The impact of the V-2 rocket

Moving four times faster than the speed of sound, the first German V-2 rocket hit London on 8 September 1944. Unlike previous bombing raids, the V-2 landed silently. The first warning it gave was the shattering of windows and the shaking of buildings, followed by black smoke belching into the air. Over 3,000 of the rockets were fired on the allies in the dying years of the war, landing mostly in Britain and Belgium.

For all the real horror and death the V-2 brought, it could all have been so much worse. Nazi scientists were contemplating packing the warhead not with explosives but with chemical and biological weapons. This never happened, partly because the V-2 was the final throw of the dice for the Nazi regime. Even its name (V-2, Vergeltungswaffe, means ‘vengeance weapon’) suggests a turnaround in German fortunes. The strident crowing of “Blitzkrieg” (‘lightning war’) had been replaced with the bitter anger of a nation crippled by five years of conflict.

As their tanks rolled into the beaten nation, uppermost in the minds of the allied leaders was the need to take hold of the scientists involved in the V-2 programme. Through various clandestine means, these scientists were smuggled out to the United States and the Soviet Union. Most famous of all was the V-2’s developer in chief, Wernher von Braun (see Space Race by Deborah Cadbury for more on these events).

Von Braun’s rocket development was decades ahead of his international competitors. Always driven by a love of space flight, he would later title his biographical film ‘I Aim At the Stars‘, to which wags quickly added the appendage ‘and sometimes I hit London.’ As a high-ranking Nazi official, it is inconceivable that von Braun was unaware of the slave labour involved in the construction of the V-2. Some 20,000 people laboured on the project, frequently worked to death or murdered by their guards.

Nevertheless, von Braun’s knowledge allowed him to escape justice and he went on to become a key figure in the US space programme. The 1983 film The Right Stuff gives an insight into his involvement, even if the arrogant German scientist in the movie is only based on von Braun.

Having faced such an incredible barrage from the V-2, we might expect post-war writers to have a complete horror of this weapon. In fact, what we see is a rather ambivalent reaction. As a Belgian, Hergé had seen his own country become one of the key targets of the V-2. Neverthless, he used its distinctive chessboard design as his inspiration for the moon rocket in Tintin’s adventures (the unusual colouration of the V-2 allowed the scientists to observe the rotation of the rocket in flight):

As well as being red and white instead of black and white, Tintin’s rocket is also slightly larger than the real V-2. You can still see actual examples of these rockets today, for example, one towers over visitors to London’s Imperial War Museum.

In Great Britain too, the impact of the V-2 was more than physical. When thinking of the protagonist for his new science fiction series, the Manx writer Nigel Kneale was also inspired by the rocket programme. 1953’s The Quatermass Experiment features a rocket scientist as its hero: Bernard Quatermass. Who would think of such a character today, when most science fiction adventures centre on the exploits of journalists, FBI agents and the like?

As if that wasn’t evidence enough, the second serial Quatermass II is named after a rocket which the inventor is working on, a name with clear echoes of the V-2.

Quatermass himself is rather more troubled by the military applications of his work than his real-life homologue. In Quatermass and the Pit (1958), the scientist is faced with an ethical dilemma, whether to work with the army or leave his scientific research behind.

Nigel Kneale specifically mentioned von Braun as a possible source for at least one Quatermass adventure. In the sleeve notes to the BBC DVD Quatermass Collection, Kneale discusses a putative serial, The Young Quatermass: “You put it pre-war about 1936 I think, when he would have been 30 or younger. And at that time the young Werner Von Braun was just beginning to get interested in rocketry. So young Quatermass might go to Germany to do a bit of spying. And then you get a story.”

So from out of the terror of the V-2, various sparks caught the imagination of contemporary authors. Both The Quatermass Experiment and Destination Moon first appeared in 1953, shortly after the end of the War, each written by authors whose countries had been key targets of the first modern ballistic missile.

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9 responses to “The impact of the V-2 rocket

  1. Pingback: DOM: Quatermass & The Pit (Ward Baker, UK, 1967) « Dirk Malcolm's World of Film

  2. It just occurred to me that the Nazi’s did not use the V-2 armed with chemical weapons against the invading allies. While pinpoint accuracy was not among it capabilities, I would imagine that it could have been really effective on the beaches of Normandy. Yet they did not use the weapon then.

    I guess the madness that had gripped German society really crippled their sense of survival, as I can not see how there would have been any deterrent from the Allies that would have constrained the Nazis’ use of chemical weapons.

    • That’s a good point, sensei. Allied intelligence did report that the Nazis were planning on changing the warhead of some V2s so that they could carry poison gas. Thankfully their plans were not advanced enough by the end of the war. Perhaps poison gas gets burnt up in the explosion on impact, so doesn’t just spread as might be expected. I’m sure that if they could have loaded the V2 with chemical weapons, they would have done it.

      • It makes you realize who lucky the Allies were. In many ways the Nazis made some strange decisions that lead more directly to their defeat; e.g. attacking Russia, allowing Britain’s retreat from France via sea, etc.

        I took my family to St Petersberg this summer. It is simply an amazing city, more opulent than Versailles, Paris and Vienna combined. They have done an incredible job restoring what the czars built, and managed to negotiate the return of many items that the Nazi’s plundered.

    • Thanks Steve – and also thanks for the link. It must have been a wild chase to get those rockets out of Germany, and out of the hands of the Soviets! I loved the picture on that site of the rocket on the launch pad too. Images of the V1 and V2 are surprisingly scarce.

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