Air Force Bases

Rocketry During World War II

Continued from Early Rocketry

While Goddard and his assistants were developing missiles in the arid Southwest, a very different type of missile program was taking shape in Germany. In 1929 the German Army, anxious to escape the prohibition on heavy artillery contained in the Versailles Treaty, began to secretly explore the possibility of delivering explosives with long-range rockets. In 1931 the German Army Board of Ordnance established a rocket development group and in 1937 built a test station at Peenemunde on the Baltic Coast. On this isolated stretch of coastline the Germans developed the V-2, the world's first long-range ballistic missile.

While the German Army was experimenting with long-range ballistic missiles, in 1935 the Luftwaffe began developing a "flying bomb," later known as the V-l. Designed for mass production from inexpensive and readily available materials, the V-l was 25 feet long with a wingspan of 16 feet. Lift was provided by the two stubby wings bolted to the midsection of the fuselage. The noisy pulsejet engine that earned the V-l the nickname "buzz bomb" was mounted on the top of the fuselage behind the wings.

Most V-1s were catapulted off long inclined ramps, although a few were air-launched from bombers. The missiles had a cruising speed of 340 miles per hour, a range of approximately 150 miles, and were armed with an 1,800-pound conventional warhead. The guidance system, which consisted of an onboard gyroscope autopilot and an altimeter, was inaccurate. German tests showed that at a range of 110 miles, only 31 percent of the missiles would land within 15 miles of the target.

Between June 1944 and March 1945 the Germans hurled 10,500 V-1s at Great Britain. Most of the missiles never reached their targets. The British were able to destroy 60 percent of the missiles in flight and in the process exposed their fatal flaw: predictability. The V-l was slow, and it maintained a constant course, speed, and altitude. Once located, it could readily be intercepted.

The V-l served as a powerful stimulus to the fledgling U.S. missile program. In July 1944 the Army Air Forces (AAF), working from salvaged parts, reproduced the German missile and designated the American version the JB-2. Initially the AAF envisioned using large numbers of JB-2s in conjunction with its strategic bombing campaign, but testing at Eglin Field, Florida, showed the missile to be too inaccurate and expensive for that purpose. When the AAF terminated production of the JB-2 in September 1945, a consortium of manufacturers had built 1,385 of these early "cruise missiles." Although the JB-2 never saw combat, it provided the AAF with valuable experience in missile development and testing.

Just as Britain was learning to defend itself against the V-ls, in September 1944 the Germans unleashed a new missile, the supersonic V-2. The world's first long-range ballistic missile, the bullet-shaped V-2 was 46 feet tall, 5 feet in diameter, and weighed 14 tons. Armed with a 1,650-pound conventional explosive warhead, the V-2 had a range of 230 miles. Powered by a single liquid-fuel rocket engine and equipped with a rudimentary internal guidance system, the V-2 followed a parabolic flight path that carried it 50 to 60 miles above the earths surface. After reaching the apogee of its trajectory, the V-2 plunged back to earth at several times the speed of sound, offering no warning before its deafening explosion at impact.

The V-2 was classified as a long-range ballistic missile because of its range and flight characteristics. By today's standards, the missile's 200-mile range would make it a tactical weapon, but in the mid-1940s the V-2 was considered a long-range weapon. The V-2 also had the flight characteristics of a ballistic missile. The V-2 did not use aerodynamic surfaces to produce lift; it was actively guided during the first half of its flight; and after thrust from the engines ceased, the missile followed a purely ballistic trajectory down toward its target. In other words, after the V-2 reached the apogee of its parabolic flight path, the only forces that controlled its descent were gravity and drag.

The V-2 was a technological milestone in missile development. Although its effectiveness was compromised by an inaccurate guidance system and ineffective fuse mechanism, the V-2 lent a new and more ominous meaning to the concept of air power. Once launched, the V-2 could not be stopped. It was a terror weapon in the truest sense of the word.

The Allies' reaction to the V-2 attacks was swift and predictable. First they bombed the launch sites. Next, in late 1944, the United States Army Ordnance Department launched a research program to study long-range ballistic missiles. Finally, the Army began searching for a way to intercept the V-2s in flight using antiaircraft artillery.

