The V-2 Rocket: Rise Of The Space Race And Cold War Missiles

Originally a terrifying Nazi vengeance weapon, the V-2 made the many missile and rocket projects in the post-war period possible.

byDr. Charlie Hall| PUBLISHED Dec 8, 2022 6:47 PM
The V-2 Rocket: Rise Of The Space Race And Cold War Missiles
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Continuing his series on the history of the V-2 for The War Zone, historian Dr. Charlie Hall explores its direct influence on missile and rocket projects in the U.S. and the Soviet Union from the end of World War II into the 1960s. You can read part one here.

In the last year of World War II, General Henry ‘Hap’ Arnold, commander of the U.S. Army Air Forces, requested a report from his scientific advisors on the future of aerial warfare. A committee of experts, headed by Theodore von Kármán – a Hungarian-born Jewish émigré with extensive experience in mathematics, physics and aeronautics – duly produced a 13-volume report, entitled “Toward New Horizons,” which was delivered to Arnold in December 1945. It covered all manner of topics relating to aerial warfare, including radar, jet aircraft design, meteorology and aviation medicine, but missiles occupied perhaps the most prominent spot. Indeed, the section on Guided Missiles began with the claim that the next war “will probably be opened by the descent in large numbers of missiles launched from distances perhaps of the order of from 1,000 to 3,000 miles on an unsuspecting and unprepared country.”

Gen. George C. Marshall (L), U. S. Army Chief of Staff, and Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold (R), Commanding General, U. S. Army Air Forces, arrive at the residence of Prime Minister Winston Churchill for a dinner given by the British Prime Minister for President Truman and Soviet leader Josef Stalin during the Potsdam Conference, July 23, 1945. Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons.

Many of the conclusions reached about missiles in “Toward New Horizons” rested on the evidence provided by the V-2 bombardment during World War II. While it had not changed the course of that conflict, as Hitler had hoped, its potential for future military applications was undeniable. As explored in the first of this three-part series of articles, all the victorious Allies sought a shortcut to their own missile development by extracting the greatest spoils from defeated Germany. Factories and research facilities were combed through, blueprints and prototypes confiscated, machinery and equipment dismantled, and scientists and technicians interrogated and recruited.

Theodore von Kármán, pictured in 1950. NACA/Wikimedia Commons.

The impact of this post-war exploitation was felt most directly throughout the fifteen or so years following the end of the war. It was during this period that the missile truly came of age, eclipsing the large aerial bomber as the principal method of delivery for both high explosive conventional payloads and atomic warheads. It was also during this era that the other application of powerful rocketry began to manifest itself – space exploration.

The technology and expertise which had resulted in the V-2, now in American and Soviet hands, also drove the great space race of the 1950s and 1960s. This article will discuss both of these strands, exploring how missile development and space travel unfolded on both sides of the Cold War divide, expanding and securing the legacy of the V-2 rocket and its creators.

The obvious place to pick up this story is with Wernher von Braun – the chief designer of the V-2 and therefore the most desirable prize in the post-war exploitation efforts. The U.S. was very keen to recruit him and von Braun was savvy enough to know that the greatest opportunities for his own professional advancement lay across the Atlantic. He turned down an employment offer from Britain, which he saw, not inaccurately, as a fading empire in decline, and instead sought to align himself with the great power of the future. The world after 1945 was firmly entering an American era, and von Braun was not going to pass up the chance to be part of that ascent.

Wernher von Braun holding a model of the V-2 rocket. NASA.

Despite his desirability, von Braun did not immediately find himself in surroundings that reflected his own sense of importance. He, and the large number of other German experts who were broadly considered his team, were initially taken to a number of Army intelligence camps, before being transported to Fort Bliss, a large military installation near El Paso, Texas. Living conditions there were fairly rudimentary and the arid desert landscape did little to enamor the scientists of their new homeland, even if it was necessary for testing their missile technology (most of which happened at the nearby White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico). The specialists also found other grounds for complaint – one man’s gripe about American food, particularly his dislike of “rubberized chicken,” made it into the national press.

Team of 104 German rocket scientists at Fort Bliss, Texas; 1946. Wernher von Braun is to the right of center, grey jacket, black trousers, white handkerchief, hand in his pocket. Unknown photographer/Wikimedia Commons.

The initial tasks which von Braun and his team were assigned came under the aegis of Project Hermes – a missile research program launched back in November 1944, as a response to the beginning of the V-2 bombardment against Britain. By the time the German experts arrived, the main focus of Hermes was the reassembly, examination and then launching of V-2 rockets, from the parts which had been evacuated from Germany.

The first launch of a V-2 on American soil took place at White Sands on April 16, 1946. This was followed by a number of further launches, not just of the V-2, but also of the so-called Bumper V-2, which boosted the range of the original German rocket with components of the American-designed WAC Corporal sounding rocket.

