Sometimes it seems like World War 2 is Classically Educated’s favorite era – not only are we going through the forties in our review of the 1001 movies – but we are also fascinated by the era. Today we have another amazing excerpt from Stacy Danielle Stephens’ Historical novel about WWII. If you like what you see here please remember that Stacy’s Bismarck series is also available here, as are many other parts of her novel – just look for stories tagged WW2. This one is also a timely reminder, after the accidents in the private space sector this week, that rocketry has always been a difficult subject!
On March 18th, 1942, the first V2 exploded during tests of the combustion chamber. While it is the purpose of such tests to discover problems of this sort, the Luftwaffe used this apparent disappointment as a reason to request an investigation into the Army’s rocket program. Reichsminister Speer, with Hitler’s approval, denied the request. Yet Hitler himself was posing a greater threat to the program than either the Luftwaffe or any number of technical difficulties, however explosive they might be. He wanted the program, when operational, to put a rocket into England every fifteen minutes. Further, he wanted the initial sortie to comprise five thousand rockets fired in such rapid succession as to engulf London in a single uninterrupted blast of twenty-four hours duration. If this were not feasible, the rocket program would be set aside, and the money used elsewhere. However, the Fuehrer soon had a change of heart.
On February 14th, 1942, The British Air Ministry had officially instructed Bomber Harris to do what he’d wanted to do all along: undermine German morale by focusing the RAF’s efforts against “population and in particular the industrial workers” of Germany. Three weeks later, the RAF made its first such highly concentrated effort against Essen, with unimpressive results.
In the autumn of 1940, Josef Goebbels had made an eponym of Coventry, creating both a verb–coventrieren–and an adjective–coventriert–for use in newsreels reporting the extreme damage the Luftwaffe inflicted on British cities. Now Harris decided that the RAF must conventrier a German city. Lübeck was sufficiently industrialized to justify a massive raid, and had enough ancient buildings, made principally of wood, which had been drying for centuries, to burn easily, provided they were first broken apart with high explosives, then doused with incendiaries. More than a thousand Germans were killed or injured, and the homes of more than 15,000 destroyed.
It was six weeks before Goering’s Luftwaffe could strike back, making a raid against Exeter. This raid was nominally successful, but not adequate for propaganda purposes.
Hitler no longer concerned himself with the rocket program’s staggering costs, but only with its staggering effects.
* * *
In October, 1942, Dr Werner von Braun was asked by his superiors in the rocket program, who were understandably concerned about a loss of funding in favour of a more cost-effective weapon, what the comparative advantages of the Luftwaffe’s flying bomb were, and how they could be effectively argued against. Von Braun explained that the flying bomb would deliver a one-ton high-explosive charge at a very economical 470 miles per hour. A rocket would deliver that same ton of high explosive at four times the speed of sound. Except for the impact of fourteen tons of steel a fraction of a second before the actual explosion, there would be silence, and immediately following that explosion, there would be a sonic boom, nearly as loud and shattering as the explosion itself. He allowed his superiors to infer for themselves that the psychological impact of the rocket as a weapon more than justified the substantially higher cost.
* * *
By April of 1943, Churchill’s son-in-law, Duncan Sandys, had been named chairman of a War Cabinet Committee responsible for countermeasures against German Secret Weapons. A crucial first step consisted of verifying the existence of such weapons programs, and locating any weapons produced, as well as the facilities producing them.
Intelligence reports of a German rocket program had become both more frequent and more consistent, and yet neither the rockets nor the place of their manufacture had been identified. It occurred to Sandys that the problem could be turned around. Rather than looking everywhere in countless reconnaissance photos and finding nothing, he reasoned that large scale long-range rockets would have to be tested in a remote place. What place in Germany be suitable? Only a site on the Baltic Coast. Further, he knew it would be necessary to track these test flights. At the speeds they’d be traveling, this work would require the most competent radar operators available. When he asked Military Intelligence where the Germans’ best radar units were stationed, he was told that they were on the Baltic coast, near a place called Peenemunde. He requested that relatively frequent reconnaissance flights be made over the area, and by the middle of June, he had photos of German rockets right where he had guessed they would be.
