German V-2 Rocket: The world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile


V-2 missile, German in full Vergeltungswaffen-2 (“Vengeance Weapon 2”), also called V-2 rocket or A-4, German ballistic missile of World War II, the forerunner of modern space rockets and long-range missiles. The V-2 was the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile.

In the early 1930s, the German military began seeking out new weapons which would not violate the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. Assigned to aid in this cause, Captain Walter Dornberger, an artilleryman by trade, was ordered to investigate the feasibility of rockets. Contacting the Verein fur Raumschiffarht (German Rocket Society), he soon came in contact with a young engineer named Wernher von Braun. Impressed with the VfR’s work, Dornberger recruited von Braun to aid in developing liquid-fueled rockets for the military in August 1932. Commencing work with a team of 80 engineers at Kummersdorf, von Braun created the small A2 rocket in late 1934. While somewhat successful, the A2 relied on a primitive cooling system for its engine. Pressing on, von Braun’s team moved to larger facility at Peenemunde on Baltic coast, the same facility that developed the V-1 flying bomb, and launched the first A3 three years later. Intended to be smaller prototype of the A4 war rocket, the A3’s engine lacked endurance and problems quickly emerged regarding its control systems and aerodynamics.
Accepting that the A3 was a failure, the A4 was postponed while the problems were dealt with using the smaller A5. 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.

Dr. Frhr. Wernher von BraunDr. Frhr. Wernher von Braun

The first major issue to be addressed was constructing an engine powerful enough to lift the A4. This became a seven-year development process that led to the invention of new fuel nozzles, a prechamber system for mixing oxidizer and propellant, a shorter combustion chamber, and a shorter exhaust nozzle. Next designers were forced to create a guidance system for the rocket that would allow it to reach the proper velocity before shutting off the engines. The result of this research was the creation of an early inertial guidance system which would allow the A4 to hit a city-size target at a range of 200 miles.

After the A-4 project was postponed due to unfavourable aerodynamic stability testing of the A-3 in July 1936, von Braun specified the A-4 performance in 1937, after an “extensive series of test firings of the A-5” scale test model, using a motor redesigned from the troublesome A-3 by Walter Thiel, A-4 design and construction was ordered c. 1938/39. During 28–30 September 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.

Aggregat 4 prototype

V-2 missile A-4 rocket engine combustion chamber cut-away

As the A4 would be traveling at supersonic speeds, the team was forced to conduct repeated tests of possible shapes for the A4. While supersonic wind tunnels were built at Peenemunde, they were not completed in time and many of the aerodynamic tests were conducted on a trial and error basis with conclusions based on informed guesswork. A final issue that was overcome was developing a radio transmission system which could relay information about the rocket’s performance to controllers on the ground. Attacking the problem, the scientists at Peenemunde created one of the first telemetry systems to transmit data.

By late 1941, the Army Research Center at Peenemünde possessed the technologies essential to the success of the A-4. The four key technologies for the A-4 were large liquid-fuel rocket engines, supersonic aerodynamics, gyroscopic guidance and rudders in jet control.

Aggregat 4 number V4 ready for launch at Prufstand VII, 3 October 1942. Vergeltungswaffe 2Aggregat 4 prototype (probably V-3) ready for launch at Prüfstand VII, August 1942.

Designated the Aggregat 4 or A4, it was the latest in a series of new rockets designed by the German Army. It stood 14 metres high and weighed twelve and a half tonnes. It had a range of over 300 kilometres and touched space as it climbed to a height of 88 kilometres before dropping in a ballistic path on to its target. Joseph Goebbels renamed it Vergeltungswaffe 2 (Vengeance Weapon 2), which was later abbreviated to V-2. It was first successfully launched on October 3, 1942.

The new weapon gave no such warning: its exploding signalled that it had already arrived. It was a rocket that dropped from the sky at twice the speed of sound: one explosion was the warhead detonating; the other the sonic boom of the rocket’s arrival.

A V-2 rocket on display in the Science Museum's Making the Modern World gallery.

A V-2 rocket on display in the Science Museum’s Making the Modern World gallery.

The V-2’s guidance was innovatory – it employed a system of gyroscopes that registered any deviation in flight – but by today’s standards the missile’s accuracy was very poor. Most landed kilometres off target. Nevertheless, it was clear to many that this new weapon represented a future of strategic warfare; one in which far more powerful missiles mated to nuclear warheads would cover intercontinental distances on the way to their targets. To others it signalled the dawning of a space age when still bigger rockets would counter the pull of gravity and place satellites in orbits around the Earth.

A gyrocompass used to guide the flight path of V-2 rockets.

A gyrocompass used to guide the flight path of V-2 rockets.

After the war the Allies acquired the V2 technology and many of the rocket programme’s leading scientists and engineers. The Soviets constructed their own version at the start of a research programme that led eventually their own R-7 rocket which put Sputnik – the world’s first artificial satellite – into orbit. While American V-2s were tested at the White Sands Proving Ground, Soviet V-2s were taken to Kapustin Yar. In 1947, an experiment (Operation Sandy) was conducted by the US Navy which saw the successful launch of a V-2 from the deck of USS Midway (CV-41). Working to develop more advanced rockets, von Braun’s team at White Sands used variants of the V-2 up until 1952. The world’s first successful large, liquid-fueled rocket, the V-2 broke new ground and was the basis for the rockets later used in the American and Soviet space programs.

The Americans took many surplus V-2s along with the rocket programme’s technical director Wernher von Braun. The Redstone rocket that launched the first American into space was von Braun’s derivative of his V-2. Eight years later his massive Saturn V rocket launched astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins to the Moon.

Known specifications of the A-4 (V-2) rocket:

14.03 meters
Maximum diameter: 1.68 meters
Launch weight: 12,870 kilograms
Engine burn time: 70 seconds
Maximum speed: 5,760 kilometers per hour
Maximum speed at impact on target: 800 meters per second
Maximum range: 330 kilometers
Maximum altitude: 96 kilometers
Engine thrust on the surface: 26 tons
Engine thrust at high altitude: 30 tons
Warhead mass: 900 – 1,000 kilograms
Fuel mass (alcohol): 3.6 tons
Oxidizer mass (liquid oxygen): 5 tons

Links & Reference Sources

V-2 missile
The A-4 (V-2) ballistic missile
3 October 1942
V-2 rocket
World War II: V-2 Rocket