Bumper V-2 launch from Cape Canaveral, July 24, 1950. NASA/Wikimedia Commons.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy was also investigating the potential of ballistic missiles in future warfare. This culminated in Operation Sandy, when a V-2 rocket (assembled and prepared at White Sands) was launched from the deck of the USS Midway – the largest carrier in the Navy – in a position south of Bermuda. It was not a particularly successful endeavor and the future of naval launches of long-range rockets was cast into doubt for a fair while afterwards. In this it mirrored somewhat the Germans’ own failed attempts to launch a V-2 from a submarine-towed platform, perhaps as a means to attack the U.S. East Coast during the war.

Launch of a captured V-2 rocket from deck of USS Midway during Operation Sandy, September 6, 1947. U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons.

These early American projects – Hermes and Sandy – may not have been the most ground-breaking research efforts, but they served a number of important purposes. They gathered important data on the trajectories of long-range rockets, allowed for the testing of important design ideas and components, granted American personnel experience of constructing and launching ballistic missiles, and provided vehicles for upper atmosphere research.

Taken together, these efforts allowed the U.S. to enter the missile age. In 1950, as the Korean War broke out and fears of another war escalated dramatically, Wernher von Braun and his colleagues were relocated from Fort Bliss to Huntsville, Alabama, which would become their home for the next twenty years. They took with them the results and experiences of their earlier investigations and began work on constructing the U.S.’ first operational ballistic missile.

Missiles were not the only technology that had been debuted during World War II and which were thought to hold the keys to the future of warfare. The atomic bomb, dropped by American planes on Japanese cities in August 1945, heralded a new era of unprecedented destruction. The U.S. remained the sole member of the atomic club for a mere four years, with the Soviet Union defying Western expectations by successfully testing their own atomic bomb in 1949. The Cold War could now begin in earnest – two superpowers eyeing each other up, acting frequently to frustrate each other’s interests, but always stopping short of full-blown conflict, knowing all too well what horrors that might unleash.

Nevertheless, even as both sides came to suspect that an atomic war would be unwinnable, they also attempted to give themselves a greater edge. The arms race which played out over the ensuing decades was necessary to maintain the concept of mutually assured destruction which, despite its high stakes, or perhaps because of them, helped to prevent the outbreak of World War Three. While some of this process of international scientific one-upmanship was concerned with the size and yield of the atomic bombs themselves, an equally important strand focused on the delivery systems involved – what was the safest, most accurate, and most reliable way of making sure to hit the target?

For much of the initial post-war period, the answer came in the form of conventional bomber aircraft, albeit planes with ever-increasing ranges and ever-improving navigational and targeting systems. By 1960, under Operation Chrome Dome, the U.S. Air Force ensured that there were always a certain number of nuclear-armed bomber aircraft airborne and loitering not far from key targets within the Soviet Union, at any given time. Despite this, there was also a widespread sense that missiles offered a much more practical solution to the need to be able to deliver almost instantaneous retaliation, and thus deter the enemy from making any first strike. Even as early as the summer of 1945, the British defense scientist Sir Henry Tizard had compiled a report for his government claiming that long-range rockets would soon “render the strategic bomber obsolete.” This prediction never quite came true – and bomber aircraft remain a core part of some nations’ air forces to this day – but investment in ballistic missile development seemed a sensible, even necessary, step, throughout the late 1940s and 1950s.

B-52F strategic bomber over the U.S. Midwest, 1958. Museum of Flight/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images.

For the Americans, this resulted in the creation of the Redstone rocket. This was the popular name given to the PGM-11, due to the fact that it had been developed at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama. It was the result of work conducted by Wernher von Braun and his team, building directly on the foundations laid by the V-2.

The Redstone was the first large American ballistic missile, capable of flights ranging from 60 to 200 miles, and equipped with the W39 atomic warhead. The first Redstone launched from Cape Canaveral in August 1953 and it was deployed on active service in West Germany from June 1958. Two months after its first deployment, it became the first U.S. missile to carry a live nuclear warhead in flight, during the Hardtack Teak test at Johnson Atoll in the Pacific.

Launch of a PGM-11 Redstone missile at Cape Canaveral, September 17, 1958. U.S. Army/Wikimedia Commons.

The U.S. was not alone in making progress in the missile development field. While the Soviet Union had not managed to secure the services of Wernher von Braun or some of his more talented acolytes, they had recruited another group of 170 German rocket scientists, led by Helmut Gröttrup. This group had a fairly similar experience in the Soviet Union as von Braun and his men had in the U.S. Under the close supervision of their host country’s own experts – in the Russian case, these were led by Sergei Korolev, later the father of the Soviet space program – the German specialists were responsible for reassembling and test-firing V-2 rockets, and then using their expertise to help develop new missiles for their new masters.

