I’ve noticed a creeping trend toward advertisers across Europe writing things in English, as if in answer to the child-like question of ‘why can’t everyone just speak the same language as me?’ Someone seems to have decided that they can! As wherever I go, my feeble attempts to speak the local lingo are inevitably met with puzzled looks and, more usually than not, a reply in English.
So it is that at the Deutsches Museum I present my card and enquire ‘wie ist die rakete, bitte?’ Only for the receptionist to roll her eyes at me as though at a naughty schoolboy who has just drawn a penis in his exercise book and inform me, in my own mother tongue, that it stands at the back of the hall that contains all manner of transports from the most primitive boat to a capsule in which one might find Yuri Gagarin, where a specially built staircase snaking up from a platform upon which it stands painted the regulation sickly yellow-green colour: The V2.
Now I know that I could see one in London. I know that the Americans have one too, on show in Maryland, recently restored, along with the original mobile launching Meillerwagen, very rare (one of only three known examples of their kind that still survive), although they have painted it the wrong colour. But still, there’s something about seeing this, perhaps the one true wunder waffen of World War Two, in it’s home country that gives shivers down the spine.
Of course the V2 weren’t built here, but in forced labour camps hidden away under mountains in order to escape from allied bombing. In this endevour, unlike ‘Mr No WMD’ Saddam Hussein in recent times, the Germans gamely put up a fight. One such facility, that one can visit today, was built at Nordhausen, at the site of a former Gypsum mine, after Von Braun and his men’s original facility at Peenemunde had been bombed out of existence by the RAF. Another, a huge concrete and steel fortress like the modernist nightmare counterpart of the Disney castle, was under construction at Saint Omer in France but never completed before it was taken and partially scuttled by the advancing Allies in 1944. Today, the huge dome that is the earliest precursor of the missile silos built during the cold war is open to visit as a centre for inquiring tourists who wish to know more.
As a direct result of this, most of the rockets designated by their constructors ‘A4’ (V2 was a name dreamt up by Goebbels’ propaganda department) were launched from mobile platforms that could be transported by train. The American one, as I mentioned, is one of the very few left with its launching gear, and is said to have been captured after a battle with an American tank at the town of Bromskirchen in March of ‘45 – although nobody seems to really know for certain whether this is true, until it was restored it’s said that their were bullet-holes in the side of the rocket from the fight in which it was taken.
After the war the Americans and the Russians got involved in a mad scramble to grab up what was left of the German rocketry program for their own, including scientists like Von Braun, who was given a pardon and went on the become the head of NASA. One of the things they grabbed was this-here rocket, which was shipped to a museum in Aberdeen, Maryland in the USA, who at some point decided to return it to the German people - although of course they still have the other one I just mentioned.
And here it is, the objective of my trip, in all it’s glory. A section of the museum has been built specially around it, a spiral staircase floating up in defiance of gravity to the ceiling. I get a funny feeling looking at it.
The influx of German scientists into The States and The USSR lead directly into the race to build ICBMs to carry nuclear missiles, and eventually the space programs in both the then Soviet Union and the US of A. The Apollo program’s vast propulsion stages were a direct descendant of the V2 rocket, and when you get up to the top of those stairs the top floor gallery contains space-age gadgetry of all types, reflecting the fact that this is the grand-daddy of Apollo and all that came after it.
The Munich rakette is painted a sombre black and white, and has been left in a somewhat unfinished state so that it’s possible to get a look at some of the workings inside. The tail motors pull heavy metal chains that would look more at home in a tank or heavy armoured vehicle, but apart from this there’s no mistaking that the rocket looks like something at least a hundred years ahead of its time. Those of us who read Tintin as children will affectionately remember Herge’s similar depiction of a chequered moon rocket, rendered several years before Apollo (and, some say, almost as fictional!). It’s almost unbelievable that the Germans managed to design and have the V2 in production just two years on from the first tests, during a war, and blasting off from mobile rocket launchers. As horrific as the thing is, there is something almost heroic about it. Von Braun, chief engineer and the machine’s godfather, was only 30 years old when the first ones went into production. He apparently did not do well in either physics or maths in school, and at one point planned to become a composer. He is said to have remarked to a colleague in technical college: ‘you know, I plan to go to the moon one day...’
I haven’t been to the moon, and I never did get to see the stone age remains of Italy, but I suppose that’s another trip and another book to be written some time. The future’s an undiscovered country. And other cliches. You can insert your own cliche here, because I’m going home...
THE END ?