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Nazi V-2 Rocket

German: Aggregat-4, Vergeltungswaffe-2; British: Bodyline, Big Ben
Nazi V-2 rocket on Meillerwagen (S.I. Negative #76-2755)
V-2 rocket on Meillerwagen (S.I. Negative #76-2755)
Basic data
Function single stage ballistic missile (area bombing)
Manufacturer Mittelwerk GmbH (development by Army Research Center Peenemünde)
Unit cost 100,000 RM January 1944, 50,000 RM March 1945
Entered service 1944
General characteristics
Engine 8,380 lb (3,809 kg) of alcohol (ethanol and water) + 10,800 lb (4,909 kg) Liquid oxygen
Launch mass 27,576 lb (12,535 kg)
Length 46 ft (14 m)
Diameter 5 ft 5 in (1.65 m)
Wingspan 11 ft 8 in (3.56 m)
Speed maximum: 1.6 km/s (about 3,580mph); at impact 800 m/s (about 1,780 mph)
Range 200 miles (322 km)
Flying altitude 55 miles (88.5 km) maximum
Warhead 2150 lb (977 kg) Amatol
Guidance Gyroscopes for attitude control
Müller-type pendulous gyroscopic accelerometer for engine cutoff on most production rockets (10% of the Mittelwerk rockets used a guide beam for cutoff.)
Launch platform Mobile (Meillerwagen)

The Nazi V-2 Rocket (German: Vergeltungswaffe 2) was the first ballistic missile and first man-made object launched into space, the progenitor of all modern rockets and a direct predecessor of the Saturn V moon rocket. Over 3,000 V-2s were launched as military rockets by the German Wehrmacht against Allied targets in World War II. As many as 20,000 died constructing V-2s and 7,000 died from the attacks themselves.

Developmental history

Following successes at Kummersdorf with the first two Aggregate series rockets, Wernher von Braun and Walter Riedel began thinking of a much larger rocket in the summer of 1936 based on a projected 25-metric-ton-thrust engine. After the A-4 project was postponed after unfavorable aerodynamic stability testing of the A-3 in July 1936, von Braun specified the A-4 performance in 1937, and A-4 design and construction was ordered c1938/1939. During September 28-30 1939, Der Tag der Weisheit (English: the day of wisdom) conference met at Peenemünde to initiate the funding of university research to solve rocket problems. By late 1941, the Army Research Center at Peenemünde possessed the technologies essential to the success of the A-4. The three key technologies for the A-4 were large liquid-fuel rocket engines, supersonic aerodynamics, and guidance and control. In early September 1943, von Braun promised the Long-Range Bombardment Commission that the A-4 development was 'practically complete/concluded', but even by the middle of 1944, a complete A-4 parts list was still unavailable. A production line was nearly ready at Peenemünde when the Operation Hydra attack caused the Germans to move production to the Mittelwerk in the Kohnstein.

Hitler's views

In his study of the V2: The Price of Vengeance, Roy Irons found that at first "It was recognised by Hitler that the rocket was neither sufficiently accurate, destructive or plentiful. The Führer had horrified Dornberger in 1939 with his polite and unimpressed observation of the shattering power of the rocket motor. He was too astute, perhaps too conscious of his dignity, to be impressed by mere noise. Perhaps what impressed him was the foolish enthusiasm of others. In October 1942, before the catastrophic defeat at Stalingrad, he recognised both the failings of the rocket, and the burning enthusiasm of its promoters. By July 1943 the positions of 1939 were reversed; now Hitler needed to show that the war was still winnable, needed to keep his soldiers and people's belief in the victory, which had so slowly and narrowly slipped from his grasp. The film of the launch was decisive - but it might be guessed that the master of manipulation was really observing, not the film, but the ardent credulity in the faces of the others during the showing. What he discerned there was what had been missing in 1918 - a definite hope on the horizon, which would so enthuse and reinvigorate his knights and his pawns that they would willingly play their grandmaster's game to the bitter end."

