Rocket Man

In the summer of 1944, the population of London was accustomed to the loud rumbling of a buzz bomb flying overhead, the abrupt silence when the engine stopped and the bomb began its descent to earth, the anxious seconds of waiting for the explosion. Buzz bombs, otherwise known as V-1s, were simple pilotless airplanes, launched from sites along the French and Dutch coasts. As the summer ended and our armies drove the Germans out of France, the buzz bombs stopped coming. They were replaced by a much less disturbing instrument of murder, the V-2 rockets launched from more distant sites in western Holland. The V-2 was not nerve-wracking like the buzz bomb. When a V-2 came down, we heard the explosion first and the supersonic scream of the descending rocket afterward. As soon as we heard the explosion, we knew that it had missed us. The buzz bombs and the V-2 rockets killed a few thousand people in London, but they hardly disrupted our civilian activities and had no effect at all on the war that was then raging in France and in Poland. The rockets had even less effect than the buzz bombs.

To me at that time the V-2 rockets were a cause for joy and wonder. I was a civilian scientist analyzing the causes of bomber losses for the Royal Air Force Bomber Command. I knew that the main cause of our bomber losses was German fighters, and I knew that the Germans were desperately short of fighters. If the Germans had had five times as many fighters, they could have stopped us from flying over Germany, and that would have made it much harder for us to invade their country and finish the war. I knew that the buzz bomb was a cheap and simple device but the V-2 was complicated and expensive. Each V-2 cost the Germans at least as much in skilled labor and materials as a modern fighter aircraft. It was incomprehensible to me that the Germans had chosen to put their limited resources into militarily useless rockets instead of crucially needed fighters. Each time I heard a V-2 explode, I counted it as one German fighter thrown away and ten fewer of our bombers downed. It seemed that some unknown benefactor in Germany was unilaterally disarming the German air force for our benefit. I had no idea then who the benefactor might be. We now know his name. It was Wernher von Braun.

Michael J. Neufeld’s Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War is a meticulously researched and technically accurate biography of von Braun. He was not intentionally working for Germany’s enemies in 1944. He was at that time a patriotic German, working for the Fatherland, producing V-2 rockets for the German army. It was not his fault that V-2 rockets were not what the Germans needed for defending the Fatherland. He was our benefactor only by accident. Von Braun’s primary purpose, from the time he began rocket experiments as an…

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