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 “Retri­bution 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 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 strategic 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.

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

RAF reconnaissance photo, Peenemuende, 1943Wernher von Braun (dark suit), 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 the night of 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. The raid began Operation Crossbow, the Allies’ strategic bombing campaign against Nazi Germany’s V‑weapon program. In July and August of the following year, hun­dreds of U.S. B‑17 Flying For­tres­ses pum­meled Peene­muende and the near­by classi­fi­cation (or marshalling) 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 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 actively collaborated with the Nazi Party’s infamous SS (short for Schutzstaffel) in exploiting slave labor to build their 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 U.S. Man­hat­tan Pro­ject that produced the atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan ($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 the gypsum mining tunnels in the Kohn­stein quarry located 4 miles north­west of the town of Nord­hausen in the southeastern Harz Mountains of Thueringen in Eastern Germany.

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

Left: In huge underground factories in the Kohn­stein quarry, slave laborers from the Mittelbau-Dora con­cen­tra­tion camp on the northern outskirts of Nordhausen con­structed 5,200 V‑2 rockets by war’s end. (Mittelbau-Dora was initi­ally a sub­camp of Buchen­wald con­cen­tra­tion camp.) 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 the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Marshall Space Flight Center near Huntsville, Alabama.

V-2 Terror on European Cities, 1944–1945