History

This is how Hitler's secret weapon showed us our world

As seen from space, the planet Earth is a peaceful, cloud-covered ball of blue and brown and green. When the sun sets beyond the horizon, the lights of humanity wink on across the globe. The serenity of the astronaut's eye-view belies the ballistic fire and brimstone that made that view possible.


No shuttle pierces the atmosphere, no satellite orbits the globe, no man sets foot on the moon, no space station fosters international scientific cooperation, none of it is possible, if not for World War 2 and the fury of the Nazi war machine. None of it happens without the graduate work of a young German physicist named Wernher von Braun and the fruits of his youthful labors, the V-2 ballistic rocket.

At the time that von Braun was concluding his doctorate thesis, "Construction, Theoretical, and Experimental Solution to the Problem of the Liquid Propellant Rocket," the Nazi Party was completing its rise to power under Adolf Hitler. Von Braun's work caught the eye of Walter Dornberger, Assistant Examiner to the Ballistics Council of the German Army Weapons Department. Dornberger was tasked with the secret development of a liquid-fueled rocket, one that was ideally both producible on a mass scale and effective at a range that surpassed the standard artillery of the day.

The V-2: U.S. Army cutaway drawing showing engine, fuel tanks, guidance system, warhead. (U.S. Air Force photo)

As of the mid-1930's, remote bombardment of military targets was only possible by either shelling them with large-caliber artillery from relatively close range, or by dropping bombs on them from airplanes. Both methods were fraught with difficulty. Artillery batteries were themselves vulnerable to air bombardment since they were fixed in place, and bombers were vulnerable to anti-aircraft artillery since safe altitudes made bombing less accurate. It was a bit of a mechanized warfare stalemate and there was much interest in breaking new technological ground ahead of the enemy. In the spring of 1932, the hot topic at the Weapons Department was the self-piloted rocket, theoretically capable of launching from a safe distance and guiding itself toward the destruction of a precision target.

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Dornberger brought von Braun into the Nazi fold and, though the young man's true passion was the entirely hypothetical concept of manned space travel, Dornberger put him straight to work building the world's first liquid-fueled ballistic missile. It took him over a decade, but by late 1941, von Braun and company had perfected the four key technologies necessary to produce a viable, long-range rocket. Called the A-4, the rocket combined a large, liquid-fueled engine, supersonic aerodynamics, a gyroscopic guidance system and graphite rudders that could control the rocket's ascent from within the jet stream. Together these elements allowed the rocket to ascend to a height of 50 miles before the engine quit, after which the rocket would descend toward its target in ballistic free fall, delivering 2000 lbs. of explosive warhead unto the enemies of the Third Reich.

The first successful test flight of the A-4 was on Oct. 3, 1942 and though the technology was far from maturity, Hitler signed the rocket into immediate mass production. By that time, Germany's military might was beginning to bog down and the Allies, now bolstered by the United States, were challenging Nazi dominance on all fronts. Hitler was in dire need of a "wonder weapon" to boost morale. To that end, the A-4 was renamed the Vergeltungswaffe 2, translating roughly as "Vengeance Weapon 2." Fabrication of the V-2 fell to the prisoners of the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp. Thousands of slave laborers died pushing V-2 rockets through accelerated production.

But when the V-2 offensive finally began in Sept. 1944, the rocket, though technologically intimidating, proved only marginally effective in the field. Early barrages suffered from accuracy issues due to underdeveloped guidance systems, not to mention canny misdirection by British intelligence officers who sowed false information about where the rockets were striking relative to London. Accuracy improved through early 1945 with a new radio guide beam system and a total of 3,172 V-2 rockets were fired at various targets, mainly in the UK and Antwerp, but casualties remained relatively low. Germany's surrender to the Allied Forces ended the V-2 program before upgrades could be implemented sufficient for it to live up to its promise as Germany's miracle weapon.

Related: Here's what US intelligence knew about Hitler in 1943

Ultimately, Hitler's Vengeance Weapons program cost Nazi Germany far more than it delivered. In Reichsmarks, it cost the equivalent of $40 billion (2015 USD). In material resources, it tied up over a third of Germany's entire production. And in the factories at Mittelbau-Dora, the slave labor that pushed 6,048 V-2 rockets off the assembly line, contributed heavily to the deaths of 12,000 to 20,000 prisoners. In the end, "more people died manufacturing the V-2 than were killed by its deployment."

But in the coming decades, during the geopolitical reorganization that ensued, von Braun's foundational work with the V-2 rocket would lead to Cold War proliferation of intercontinental ballistic missiles and to the Space Race. He would contribute to both programs directly from his new home in the United States. As much as World War 2 redirected the course of history, it was the V-2 that would most profoundly redefine life on Earth in the second millennium A.D. The advent of the V-2 helped create the state of mutually assured nuclear destruction through which the world now plots its careful course. But, perhaps most poignantly, the V-2 also made it possible for humanity to get a heaven's-eye view of the planet we all keep fighting over.