* * *
On June 18, 1943, Reichsmarschall Goering was sufficiently pleased with the apparent success of the first several dozen tests of the V1 flying bomb to instruct senior staff that they should begin composing a telegram to Reichsminister Speer, outlining the requirements necessary for proper use and full-scale production of the weapon, which he wished to be set at a figure of 50,000 a month.
* * *
Upon meeting Himmler, Dietrich saw at once that the innocuous demeanor, which incorporated a patronizing tone with condescending facial expressions, and bordered on being absurdly surreal, was purely the device of a brutal policeman who lacked physical strength. Himmler’s conversation skills, such as they were, demonstrated that he was accustomed to interrogation, whether he was obtaining or providing the answers. He was a frightened little man who could never be big, never overcome his fears, but only inflict them on others.
“I hope you have something better to show me than what the Luftwaffe had for Goering,” Himmler observed as they made their way outside. A rocket had been prepared for launch. Neither his remark, nor the timing of it, surprised Dietrich. It had been calculated to strike fear while the iron of anxiety was at its hottest. This was an interrogation technique.
For the first few seconds, the launch was proceeding flawlessly, but the rocket began to spin as it gained altitude and velocity, and then spiraled and yawed, somehow plummeting even as it continued to accelerate. Dietrich realized instantly that this was the worst possible embarrassment that could happen to the program, and yet he recognized the purest beauty of what had taken place, although he didn’t give a thought to either of these things until another minute or two had passed after the few seconds it took for the rocket to pitch and fall and dramatically place a crater of one hundred feet diameter in the earth simply by roaring out the loudest explosion Dietrich had ever heard. Standing in the utter silence that followed, he relived those few seconds, seeing it all as if he were reading a paper by Einstein, with illustrations, the rocket taking the place of the child’s rubber ball dropped inside a fast-moving passenger train. The wonder of it, and the fact that he had witnessed such a thing, moved him to tears.
The seeming eternity of silence was broken by Himmler.
“I can return to Berlin and order increased production of conventional weapons without losing a minute of sleep.”
It had every appearance of being a joke, but Himmler was not laughing. Perhaps he never laughed. Dietrich understood what Himmler meant, and wondered if any of the others did. It was fairly well known that both Speer and Hitler adored the rocket program. Bringing bad news to the Fuehrer was no way to win his favour. While everyone around him was disappointed by what had just happened, Himmler was frightened by it, and could do nothing about that fear except to fling it at others.
“We have at least demonstrated that it’s a genuine vengeance weapon,” Dietrich replied. “They blow a hole in our grounds, we blow a hole in theirs.” The Director had been right about having him on hand. He now glanced at the Director, made eye contact, then looked toward the test stand and quickly raised his eyes skyward.
“We have a second test launch scheduled to take place in an hour,” the Director mentioned rather matter-of-factly. Of course, nothing of the kind had been scheduled, but there was a finished rocket which could be made ready in an hour, and everyone understood the importance of doing so.
It was actually fifty-five minutes later when this second rocket disappeared perfectly into the clouds, traveling on a flash and a boom, and less then three minutes after that, it returned to earth nearly one-hundred-fifty miles away, coming down just as perfectly with a boom and a flash.
Himmler’s facial expression was relaxed, his relief so immense that he wasn’t thinking of the impression he was creating. For those few moments, he was so free of fear that he felt no need to inflict fear on anyone else. That rocket had saved his career, perhaps his life, but Dietrich knew that such a man could never feel gratitude, and would certainly never express it in any way more meaningful than the look and air of innocent serenity he now shared with them.
“I will put in a word with the Fuehrer when I find an appropriate moment,” Himmler promised.
Of course he would.