Technical details

Schematic diagram of a V-2 rocket
Schematic diagram of a V-2 rocket
Engine cut-out - 1
Engine cut-out - 1

At launch the A-4 propelled itself for up to 65 seconds on its own power, and a program motor controlled the pitch to the specified angle at engine shutdown, from which the rocket continued on a free-fall (ballistic) trajectory. The fuel and oxidizer pumps were steam turbines, and the steam was produced by concentrated hydrogen peroxide with potassium permanganate catalyst. Both the alcohol and oxygen tanks were an aluminium-magnesium alloy.

The combustion burner reached a temperature of 2500-2700 °C. The alcohol-water fuel was pumped along the double wall of the main combustion burner. This cooled the chamber and heated the fuel (regenerative cooling). The fuel was then pumped into the main burner chamber through 1,224 nozzles, which assured the correct mixture of alcohol and oxygen at all times. Small holes also permitted some alcohol to escape directly into the combustion chamber, forming a cooled boundary layer that further protected the wall of the chamber, especially at the throat where the chamber was narrowest. The boundary layer alcohol ignited in contact with the atmosphere, accounting for the long, diffuse exhaust plume. (Later, post-V2 engine designs not employing this alcohol boundary layer cooling show a translucent plume with shock diamonds.)

The V-2 was guided by four external rudders on the tail fins, and four internal graphite vanes at the exit of the motor. The LEV-3 guidance system consisted of two free gyroscopes (a horizon and a vertical) for lateral stabilization, and a gyroscopic accelerometer connected to an electrolytic integrator (engine cut-off occurred when a thin coating of silver was electrochemically eroded off of a poorly conducting base). Some later V-2s used "guide beams" (radio signals transmitted from the ground) to navigate towards the target, but the first models used a simple analog computer that adjusted the azimuth for the rocket, and the flying distance was controlled by the moment of engine cut-off, "Brennschluss", ground controlled by a Doppler system or by different types of on-board integrating accelerometers. The rocket stopped accelerating and soon reached the top of the (approximately parabolic) flight curve.

The painting of the operational V-2s was mostly a camouflage ragged pattern with several variations, but at the end of the war a plain olive green rocket also appeared. During tests, the rocket was painted in a characteristic black-and-white chessboard pattern, which aided in determining if the rocket was spinning around its longitudinal axis.

The rocket reached a height of 80 km (50 miles) before shutting off engine.

Production of the V-2 Rocket

Gyroscope from a V-2 rocket
Gyroscope from a V-2 rocket

Initially the production process occurred at Peenemünde. From January 1944 to April 1945 about 6,000 V-2 rockets were built at Mittelbau-Dora. 20,000 forced labor workers died there, and more than 7000 were killed by the missiles themselves.

The original idea for use of slave workers was Hans Kammler's.

Launch sites for the V-2

Initial plans for launch from massive underground blockhouses at Éperlecques La Coupole were dropped in favor of mobile launching. An entire convoy for the missile, men, equipment and fuel required about 30 trucks. The missile was delivered to a staging area on a Vidalwagen (made by Vidal) and the local crews installed the warhead. Launch teams then transferred the missile to a Meillerwagen (made by Meiller) and towed it to the launch site. There it was erected onto the launch table, fuelled, armed, gyros were set and the rocket was fired. From arrival at a site to firing took about 90 minutes. The crew could leave the firing site within 30 minutes.

This was very successful, and an average of ten V-2s were launched per day, by far the most large rockets of a single type. After the war, estimates showed that up to 100 V-2s could be launched per day with these trailers, given sufficient supply of the rockets.

The missile could be launched practically anywhere, roads running through forests being a particular favorite. The system was so mobile and small that not one Meillerwagen was caught in action by Allied aircraft.

Peenemünde test launches

Notable test launches include the third test launch on October 3, 1942 (the first successful flight):

This third day of October, 1942, is the first of a new era in transportation, that of space travel...

- Speech at Peenemünde, Walter Dornberger, October 3, 1944

Two test launches were recovered by the Allies. The first was a launch on June 13, 1944 with radio guidance for the Wasserfall missile project. The second was a launch on 30 May 1944 from Blizna that was recovered by Polish resistance and transported to the UK during Operation Most III.

