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, “Retri­bution [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 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 rocket 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 Allies’ 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, 1943 Wernher 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 engi­neers. The raid began Operation Crossbow, the Allies’ strategic bombing campaign against Nazi Germany’s secret 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 engineers 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 Adolf Hitler’s Germany. Not only were they ambi­tious mem­bers of Hitler’s 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 mostly non-German slave labor to build their V‑2 rockets. Reichs­fuehrer-SS Heinrich Himmler, the second most power­ful man in Nazi Germany, personally awarded an honorary SS rank of Unter­sturm­fuehrer (second lieu­ten­ant) to von Braun in May 1940, though the latter claimed he accepted the award reluc­tantly. Himmler pro­ceeded to pro­mote von Braun three more times, the last time in June 1943 to SS-Sturm­bann­fuehrer (major). In 1944 Hitler awarded von Braun the Knights Cross of the War Merit Cross with Swords (Kriegs­verdienst­kreuz) for exceptional meritorious service to the Third Reich.

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

Left: Peenemuende launch pad with V-2 rocket, March 1942. After a success­ful lift­off, the V‑2 could travel 200 miles in five minutes. 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 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 facility Von 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, scene of unspeak­able crimes and horrors, 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 engi­neers and scien­tists. This photo from May 3, 1945, shows von Braun, arm in plaster cast following a near fatal car crash, in the com­pany of seve­ral of his engineers a day after their sur­ren­der to U.S. soldiers. Acquiring U.S. citizen­ship in 1955, von Braun even­tually became director of the U.S. National Aero­nautics and Space Adminis­tra­tion’s (NASA) Marshall Space Flight Center near Hunts­ville, Alabama. Although von Braun spent half of his life living and working in Germany (until age 33), two-thirds of his profes­sional career was spent in the United States, where he is credited with inventing the Saturn V rocket used by NASA to support the Apollo lunar program.

V-2 Terror on European Cities, 1944–1945