London, England August 17, 1943

In mid-June 1943 a Royal Air Force reconnais­sance mission flew over the top-secret Peene­muende Army Research Center and V‑2 rocket launch site on the German Baltic coast. Images con­firmed the pre­sence of long-range bal­listic missiles at the site. A month later British Prime Minister Winston Chur­chill ordered an attack at the ear­liest opportunity based on moon and meteorological conditions.

The attack on Peene­muende began Opera­tion Cross­bow, the 22-month-long Anglo-American bombing cam­paign against Germany’s V‑2 program. (V‑2 was short for Vergel­tungs­waffe 2; English, “Retali­atory Wea­pon 2” or “Repri­sal Wea­pon 2.”) Among the Ger­man rocket scien­tists affected by the RAF cam­paign was Dr. Wernher von Braun (1912–1977). Begin­ning at mid­night on this date, August 17, 1943, three waves of RAF heavy bombers (596 mostly Lan­casters and Hali­faxes) damaged test rigs and labo­ra­tories (leaving other im­por­tant instal­la­tions un­touched) at a cost of 215 Brit­ish air­crew mem­bers, 40 bombers, and hun­dreds of civil­ians in a nearby con­cen­tra­tion camp. Joseph Goeb­bels, Nazi Minis­ter of Public Enlighten­ment and Pro­pa­ganda, claimed that the RAF attack set the rocket program back six to eight weeks.

V-2 development and test firing shifted from Peene­muende to a Nazi Party’s SS (Schutz­staffel) training base near Blizna in a remote area of South­eastern Poland, which was less vulner­able to Allied air raids, while the nearly opera­tional V‑2 pro­duc­tion plant for the most part shifted to gypsum mines in the Harz Moun­tains in Thueringen (Thuringia), Eastern Germany. In under­ground mine tunnels slave laborers from the near­by Mittel­bau-Dora con­cen­tra­tion camp (initially a sub­camp of Buchen­wald) con­structed, by war’s end, 5,200 V‑2 rockets. An esti­mated 20,000 pri­soners died at Mittel­bau-Dora, 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.) Bodies of V‑2 pro­duc­tion workers were con­veyed to Buchen­wald for burning at the rate of about 1,000 a month.

On September 8, 1944, the first suc­cess­ful launch of the super­sonic V‑2 missile targeted newly liberated Paris, then England. Five stories tall, the V‑2 carried a 1.2‑ton (2,200 lb) war­head for a dis­tance of more than 250 miles. From Septem­ber to the following March, Germans launched over 3,000 of these monsters against Allied targets on the con­tin­ent and the British Isles. Fifteen to twenty of these deadly rockets fell on average 24 hours a day, 7 days a week on British targets. Capable of taking out an entire city block without warning (their engines cut out right before reaching their targets), the rockets never­the­less killed fewer people than those who died manu­fac­turing them. Turning the manufacturing and launch sites into rubble cost the lives of 1,400 airmen killed or missing.

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

Operation Crossbow: 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, June 12, 1943. The August 17–18, 1943, air raid dropped roughly 1,800 tons of mostly high-ex­plo­sive bombs, which killed two V‑2 rocket scien­tists. Bombs with delay fuses ham­pered sal­vage efforts. The island of Use­dom, where Peene­muende is located, is a tourist destination today.

Right: Dr. Wernher von Braun, Technical Director at the Army Rocket Center at Peene­muende, 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, the Party’s depraved special police force, 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 V‑2 (technical name Aggre­gat 4, or A‑4) could not win the war for Germany—it was too expen­sive, too com­plicated, too inaccurate, and its warhead too small.

Right: Seconds after a V-2 rocket launch at Peenemuende, March 1942.

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

Left: Underground tunnel in the Harz Mountains at Kohn­stein hill in Thue­ringen, where V‑1 flying bombs, V‑2 rockets, and other weapons were manu­factured by Mittel­werk, an arma­ments com­pany that used local slave labor from the Mittel­bau-Dora concen­tra­tion camp. Photo shows a row of Mittel­werk V‑2 rockets 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 prize, 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. At the left edge of the photo is von Braun’s brother, Magnus, who worked in turbopump production for Mittelwerk.

German V-2 Rocket Program