London, England · November 25, 1944

On this date in 1944 a German ballistic missile slammed into a crowded Wool­worths store in Lon­don, Eng­land, killing 160 civil­ians and seri­ously in­juring 108 more. The V‑2 (Ver­geltungs­waffe 2, or “Ven­geance Wea­pon 2”) with its one‑ton pay­load of high ex­plo­sives was truly a wea­pon of mass destruc­tion. After these deadly results, Brit­ish intel­li­gence leaked falsi­fied infor­ma­tion im­plying that the V‑2 rockets were over­shooting their London tar­get by 10 to 20 miles. Erro­neous recali­bra­tion by the Ger­mans meant that for the remainder of the war most V‑2s ex­ploded harm­lessly in Kent, “Hell Fire Corner” south­east of Lon­don and the front line during the earlier Battle of Britain. Still, V‑2 strikes mainly on Lon­don, Nor­wich, and Ipswich were often devas­ta­ting, typi­cally bur­rowing 25 ft below ground and throwing around 3,000 tons of mate­rial into the air. In London alone, an esti­mated 2,754 civil­ians were killed by V‑2 attacks, with another 6,523 in­jured. The single-worst loss of life caused by a V‑2 occurred in Ant­werp, Bel­gium, when one landed on a movie thea­ter killing 567 peo­ple. Despite the tide of war turning against them and the area from which they could launch their super­sonic rockets shrinking, the Ger­mans were able to fire over 3,000 V‑2s with ever more deadly accu­racy. The major­ity—1,610 of them—hit the deep-water port city of Ant­werp, followed closely by the 1,358 that landed on Greater London. Addi­tional V‑2s hit Liege, Hasselt, Tournai, Mons, Lille, and Diest in Bel­gium; Paris, Arras, and Tour­coing in France; Maas­tricht in Hol­land; and the Ger­man Rhine crossing at Rema­gen just south of Bonn, whose Luden­dorff Bridge had been captured intact by Ameri­can troops on March 7, 1945. The last two V‑2s targeting Eng­land exploded on March 27, 1945, one of them killing a civilian in her Kent home. Nazi Germany’s final collapse was a little over five weeks away.

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Dr. Wernher von Braun and the German V‑2 Rocket Program

RAF reconnaissance photo, Peenemuende, 1943Wernher von Braun, Peenemuende, 1941

Left: Royal Air Force reconnaissance photograph of V‑2 rockets at Peene­muende Test Stands I and VII on the Baltic coast, June 12, 1943. On August 17–18, 1943, nearly 600 RAF airplanes dropped 1,800 tons of mostly high-explo­sive bombs on the Peene­muende Army Research Center, killing two V‑2 rocket scientists. In July and August of the following year, hun­dreds of U.S. B‑17 Flying For­tres­ses pum­meled Peene­muende and the near­by marshaling yards, killing scores of people. Among the Ger­man rocket scien­tists affected by the Allied air campaign was Dr. Wernher von Braun.

Right: Von Braun (1912–1977), Techni­cal Director at the Army Research Center at Peene­muende, in a photo­graph taken March 21, 1941. The bril­liant pio­neer of modern rocketry (and the father of the Amer­i­can space pro­gram), von Braun and his team of engi­neers post­poned their ini­tial dreams of space travel to create wea­pons of terror and mass destruc­tion for Hitler’s Ger­many. Not only were they ambi­tious mem­bers of the Nazi move­ment (von Braun was issued Nazi Party mem­ber­ship num­ber 5,738,692), but they collab­o­rated with the SS in ex­ploiting slave labor to build V-2 rockets.

Peenemuende V-2 launch pad, March 1942V-2 rocket launch at Peenemuende, March 1942

Left: Peenemuende launch pad with V‑2, March 1942. The ances­tor of modern-day ball­istic mis­siles, the A‑4 (more com­monly known by its propa­ganda name, V‑2) could not win the war for Ger­many—it was too com­pli­cated, too inac­cu­rate, and its war­head too small. It was also too expen­sive: the com­bined V‑1 and V‑2 wea­pons pro­gram was more costly (equi­va­lent to 3 bil­lion U.S. war­time dol­lars) than the Man­hat­tan Pro­ject that produced the atomic bomb ($1.9 billion). None­the­less, during the V-2 offen­sive (Septem­ber 1944 to March 1945), the Ger­mans launched over 3,000 of these rockets out of the 6,048 V‑2s built.

Right: Seconds after a V‑2 rocket launch at Peene­muende, March 1942. Due to the 1943 RAF air raid on Peene­muende, V‑2 develop­ment and test firing shifted to an SS training base near Blizna in south­eastern Poland, which was less vul­ner­a­ble to air attacks, while the nearly opera­tional V-2 pro­duction plant for the most part shifted to salt mines in the Harz Mountains in eastern Germany.

Underground V-2 manufacturing facilityVon Braun shortly after his capture, May 1945

Left: In huge underground factories in the Harz Mountains at Kohn­stein, slave laborers from the Dora-Mittel­bau con­cen­tra­tion camp (initi­ally a sub­camp of Buchen­wald) con­structed 5,200 V‑2 rockets by war’s end. An esti­mated 20,000 pri­soners died at the Ger­man camp, 9,000 from exhaus­tion. The major­ity, how­ever, died from dis­ease, star­va­tion, or exe­cu­tion, including 200 accused of sabo­tage. Von Braun admitted visiting the sub­ter­ranean facili­ties on many occa­sions. Photo taken after the Allies had captured the area.

Right: The unprecedented invulnerability and influ­ence on Allied planning made the V‑2 and the advance­ments it repre­sented the ulti­mate war trophy, and Amer­i­can, Brit­ish, and Soviet forces scrambled to seize Ger­man rocket tech­no­logy along with its scien­tists and engi­neers. This photo from May 3, 1945, shows von Braun in an arm cast with seve­ral of his scien­tists shortly after their sur­ren­der to U.S. soldiers. Von Braun even­tually became director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center near Huntsville, Alabama.

V-2 Terror on European Cities, 1944–1945