Image Gallery

V-2 rocket being recovered from the Bug river
V-2 rocket being recovered from the Bug river
Parts of the V-2 rocket recovered from the Bug river
Parts of the V-2 rocket recovered from the Bug river


Because the V-2 traveled supersonically, it reached its target in silence, with a tell-tale whistling sound heard only after the explosion. To a civilian population inured to the idea that they might soon be blown up if they heard an enemy bomber or V-1 flying bomb, this new mode of attack was disconcerting.

It also meant that when the attacks on London began in September 1944, the British government could keep them secret. Explosions could be attributed to other causes or to no particular cause. In this way the Germans were unable to be sure that their weapons were reaching England. The Germans themselves finally announced the V-2 on 8 November 1944 and only then, on 10 November 1944, did Winston Churchill inform Parliament, and the world, that England had been under rocket attack "for the last few weeks".

Operational history

The first unit to reach operational status was Batterie 444. On September 2, 1944 they formed up to launch attacks on Paris, recently liberated, and eventually set up near Houffalize in Belgium. The next day the 485th moved to The Hague for operations against London. Several launch attempts over the next few days failed, but on 8 September both groups fired successfully.

Over the next few months the number of V-2s fired was at least 3,172, distributed over the various targets.

List of Targets as Follows

Mittelwerk V-2 production chain
Mittelwerk V-2 production chain
The engine of a V-2 rocket.
The engine of a V-2 rocket.
  • At Belgium : 1664
  • Antwerp 1610 (˜ 50% of the total)
  • Liege 27
  • Hasselt 13
  • Tournai 9
  • Mons 3
  • Diest 2
  • At France : 76
  • Lille 25
  • Paris 22
  • Tourcoing 19
  • Arras 6
  • Cambrai 4
  • At England : 1402
  • London 1358 (˜ 40% of the total)
  • Norwich/Ipswich 44
  • At targets in Germany : 11
  • Remagen 11
  • At the Netherlands : 19
  • Maastricht 19

Hundreds more were launched that blew up in mid-flight, and never made it into allied statistics. (Final development of the V-2 during the war was in fact to remedy this problem)

The final two exploded on (or near) their targets on 27 March 1945. The last British civilian killed was Mrs Ivy Millichamp, 34, in her home in Elm Grove, Orpington. An estimated 2,754 civilians were killed in London by V-2 attacks with another 6,523 injured . This understates the potential of the V-2, since many rockets were mis-directed and exploded harmlessly. However, accuracy increased greatly over the course of the war, particularly on batteries where Leitstrahl-Guide Beam apparatus was installed, with V-2s sometimes landing within meters of the target. Accurately targeted missiles were often devastating, causing large numbers of deaths - about 160 in one explosion in a Woolworth's department store in New Cross, south-east London and 567 deaths in a cinema in Antwerp - and significant damage in the critically important Antwerp docks.

Countermeasures to the V-2 Rocket

Aftermath of a V-2 rocket attack on the main intersection in Antwerp, Belgium, November 27, 1944
Aftermath of a V-2 rocket attack on the main intersection in Antwerp, Belgium, November 27, 1944

Like the V-1, the V-2 was immune to electronic countermeasures. Unlike the V-1, the V-2's speed and trajectory made it invulnerable to anti-aircraft guns and fighters, as it dropped from an altitude of 100-110 km (60-70 miles) at up to four times the speed of sound. A plan was proposed whereby the missile would be detected by radar, its terminal trajectory calculated, and the area along that trajectory saturated by large-caliber anti-aircraft guns. The plan was dropped after operations research indicated that the likely number of malfunctioning artillery shells falling to the ground would do more damage than the V-2 itself.

The only defences against the V-2 campaign were to destroy the launch infrastructure - expensive in terms of bomber resources and casualties - or to cause the Germans to "aim" at the wrong place through disinformation. The British were able to convince the Germans to direct V-1s and V-2s aimed at London to less populated areas east of the city. This was done by sending false impact reports via the German espionage network in Britain, which was controlled by the British (the Double Cross System).

There is a record of one V-2, fortuitously observed at launch from a passing American B-24 Liberator, being shot down by .50 caliber machine-gun fire.

Ultimately the most successful countermeasure was the Allied advance that forced the launchers back beyond range.

On 3 March 1945 the allies attempted to destroy V-2s and launching equipment near The Hague by a large-scale bombardment, but due to navigational errors the Bezuidenhout quarter was destroyed, killing 500 Dutch civilians.

