On this day in 1942, German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun’s brainchild, the V-2 missile, is fired successfully from Peenemunde, as island off Germany’s Baltic coast. It traveled 118 miles. It proved extraordinarily deadly in the war and was the precursor to the Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) of the postwar era.
German scientists, led by von Braun, had been working on the development of these long-range missiles since the 1930s. Three trial launches had already failed; the fourth in the series, known as A-4, finally saw the V-2, a 12-ton rocket capable of carrying a one-ton warhead, successfully launched.
The V-2 was unique in several ways. First, it was virtually impossible to intercept. Upon launching, the missile rises six miles vertically; it then proceeds on an arced course, cutting off its own fuel according to the range desired. The missile then tips over and falls on its target-at a speed of almost 4,000 mph. It hits with such force that the missile burrows itself into the ground several feet before exploding. It had the potential of flying a distance of 200 miles, and the launch pads were portable, making them impossible to detect before firing.
The first launches as part of an offensive did not occur until September 6, 1944 when two missiles were fired at Paris. On September 8, two more were fired at England, which would be followed by more than 1,100 more during the next six months. More than 2,700 Brits died because of the rocket attacks.
After the war, both the United States and the Soviet Union captured samples of the rockets for reproduction–they also captured the scientists responsible for their creation.