Guided Missiles Could Have Won

In the winter of 1942, Allied Intelligence became increasingly troubled about the reports of the Germon secret weapons. Now, in the aftermath, we have uncovered the fantastic development of the German V-bombs, which might have won a German victory. JOSEPH WARNER ANGELA served as a historical officer with the Army Air Faces during the war; he was on the proving ground during the CROSSBOW experiments; and after the war he personally interviewed the German experts who had been in charge of the rockets. His article, which will appear in two issues, is based on material drawn from Volume III of The Army Air Forces in World War II. published by the University of Chicago Press. This history, officially approved by the USAF. is a collaborative undertaking directed by Colonel W. J. Paul of the Research Studies Institute, Air University.


LATE in 1942 British Intelligence received with disquieting frequency reports of German long-range “secret weapons” designed to bombard England from Continental areas. Shortly before dawn on June 13, 1944, seven days after the Allied invasion of Normandy, a German pilotless aircraft designated the V-l flamed across the dark sky from the Pas-de-Calais and exploded on a railroad bridge in the center of London. A new era in warfare had begun.

After the V-l, which was essentially an aerial torpedo with wings, came the V-2, a 12-ton rocket missile that reached a speed of nearly 4000 miles per hour and, in contrast to the blatantly noisy V-l, descended on its target without even so much as a warning sound. The first V-2 fired in combat exploded violently in a suburb of Paris on September 8, 1944; the second struck London a few hours later. By the time of Germany’s collapse in the spring of 1945 more than 30,000 V -weapons (approximately 16,000 V-ls and 14,000 V-2s) had been fired against England or against Continental targets in areas held by the advancing land armies of t he Allied forces.

Two months after the outbreak of war in 1939 the British government had received from Oslo, Norway, an anonymous though reliable and relatively full report indicating that the development, of large rockets and pilotless aircraft was under way at a massive German experimental station on a secluded island on the Baltic coast. As intelligence reports throughout the winter of 1942-43 brought increasing evidence of mysterious activity at Peenemünde, it became increasingly clear that German intentions, however fantastic t hey appeared to be, demanded evaluation. In April, 1943, accordingly, Duncan Sandys of the British War Cabinet undertook to determine the significance of reports flooding in from the underground. After four weeks of “enthralling speculation ” Mr. Sandys advised his government that a threat, from German “secret weapons" should be taken seriously. The RAF promptly inaugurated an aerial reconnaissance of Continental areas that became with time the most comprehensive such operation undertaken during the entire war.

Within a month, Fight Officer Constance Babington-Smith, a WAAF member of the Allied central photographic interpretation unit in London, provided t he in it ial clue to t he meaning of Peenemünde. Closely examining with special magnifying instruments one of the detailed aerial photographs of the Peenemünde Experimental Station, the WAAF officer had interpreted a small, curving black shadow as an elevated launching ramp and the tiny T-shaped blot above the ramp as an airplane without a cockpit. The V-l had been seen and recognized by Allied eyes for the first time.

Copyright 1951, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston 16, Mass. All rights reserved.

Almost simultaneously, at Watten on the Channel coast of France, Allied Intelligence observed with profound curiosity the construction of a large and unorthodox military installation of inexplicable purpose. As throughout the summer other such installations were identified, their purpose became clear enough to cause an increasing weight of British and American air power to be thrown into the effort, often blind, to prevent the Germans from employing a new, mysterious, and nightmarish weapon.

To this effort was given in December, 1943, the code word CROSSBOW — chosen, it has been reported, by Winston Churchill as one suggesting “an obsolete, clumsy, and inaccurate weapon.” The code CROSSBOW was thereafter used to designate Anglo-American operations against all phases of the German long-range weapons program — operations against German research, experimentation, manufacture, construction of launching sites, and the transportation and firing of finished missiles, and also operations against missiles in flight, once they had been fired. Allied CROSSBOW operations, begun informally in the late spring of 1943 and officially in December of that year, did not end until the last V -weapon was fired by the Germans shortly before their surrender in May, 1945

Of CROSSBOW, General Eisenhower said, in Crusade in Europe: “It seemed likely that if the German had succeeded in perfecting and using these new weapons six months earlier than he did, our invasion of Europe would have proved exceedingly difficult, perhaps impossible. I feel sure that if he had succeeded in using these weapons over a six-month period . . . OVERLORD [the main cross-Channel assault against Europe] might well have been written off.”

