camp in the eastern half of Germany where an esti­mated 20,000 pri­soners died. (Mittelbau-Dora, also known as Nord­hausen-Dora, was a sub­camp of the Buchen­wald con­cen­tra­tion camp.) Missile testing commenced in March 1942.

From September 8, 1944, to early 1945, V-2 launch teams fired more than 3,200 V‑2 rockets at targets in England (where they killed 2,500 Lon­doners four minutes later), France, Bel­gium, the Nether­lands, and even inside Germany itself—at Rema­gen, whose Luden­dorff Bridge over the Rhine River had recently been captured intact by the U.S. 9th Armored Divi­sion. At a speed of 3,600 miles per hour, V‑2s delivered a high-explo­sive, one-ton war­head with­out warning. Many rockets were launched from mobile plat­forms in urban areas and con­cealed forests, using fleets of spe­cially built trans­porters (“Meil­ler­wagen”) and sophis­ti­cated sup­port vehicles. It took about an hour to pre­pare and fire the rocket on its Meil­ler­wagen. The last V‑2 rocket was launched from The Hague in the Nether­lands on March 27, 1945, exploding in London, where it killed 134 people and injured 94. The V‑2 had no effect on the out­come of the war; its value as a weapon of terror and mass destruction lay in its novelty.

V-2 Short-Range Ballistic Missile

V-2 rocket in the Peenemuende MuseumV-2 test rocket four seconds after liftoff

Left: A V-2 rocket in the Peene­muende Museum. RAF air raids on Peene­muende’s V‑2 research and pro­duc­tion facili­ties caused the Ger­mans to move pro­duc­tion to the Mittel­werk loca­tion inside the Harz Moun­tains of Thue­ringen (Thuringia), Eastern Ger­many, where slave labor built 5,200 V‑2 rockets in cold, dank under­ground caverns and tun­nels with­out running water or pro­per sani­ta­tion. Wernher von Braun admitted occa­sionally visiting the Mittel­werk rocket factory (but not the noto­rious Mittel­bau-Dora con­cen­tra­tion camp that pro­vided the factory with its labor), and called conditions there “repulsive.”

Right: A V‑2 test rocket four seconds after liftoff at Peene­muende, June 21, 1943. Meant as pay­back for British and Amer­i­can bombing of German cities, the V‑2 (its tech­ni­cal name was Aggre­gat‑4, or A4) is perhaps the only wea­pon system to have caused more deaths by its pro­duc­tion—esti­mated at 12,000–20,000 forced laborers and con­cen­tra­tion camp pri­soners—than by its deploy­ment: 2,754 civil­ian and military deaths, 6,523 wounded.

V-2 mobile transport trailerV-2 underground assembly facility

Left: A V‑2 rocket on a Meillerwagen transport trailer near Cux­haven on the North German coast in 1945. Meiller­wagen were one of several vehicles in a V‑2 launch battery. It brought the V‑2 to its launch site, mounted the missile on its firing stand, and served as the ser­vice gan­try for fueling and launch prep­a­ration. Meiller­wagen were assembled using Ital­ian and Soviet prison laborers some 16 miles south of the Rhine city of Bonn in former rail­way tunnels below vineyards and forests along the Ahr River.

Right: A V‑2 propulsion unit on a dolly inside the under­ground assem­bly facil­ity at Nieder­sachs­werfen near Nord­hausen, Germany. About 250 V‑2 mis­siles were found in various stages of “in”-com­pletion on the Mittel­werk assembly line after the war, when this photo was taken. Allied bombing had so disrupted the Nazis’ trans­por­ta­tion net­work and supply chain of the more than 40,000 parts that went into a V‑2 that many of the missiles at the Mittel­werk assembly plant would never, ever have been ready to launch much less been able to reach a launch site.

Footage of Peenemuende Army Research Center and Dr. Wernher von Braun, the Site’s Technical Director