Tag Archives: WWII

V2 rocket on launch pad in Germany, 1945.

V-2: The Rocket that Launched the Space Age

This week (8 September 2014) marks 70 years since the first V-2 rocket attack on London. Curator Doug Millard reflects on the rocket that helped start the space age.  

On 8th September 1944 Professor Jones and his colleague turned suddenly to each other in their Whitehall office and in unison said, ‘That’s the first one’. London had experienced four years of explosions from Luftwaffe bombs so this latest blast was hardly remarkable. But what they had noticed was the second bang following immediately after the first: a double detonation.

For over a year Jones, as Assistant Director of Intelligence (Science) at the Air Ministry, and his team had been assembling evidence for the existence of a new type of German weapon – one quite unlike anything developed before.

The bombs dropped during the blitz had been carried by manned aircraft; more recent attacks came from pilotless planes nicknamed doodlebugs or buzz bombs (on account of their leisurely flight across the sky and the staccato drone they made). Both could be detected on the way to their targets and warnings issued for the populace to seek shelter.

The new weapon gave no such warning: its exploding signalled that it had already arrived. It was a rocket that dropped from the sky at twice the speed of sound: one explosion was the warhead detonating; the other the sonic boom of the rocket’s arrival.

A V-2 rocket on display in the Science Museum's Making the Modern World gallery.

A V-2 rocket on display in the Science Museum’s Making the Modern World gallery. Credit: Science Museum

It had been developed at the Peenemunde research establishment on the Baltic coast line of Germany. Designated the Aggregat 4 or A4, it was the latest in a series of new rockets designed by the German Army. It stood 14 metres high and weighed twelve and a half tonnes. It had a range of over 300 kilometres and touched space as it climbed to a height of 88 kilometres before dropping in a ballistic path on to its target. Joseph Goebbels renamed it Vergeltungswaffe 2 (Vengeance Weapon 2), which was later abbreviated to V-2.

Thousands of V-2s were launched during the war, most aimed at central London. They steered themselves and could not be jammed with radio signals. So even when a rocket’s launch was spotted by allied forces there was nothing that could be done to counter its flight. The V-2 was the harbinger of the Cold War’s missile age and the four minute warning.

A gyrocompass used to guide the flight path of V-2 rockets.

A gyrocompass used to guide the flight path of V-2 rockets. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

The V-2’s guidance was innovatory – it employed a system of gyroscopes that registered any deviation in flight – but by today’s standards the missile’s accuracy was very poor. Most landed kilometres off target. Nevertheless, it was clear to many that this new weapon represented a future of strategic warfare; one in which far more powerful missiles mated to nuclear warheads would cover intercontinental distances on the way to their targets. To others it signalled the dawning of a space age when still bigger rockets would counter the pull of gravity and place satellites in orbits around the Earth.

After the war the Allies acquired the V2 technology and many of the rocket programme’s leading scientists and engineers. The Soviets constructed their own version at the start of a research programme that led eventually their own R-7 rocket which put Sputnik – the world’s first artificial satellite – into orbit.

The Americans took many surplus V-2s along with the rocket programme’s technical director Wernher von Braun. The Redstone rocket that launched the first American into space was von Braun’s derivative of his V-2. Eight years later his massive Saturn V rocket launched astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins to the Moon.

The missile Jones heard had come down in Chiswick, west London. It killed three people and destroyed a row of houses. Over the next months many more were launched with most falling in south-eastern England and killing thousands of people (a map of V-2 rocket strikes across London and surrounding counties can be seen here). In a grotesque irony the V-2 killed many more in the course of its manufacture by slave labour from the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp in central Germany.

The final V-2 landed south of London in Orpington on March 27, 1945 killing one person – the last civilian fatality of the war in mainland Britain.

For more information, visit the Science Museum’s Making the Modern World gallery, where a full size V-2 rocket can be seen on display.

Apparatus used by R Watson Watt to detect radio echoes from aircraft, 1935. Image credits: Science Museum / SSPL

Robert Watson-Watt and the Triumph of Radar

BBC2 recently broadcast a drama about Robert Watson-Watt’s fight to invent the radar. Curator Andrew Nahum takes a closer look at this incredible story, soon to feature in a new exhibition, Churchill’s Scientists, opening at the Science Museum in January 2015. 

In the 1930s, as the German air force grew in strength, the fear of air attack became intense. Prime Minister Baldwin had warned that ‘the bomber would always get through’, but a minority, including Winston Churchill and his scientific adviser, Frederick Lindemann, argued that some new form of technical defence must be possible. Surely Britain’s scientists – affectionately known as boffins – could devise a countermeasure?

