In the early years of WWII, Nazi Germany fired 10,000 V1″Doodlebug” rockets at England, killing over 6,000 Londoners alone, by 1943. The subsonic V1 was an effective terror weapon but, bad as it was to be the target of one of these things, the “low and slow” trajectory and the weapon’s short range lacked the strategic punch needed by Nazi Germany to end the war in its favor.
The V2 was a different story. This 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 at 5 times the speed of sound over a 236-mile range. While you could hear the V1 coming and seek shelter, victims of the V2 didn’t know they were under attack, until the weapon had exploded.
When Wernher von Braun showed Adolf Hitler the launch of the V2 on color film, 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,” Hitler said, “If I had this weapon in 1939 we would not be at war now.”
Allies were anxious to get their hands on the secret weapon and, in early 1944, they had their chance. A V2 had crashed into a muddy bank of the Bug River in Nazi-occupied Poland, without exploding. The Polish underground had been waiting for such an opportunity and quickly descended on the rocket, covering it with brush. Desperate to retrieve it, Germans conducted a week long aerial and ground search for the weapon, but failed find it under all that camouflage.
After what must have seemed an eternity, the search came to an end and 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 Lt Stanley George Culliford landed his Dakota C47 in the early morning darkness, at a secret air strip near Tarnow.
The V2 chassis and several technical experts were loaded on board, but it was too much weight. The overloaded C47 couldn’t move on the wet, muddy field – the port wheel 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 the hydraulic leads supplying the brake, were cut. That didn’t work, either. In the end, partisans were frantically digging trenches under the aircraft’s main wheel. Two attempts failed to get the aircraft off the ground, and Culliford was thinking about blowing up the plane and burning all the evidence. There would be one last attempt.
The aircraft lumbered off the ground on the third try. The last of the partisans scattered into the night, as the headlights of Nazi vehicles could be seen, approaching in the early morning darkness.
There would be 5 hours of unarmed, unescorted flight through Nazi-controlled air space and an emergency landing with no brakes, before those V2 rocket components finally made it to England.
Today, few remember the names of these heroes, struggling in the dark to defeat the forces of Nazi Tyranny. We are left only to imagine a world, in which Nazi Germany remained in sole possession of the game changing super weapons, of WWII.