Independent of the stimulus that came from the German missile program, the United States was without experience in rocket development at the end of the war. In 1936 a small group of graduate students at the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory (GALCIT) at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) began experimenting with rockets. Their goal was to develop a high-altitude sounding rocket that would enable scientists to conduct experiments in the earth's upper atmosphere. Over the next 2 years, the group, led by graduate student Frank Malina, conducted numerous experiments and engine tests. By 1938 they had accumulated a substantial body of test data.

In 1939 Malina's work caught the attention of the U.S. Army Air Corps, which hoped to use the rockets as supplemental power sources to help heavily-laden aircraft take off. Later that year the Army hired the GALCIT group to develop jet-assisted takeoff (JATO) apparatus, and between 1939 and 1942 the GALCIT scientists produced a series of progressively more powerful solid- and liquid-fuel JATO boosters.

In the summer of 1943 Dr. Theodore von Karman, director of the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory, asked the members of the GALCIT project to evaluate several startling British intelligence reports on the German rocket program. The GALCIT group, which in 1944 began calling itself the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), considered the reports alarming and proposed initiating research to produce a long-range jet-propelled missile.

The Army Ordnance Department accepted JPL's proposal, and in January 1944 awarded the laboratory a contract to develop a missile capable of carrying a l,OOO-pound warhead between 75 and 100 miles at a speed sufficient to avoid interception by fighter aircraft. Reflecting the identity of the new sponsor, the new effort was called the ORDCIT project. In December 1944 JPL fired its first 24-pound solid-fuel Private A missile from a temporary test range set up at Camp Irwin, California. The 92-inch long missile had a range of about 11 miles.

JPL continued to develop missiles after the war, and in December 1945 it launched its first liquid-fuel missile, the WAC Corporal. Powered by an Aerojet engine that generated 1,000 pounds of thrust, the missile rose to a then-record altitude of 235,000 feet. In retrospect, Caltech's World War II research and development (R&D) programs made two important contributions to the postwar missile program. First, the Corporal evolved into the Army's first tactical-range surface-to-surface missile. Second, and more important, the Caltech laboratories were the training ground for many of the scientists and engineers who later played pivotal roles in the Cold War missile program.

In November 1944, in an effort parallel with JPL's, the Ordnance Department hired General Electric (GE) to study the development of long-range rockets and related equipment. The study, called the Hermes Project, had three phases: collecting and analyzing technical data on rockets and guided missiles; assembling and launching captured V-2s; and designing a family of new antiaircraft and intermediate-range surface-to-surface missiles.

In another 1944 development, the U.S. Army Ground Forces asked the Ordnance Department to explore the feasibility of developing a "direction-controlled, major caliber antiaircraft rocket torpedo." The search for a new antiaircraft weapon was prompted by the introduction of new aircraft such as the German jets and the Army's own high-flying B-29 bomber, both of which revealed the limitations of conventional antiaircraft artillery. Moreover, the Army wanted to determine if an antiaircraft missile would be a viable form of defense against the V-2.

In February 1945 the Ordnance Department contracted with Western Electric to study the feasibility of developing a surface-to-air missile capable of shooting down a bomber such as a B-29. When the Army chose Western Electric and its research affiliate, the Bell Telephone Laboratories, to design the new system, it sent aircraft manufacturers a clear message: building missiles required expertise never before used in building aircraft. The key components of the new antiaircraft missile system were radar and high-speed computers, and Western Electric and Bell Labs had ample experience in both. To compete in missile development, the airframe industry would have to develop expertise in a number of new areas, particularly solid state electronics.

The World War II-era research performed by JPL, GE, Western Electric, and Bell Labs formed a firm foundation for later missile development. Equally important, the working relationships forged between the military, the academic community, and industry served as a template for later Cold War partnerships. Finally, many of the military's premier missile-testing facilities were established during World War II. In November 1943 the Navy established a missile research and development complex at China Lake, California, and in July 1945 the Army established its White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico. A week later, on land that would eventually become part of White Sands, another technological achievement occurred that would greatly affect the future of missile development; the detonation of the first atomic bomb.

Continued from Early Rocketry