From the historical evidence now at hand, and here for the first time revealed in some pattern and detail, the story of how the Allies gained — and the Germans lost —the time element of which General Eisenhower speaks emerges as perhaps the most bizarre episode of t lie war in Europe and as one of the most formidable ” what-might-havebeen’s” of recent times.

For the Allies, CROSSBOW was the conquest, partly by sheer luck, largely by superior teamwork and determination, of the “secret weapons” with which Germany might well have succeeded, at a significantly late hour, in turning the course of the war. For the Germans, CROSSBOW — though one of a series of self-imposed defeats—was a unique and an apparently needless defeat, the capstone in an impressive structure of gross miscalculations and fanatically sustained misjudgments on the part of Adolf Hitler. Nevertheless, what the Germans accomplished technically and militarily with their new weapons — notably the giant supersonic rocket, the V-2 — stands as a somber object lesson to contemporary governments and their strategists and opens, for all mankind, what the German general and the German scientist primarily responsible for the existence of the V-2 have described as “the pathway to the planets and the road to the stars.”


FLIGHT into outer space by some form of vehicle is an age-old dream of man. And since the introduction of artillery into warfare, military strategists have envisioned the “ideal” missile —one that can reach beyond the range of conventional guns and, with the advent of the airplane, one that would prove less costly to manufacture and less complex to operate than bomber aircraft. The V-2 is the first true prototype of the ideal longrange missile and of the space-vehicle.

Ironically, it was a clause in the Versailles Treaty, forbidding the Germans to possess or develop conventional military aircraft, that impelled certain farsighted German militarists to consider the creation of long-range missiles powered by jet or rocket propulsion. The Allies, unhampered by any such restriction, seem to have given little official thought after 1918 to the potentialities of long-range missiles. As a further irony, it was the theoretical work of an American, A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes, a slim paper-bound treatise published in 1919 by the rocket pioneer, Robert H. Goddard, that inaugurated the modern era of rocket research, in which, after 1930 and until their defeat in 1945, the Germans were unrivaled.

German rocket experimentation began, as pure theory, in the early 1920s and, like so many things German, in time developed into a welter of mystery and metaphysics, fanatical idealism and gross stupidities, stunning achievements and self-induced failures — all destined to culminate, it would seem, in a dramatic and spellbinding downfall. In 1923 a Rumanian high school teacher, Hermann Oberth, found a German publisher for his theoretical work, The Rocket into Interplanetary Space. Paying some tribute to Goddard’s work, and addressed primarily to professional scientists, astronomers, and mathematicians, Oberth’s book failed — except for a few damning reviews — to gain the only audience that could properly estimate and use his theories and formulae.

The title of Oberth’s work and his prophecies about space-travel and the building of space-platforms within or outside the earth’s orbit attracted, however, immediate and enthusiastic response from the kind of amateurs and visionaries who have always inhabited the borderlands of science, and in Germany they soon rallied to the cause of the Rumanian high school mathematician.

In 1927, in the back room of a Breslau tavern, a handful of mechanics, tinkerers, and attendant disciples, who called Oberth “The Master,” founded the Verein für Raumschiffahrt — The Spaceship Travel Club. For a time the Club’s most successful activity was publication of a monthly magazine, The Rocket, though the more mechanically minded members experimented with primitive types of powder and liquid fuel rockets, in so far as their meager resources permitted. Eventually, a copy of the Club’s magazine reached the German War Ministry. Mindful of the Versailles Treaty restrictions, and casting a long eye on Germany’s military future, Major General Dr. Becker, Chief of Army Ordnance, consulted late in 1930 with trusted members of his staff. The talents and activities of the Spaceship Travel Club, it was agreed in solemn conference, should be taken over by Army Ordnance and placed on the Geheim or “secret” list. While ihe resources of the German Army were, comparatively speaking, little greater than those of the Club, there were certain things, General Becker reasoned, which the Army could do to assist the rocket experiments.

