Books You Should Read: V-2 By Walter Dornberger

In an era where we can watch rockets land on their tails Buck Rogers-style live on YouTube, it’s difficult to imagine a time when even the most basic concepts of rocketry were hotly debated. At the time, many argued that the very concept of a liquid fueled rocket was impossible, and that any work towards designing practical rocket powered vehicles was a waste of time and money. Manned spacecraft, satellite communications, to say nothing of landing on other worlds; all considered nothing more than entertainment for children or particularly fanciful adults.

Walter Dornberger (Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1980-009-33 / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

This is the world in which V-2, written by the head of the German rocket development program Walter Dornberger, takes place. The entire history of the A-4/V-2 rocket program is laid out in this book, from the very early days when Dornberger and his team were launching rockets with little more than matches, all the way up to Germany’s frantic attempts to mobilize the still incomplete V-2 rocket in face of increasingly certain defeat at the end of World War II.

For those fascinated with early space exploration and the development of the V-2 rocket like myself, this book is essentially unparalleled. It’s written completely in the first person, through Dornberger’s own eyes, and reads in most places like a personal tour of his rocket development site at the Peenemünde Army Research Center. Dornberger walks through the laboratories and factories of Peenemünde, describing the research being done and the engineers at work in a personal detail that you simply don’t get anywhere else.

But this book is not only a personal account of how the world’s first man-made object to reach space was created, it’s also a realistic case study of how engineers and the management that pays the bills often clash with disastrous results. Dornberger and his team wanted to create a vehicle to someday allow man to reach space, while the Nazi government had a much more nefarious and immediate goal. But this isn’t a book about the war — the only battles you’ll read about in V-2 take place in meeting rooms, where the engineers who understood the immense difficulty of their task tried in vain to explain why the timetables and production numbers the German military wanted simply couldn’t be met.

Wernher von Braun

Wernher von Braun

Generally considered the father of the US space program, and the mind behind Germany’s rocket development in World War II, Wernher von Braun is naturally featured quite prominently in V-2. Dornberger was von Braun’s superior in the German rocket program, and while he often comments on the young engineer’s brilliance, he makes it clear that the development of the V-2 rocket was not the accomplishment of any one man.

Like any good leader, Dornberger acknowledges the contributions of each and every member of the team, from the engineers who developed the supersonic wind tunnel at Peenemünde to the men who were tasked with recording every rocket’s test firing with handheld cameras. Never once does Dornberger credit a single individual, not even himself, as the creator of the V-2 rocket. Indeed, towards the end of the book he says how such a notion is simply not possible in a project of this scale:

“Neither the V-2 nor the V-1, nor any other great technological invention of recent decades, can be associated with the name of any one man. The days of the lonely creative genius are over. Such achievements can only be the fruit of an anonymous team of research specialists working selflessly, soberly, and in harmony.”

Early Rocket Development

History buffs may know that, more than a decade before Germany got serious with their rocket development, Robert Goddard had already launched several (albeit small) liquid fueled rockets; proving the concept was possible. But Goddard had relatively limited funding, and his work never got the attention it deserved in the United States. A then college-age von Braun was fascinated by what Goddard had achieved, and believed that the fundamental technologies he demonstrated could be scaled up to a much larger vehicle.

Deteriorating US-German relations in the lead up to WWII made a direct exchange of information impossible, and with little specific information to go on, Dornberger’s team would have to start essentially from scratch on their own rocket. From different shapes of combustion chambers and nozzles to the materials that the engine itself was made of, many ideas were tried and judged in short order. During this phase there were a number of catastrophic failures, and the first casualties of the program were recorded long before the V-2 ever reached the launch pad.

Apollo LES Test

Even the basic shape of the vehicle was up for debate in the early years. Some experimental vehicles were launched with the rocket engine in the nose, firing out of angled exhaust nozzles, but they were quickly found impractical. Interestingly enough, this arrangement did eventually find a use: the launch escape systems (LES) found on nearly all manned space capsules.