The first result of this effort was the R-1 – a tactical ballistic missile that was plagued by problems with reliability and accuracy, though by studying and remedying these faults, Soviet scientists were able to ensure that subsequent missiles were far more effective. Indeed, the R-1 was soon superseded by the R-2, which was also exported to Communist China, where it became the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) first operational missile, the Dongfeng 1. The next iteration was the R-5M, which was a fairly close equivalent to the Redstone – like its American counterpart, it saw deployment in Germany (albeit on the other side of the Iron Curtain) and it was the first Soviet missile to carry a live atomic warhead.

Russian stamp (2004) commemorating the launch of the R-7. Commons.

The biggest Soviet breakthrough came with the R-7, however, which was fairly far removed from the V-2, even if it still counted that original German rocket as its most important forebear. First successfully tested in August 1957, the R-7 had a range of over 5,000 miles, making it the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile, and putting the cities of America’s East Coast within range of launch sites within Russia. Unsurprisingly this caused major shockwaves of panic in the West, which had no equivalent weapon with which to threaten retaliation. Both sides in the Cold War had recruited German experts, and studied German rockets, to try and gain the edge in the dawning missile age. In the summer of 1957, it seemed that the Soviet Union had scored a decisive victory.

An R-7 on display in Moscow. Ракета-носитель/Wikicommons.

This was the result not only of their success with the R-7 ICBM, but also with a modified version of that rocket, which they used to launch Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite into orbit, in October of that year. Western fears were provoked again. In Britain and the U.S. in particular, newspapers, politicians and the public at large all expressed worries about the implications of a Soviet device watching over them from beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. The comedian Bob Hope quipped that Russia’s “German rocket scientists are better than our German rocket scientists.” John F. Kennedy started talking about a “missile gap,” in which the U.S. lagged behind the Soviet Union, as a way of criticizing the Eisenhower administration as he geared up for his own run for the Presidency. It was clear to all that the Soviets could not be allowed to lay an uncontested claim to the control of outer space.

Here again, the V-2 had a part to play, as it had since its inception. Wernher von Braun and the vast majority of German rocket scientists were drawn to their field because of an interest in space travel, rather than in ballistic missiles. In their eyes, the V-2 (and even the Redstone and the R-1) were just means to an end. The V-2 was responsible for a number of firsts in terms of human ventures beyond the Earth. It was the first man-made object to cross the Kármán line – the boundary between the atmosphere and outer space, named for the very same Theodore von Kármán who authored the report mentioned at the beginning of this article. Furthermore, the first photograph of Earth from outer space was taken by a V-2 rocket launched from White Sands Proving Ground in October 1946. Even Cape Canaveral, the spiritual home of the American space program, has a link – a Bumper V-2 was the first rocket ever launched there, on July 24, 1950.

The first photo of Earth taken from outer space, October 24, 1946. U.S. Army/Wikimedia Commons.

As a response to the shocking launch of Sputnik, the connection between the V-2 and outer space deepened further. In 1958, President Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, creating NASA, and in 1960, its new flagship site, the George C. Marshall Space Flight Centre was opened in Huntsville. The first director of this center was none other than Wernher von Braun; a position he held for almost a decade, throughout the liveliest years of the space race.

While the U.S. played catch-up with the Soviets, launching their own satellites in early 1958, and sending a man into space just three weeks after Yuri Gagarin in 1961, von Braun pinned his hopes on a bigger goal. Over the next ten years, he and his team worked to develop and perfect the Saturn series of rockets, which were to have far greater reach and the capacity to carry greater payloads than anything before them. In 1969, a Saturn V rocket took men to the moon.

Wernher von Braun and Saturn IB on the launch pad. NASA.

The period from 1945 until the early 1960s was when the missile age fully established itself, defining the shape of a new era of warfare, and setting expectations for what a future conflict might look like. This was the dawn of so-called ‘push-button warfare’ where distant targets could be struck with great speed, relatively little effort, and no immediate risk to one’s own service personnel. In parallel to these changes, and closely linked to them, was the transformation of space travel from the subject of scientists’ dreams to a very tangible reality, all facilitated by the power of rocket technology.

In the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the two superpowers of the Cold War, these major developments were both rooted in the humble-by-comparison V-2 and the team of German experts who had first unleashed it.

Dr. Charlie Hall is Lecturer in Modern European Historat the University of Kent, UK. Charlie’s research centers on ideology, propaganda, and society in twentieth-century Europe and Britain. His first book, British Exploitation of German Science and Technology, 1943-1949 (Routledge, 2019), explores how Britain made use of Nazi equipment and expertise after World War II.

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