When Neil Armstrong took that “One small step” he had an appreciation for the thousands of scientists and engineers that put him safely there. However, he probably didn’t know that the principal scientist in the Apollo program, Dr Wernher Von Braun, was himself very lucky to be alive, because some twenty-six years earlier, on the 17th of August 1943, nearly 650 men from three Allied air forces, did their very best to kill him.
Bombing raids over German-held territory were almost always directed at structures. When Hamburg was destroyed in the first firestorm, it wasn’t to kill the inhabitants, although many were killed. It would have been better for the Allied cause if just the factories, docks and houses were destroyed, leaving the population untouched. It takes a great deal of resources to rehome a city full of refugees and almost nothing to care for a dead one. Consequently when the young men of Bomber Command were told in their various squadron mission briefings that one of their objectives was to kill or disable as many of the people near the target as they could, they sat up and took notice. The briefings were unusual in other ways too. The huts were surrounded by armed guards and ID checks were made on every person entering the building. Crews were only permitted to sit as a group, so that any out of place person would be noticed. The men were also told that unlike other missions, if they failed to destroy the target the first time, they would go back again and again until the job was done. Every airman in those huts knew that such a tactic would result in tremendous casualties. It was bad enough bombing Germany when and where it was a surprise, but if the Nazis knew they were coming, few would survive the welcoming party that would greet them. The next thing they were told was to focus their attention even more on the job at hand. Missions could be scrubbed for various reasons, mostly to do with weather, every man knew this was a possibility – but with every scrubbed mission came the risk that the target could be made known to the enemy. The briefing officers said firmly and with such conviction that every man knew they were quite serious, that if the mission was scrubbed and the target leaked out, the man responsible would be summarily executed with a minimum of formalities.
Simultaneously around Bomber Command’s bases, the big curtains were drawn and the maps revealed the target – Peenemünde. A murmur went around and lots of quizzical looks exchanged as none had ever heard of it. The murmurs increased when they were told that they were attacking at a third of their usual height – only 8000 feet. The real worry the airmen had was that the moonlight and the low level of attack ensured that when the fighters arrived, few would survive the battle that would follow. They were told that it was a research and manufacturing establishment for night fighters. This was a lie. What Peenemünde actually did was fire rockets. Big rockets carrying a ton of explosives, faster than the speed of sound and the first man-made objects to go into space. These were true ballistic missiles. Impossible to stop and capable of killing thousands of people, perhaps even threatening D-Day itself. This was Hitler’s secret weapon, the weapon he thought would win him the war.
The Allies found out about Peenemünde through several sources, one being maps of the facility smuggled out by Polish janitors. Photo reconnaissance was inconclusive until one picture showed a missile being taken to its launch pad. The mission was given some added urgency from an unlikely source. The German High Command. When senior officers were captured by the Allies they were taken to one of a few specially constructed camps, often in English stately homes. There they received treatment which they no doubt thought they were due – they got the best food, alcohol and accommodation available. Some may have suspected that the British Intelligence Service was bugging their quarters, but none suspected that even the trees, park benches and other places in the grounds were also bugged. These generals could barely utter a word without it being recorded, translated and passed on to relevant authorities. In one recorded conversation, General Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma was chatting to General Ludwig Crüwell when he expressed surprise at not hearing any explosions coming from London. He then went on to describe to his fellow General some of the characteristics of the weapon that came to be known as the V2. Such was the importance of this interception that it landed on the desk of Churchill himself. From there a directive was sent to Sir Arthur, “Bomber” Harris, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief of RAF Bomber Command to destroy Peenemünde and Operation HYDRA was set in motion.
