A4/V2 (Aggregat 4/ Vergeltungswaffen 2
) of Artillerie Abteilung 3./836, Wehrmacht, fired from Merzig, Germany on October 19th 1944.
Displayed on a reproduction of a map that shows the nature and density of V1/V2 strikes onto Antwerp and its surroundings between October 7th 1944 & March 28th 1945.
Above map can also be found here
The brainchild of the German engineer Wernher von Braun (1912-1977), development of the V2 rocket, initially named 'Aggregat 4', started in the early 1930s thanks to a loophole in the Versailles Peace Treaty that did not prohibit Germany from developing rocket weapons. After the A1 of 1933 proved to be a failure, tests with the A2 proof-of-concept rocket in 1934 were a success, allowing development of the A3 to go ahead in 1936. However, design issues with the A3 nearly proved the program's undoing; eventually, the A3 was abandoned and work instead switched to the A4, and its scaled-down version, the A5.
The A5 progressed on the engine design of the A3, but used a new shape that proved to be aerodynamically more stable; between 1938 and 1942, numerous test firings took place of the A5 which proved the concept, and allowed work to progress on the full-sized A4, a rocket with a range of 322 km capable of carrying a ton of payload to an altitude of 89 km before falling back in a ballistic trajectory. With the tests of the A5 complete, testing of the A4 began in March of 1942, but it wasn't until October 3rd 1942 that an A4 was launched succesfully.
The A4 was not supposed to be the ultimate end of the Aggregat program: Von Braun's ultimate goal was to conquer space, as first projected by his mentor Hermann Oberth (1894-1989). For this goal, the Aggregat family had numerous further designs, the ultimate of which being the Aggregat A12, a four-stage orbital rocket capable of carrying a payload of 10 tonnes; but changing priorities led to the cancellation of the A6 to A12 designs. Even so, Von Braun attempted to expand the existing A4's range by incorporating elements of the A9 design into it, leading to the winged A4b design, which during its tests would become the first winged guided missile to attain supersonic speeds.
Even though the basic A4 design was already being tested in flight by the end of 1942, the entire project threatened to be untangled by the politics of the Third Reich. Some in the Reich - including at one point Adolf Hitler himself - did not see any merit in an 'expensive glorified artillery shell' and wanted the plug pulled on the project; the SS under Heinrich Himmler wanted to take over the project for its own purposes; and numerous others started putting impossible demands on the program, asking for specifications and production numbers that were well beyond the technical and organisational scope of what Von Braun and his team were capable of with the means at their disposal. And on top of all of this, the Allies had also caught wind of what was happening at Peenemunde - not exactly difficult, as the contrails from A4 launches from Peenemunde were visible from neutral Sweden. With Allied intelligence discovering the rocket activity at Peenemunde as early as April of 1943, the test site was visited by the Royal Air Force on the night of August 17th-18th that year, followed by raids on numerous other production and projected launch facilities in the months that followed. All this led to firm delays in the project, as new sites were selected and prepared for a full-scale production of the new weapon, which by now had received the infamous 'V2' designation for 'Vergeldungswaffen 2' or 'Revenge Weapon 2'.
Eventually, the major production site of the V2 rocket would be Mittelwerk
, an underground facility located close to the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp near Nordhausen, Germany. The choice of this site was not a coincidence: the Mittelwerk was located inside a hill that had previously been the site of a chalk mine, rendering it virtually impossible to bomb; in turn, the prisoners at the nearby concentration camp were used as slave labour for both the construction of the underground factory, as well as the weapons built there. The inhuman conditions at Mittelwerk took a high toll among: it is estimated that some 20000 Mittelbau-Dora inmates working on the V2 production line and facilities died as a result of accidents, cold, malnutrition, exhaustion, disease, executions or murder.
Even before the V2s were used operationally, the Allies had managed to get their hands on a number of crucial components through an extraordinary set of events: on June 13th 1944, a stray V2 from Peenemunde exploded over Sweden, and in the month that followed, wreckage gathered at the site of the crash was handed over by the Swedes to the British as part of a secret exchange. This allowed the British to partially reconstruct the rocket, enough to discover a number of crucial facts about it. Allied intelligence struck a second coup when a mostly-intact V2 launched from a second test center in Occupied Poland was recovered from a river by the Polish Resistance and flown to England by the crew of a Royal Air Force Dakota that performed an extraordinary landing at a disused air base inside Poland. These missions showed that the V2s were guided by a ground-based radio beam system, but also that this guidance system had been conceived in such a way that it could not be interfered with.
The Allied landings at Normandy in June of 1944 and subsequent German defeats, including the Liberation of Paris on August 25th 1944, finally led to Adolf Hitler to approve operational use of the V2. After a number of failed launches on September 6th, the first succesful launch of a V2 was made on September 8th: simultaniously, Artillery Battery 444 fired missiles from Houffalize, Belgium to Paris, France, while Artillery Battery 485 fired missiles from the Dutch coast to London. However, Allied advances soon led to the former to withdraw to Walcheren, the Netherlands. At this early time, the number of launches was limited by the amount of fuel available: the logistics for transorting both the alcohol and liquid oxygen to run the engine proved to be highly challenging.
