In the early years of WWII, Nazi Germany fired 10,000 V1″Doodlebug” rockets at England, killing over 6,000 Londoners by 1943. The subsonic V1 was an effective terror weapon, but the “low and slow” trajectory and short range of the weapon lacked the strategic power to end the war in the Nazi’s favor.
The V2 was different. It was the dawn of the ballistic missile era, and Nazi Germany was first off the starting line.
The Peenemünde Aggregat A4 V2 was an early predecessor of the Cruise Missile, delivering a 2,148-pound payload over a 236 mile range at 5 times the speed of sound. You could hear the V1 “Buzz Bomb” coming and seek shelter. Not so the V2. Victims of the V2 didn’t know they were under attack until the weapon had exploded.
When Wernher von Braun showed Adolf Hitler color film of the launch of a V2, Hitler jumped from his seat and shook Braun’s hand with excitement. “This is the decisive weapon of the war. Humanity will never be able to endure it,” Der Fuhrer exclaimed. “If I had this weapon in 1939 we would not be at war now!”
About that, Hitler may have been right. The Allies were anxious to get their hands on one. In early 1944, they had their chance. A V2 crashed onto a muddy bank of the River Bug, in Nazi occupied Poland. The Polish underground had been waiting for such a situation, and quickly descended on the rocket, covering it with brush. Desperate to retrieve the missile, the Germans conducted a week-long aerial and ground search, but failed find the weapon under its camouflage.
After the search came to an end, partisans returned to the site. This time they brought four Polish scientists who carefully disassembled the weapon, packing the pieces in barrels. The parts were then shipped to a barn in Holowczyce, just a few miles away.
The allied effort to retrieve the stolen missile, code named “Most III”, got underway on this day in 1944, when Royal New Zealand Air Force 1st Lieutenant Stanley George Culliford landed his Dakota C47 in the early morning darkness, at a secret air strip near Tarnow.
They loaded the rocket chassis and several technical experts on board, but it was too much weight. The overloaded C47 couldn’t move on the wet, muddy field. The port-side wheel was stuck fast in the mud. Everything had to be offloaded, Polish partisans working desperately to free the aircraft as dawn approached. They stuffed the wheel track with straw, and then laid boards in the trench. Nothing worked.
Co-pilot Kazimierz “Paddy” Szrajer thought the parking brake must be stuck, so they cut the hydraulic lines supplying the brake. That didn’t work, either. In the end, partisans were frantically digging trenches under the aircraft’s main wheel. There were two failed attempts to take off. Culliford was considering blowing up the plane and burning all the evidence, but agreed to one last attempt. The aircraft lumbered off the ground on the third try. The headlights of Nazi vehicles could be seen in the darkness as the last of the Polish partisans scattered into the night.
There would be 5 hours of unarmed, unescorted flight over Nazi territory, and an emergency landing with no brakes, before the V2 rocket components finally made it to England.
Today, few remember their names. We are left only to imagine a world in which Nazi Germany remained in sole possession, of the game changing weapons of World War Two.