The Peenemünde Research Centre
In 1936, work began on a huge modern research centre on an island off the Baltic coast (Usedom): Peenemünde.
A rocket taking off
Two teams would soon be working there:
- The Luftwaffe (Air Force) developing jet aircraft and, from 1942, the Fi 103 (V1) flying bomb.
- The Heer (under the technical direction of Von Braun, dedicated to the development of a large strategic rocket, the A4 (V2).
This was designed as a terrorist weapon - in the etymological sense - destined to strike civilian populations, particularly that of London. From 1942, as the war was beginning to be reversed, the A4 (V2) rocket became a "miracle weapon" in the eyes of the Nazi leaders. A first, and perfectly successful, prototype shot took place on 3 October at Peenemünde, and mass production was launched. At this stage, the engine was far from being fine-tuned and failures would ensue in successive trials. The programme benefited from enormous manpower and capital. A parallel can be drawn with the "Manhattan Programme" for atomic bombs undertaken in the United States. The Luftwaffe rapidly developed its Fi 103 (V1) flying bomb, which was much simpler and much less expensive to manufacture than the A4 (V2). In this case too, mass production began before the development was complete...
In France, the Todt Organisation was responsible for the implementation of a vast series of constructions along the Channel coast, from Cotentin to Pas-de-Calais, designed for launching flying bombs and rockets against England:
- Giant bunkers for rockets.
- Large-scale blockhaus.
- Standardised launch pads for the flying bomb.
These were the Sonderbauten (special constructions). In spring 1943, the managers of the Peenemünde rocket programme appealed to the SS to alleviate the shortage of labour: a first group of prisoners, taken from concentration camps, arrived in June. The British intelligence services were slow to understand the nature of the threat from the new weapons developed in Peenemünde. The most lucid of them was Dr. R. V. Jones who, on 16 June 1943, identified a rocket on an aerial photograph of Peenemünde. On 18 August, the RAF heavily bombed the Research Centre; a few days later, the Allies attacked the launch sites being built in France.