Sir Robert Alexander Watson-Watt, Scottish engineer, 1935. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Sir Robert Alexander Watson-Watt, Scottish engineer, 1935. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

In February 1935, a pilot from the flight research establishment, Farnborough, was told to fly a bomber to the Midlands and back. He was not told why, but the course took the aircraft past the BBC’s short-wave transmitter at Daventry.

Hunched in a van on the ground nearby, Robert Watson-Watt from the National Physical Laboratory and his colleague, Arnold Wilkins, intently watched a cathode ray tube on a cumbersome radio receiver. They hoped that the powerful BBC signal would be reflected strongly enough from the bomber to be detected. As the aircraft flew past about eight miles away, a green spot on the screen appeared, grew, and shrank away again.

The two men had ‘seen’ the aircraft by its electronic echo. Watson-Watt turned to Wilkins and reputedly said ‘Britain is an island once more’. Following this trial – the Daventry experiment – cash secretly began to pour into developing radar technology. Research took off at immense speed, first at Orfordness in Suffolk and then nearby at Bawdsey on the mouth of the Deben river. Just a year after the first trial, the detection range had improved to 75 miles and 120 miles was later achieved.

Robert Watson-Watt's radar apparatus, 1935. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Robert Watson-Watt’s radar apparatus, 1935. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Soon, a series of stations with massive 360 feet (110 m) radar masts began to spring up around the coast until there was an unbroken chain watching out to sea for enemy aircraft called the ‘Chain Home’. This radar system was not, for its time, especially ‘hi-tech’, but it was designed to be built fast. It was incorporated into a comprehensive control system for reporting and plotting raids, for steering RAF fighters to their targets and for directing the air battles of World War II in real time. It was this integrated system that changed the nation’s fortunes in the Battle of Britain.

Apparatus used by R Watson Watt to detect radio echoes from aircraft, 1935. Image credits: Science Museum / SSPL

Apparatus used by R Watson Watt to detect radio echoes from aircraft, 1935. Image credits: Science Museum / SSPL

During radar development, Henry Tizard, the Air Ministry’s most trusted scientist, shared the secret with John Cockcroft who had been first to ‘split the atom’ in Cambridge in 1932.  ‘We met at lunch at the Athenaeum and Tizard talked to me about new and secret devices. These would be troublesome and would require a team of nurses. Would we [the Cambridge physicists] come in and act as nursemaids, if and when war broke out?’ That is how it turned out and British radar became closely linked with the nation’s best scientists. This electronic war proved to be a powerful intellectual challenge. The physicist R V Jones, described it as the ‘the best fun I ever had’.

Of course science came to the aid of war in many other fields including nutrition, the production of penicillin and antibiotics, sea warfare and the Bomb.  However, this war also helped launch a post-war scientific renaissance in Britain. Returning scientists achieved striking results in the fields of molecular biology, radio astronomy, nerve and brain behaviour and much more.

Watson-Watt’s original radar apparatus will be on display in our exhibition, Churchill’s Scientists, which opens on 23 January 2015. The exhibition will look at the triumphs in science during Churchill’s period in power, both in war and in the post-war era.

Developed by John Turton Randall and Harry Boot at Birmingham University, the cavity magnetron produced powerful, ultra-short radio waves for use in Radar.

1940s: the Cavity Magnetron

Each day as part of the Great British Innovation Vote – a quest to find the greatest British innovation of the past 100 years – we’ll be picking one innovation per decade to highlight. Today, from the 1940s, the cavity magnetron.  

You might wonder what the humble microwave oven, University of Birmingham and changing the course of World War II have in common. The answer: the cavity magnetron.

John Randall and Harry Boot invented a prototype cavity magnetron – a device used to generate microwaves – in 1940 at the University of Birmingham, but the UK lacked the funds and manufacturing resources for large scale production. In an extraordinary gesture, Winston Churchill offered the magnetron (a smaller, more power design than anything else available) to the USA in exchange for financial and industrial support.

Developed by John Turton Randall and Harry Boot at Birmingham University, the cavity magnetron produced powerful, ultra-short radio waves for use in Radar.

Developed by John Turton Randall and Harry Boot at Birmingham University, the cavity magnetron produced powerful, ultra-short radio waves for use in Radar.

It was, in the words of one American historian, “the most valuable cargo ever brought to our shores,” and by early 1941, mass production had enabled portable airborne microwave radar systems to be fitted to American and British aircraft. Vastly superior to the rival German systems, the cavity magnetron gave the Allies a considerable advantage, directly influencing the outcome of the war.

This British innovation, one of the most significant to be developed during World War II, is now found across the world inside microwave ovens. Vote here for the cavity magnetron as the greatest British innovation.