Curator's Choice: Catherine Byrne on a V-2 rocket at the Royal Engineers Museum

By Ben Miller | 17 September 2012
A photo of an enormous rocket moving into the arch of a museum overseen by builders
© REMLA Photography
Curator's Choice: After rotting away for 50 years, a V-2 rocket has arrived at the Royal Engineers Museum in Kent after some loving restoration works. Deputy Curator Catherine Byrne tells us more about a 46-inch weapon which weighed 13 tons when it was launched...

“Although the history of this V-2 is a little sketchy, we believe it was picked up in the Netherlands in the midst of the chaos at the end of the Second World War and brought back to the UK by the Royal Engineers.

The British army wanted to capture them intact and bring them back in order to figure out how they worked technically and how we could counter them.

The principles of how it works are still relevant today. Britain created Operation Backfire to research the technicalities of the rocket, including all support procedures, vehicles and fuel consumption.

It has been at various Ministry Of Defence bases since the 1940s: Farnborough, Ripon and, from the 1960s or 70s, at Chattenden. This is the first time the public will be able to see this monumental weapon.

A photo of an ancient rocket standing upright inside a large museum space
© REMLA Photography
The V-2 was designed by Captain Walter Dornberger and Werner Von Braun and was a fantastic technological achievement which, unfortunately, has become infamous since it was used by the Nazis and killed thousands of people both in its production and deployment.

It was the first long range ballistic missile to be actively used in combat. It hurtled a one-ton warhead 50 miles high and hundreds of miles down range to its target.

It was a terrifying weapon, too. It travelled three times faster than the speed of sound, so there was no warning.

Between 1944 and 1945, over 500 V-2s fell on London and the Germans launched over 2,500 on Allied countries.

Von Braun is a complicated character because although he was a German scientist, his actions were indirectly responsible for the deaths of thousands.

He tolerated slave labour from concentration camps and yet was responsible for the space age becoming a reality in his lifetime.

He was interrogated by the Allies in 1945 and was given a contract by the Americans to work for Army Ordnance in the United States.

He and others from Penemunde worked in Fort Bliss near El Paso, Texas, White Sands in New Mexico.

Von Braun and his men were transferred to Huntsville in Alabama in 1950 to develop an Army tactical ballistic battlefield missile. He helped develop the Redstone missile and gained American citizenship.

When the Soviet Union began the Space Race, there was an urgent need for von Braun's help. America's first satellite was launched from a Wernher von Braun design, the Jupiter-C, He eventually headed NASA and saw his visionary rocket, the Saturn 5, carry man to the Moon.

On the 8th of September 1944, the first rocket fell on London in Chiswick. It killed a number of people, including Sapper Bernard Browning, who was on leave from the Royal Engineers.

Almost 3,000 citizens were killed in London by V-2 attacks, with almost the same number injured. A scientific reconstruction carried out in 2010 demonstrated that the V-2 creates a crater 20 metres wide and eight metres deep, throwing up around 3,000 tons of material into the air.

I believe there are only four others on display in the UK. There are around 20 on display across the world.

Up until recently this rocket was in a terrible condition, but it has been carefully restored by Borley Brothers, a structural engineering company based in Cambridge who are experts in V-2 restoration.

It has been strengthened, repaired and repainted in German military green and has had a special cradle made, which it will be displayed on.

The V-2 and a section of the Berlin Wall went on display last Saturday. If anyone has any objects relating to this period or the Cold War that followed and British nuclear testing, we would love to hear from them."

  • The Royal Engineers Museum is open 9am-5pm (11.30am-5pm Saturday and Sunday, closed Monday). For more on the V-2, visit v2rocket.com. Anyone with objects of interest can call Catherine on 01634 822221.

More pictures:

A photo of a section of a large silver rocket with wires visible through a see-through screen
© REMLA Photography
A photo of a large wide old brown building with a large car park under a moody sky
© REMLA Photography
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