Months after the D-Day invasion of Normandy, France in World War II, the Germans unleash a terrifying new weapon by order of Adolf Hitler: the V-2 rocket, nicknamed the vengeance weapon. "Chronicles of Courage: Stories of Wartime and Innovation" is a co-production of Vulcan Productions and NBC Learn.
Chronicles of Courage -- V-2 Rocket
KATE SNOW, reporting:
Three months after the D-Day invasion of France during World War II, a massive explosion rocks a quiet neighborhood in West London. The blast kills three people, wounds 22, and leaves a 30-foot crater in the ground. The "mystery explosion" is first thought to be caused by a gas main leak. But people soon learn it is the result of a terrifying new weapon created by German scientists and unleashed by order of Adolf Hitler. It's called the V-2 Rocket, and nicknamed the vengeance weapon. Fired from far away in hidden locations, the rockets are prepared by a unit of German artillery specialists, like Franz Stolle.
FRANZ STOLLE (Artillery Specialist, German Army): It was a magic bullet. From a technical perspective, it was a marvel.
CORY GRAFF (Flying Heritage Collection): Germany in wartime had really advanced technology. They were desperately looking for the thing that could turn the tide of the war.
SNOW: The V-2 rocket has a range of 200 miles, and stands almost 46 feet high, taller than a three-story building. It is the first long-range guided missile in the world.
GRAFF: It was a good way to get 2,200 pounds of explosives to a target. It just followed a path until it crashed into the ground and exploded.
SNOW: Traveling at four times the speed of sound, the supersonic rocket approaches its target in silence. The victims never hear it coming. When it lands, the massive explosion is powerful enough to obliterate an entire city block.
STOLLE: We would launch three or four a day. We didn't care where the rocket came down.
SNOW: The V-2 rockets are built underground through a top secret Nazi program.
STOLLE: Silence was rule number one. Every day, we had to sign a sheet saying that we wouldn't write any letters or anything, no photos, and so on. Everything that happened there had to remain confidential.
SNOW: To save costs on production, the Germans use slave labor. Over 60,000 political prisoners, POWs, and Jews, victims of Hitler's genocidal Holocaust, are brought from the Buchenwald concentration camp. They are forced to work in and build the underground tunnels where the rockets are constructed. Thousands die from the brutal conditions. In an effort to make the rockets less effective, the bravest of the prisoners attempt to sabotage them, even at the threat of execution.
STOLLE: They sabotaged them a lot. And maybe sometimes used poor materials. You wouldn't know. It was unpredictable.
SNOW: And as a result, many of the rockets fail to launch, often with disastrous consequences.
STOLLE: At launch, you had to keep a safe distance of at least 150 meters.
SNOW: Without the benefit of today's GPS-guided rocket technology, the V-2 has to be carefully aimed on the ground toward the direction of its target. Once launched, an onboard guidance system helps the rocket maintain its path of trajectory during flight. This system consists of two gyroscopes, freely-moving rings and disks that pivot around an axis. As the rocket moves, the main axis of the gyroscope disk remains stable. Data recorders measure the movement of the rocket's gyroscopes against their stable axis, which determines the rocket's position. This data is sent electronically to controls in the rocket's fins which make slight corrections to elevation and direction, preventing it from losing control and crashing. But the gyroscope is still primitive and does not have much bearing on where the rocket ultimately lands.
GRAFF: You could be relatively accurate. You could hit something like London but you'd have a hard time hitting a specific block within London.
STOLLE: Thirty kilometers left or right, forward or back, that was a very common occurrence. Once it was launched, you’d say, “Well, it’ll come down somewhere.”
SNOW: Most of the rockets are fired from hidden locations and aimed at the cities of London, England and Antwerp, Belgium. They cause massive damage, inflicting heavy casualties on the civilian population. In London alone, the rockets claim over 2,700 lives. By May, 1945, near the end of the war, the Nazis launch over 3,000 V-2 rockets.
STOLLE: You’d see the missile, and then the burst of flames behind it in the sky. And then it would be over. It was a masterpiece.
SNOW: The technological advancement of the V-2 rocket proves successful as a terror weapon, but Germany is unable to stop the wave of Allied forces. Germany's role in World War II, and its decision to use the vengeance weapon against civilians, still haunts artillery specialist Franz Stolle.
STOLLE: What has war brought? Just loss. Loss of people, loss of materials, loss of land. And the others won.
SNOW: With Germany's surrender, the Allies confiscate the remaining V-2 rockets and liberate the surviving laborers living in their concentration camps, bringing to an end one of the worst atrocities in history.
COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France — Gone are the screaming shells, seasick soldiers and bloodied waters of 1944. On Friday, a sun-splattered Normandy celebrated peace, with silent salutes, tears and international friendship marking 70 years since the D-Day invasion helped change the course of World War II and modern history.
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