The capture of Antwerp and its harbour by the Allies on September 4th 1944 presented the Germans with a new target for their 'miracle weapons'. Unlike London and Paris, which purely were targeted to lift morale among the own troops and sink the enemy one, Antwerp was a military target, as its harbour provided the Allies with an important logistical supply center. Previously depending on the Mulberry harbours in Normandy for all of their supply needs, the Allied offensive against Germany started to suffer from an overly extended supply line, requiring supplies to be shipped for hundreds of miles from the harbours to the frontline; compared to that, Antwerp was located not even a hundred miles from most of the northern frontlines, and unlike other harbours, most of its installations had fallen into Allied hands virtually undamaged. In an attempt to destroy these vital installations, Hitler ordered the use of both the V1 and V2 weapons against the Antwerp harbour.
Artillerie Abteilung 836 of the Wehrmacht had been set up as part of a group of mobile V2 launchers, originally targeting the French cities of Lille and Paris. Firing their first missile on September 15th 1944, the 836's scope of operations expanded as the Allies continued their advance: by the end of September, its batteries were firing an average of 4 rockets against Lille, Tourcoing, Arras, Cambrai and Paris in France; Hasselt, Liège and Mons in Belgium; and Maastricht in The Netherlands. However, with the Germans losing control over the Scheldt estuary, freeing up the access into the Antwerp harbour, the unit received instructions at the beginning of October to switch targets to Antwerp. On October 7th, the unit fired its first rocket at Antwerp which landed in the municipality of Brasschaat, 5 miles north of Antwerp; October 13th saw its second shot directed at the city fall onto Antwerp itself; this caused the first casualties to fall on Antwerp soil to V-weapons, killing 32 and injuring 46.
After a number of reasonably 'quiet' days, brought on by adverse weather, October 19th saw Artillerie Abteilung 836 fire its third rocket and last rocket from Merzig at Antwerp, before the unit relocated to Burgsteinfurt. Five minutes after its launch, it landed in Borgerhout, a district of Antwerp, killing 44 and injuring 98 - one of the victims of the impact being my maternal great-grandmother, thus linking me personally to this particular chapter of the Second World War. Soon, the city of Antwerp would gain the unenviable nickname of City of Sudden Death
: with nearly no interruptions from October 19th onwards, numerous bombs would hit the city on a daily basis, some falling wide or causing little damage, others killing dozens and destroying dozens of homes in a single moment.
In all, V-bombs would continue to fall onto Antwerp and its surroundings for 175 days, bringing inmeasurable fear and grief to its population.
While most history books seem to remember only London as having been targeted by the German V-weapons, this was not the case. Between September 6th 1944 and March 28th 1945, some 3172 V2 rockets were launched against numerous targets. These included:
- Antwerp, Belgium: 1610 (October 7th 1944 - March 28th 1945)
- London, United Kingdom: 1358 (September 8th 1944 - March 27th 1945)
- Norwich, United Kingdom: 43 (September 26th - October 3rd 1944)
- Liège, Belgium: 27 (September 26th 1944 - February 6th 1945)
- Lille, France: 25 (September 15th - September 26th 1944)
- Paris, France: 22 (September 6th - October 5th 1944)
- Maastricht, the Netherlands: 19 (September 18th 1944 - February 12th 1945)
- Tourcoing, France: 19 (September 18th - 26th 1944)
- Hasselt, Belgium: 13 (September 18th 1944 - March 14th 1945)
- Remagen, Germany: 11 (all on March 17th 1945)
- Arras, France: 6 (September 18th - 26th 1944)
- Cambrai, France: 4 (September 18th - 26th 1944)
- Tournai, Belgium: 3 (October 4th 1944 - March 12th 1945)
- Diest, Belgium: 2 (both October 1st 1944)
- Ipswich, United Kingdom: 1 (September 25th 1944)
Among these, the most severe hit took place on December 16th 1944 in Antwerp: a single V2 hit the Rex
, a film theatre in the city center where The Plainsman
was being shown to civilians and Allied soldiers alike, leaving 567 dead and 291 injured.
In all, the V2 attacks left 2754 civilians dead and another 6523 injured in Greater London; Antwerp suffered the loss of 1736 civilians with another 4500 injured. Unlike the V1 flying bombs, the V2 rockets were impervious to interception: once fired, and assuming the rocket didn't malfunction in flight, it was only a matter of minutes before they reached their target. Approaching their target in their final stage at a speed of Mach 6, they were too quick to be observed or fired at; usually no warning preceded their arrival, with the first sign of a V2 shot being the actual rocket exploding on the ground. However, as noted earlier, such was the cruelty employed by the SS at the production facilities, that more slave labourers actually died producing the V2 rockets, than victims did at the receiving end of them.
The only actual tactical use of V2 bombs took place in March of 1945, when it was used to target the Remagen bridge that had fallen intact into Allied hands. These attacks only emphasised the general inaccuracy of the V2 as a weapon: out of 11 rockets fired at the bridge, the closest hit fell half a mile from its target, while the furthest one fell some 25 miles away.
While V2s were too technically unreliable and too inaccurate to influence the eventual outcome of the war, they did go on to shape the face of the Cold War. Basing themselves on the V2, and using captured technicians and engineers from the project, Great Britain, the United States and Russia each started their own rocket programs, eventually resulting in these nations' nuclear ballistic missile programs. The final firing of a direct V2-derived rocket, a Soviet R-1 test vehicle, took place on September 13th 1964; barely 5 years later, on July 20th 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon, having reached it with a Saturn V booster rocket developed under Wernher von Braun's supervision.
1/72 Revell 03309 (ex-Special Armour SA72003)
Purchased October 18th 2018
Completed October 20th 2018
Nineteenth model completed in 2018