On October 3, 1942, Germany launched a V-2 missile off of Peenemunde, which lies off the country’s Baltic coast. After traveling 118 miles, it was deemed a success — and quickly changed the scope of war as the world knew it.
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The V-2 had been in various stages of development since the 1930s, but that test in October 1942 was different. The 12-ton rocket capable of carrying a one-ton warhead had a successful launch after three other failed attempts.
It was an incredible — if horrifying — piece of technology, one designed to be impossible to intercept or hear until they were exploding. Once launched, a V-2 rises six miles vertically in the air. Then, it cuts off its own fuel on an arced course to fly as far as desired. After that, it tips over and falls almost vertically onto its target. We’re talking at an impact speed of almost 4,000 miles per hour. Anything that wasn’t destroyed on the initial impact would be dragged down several feet into the ground, at which point the rocket would explode.
To say that these rockets were a game-changer would be an understatement. They could fly up to 200 miles, but because the launch pads were portable, V-2 rockets could come from quite literally anywhere, leaving their unsuspecting victims to find out the hard way that a rocket had been sent their way.
By the time Germany got around to launching the rockets, World War II was ending. Two missiles were fired at Paris on September 6, 1944. Two days later, two more were fired at England. Germany then attempted to make up for lost time, launching over 1,100 V-2 rockets during the next six months, which killed more than 2,700 people.
This was one of those revolutionary technologies that other countries couldn’t wait to seize after WWII ended. Both the United States and the Soviet Union captured some rockets and the scientists that worked on them. While the exact technology of the V-2s evolved, you can still see traces of its history in liquid fuel missiles and space launchers.