For one, the Club needed better facilities than the pitifully small testing ground, financed by ticket sales to the general public and by pocket money provided by Club members not entirely impoverished. For another, the more active researchers needed a firm and steady hand that could hold down the nonsense and wasted efforts and yet, by virtue of technical and military knowledge, give the Club′s best talents the freedom and scope necessary to produce revolutionary long-range missiles. Both advantages were, upon Becker’s recommendation, provided early in 1931 by the German Army — enlarged and secret testing facilities in an abandoned ammunition dump at Kummersdorf, on the outskirts of Berlin, and a relatively steady hand in the person of Captain Waller Dornberger, a young artillery officer with a more than uncommon scientific and technical background.

A physically small but compellingly intense and energetic man, now living and working in the United States,1 Dornberger was born into the family of a provincial druggist in 1895. Having completed a brilliant high school career, he volunteered for service in a German Foot Artillery Regiment two days after the out break of ihe First World War. Commissioned as an officer within a few months after enlistment, he was on active combat service until captured by the Allies in October, 1918. After the Armistice, Dornberger remained in the small professional army permitted the Germans, and proceeded from one engineering and technical school to another, earning “with distinction” a variety of advanced degrees. In 1931, at the age of thirty five, he was earmarked by General Becker as the officer most likely to guide the Spaceship Travel Club enthusiasts, to the creation of long-range missiles for use in the “next” war that had never been out of the minds of the defeated‚ but unconquered, German General Staff.

When Dornberger assumed command of the German Army’s new experimental station at Kummersdorf, early in 1931, he was instructed by General Becker to offer three alternatives to key members of the Spaceship Travel Club. They could turn over rocket patents and cease work; they could be jailed; if good enough, they could be absorbed into the Army’s rocket program. Among the Club’s active members who were qualified for —and accepted —the third alternative was a devastatingly handsome boy of nineteen, Worn her von Braun, son of the Prussian Minister of Agriculture, heir to an ancient Junker title, and the very exemplar of the pure Nordic type adored by Hitler and his propagandists in the National Socialist Party, at that time just two years away from full power in Germany. Von Braun was, moreover, a disturbingly precocious mathematical and technical genius, devoted with both metaphysical and practical passion to creation of the spaceplatforms and interplanetary rockets he had discovered in the writings of Oberth.

The hardheaded captain and the blue-eyed wonder-boy became, with the help of capable and loyal assistants, not only the true progenitors of the ideal long-range weapon but, in all likelihood, the actual forerunners of “the journey into space.” Their work on the V-2 will stand for all time as one ol the twentieth century’s greatest technical and scientific conributions.


THERE is some substance in the charge later brought by antagonists in the Army and the SS, that both Dornberger and von Braun were guilty of having used huge sums of military funds as a means of fostering their planetary and interstellar goals. In his later writings, Dornberger admits that “from the beginning we wanted to go inlo space; wanted to go infinite distance; wanted unimaginable speeds.” And from this same postwar perspective he does not hesitate to say of the work he directed before 1939: “It was the teamwork of fanatically inspired and inseparable comrades . . . linked together for life and death and devoted to one single idea ... the goal set our generation, the trip in space and to the stars.”

Those of the German Army who were in on the secret work at Kummersdorf had, however, somewhat different ideas. General Becker had hoped that Dornberger’s staff would Erst produce successful flak-barrage rockets, then turn to the development of long-range precision ground rockets that could supplement, if not supplant, shorterrange heavy artillery, By 1932 an “A” series (the German series designation for long-range military rockets, of which the V-2 was actually the fourth type) was under way at Kummcrsdorf.

Shortly after coming to power early in 1933, Hitler, upon the advice of the Ordnance Department, visited Kummersdorf. But as his party toured the meager facilities at the run-down ammunition dump, the new Chancellor grew restive. Most of the equipment, it was explained, was inadequate or out of order. All but a few of the experimental items that were supposedly ready failed to go off properly. The rest of the specially prepared exhibition was merely charts, blueprints, and mock-up prototype models — on a small scale — of the long-range rocket that had been described in glowing terms by members of the War Ministry. Worse yet, Hitler was highly disturbed when he saw the wild, prophetic gleam in the bright blue eyes of the boy, von Braun, and heard from the lips of the soldier, Dornberger, mad words intimating “the way to the planets,” ‟a one-hour postal service between Berlin and New York,” “the journey into space.” Hitler remained totally unimpressed by what he saw and heard at hummersdorf, and regarded continuation of the experiments as a dubious enterprise. Guns and tanks, airplanes and submarines — these, and vast armies of foot soldiers, were, in the Chancellors unshakable opinion, the best means of conquering the world, when the time for that should come.

