Almost seven decades ago, visitors to the Long Range Weapon Establishment at Salisbury in Adelaide’s north would have seen something that was, at the time, quite amazing.
Pointing skywards, in all its dubious glory, was a Nazi V-2 rocket of the kind that, in the final months of World War II, brought a late wave of destruction to London, Norwich, Paris and Antwerp.
Mounted on its carrier known as a Meillerwagen, this particular V-2 towered above its new owners. Black and white photos from the time reveal a strikingly formidable object.
Ominously elevated, it looks ready to launch — perhaps for the moon, perhaps for Mars.
The rocket had arrived in Adelaide months earlier, when it was off-loaded at Outer Harbor in October 1947.
It was not the first V-2 to be sent to Australia — in March, a ship carrying another had docked at Fremantle. That rocket had also passed through Adelaide en route to Melbourne, and was then transported to Sydney.
The story of how they ended up Down Under is an intriguing one that involves science, politics and Cold War anxieties.
Australia’s V-2s: A story in parts
Australia’s two V-2s are currently in storage at an Australian War Memorial (AWM) facility in suburban Canberra.
“When they came out [to Australia] flocks of people crowded to view them and see these Nazi terror weapons,” said Shane Casey, senior curator of military heraldry and technology at the AWM.
One is mostly complete. Its components were seized after the war and put together as part of Operation Backfire, a mission by the Allies to capture and test German military technology.
“When the Allies conquered Germany, they found largely disassembled rockets or rockets ready to be assembled,” Mr Casey said.
The Meillerwagen trailer accompanying the V-2, which was used to raise the rockets onto launch pads, is one of the few surviving examples of the technology.
The other V-2, which left London’s docks aboard the vessel Karamea in February 1947, is today in bits, which are themselves in disrepair. It was shipped to Australia primarily as a museum piece, and little is known about its origins.
“There was some confusion as to whether it was destined for the Australian War Memorial or whether it was destined for the RAAF at Woomera. There seems to have been some dissension in official channels about that.”
The missile was trucked around the country as part of a fundraising mission, and video shows it outside Old Parliament House.
“It seems to have, very early on, had material stolen from it by sightseers.”
One of the purposes of having the rockets in Australia was to boost public interest in science, especially the emerging field of space research.
In 1948, the media was invited to view the more complete V-2 at Salisbury, where scientists had been inspecting it for design clues. That work was part of efforts to develop a local rocket program for defence – a project that also included the Woomera range.
At some point over the next few years, it was painted with a different colour scheme. The trail goes cold until 1954, when the rocket was put on display at a Salisbury school and at the Mallala air show.
Brains and Braun: The man behind the missiles
On October 3, 1942, a prototype V-2 rocket became the first human-made object to reach space. The missiles were the brainchild of Wernher von Braun, a German scientist of aristocratic background.
Dr von Braun is a controversial character, and he continues to fascinate historians. A member of the Nazi Party, he would later play a leading role at NASA, overseeing the Saturn rocket program that enabled the Apollo missions to the moon.
Even a generous biographer would concede Dr von Braun was a morally dubious human being. Undoubtedly clever and apparently very charming, he was also a committed German nationalist and a member of the SS. He was unconcerned by the fact his V-2s were built by concentration camp inmates, thousands of whom died during construction.
The first V-2 attacks occurred in September 1944. Over the next six months, thousands of civilians were killed by the missiles, with Antwerp and London bearing the brunt.
One V-2 came to Earth in Southborough in Kent, near a house belonging to David Bowie’s grandparents, and it is interesting to speculate whether the recurring themes of rocketry and space travel in Bowie’s work owe their inception to that episode. (In 1977, he released a track referencing the missiles, called V-2 Schneider).
Dr von Braun was in the grip of a belief that in his day made him exceptional, but is today commonplace among technophiles — that there is an imperative for humans to conquer space. Unable to make rockets for peaceful purposes, he was instead happy to design them to kill people.
“Our V-2 is significant from a technological point of view, in the progression of humanity through rocketry and its desire to achieve immortality in space,” Mr Casey said.
“The V-2 is really a baby Saturn V [the rocket used in the Apollo 11 mission]. The Saturn V was a liquid-fuelled rocket as well and used very much the same elements in its combustion chamber.
“But we’re also very aware of the fact that [the V-2] was a weapons system developed by one of the most heinous regimes on Earth.
“On a regular basis, people suspected of sabotage were executed, and they would leave the bodies on overhead cranes.”
At the end of the war, Dr von Braun began working for the Americans, migrating in 1945.
In addition to his work, he became a populariser of scientific ideas. (In 1947, he wrote a novel about colonising space and, in a spooky coincidence, named his fictitious leader of Mars ‘Elon’.)
His self-reinvention from Nazi villain to NASA hero is a testament to the man’s slipperiness. But he was never able to shake his shady past. When he visited Australia in 1962 to deliver lectures to students, not everyone was in a welcoming mood.
The newspaper Tribune reported on “rising concern” among parents at the thought of a Nazi teaching their children.
From missiles to the moon
In 1948, English cosmologist Fred Hoyle wrote:
“Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from outside, is available… a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.”
Professor Hoyle may have been unaware that, two years earlier, American engineers in New Mexico had used a captured V-2 to take a photo of the Earth’s surface. But that image showed only a portion of the planet.
It took another two decades for Professor Hoyle’s wish to be properly granted. In 1968, NASA astronaut Bill Anders took the photo now known as Earthrise. It is a stunning image, depicting the planet rising above the horizon of the moon.
The Saturn V rockets that helped Major Anders and others into space were designed at the Marshall Space Flight Centre in Alabama, under the direction of Wernher von Braun.
Australia’s V-2s have not lost their “wow” factor, Mr Casey said, and continue to shock visitors because of their size and scale.
“I can remember one instance where a woman had been the victim of a V-2 rocket attack, and when she was confronted with the rocket up-close it was almost an overwhelming experience for her,” Mr Casey said.
Conservation work will begin on the more complete rocket next year in the hope of putting it back on permanent display.
Mr Casey said tests would also be carried out on the Meillerwagen for urea, a compound found in urine. Jewish slaves working in secret underground facilities built the V-2s and it’s believed that, in an act of resistance, they relieved themselves on the machines in an attempt to weaken them, disrupting the V-2 program.
The story of the V-2 starkly demonstrates the double-edged nature of technological progress: rockets that were used as missiles inspired rockets that have helped us get to the moon.
As Dr von Braun allegedly said, “science does not have a moral dimension. It is like a knife. If you give it to a surgeon or a murderer, each will use it differently.”