Assessment of the V-2

Despite being one of the most advanced weapons in WWII, the V-2 was militarily ineffective. As it lacked a proximity fuze, so it could not be set for airburst; it buried itself in the target area before or just as the warhead detonated. This reduced its effectiveness. Furthermore its guidance systems were too primitive to hit specific targets, and its costs were approximately equivalent to four-engined bombers, which were more accurate (though only in a relative sense), had longer ranges, carried many more warheads, and were reusable. Moreover, it diverted resources from other, more effective programmes. Nevertheless, it had a considerable psychological effect as, unlike bombing planes or the V1 Flying Bomb, which made a characteristic buzzing sound, the V-2 travelled faster than the speed of sound, with no warning before impact and no possibility of defense.

Test range at Peenemünde
Test range at Peenemünde

The cost of the V-2 program was approximately US$2 billion in 1944 dollars (approximately US$21 billion in 2005 dollars); and 6048 were built, 3225 launched (US$620,000 each in 2005 dollars). In fact the program can be seen as the German "Manhattan Project", which cost US$2 billion in 1944 dollars (approximately US$20 billion in 2004 dollars). To put the German effort to mass produce the V-2 in perspective, its cost was at the time estimated to be about 1,000,000 Reichsmark per rocket. This was about the same as four Tiger Tanks or eight Panzer Pzkfw IV tanks. For the 6000 V-2s built, Germany could have built up to 48,000 tanks. However, such comparisons of the opportunity cost of deploying the V2 versus other weapons systems need to consider the realities that Nazi Germany faced and the psychology of the senior Nazi leadership. For example, by late 1944 Nazi Germany did not have the fuel or qualified manpower to field an additional 48,000 tanks. The production of the fuel for one V-2 required 30 tons of potatoes. Sometimes as Germany lacked enough explosives to put in the V-2, concrete was used and sometimes the Germans put in V-2s photographic propaganda of German citizens who had died in allied bombing. With the war all but lost, regardless of the factory output of conventional weapons, the Nazis resorted to V-weapons as a tenuous last hope to influence the war militarily (hence Antwerp as V-2 target), as an extension of their desire to "punish" their foes and most importantly to give hope to their supporters with their miracle weapon. In short, the V-weapons were important to the Nazis even though they were civilian terror weapons with dubious military value.

The V-2's undeniable value, despite its overall ineffectiveness, was in its novelty as a weapon which set the stage for the next 50 years of ballistic military rocketry, culminating with ICBMs during the Cold War.

Unfulfilled plans

A submarine-towed launch platform was tested successfully, effectively making it the prototype for submarine-launched ballistic missiles. The project codename was Prüfstand XII (Test stand XII), sometimes called the rocket U-boat. If deployed, it would have allowed a U-boat to launch V-2 missiles against United States cities, though only with considerable effort (and likely limited effect).

Twelve dismantled V-2 rockets were shipped to the Japanese. These left Bordeaux in August 1944 on transport U-boats U-219 and U-195 reaching Djakarta in December 1944. A civilian V-2 expert was a VIP passenger on the U-234 bound for Japan in May 1945 when the war ended in Europe. The fate of these V-2 rockets is unknown.

Near the end of the war, German scientists were working on chemical and possibly biological weapons to use in the V-2 program. By this stage, the Germans had produced munitions containing nerve agents sarin, soman and tabun.

Post-war V-2 usage

US test launch of a Bumper V-2.
US test launch of a Bumper V-2.

At the end of the war, a race between the United States and the USSR to retrieve as many V-2 rockets and staff as possible began. Three hundred trainloads of V-2s and parts were captured and shipped to the United States, and 126 of the principal designers, including both Wernher von Braun and Walter Dornberger were in American hands. In fact, Von Braun and his team made the conscious decision to surrender to the United States military to ensure they were not captured by the advancing Russians.