Stabilzing the vehicle in flight was another problem. Early ideas had the rocket spun on its long axis like an artillery shell, but that would cause the propellants to ride up the sides of the tanks due to centrifugal force. A compromise had a weighted section of the rocket’s nose spinning independent from the rocket itself to achieve a gyroscopic effect, but it proved too complex.

After many iterations, the final form of the V-2 rocket was developed. The general arrangement of the vehicle: rear firing engine, four stabilizing fins, and in-line propellant tanks, would form the basis of rocket design that we still follow today.

Development vs Production

Around the half way mark of the book, Dornberger starts moving away from the technical aspects of developing the V-2, and on to the logistics of putting it into production. As this was a weapon, hundreds, and eventually thousands, would need to be manufactured; in the days before nuclear weaponry, having just a few of these long-range missiles would be inconsequential to the war.

When Dornberger pressed for more resources to get the rockets into mass production, he was teamed up with a group who specialized in the manufacturing of locomotives. The military, being completely ignorant to the complexities involved in the production of rockets, reasoned that experience in building trains was enough to qualify them for the task. The various parts of the rocket were sent off to different factories, and schedules drawn up for how many units each factory was to produce per month.

Given the (for the time) incredibly complex component design, few of the factories were able to come near their assigned production goals, and even if they delivered the number of parts promised, the quality was far below the standards required. Dornberger quotes a 10 – 20% success rate for the rockets assembled in the early days of production.

Further complications arose from the engineer’s constant desire to improve and refine the V-2. As the design was not frozen, and indeed in some ways not even finished, the factories occasionally found themselves operating from outdated blueprints. When the production teams asked engineering for new plans so they could update their lines, engineering would respond that they still needed more time. Dornberger eventually froze the design for everything but the most critical of changes, but by that point, immense amounts of time and money had been wasted due to poor communication.

Trouble with Nazis

You can’t write a book about weapons development in 1940’s Germany without mentioning the Nazis, and V-2 is no exception. There are various Nazis scattered throughout the book, including a few meetings with Hitler himself, but in general Dornberger portrays the Nazi officials he encounters as being more Hogan’s Heroes than Raiders of the Lost Ark.

In almost every case, Dornberger paints them as dim caricatures, often going into detail about their occasionally overweight or unhealthy appearance. Whenever a Nazi pops up at Peenemünde, Dornberger or one of his engineers invariably shuts down their complaints with a perfectly delivered rebuttal that sends them scurrying away until their next encounter. All that’s missing is a twirl of the mustache or a shouted “I’ll get you next time!” to make the cartoon-style interactions he has with them complete.

But this should come as no surprise, writing this book just 10 years after the events, Dornberger would clearly want to distance himself from the regime. Especially since he was employed by Bell Aircraft Corporation and developing the X-15 for NASA at the time.

Why You Should Read V-2

I’ll admit that I’m somewhat obsessed with the V-2 rocket. I have a fuel injector recovered from a crashed V-2 at Peenemünde on my shelf, sitting right next to a 3D printed cutaway model of the vehicle that I designed based on the original German blueprints. So when I saw an early hardcover edition of this book on eBay, I had to have it.

But while I originally picked up this book because of my personal interest in the program, after reading it I realized there are many lessons to be learned when reading such a detailed account of an engineering project of this scale. Many “impossible” problems had to be solved, often with unconventional methods. The importance of adhering to the scientific principles of hypothesis and experimentation is repeatedly explained. The realities of building for mass production versus building a one-off test article are laboriously delved into.

I believe the overall takeaway of V-2 is perhaps best expressed with a line Dornberger uses very early in the book:

“We might well have been daunted by the multiplicity of the task before us. Luckily the difficulties were for the most part still entirely unknown to us. We attacked our problems with the courage of inexperience and had no thought to the time it might take us to solve them.”

With luck, none of us will find ourselves involved in producing a weapon of mass destruction; but the methods detailed in V-2 are still valid for anyone who’s desired to build something out of nothing, for anyone who’s ever looked at a problem and wondered if there wasn’t a better way to solve it.

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