Notwithstanding Hitler’s low opinion of the activities at Kummersdorf, Dornberger and von Braun continued to receive effective support from key generals in the German Army. Chief of Staff Field Marshal von Fritsch, for example, witnessed in 1934 a trial launching of the second experimental military rocket, the A-2, and from that moment lent much of his considerable influence to support of Dornberger’s project. Even greater support came from von Fritsch’s successor as Chief of Staff, Field Marshal von Brauchitsch. who became in time the most ardent and influential supporter of the rocket program, and staked his command, his reputation, and his life on the validity of “ Dornberger’s weapon.”

By 1936, experimentation was far enough along to justify the laying down of military specifications for the V-2. As conceived in 1936, the V-2 did not reflect any deeply considered strategic plan for the bombardment of Germany’s future enemies. Militarily, it was presented by Dornberger as a superlong-range “gun,” an extension in performance of the famous gun with a range of 125 kilometers and explosive load of about 40 pounds with which the Germans had bombarded Paris in 1918. ‟I wanted,” Dornberger has said, “to develop a rocket that would have 2000 pounds of explosive and a range double that of the Paris gun.”

This explains the size of the V-2’s war head, which in 1944, to a world accustomed to the multiton loads carried by heavy bombers, seemed surprisingly small. In 1936 the war head proposed by Dornberger was impressive enough, and of course the speed and ranges he suggested were revolutionary. The 1936 specifications for the V -2 were also, it appears, used by Dornberger and von Braun, and their military supporters, to extract from the German Army greatly enlarged funds and facilities for rocket experimentation.

The proposals presented by Dornberger and von Braun for a huge new experimental station and a vastly expanded technical staff were so staggering, however, that the Ordnance Department had to call upon Göring’s more opulent Luftwaffe for the required financial assistance. When it was indicated that help from the German Air Force would be forthcoming, von Braun recalled that his East Prussian father had often gone duck-hunting in the isolated marshes of Peenemümde. Ordnance and Air Force authorities agreed that this site would provide the necessary seclusion and that the Baltic coast would provide the hundreds of miles of firing ranges required for testing the long-range weapon. Construction of the experimental station — designated, for security, as Heimat Artillerie Park 11 — was begun in 1937; activities were quickly transferred from Kummcrsdorf; and by 1939 more than one third of Germany’s entire aerodynamic and technological research was devoted to the hope of creating missiles capable, as specifications increased in size to the A-9 and the A-10, of bombarding New York City from German soil. Peencmünde, which represented an investment of 300 million gold reichsmarks, had more than 12,000 full-time personnel engaged in rocket research. All this could be done, it seems, without Hitler’s knowledge.


WHEN, within a month alter the outbreak of war in 1939, the Führer learned what was going on in the way of rockd research and heard that von Brauchitsch had given Peencmünde a first military priority, he ordered Dornberger’s activities to be dropped to the lowest priority, if continued at all. There was no time, effort, or matériel, Hitler declared, to be wasted on nonexistent, weapons. Besides, he argued, the war he was carrying on with conventional weapons would be over long before the new missiles could be ready. The cancellation of priority, entailing the loss of personnel, funds, and matériel, was a blow from which Peenemünde could not quickly recover. Nevertheless, von Brauchitsch and others who believed in Dornberger’s weapon succeeded — in the face of much opposition from the German High Command - in getting enough support for Peenemünde so that the experimental work could continue, though obviously on a markedly reduced scale.

After the loss of the Battle of Britain in 1940 von Brauchitsch and Dornberger suggested to the High Command, and thereby to Hitler, that the granting of a first priority for work on the V-2 was clearly justified. Hitler, however, was now preparing the attack on Russia, and the thought of reiving on the new weapon as retaliation for the defeat of the Luftwaffe over Britain was distasteful. Greater quantities of conventional weapons, he decided, must be produced at the expense of a missile that remained in the experimental stage. Hitler’s third refusal to support the long-range weapons program was exceptionally painful to Dornberger and von Braun, as well as to their continually loyal supporter, von Brauchitsch; for, reduced priority notwithstanding, work on the V-2 was advancing rapidly— something that could not be said about German ground forces after they had attacked the outskirts of Stalingrad in July, 1942.