In the midst of this, in Operation Backfire in October 1945 the British assembled a small number of V-2 missiles and launched three of them from a site in northern Germany. The engineers involved had already agreed to move to the US when the test firings were complete. The Backfire report remains the most extensive technical documentation of the rocket, including all support procedures, tailored vehicles and fuel composition. In his book My Father's Son, Canadian author Farley Mowat, then a member of the Canadian Army, claims to have obtained a V-2 rocket in 1945 and shipped it back to Canada, where it is alleged to have ended up in the National Exhibition grounds in Toronto.

Operation Paperclip recruited German engineers to the U.S., and Special Mission V-2 transported V-2 parts to White Sands Proving Grounds, from which programs with animals in space and the Bumper rocket were conducted.

The USSR also captured a number of V-2s and staff, letting them set up in Germany for a time. The first work contracts were signed in the summer of 1945. In 1946 they were obliged to move to Kapustin Yar in the USSR, where Groettrup headed up a group of just under 250 engineers. The first Soviet missile was the R-1, an exact copy of the V-2. Most of the German team was sent home after that project, but some remained to do research until as late as 1951. Unbeknownst to the Germans, work immediately began on larger missiles, the R-2 and R-5, based on extension of the V-2 technology.

Post-war V-2s launched in secret from Peenemünde may have been responsible for a curious phenomenon known as Ghost rockets, unexplained objects crossing the skies over Sweden and Finland.

V-2s In popular culture

  • The Canadian Arrow, a competitor for the Ansari X Prize, is based on the V-2.
  • Raymond Baxter (a famous RAF WW2 pilot and subsequent TV broadcaster), in an interview about his wartime career, he described flying over a V-2 rocket site during a launch, and his wingman firing on the missile: "I dread to think what would have happened if he'd hit the thing!"
  • Thomas Pynchon makes the V-2 rocket the central point of his post-modern novel Gravity's Rainbow.

Model V-2 rockets

Model V-2 rocket V-2s are available in many sizes. For Germans, the 33-cm and 47-cm NORIS models are the best flying versions, because they can be launched without special permission with model rocket engines available in Germany.

Since the 1960s Estes Industries has released several versions of the V-2. Currently there are no Estes V-2s in production.

Surviving V-2 examples and components

The overview below includes some of the at least 20 V-2s still existing in 2005. Most, but not all, of the listed examples are on public display

United Kingdom

Peenemünde Museum replica of the first successful V-2 rocket. Like the original, this rocket has the Frau im Mond logotype at its base.
Peenemünde Museum replica of the first successful V-2 rocket. Like the original, this rocket has the Frau im Mond logotype at its base.
  • One at the Science Museum, London.
  • One at the RAF Museum, London.
  • One (painted bright green, and cut through to display the engine and some other interior parts) at the Imperial War Museum, London (on loan from Cranfield University).
  • One at the RAF Museum at RAF Cosford. In addition to the rocket, the museum holds many items of V-2 ancillary equipment, including a Meilerwagen transport and erection trailer, a Vidalwagen road transport trailer, a 15-ton Strabo gantry crane and a Abschussplattform (firing table) together with its towing dolly.


  • One at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, including complete Meillerwagen transporter. The rocket has the most complete set of guidance components of all surviving A4s. The Meillerwagen is the most complete of the three examples known to exist. Another A4 was on display at the RAAF Museum at Point Cook outside Melbourne. Both rockets now reside in Canberra.

United States

  • One (chessboard-painted) at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in Hutchinson, Kansas.
  • One at the National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C.
  • One at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Dayton, Ohio.
  • One at the Fort Bliss Air Defense Museum, El Paso, Texas.
  • One at White Sands Missile Range, White Sands, New Mexico.
  • One at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
  • One at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
  • One engine at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
  • One engine at the National Museum of the United States Air Force
  • One engine at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.
  • One rocket body and one engine side by side (and exposed to the elements) outside the US Army Ordnance Museum at Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Aberdeen, Maryland.


  • One (1944, complete) at the Deutsches Museum in Munich (in the centre of the Museum's spiral staircase).
  • One engine (1944, cut through to reveal technical details) (also at the Deutsches Museum).
  • One engine at the Museum of Technology in Berlin.
  • One replica at The Peenemünde Historical and Technical Information Centre


  • One engine at Cité de l'espace in Toulouse.
  • V-2 display at 'La Coupole' museum, Wizernes, France (Pas de Calais, five kilometers from Saint-Omer).

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