By 1943 most bombing missions were directed by an electronic navigational aid called OBOE – so called for the sound it makes when being operated in the aircraft. Unfortunately OBOE was limited by the curvature of the Earth and could not reach Peenemünde from England. Consequently two relatively new tactics were employed. The first was to use a Master Bomber who would circle the target and control by radio the individual targets of the various groups of bombers. This was tried with great success in the Famous Dambusters Raid and then again on the Italian city of Turin. The second tactic was to counter one of the defences of the Nazi establishments and the effects of bombing by earlier aircraft. Usually, the first wave of bombers would go in and drop on the target, using normal bomb sighting methods, but as the fires from these grew and as the Germans lit smoke generators it became harder and harder for subsequent aircraft to see what they should be aiming at. Consequently a method that was first used on that same raid on Turin, called T & D, time and distance was employed. An undefended but easily recognisable point near the target was determined and approached from a precise angle. Once it passed through the optics of the bomb sight, a stopwatch was started and at a point determined by the speed of the aircraft, the bombs were released.
The raid comprised of three parts, deception, interception and destruction.
In the nights prior to the raid, bombers heading for other targets were given dog leg routes that took them near Peenemünde. This set off the air raid alerts on the base but set in the minds of the defenders a series of false alarms causing them to both lose sleep and be less likely to recognise the real raid until it was too late. Secondly the bombers carried WINDOW, millions of small strips of aluminium foil designed to confuse the German FREYA radar system. The date of the raid, though not chosen to mislead the defenders would have had that effect anyway. On the 17th of August 1943 there was nearly a full moon. This was necessary for the first wave of visual bombers, but Bomber Command almost never scheduled missions at a period where defending night fighters could easily see their attackers so none would be expected. Finally a group of eight Mosquito fighter/bombers, took off for Berlin. They were loaded with colourful flares, called “Christmas trees” and a minimum bomb load both of which they dropped on the German capital. This was a typical prelude to a major attack. A special Pathfinder force of Mosquitos would drop marker flares over the target from a low level to give the higher flying heavy bombers an aiming point. The result of these deceptive tactics made sure that fighter bases all over that part of Germany were scrambled to defend the city, their pilots no doubt keen for lots of moonlit targets. This part of the deception was extremely successful, thousands of anti-aircraft shells exploded over the city and hundreds of Luftwaffe fighters were uselessly orbiting radio beacons in the hope of being vectored onto a bomber stream. Twice the flak batteries were ordered to lower their range to allow the German fighters a chance to go hunting over the city. Hunting for bombers that were not there. Even after the last of the Mosquitos had left for home, the flak bombardment continued and more fighters were being ordered to come to Berlin to protect the capital. When fighters radioed their controllers telling them of the fires in the north coming from Peenemünde, the German military became a victim of their own secrecy. The Allies clearly knew where Peenemünde was and how important it was to the Reich, this was not generally known by the Luftwaffe controllers and so the reports were not considered as important as defending Berlin. Consequently the fighters were kept circling the beacons well out of harm’s way.
Fighter command tasked 28 Mosquitos and 10 Beaufighters to attack five fighter bases as the defending fighters were taking off and landing for refuel. This was mostly ineffective in terms of shooting down their fighters, but along with other aircraft dispatched to resupply the Danish underground they contributed to the picture that the British wanted to place in the minds of the German defenders. A big bombing raid was coming, and it was headed for Berlin. The USAF had sent 376 B17 bombers on a bombing raid on the ball bearing factories at Schweinfurt and Regensburg during the day, which meant that those fighter pilots who would back up the night fighters opposing Operation HYDRA would be tired before any battle began.
The 17th of August 1943 was a Tuesday and although days of the week were not usually considered relevant when planning raids, on this occasion intelligence sources indicated that training sessions were to be held for the people who launched the rockets on Tuesdays and that they would be staying overnight. The opportunity to kill them as well as the engineers and scientists was too tempting to pass up. Three waves of bombers were sent in. The first guided by marker flares made a tragic error and instead of bombing the accommodation complex, they bombed the nearby concentration camp where at least 500 slave labourers were killed. No doubt the casualties were so high because, the target markers carried bombs specifically designed to kill people along with their “Christmas Trees” and the Nazis didn’t provide shelters for their slaves. The Master Bomber, Group Captain J. H. Searby saw the error after a third of the first wave’s bombs were dropped and redirected the remaining bombers onto the target. Anti-aircraft guns from both land and “Flak ships” opened up on the British bombers and two were shot down.