When it became apparent to von Brauchitsch that at Stalingrad the Russians were in fact holding back further German advance and might in time begin to reverse the tide of battle, he made a formidable personal decision. On his own authority, and at the risk of his life — he was then a commander on the Eastern Front — he removed two battalions of technicians and soldiers from combat and sent them to Dornberger. Yon Brauchitsch’s daring support could not have been more timely, for work at Peenemunde was reaching the initial stage of final success.

The first full-sized V-2 had been launched in June, 1942. When the fourth firing, on the 3rd of October, achieved a fall on target at a range of 190 kilometers, there was high jubilation at Peenemünde. The year’s long calculations had been proved correct; the basic technical difficulties were at last overcome, though many “bugs” remained to be worked out before the rocket, could become completely operational for combat. Dornberger’s picture of the great day suggests, however, that the military aspects of the triumph were by no means paramount in his and von Braun’s minds.

Amid the tears and shouts, the handshakings and dancing — to be duplicated less than three years later by another band of researchers, in New Mexico — the general and the scientist did not forget that, in truth, the day belonged to the Rumanian high school mathematician — Hermann Oberth. Dornberger relates the proposing of a toast to “this modest, unworldly scientist . . . this restless mind, concealing a superabundance of ideas, [with] his fanatic faith in a coming era of rockets and space-travel.” And then, directly to Oberth: “Accept, senior master and father of so many ideas, my heartiest congratulations! ” Oberth, Dornberger records, replied with genuine simplicity: “Colonel, only the Germans could do a thing like that. I never could have done it myself.”

As the famous night wore on, the long-time comrades permitted themselves to survey the implications of their achievement. There was talk of the forthcoming era of space-stations, of giant spacemirrors that would harness the sun’s rays for the benefit of man, or become a truly lethal weapon in a future war.

By January, 1942, Hitler was reconsidering his decisions regarding the V-2. And by that time the Luftwaffe had under way another type of V-weapon. The Luftwaffe, whose prestige was still suffering from the Battle of Britain, was unwilling that Germany should be saved entirely by efforts of the Army, through its Ordnance Department. An already overloaded experimental and production organization was therefore called upon to create a “retaliation weapon” that would outshine, if possible, the massive, complex, and costly V-2. The V-l, or flying bomb, was conceived with much haste and uncommon efficiency. It was in full production less than two years after initial experimentation began. For its particular purposes in the war the V-l proved to be a more efficient weapon than the V-2, though that need not have been the case, and certainly it was a less spectacular mechanism, bearing few of the V-2’s ultimate implications. Both weapons competed for Hitler’s favor and their production interfered, in varying degrees, with the production of conventional matériel and weapons. The German war machine, already overburdened with factional conflict and lacking adequate centralization, suffered severely from the ensuing struggle between advocates of the two new weapons, and it is not impossible that Germany’s final defeat was contained in Hitler’s subsequent vacillations.

Six months before the triumph of October 3, 1942, Dornberger and von Braun had been ordered to report in person at Hitler’s Field Headquarters on the Eastern Front. Certain of the technical success of the new weapon, Dornberger had laid before Hitler matériel and operational requirements for firing 5000 V-2s a year from the French coast. With characteristic fanaticism, Hitler asked Dornberger if he could not launch 5000 V-2s simultaneously in a single mass attack against England. Admitting that such an operation was technically impossible, Dornberger did, however, promise to inaugurate a spectacular bombardment of London in the summer of 1943.


HITLER reluctantly accepted Dornberger’s proposal, gave the rocket program a high priority, issued orders for the building of gigantic launching sites on the French coast, and then apparently dismissed the V-2 from his mind. But in March, 1943, when production and firing-site plans were well under way and final technical difficulties were rapidly being overcome, Hitler dreamed that the V-2 would “never land on England.”

At this time Hitler’s decision was absolute. There would be no rocket program whatever. “ I can depend upon my inspirations,” Hitler said after waking from his dream. “Therefore, there is no use to give any more support to this program.”Reporting the melancholy news to von Braun, Dornberger observed: “All is vain. I knew we had to fight against bugs, but I did not know we would have to fight against visions—against a dream.”

