Shortly after 11:00 am on September 8, 1944, there was an explosion on the southeastern outskirts of newly liberated Paris. It killed six people and injured 36 more at Charentonneau à Maison-Alfort. That evening, about 6:43 pm, another explosion took place in Chiswick, in far west London, killing three people and seriously wounding 17. Seconds later a third occurred in a field outside Epping in Essex, north of the city, harming no one. Thus began the world’s first ballistic missile campaign—one of only three ever (the others took place during the 1980s Iran-Iraq war and the 1991 Persian Gulf War). The missile involved was the German Army’s A-4, announced by Nazi Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels two months later as Vergeltungswaffe 2, “Vengeance Weapon 2“ or V-2. It followed the V-1, the world’s first operational cruise missile, which the Germans began launching against Britain, and later Belgium, in June 1944. He delayed the V-2’s unveiling due the disappointment in the German populace when the exaggerated hopes raised by V-1 propaganda, including that Britain would be knocked out of the war, proved false. Goebbels did not want another letdown. When his Ministry announced it, so did British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who had first learned about the rocket in 1943 from Allied intelligence.
A V-2 missile on display in the Space Race gallery at the Museum in Washington, DC.
The V-2 was a spectacular weapon: the most advanced device deployed in World War II until the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. A liquid-fuel rocket 14 meters (46 feet) tall and weighing almost 13 metric tons (over 28,000 lbs) at launch, it traveled nearly 300 kilometers (200 miles) in five minutes. Carrying a one-ton high-explosive warhead, it made a formidable crater when it impacted supersonically. Thanks to that velocity, the noise of it rushing through the air came after the sound of the explosion—if you were lucky enough to not be at the point of impact. Yet, like the V-1, it was no “wonder weapon.” Despite having a highly sophisticated and pioneering inertial guidance system using gyroscopes and an analog computer, the V-2 could barely hit a giant urban area part of the time, as the technology was not sufficiently advanced. It was an extraordinarily expensive way to drop a one-ton bomb on a city—at a time when the Western Allies were deploying up to 1,000 bombers in single air raids, with the effect of killing thousands or tens of thousands at a time. (Hence the “vengeance” label given by Goebbels.) Rather than coming too late to change the course of the war, the V-2 (and V-1) came too early to be effective. The Army and Waffen-SS launched over 3,000 rockets, primarily against London and Antwerp, but the ones that actually reached a populated target only killed about 5,000 people. Against that total must be put the 10-20,000 concentration-camp prisoners who died in the SS camps connected to V-2 manufacturing. That makes it a rare and peculiar weapon—more than twice as many people died as the result of making it than did being hit by it. And the V-2’s appalling production also left the Allies with a moral problem after the war, one they found necessary to cover up, at least in part. The United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, and France were the real beneficiaries of Germany’s vast and wasteful expenditure on rocket technology, and they did so by taking personnel as well as documents, missiles, and equipment, to their countries. Notably, the U.S., which got the military and engineering leaders of the V-2 program, Gen. Walter Dornberger and Dr. Wernher von Braun, deliberately ignored or obscured their involvement with concentration-camp labor, as the Germans were too useful for the new missile arms race that ensued during the Cold War. The V-2 was a revolutionary technological device. The space launch vehicles and the intercontinental ballistic missiles of the world virtually all trace their origin, one way or another, to this rocket. It was the first human-built object to reach space, during German test launches in 1943/44, and again in U.S. and Soviet firings after the war. But it also helped create the specter of nearly instantaneous global nuclear war. Even today, long-range missiles sit in silos and submarines of the U.S., Russia, Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan and others. We can only hope that there are no more ballistic missile campaigns, or if there are, they are again conducted only with high-explosive warheads.