* * *
Although there were indications that the western allies intended to liberate Greece, perhaps endangering Rumanian oil fields and the southern flank of the Eastern front, the possibility of a Sicilian invasion could not be overlooked. Accordingly, Hitler had requested a report on Italian preparedness. This report, which he received in the early hours of June 30th, 1943, stated that neither the Italian military nor Italy itself could be depended upon. It must either be secured with German forces, or abandoned entirely.
* * *
Dietrich was just outside his hotel when the air raid sirens sounded. He should have gone inside, or found a public shelter, he knew, but seeing an actual air battle take place was too great a temptation. He hoped it wouldn’t be anything major, such as what Hamburg had been put through. Ten minutes later, the first of the British bombers were overhead. The glaring full moon seemed to fade as searchlights surrounded the British, and more than four hundred anti-aircraft guns fired within a few seconds. The relentless concussion of the air, and the shimmying of the earth, physically thrilled him. More waves of aircraft filled the sky, single-tailed pursuit planes dogging and downing twin-tailed aircraft that themselves seemed to be searching for targets but not dropping bombs.
Ninety minutes later, when Luftwaffe Field Marshall Erhard Milch emerged from a shelter to evaluate the battle, he recognized that the anti-aircraft guns were firing at German planes. He immediately telephoned Luftwaffe Chief of Staff Hans Jeschonnek and Reichsmarschall Göring, and attempted to reach Hitler himself at Wolfsschanze, but could not obtain an order for the gun crews to cease fire. Because of a telecommunications failure in fighter command, the hundreds of German pilots circling Berlin were operating with little or no instruction, beyond a vague order to guard Berlin at all costs, and without any information from observation posts on the ground. Consequently, the “battle” raged until the aircraft involved began running out of fuel. More than a hundred of them crashed while landing at Brandenburg.
From their vantage point above the confusion, German fighter pilots saw British Pathfinder Squadrons dropping target markers more than one hundred miles to the north of Berlin, and realized that something untoward was afoot. Thirty of these pilots chose to disregard the order to protect Berlin, and flew off to have a look at this peculiar development. They discovered that the RAF was bombing a small area on the Baltic coast for some reason, and seized the moment. Among them, these thirty German pilots managed to shoot down forty of the almost six hundred British bombers that had struck Peenemunde.
* * *
Stage business is the essence of magic. To draw your attention away from what’s about to happen, the magician makes a point of showing you there is nothing up his sleeve.
Hitler had said that the strength of a totalitarian system lies it its capacity to force those who hate it to imitate it. He failed to understand that his presumption of imitation was also a weakness. The Luftwaffe hit London hardest whenever there was a full moon. After the RAF had coventried Hamburg, the Nazis could only believe that Berlin would be struck a death blow under the revealing light of a full moon, even though they were fully aware that the area bombing of a city did not require illumination. So eight Mosquitos with nothing up their sleeves was all it took to make the German rocket program disappear, if only for two months.
 England’s misfortune was the Red Army’s good luck. The resources allocated to the V2 program could have been used to produce more than 5,000 Tiger I tanks.
 Exactly three years later, Curtis LeMay would use exactly this same process against Tokyo, undermining the morale of at least 88,000 Japanese civilians by killing them with burns or asphyxiation, and demoralizing 1.5 million more by destroying their homes.
 Seven of the eight most recent tests of the V1 “cherry pit” flying bombs had crashed within moments of takeoff. One had slammed into the woods just beyond the Development Works of the Army’s adjoining compound. None the less, on June 28th, 1943, Hitler approved the construction of four V1 launch sites.
 The gun crews were Hitler Youth; most of them fourteen years old. By the end of the war, almost all German anti-aircraft guns were operated by teenaged girls, the boys having been sent to front-line combat units.
 There had been a total of only eight RAF Mosquito bombers over Berlin that night.
 While there is every reason to assume this failure resulted from an SOE operation, there is no evidence supporting such an assumption.
The launch actually took place on the 29th, but I’m compressing the scene.