Within a few weeks, however, Albert Speer, Hitler’s personal architect who had become Reichminister of Armaments and could afford to act independently, sent an agent to Peenemünde to determine what could be salvaged from the V-2 program. Speer’s emissary returned from Peenemünde bursting with enthusiasm for the project. Because he had some confidence in the weapon (earlier, on his own initiative, Speer issued orders for construction of the first rocket launching sites in France) and because he could afford the risk, Speer exercised his most consummate skill in redirecting the mind of Hitler to a revival of the V-2 program. In May, 1943, Dornberger and von Braun were again ordered to report to Hitler.

During the introductions Dornberger had the impression that the Führer was “completely absent-minded.” And there were cold stares from Keitel, Jodl, Buhl — members of the High Command, who from the beginning had opposed the V-2. Only Speer listened with, any evident interest to the remarks preliminary to the showing of motion pictures of V-2 take-offs and target demolitions at ranges of 175 miles. After the films had been run, “there was,” Dornberger relates, “a dead silence all around.” Hitler was “deeply stirred with emotion. Leaning backward, he stared thoughtfully into space.” When at last Dornberger started to speak, Hitler “suddenly aroused from his brooding and listened intently . . . visibly interested and [seemed to be] reading my lips, before my words were spoken. At certain considerations he shook his head, at others he nodded vividly.”

The essence of Dornberger’s “considerations” was that, if given a first priority, V-2 operations against London could begin on January 1.5, 1944 — the date also fixed by the Luftwaffe for the initiation of flying bomb attacks — with a firing rate of 108 rockets per day. This rate would be stepped up as production increased. The combined firing rates of V-l and V-2 missiles, together with other long-range weapons in preparation (but never used), would enable the Germans to throw 94,000 tons of high explosive against England in a single month. Within a year after the beginning of operations, it would be possible to bombard England at an approximate annual rate of one million tons of explosive — roughly, though Dornberger could not know this, the tonnage dropped on a much larger geographical area by the Anglo-American bomber offensive in its most successful year.

When Dornberger had finished, Hitler stormed to his feet and, dashing about the room, shouted a torrent of words. Following the interview, Hitler ordered that the V-2 be given the highest priority of the entire armament program in Germany. Colonel Dornberger, moreover, was given complete authority for the entire V-weapon program and promoted to the rank of major general. Hitler also ordered — against the advice of Dornberger, who favored small, easily camouflaged mobile sites — that the building of the huge rocket sites in France should be tripled in number and scale. Though he had for years been skeptical of the V-2, he had always had a passion for gigantic building projects, and the rocket firing sites appealed to him as something that would dazzle — and perhaps shake — the world.

But even after the dramatic meeting with Dornberger in May, 1943, Hitler failed to resolve the conflicts arising from rivalries within the V-weapons program itself, to the detriment of plans for both the V-l and the V-2. His promises to Dornberger notwithstanding, he was unable, apparently, to bring himself to giving either weapon the all-out support required.

Göring, too, had failed to grasp the full significance of the V-2, though, as Chief of the Luftwaffe, he favored the V-l until control of it was given by Hitler to Dornberger. In the old days at Kummersdorf, a few weeks after Hitler’s visit in 1933, Göring had been present at a similar demonstration. But when it was explained to him that the projected weapon would be a supersonic missile, “he gave up,” Dornberger relates. Goring had not “learned to think beyond sonic speed and beyond the atmosphere of the earth.” Not until 1944 did the second most powerful man in the Nazi hierarchy witness an actual V-2 firing. What did he say after he had stood with Dornberger at close quarters and had seen the bursting flames, heard the grinding roar of the great rocket hurtling itself 4000 miles an hour into space? Goring flung his massive arms around the little German general and bellowed: “This is colossal! We must fire one at the first Nuremberg post-war Party Rally!”

Thus did the Germans, under a party dictatorship, suffer a most curious “interior” defeat, one of many of its kind. They had an entirely new and revolutionary weapon, but those who had the say did not know what to make of it until it was altogether too late.

Next month Mr. Angell will describe the detection by the Allies of the German secret weapons, and the counterattack which resulted in Operation CROSSBOW.

  1. Through Dr. Dornberger’s kindness I have been permitted to incorporate into this account a number of statements from the manuscript of his forthcoming book, V-2: The Story of a Great Weapon.