The marker flares for the second wave attacking the construction and assembly buildings were blown off course by a sudden gust of wind and some of the bombs landed in the sea. Fortunately Group Captain Searby redirected the remaining bombers and a building used to store assembled rockets was hit and destroyed.
The third wave attacked the experimental works and the homes of the most senior scientists, including Dr Von Braun’s. By this time, Peenemünde’s defences were starting to have an effect. The anti-aircraft gunners were more effective and the night fighters who realised their mistake in defending Berlin against a non-existent force began to arrive and take their toll. One attacked eight bombers, destroying five and damaging the other three in only eighteen minutes. Neither the fighter nor its crew escaped unscathed, the radio operator caught a bullet in the shoulder and when an engine caught fire both had to bail out. ME110s were notoriously difficult to exit safely and the pilot was seriously injured when he jumped and hit the tail of his aircraft. Innovation was not confined to the British side, a new weapon was first used at Peenemünde that was not fully understood by the Allies for months so come. Called Schräge Musik (Strange music) it was a pair of upward firing cannon loaded with armour-piercing, explosive and incendiary ammunition. The fighter would position itself within a few metres of the bomber under one wing and in between two of the engines. A short burst, unmissable at that range, would quickly set fire to the wing fuel tank, the fire weakening the structural integrity of the wing and dooming the aircraft. No one on board the bomber would know anything until they felt the explosion. These and standard Luftwaffe fighter tactics ensured the destruction of 42* Allied bombers that night, with only 79 of their 294 crew surviving to become POWs. What Wellington called “The Butcher’s Bill” for Operation HYDRA, was high, but nowhere near what could have been expected had the deception campaign not been as successful.
At least 75% of the buildings at Peenemünde were destroyed, estimates vary on how long production was delayed – the maximum appears to be as much as six months. This may not seem a great delay but the V2 only had an operational life of seven months and in that time killed around 5000 people mostly in Britain and Belgium, so any delay at all saved many lives. What further hampered production was the loss of two of their most senior engineers, Dr Walter Thiel, and Dr Erich Walther plus 180 other technical and scientific staff. Another casualty fell as an indirect victim of Hitler’s legendary temper. When the scale of the deception became obvious and Hitler realised how close his much vaunted secret weapon came to complete destruction, he gave his Reichsmarschall, Hermann Göring a reprimand on a scale that only he knew how to give and in the time honoured tradition of military everywhere, Göring prepared to pass on his displeasure to his Chief of Staff, Generaloberst Hans Jeschonnek. However the day before Göring had already given Jeschonnek an abusive phone call over the Luftwaffe’s response to the Schweinfurt raid and he avoided another one by his suicide.
Wernher Von Braun, of course, survived to guide that one small step toward the moon. But his history was not entirely forgotten. Mathematician Tom Lehrer made sure his part in the deaths of those 5000 people, not forgetting the thousands of slaves who died putting his rockets together, was remembered for all time. He penned this song, which will be available to all for as long as the internet remains.
Some have harsh words for this man of renown,
But some think our attitude
Should be one of gratitude,
Like the widows and cripples in old London town,
Who owe their large pensions to Wernher von Braun.
On the 25th of November 1944, a single V1 rocket carrying a ton of explosives, killed 168 people in a Woolworths shop in London. Some of the victims were in a neighbouring shop and some in nearby offices. Of the victims, 33 were children, including babies. Meanwhile, 123 passers-by were injured, many seriously.
*Wiki gives 40, but my principal source, Bomber Boys by Kevin Wilson, Cassel London 2005, gives 42.
© Paul Hannah 2020