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This Week in Military History: September 8th - 14th

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September 8th: The First V-2 Hits London


It was evening in London’s upscale Chiswick district when a sudden and violent explosion rocked the sidewalk of Staveley Road. Twenty-two people were injured and three killed: 63-year-old Ada Harrison, 3-year-old Rosemary Clarke, and Bernard Browning, a combat engineer on leave from the British Army. The British government, hoping to prevent panic over a second Blitz, claimed their deaths (as well as a second, non-fatal explosion that night in the town of Epping, just outside London) were the result of faulty gas mains. It was only a month later, on November 8th, 1944 that the Germans announced the true cause of the explosions, forcing Winston Churchill to admit the truth to the British people two days later.

Aftermath of a V-2 strike in LondonThe crater from a V-2 strike in London.

Harrison, Clarke, and Browning were the first people ever killed by terrifying new kind of weapon: a long range, guided, ballistic missile. The Germans, who considered them payback for the Allied bombing of their cities, called it the “Retribution Weapon 2” or, in the original German, the Vergeltungswaffe 2. The V-2, for short. Over the next six months, over 3,000 more V-2 rockets struck targets, both military and civilian, all across Europe. Traveling faster than the speed of sound, they were unstoppable once launched and struck without warning. In one instance, a single V-2 hit a movie theater in Antwerp, Belgium, killing 567 people and injuring another 291.

Aftermath of the bombing of the Cine Rex movie theater in Antwerp, Belgium.Aftermath of the bombing of the Cine Rex movie theater in Antwerp, Belgium.

These ingenious and horrific weapons of terror were the brainchildren of German aerospace engineer Wernher von Braun. Descended from the by-then-defunct nobility of the old German Empire, von Brain was fascinated with the concept of space travel from a young age. He earned his doctorate in physics at age 22 in 1934, the year after the Nazi’s took control of Germany. Under them, only the military could test rockets of any kind, so von Braun joined the party in 1937 and later received his commission as an officer in their particularly loathsome paramilitary wing, the SS, in 1940.

Wernher von Braun (in civilian clothes) with fellow German officers in 1941.Wernher von Braun (in civilian clothes) with fellow German officers in 1941.

In later years he professed ambivalence regarding the political implications of these actions and that he only did them to work in his preferred scientific field, claims that were probably partially accurate. In early 1944 he was arrested by the gestapo on suspicion of being an enemy sympathizer and saboteur, albeit released two weeks later. When von Braun heard the news that two V-2’s hit London, it brought to mind his lifelong dream of human space travel and he openly lamented that the rockets had “landed on the wrong planet.” And when a test V-2 was the first manmade object to cross the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space a few months earlier (on June 20th, 1944) von Braun no doubt felt elated to be one step closer to his goal of sending men to other worlds.

V-2 launch.V-2 launch.

That said, it is well worth remembering that parts and supplies for the rocket program were built with slave labor at concentration camps, including Auschwitz, a fact von Braun was wholly aware of. Moreover, he conducted regular inspections of the plants and bore witness to the atrocities committed there. Claims of his direct involvement in acts of brutality were put forward but never corroborated. Whatever his intentions, von Braun did not hesitate to use the unimaginable suffering of other human beings to further his scientific ends.

Slave laborers working in an underground V-2 production facility.Slave laborers working in an underground V-2 production facility.

As for the V-2 rockets themselves, despite the psychological terror they inflicted and the technological innovation they represented, their military worth proved nil. By the fall of 1944, with German forces retreating on all fronts, there was little that any new weaponry, however revolutionary, could do to turn the tide against the Allies. To counteract the V-2’s, the British struck upon the ingeniously simple idea to publicly report many of the rockets as having overshot London, which lead to the German’s “correcting” their firing calculations and shooting many of their expensive (the rough equivalent of about $3 million, current USD, apiece) V-2’s into English Channel.

Even on the continent instances of mass casualties caused by them, such as the aforementioned theater bombing, were few and far between. In a horrific twist of fate, more people died as slave laborers (estimates run to at least 20,000) building the weapons than were killed by them. Most launches inflicted few deaths or injuries, if any, and the amount of fuel it took to fire each one (not to mention the myriad of test launches) rapidly depleted Germany’s dwindling supply. The last one ever fired, on March 27th, 1945, killed a single British civilian, 34 year-old Ivy Millichamp, at her home in Kent.

V-2's captured by allied forces.V-2's captured by Allied forces.

But out of the sad, pointless slaughter caused by the V-2 and the horrific circumstances of its construction came the early seeds of America’s space program. Shortly after his surrender (to a random and probably somewhat startled private of the 44th Infantry Division who just happened to be riding a bicycle) in early May of 1945, von Braun was turned over to Army intelligence and sent back to the States as part of Operation Paperclip. The government put him to work on the US space program where he led the design of the Saturn V rocket, the launch vehicle that sent the Apollo 11 mission into space and put men on the moon.

Wernher von Braun, director NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, in 1964.Wernher von Braun, director NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, in 1964.

What began with tragedy in Chiswick led to that giant leap for mankind. And, while not even that great feat comes anywhere close to justifying a fraction of the suffering caused by the V-2 program, it is always heartening to know that technology born out of tragedy and terror can be repurposed for good.

Memorial to the victims at the spot where the first rocket struck London.Memorial to the victims at the spot where the first rocket struck London.

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