On a sunny morning in autumn 1944, my father – then a teenager – was waiting for a train at Cromer railway station on the coast of eastern England. It was a beautiful clear day and, from the railway platform set high above the town, he could see across the calm North Sea to German-occupied Holland.
“On the horizon, I saw three streaks go up into the air and disappear into the stratosphere,” he recalls. “I’m quite certain these were V2 rockets being launched to crash somewhere – where I don’t know.”
Launched from mobile units, each V2 rocket was 14 metres (46ft) high and carried a ton (900 kg) of explosives. The first attack on London, on 8 September 1944, gouged a crater 10m (32ft) across, killed three people and injured 22.
V2s were powered by a liquid ethanol fuel which pushed them to the edge of space (SPL)
However, unlike aircraft or the V2’s predecessor the V1 flying bomb, this was a new type of weapon, crashing and exploding without warning in target cities, such as London, Norwich, Paris, Lille and Antwerp. It took just five minutes from launch to landing. V stood for ‘vergeltungswaffen', or 'retaliatory weapon', and were a last-ditch attempt by the Germans to reverse the course of the war.
Having seen a rocket launch, Dad was fortunate enough to escape a V2’s return to Earth when he was waiting for another train at Queen’s Park underground station in north London.
“Suddenly there was a large bang in a road nearby and a great cloud of debris was thrown up in the air, and that was a V2 rocket,” he says. “It was a terror weapon, you didn’t hear it arriving, it was just there… bang!”
More than 1,300 V2s were fired at England and, as allied forces advanced, hundreds more were targeted at Belgium and France.
Although there is no exact figure, estimates suggest that several thousand people were killed by the missile – 2,724 in Britain alone. However, a far grimmer statistic is that many more, at least 20,000, died constructing the V2s themselves.
“It’s something that’s often glossed over, but shouldn’t be,” says Doug Millard, space historian and curator of space technology at London’s Science Museum, where a V2 takes pride of place in the main exhibition hall. “The V2 programme was hugely expensive in terms of lives, with the Nazis using slave labour to manufacture these rockets.”
The German resort town of Peenemunde was the site of the secret V2 development programme (SPL)
The prisoners – many pulled from other concentration camps for their technical skills such as welding – worked around the clock in an underground factory called Mittelwerk near the Buchenwald concentration camp in central Germany. They lived under appalling conditions, with no daylight, little sleep, food or proper sanitation. Many were executed for attempted sabotage. Eyewitness accounts describe prisoners being hanged from cranes above the rocket assembly lines.
Despite his complicity in the conditions at Mittelwerk, the engineer who designed the V2, Wernher von Braun, came to be feted as a hero of the space age. The Allies realised that the V2 was a machine, unlike anything they had developed themselves.
At the heart of the V2 was a powerful motor capable of taking the rocket more than 80km (50 miles) above the Earth in a trajectory of some 190 km (120 miles). Fuelled by liquid ethanol and oxygen, it was much more sophisticated that anything built before and effectively the world’s first space rocket.
V2 rockets killed or injured thousands during a six-month reign of terror (Getty Images)
“There had been smaller rockets built in the 1930s but this was far bigger with a greater range,” Millard says. “The V2 was a quantum leap of technological change.”
One of the most important new technologies developed for the V2 was an automatic guidance system, which operated independently of controllers on the ground. With the destination “programmed” into the on-board analogue computer, once a rocket was in flight, its gyroscopes could continuously track the craft’s position in three dimensions. Any deviations in course and rudders fitted to the fins on the side of the rocket would automatically adjust the heading and trajectory to keep it on target.
Not surprisingly, when the war ended, the Americans, Soviets and British scrambled to get their hands on V2 technology. With no desire to work for Stalin, Von Braun made a shrewd decision to surrender to the Americans, while the Russians got their hands on the V2 factory and test range.
The V2s were fired from mobile launchers at targets including London (SPL)
“Both the Americans and Soviets took the V2s to bits to decipher their workings,” says Millard. “The Soviets completely recreated a V2 and the Americans took them over to America to launch and carry out some of the first upper atmosphere experiments.”
However, the US knew that it wasn’t the hardware that was as important as the men behind it. And they had Von Braun. Although the military’s priority was to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles, the German engineer now had the opportunity to pursue his dreams of spaceflight.
“After a brief hiatus, he started working for the American army on their Redstone missile and that was a direct derivative of the V2,” says Millard. “America’s first astronaut, Alan Shepard, was launched [in 1961] on a version of the Redstone missile.”
So it is easy to draw a direct line between the V2 rocket – built by slave labourers and launched from Nazi-occupied Europe – and the first American in space.
After World War II, V2's were exhaustively tested by the US and the Soviet Union (SPL)
“We got to the Moon using V2 technology but this was technology that was developed with massive resources, including some particularly grim ones,” says Millard.
So would man have landed on the Moon without Hitler’s weapon? Probably, but perhaps not as soon. As with so many technological innovations, war hastened the development of the modern rocket and accelerated the space age.
Even today, the fundamental technology of launchers remains the same as it did 70 years ago. The engine looks similar, rockets still use gyroscopic guidance and most are powered by liquid fuel. All pioneered in the V2.
Unwittingly, on a September day in 1944 my father had witnessed the dawn of the Space Age. “Rockets really haven’t changed a great deal,” says Millard. “We’re still living in the age of the V2.”
Hundreds of V2 rockets fell on London - explore this interactive map to find out where they landed (Google Maps)