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. 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 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.