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Operation Backfire

On the 3rd of October 1942 the first successful V2 rocket climbed into the sky above Peenemunde. Two minutes later it reached an apogee of just over 62 miles becoming the first man made object to reach space, it arced over and fell back into the Baltic, the space age had begun. However, before any exploration was to happen over two thousand V2s, were to be employed in their primary role as weapons, falling on Paris, Antwerp and London.

One evening in November 1944 a small group of friends gathered in a pub in central London were the first people, outside of allied intelligence, to realise the V2 existed. It was a meeting of the British interplanetary society and they were alone in understanding what the rushing sound following the explosion meant when a V2 fell nearby. They may well have got some strange looks as they apparently cheered!

The missiles had not yet been acknowledged by the government and ever since the first V2 fell in September the impacts were officially put down to gas main explosions. The BIS members however understood that the second noise was the sound of a supersonic rocket arriving after the impact and this meant large sub-orbital rockets were feasible. A fact that many on the allied side thought was impossible.

The V2, or A4 as it should really be called, was the ultimate development of the Peenemunde rocket team before the end of the war. Standing 42 feet tall and three feet in diameter, it was powered by liquid oxygen and alcohol and produced 25 tonnes of thrust for 65 seconds. It was to become the progenitor of a series of developments in the US and USSR and the inspiration for the classic comic book rocket shape. The first post war launches however were not at White Sands or Kapustin Ya and they were not administered by the Americans or Russians. They occurred at an artillery range in the British occupation zone, near Cuxhaven on the North Sea, and were performed by German rocket troops under British command.

While much had been learned about the A4 from a test rocket that fell on Sweden, the allies had no information about the overall operation of the complete system. J.C.C Bernard, personal assistant to the head of the Allied Air Defence Division which had been tasked with collating German rocket data, proposed that the captured rocket personnel be made to demonstrate the operation of the rocket by launching a number of A4s. The operation, named Backfire, was coordinated by the Special Projectile Operations Group (SPOG), a subgroup of the Air Defence Division.

The artillery range at Cuxhaven had been previously used by the German Navy; it had a clear flight path over the North Sea, extensive logistics already in place and good options for radar tracking points down range. A new launch pad was laid and 400 scientists and rocket troops assembled at Cuxhaven. They were carefully interrogated and were apparently quite happy to demonstrate the rocket. The procedures were extensively filmed and photographed, in many cases with the rocket personnel in their wartime German uniforms. Indeed footage from Backfire is often confused for wartime German footage. However the Germans had never recorded the A4 in such detail, or carried out an evaluation like Backfire, such was the secrecy surrounding the programme that, wherever possible, workers only knew what was necessary about the project.

The next challenge was to assemble the equipment, after the Americans had stripped the mittelwerk at Nordhausen of enough parts for 200 A4s the British got a look in before the Russians arrived. SPOG had enough bits for eight rockets but they were missing some components and the launch support vehicles. A search was launched across Europe for the missing elements and eventually 400 railway trucks of equipment and vehicles were collected. The Americans also returned additional tail units from the US.

At Cuxhaven work was progressing apace, 2500 British troops were drafted in to work on logistics and a test tower was assembled out of Bailey bridge sections. By October 45 they were ready to begin testing. The war heads were steamed out and the rockets were painted up in a chequer board pattern similar to the early Peenemunde tests. The first attempt on the 1st failed due to a defective igniter, this was rectified and on the 2nd of October the first British directed launch took place. Three rockets were launched in total during Backfire, the last on 15th of October with American and Russian observers present.

Major General Cameron, the officer in charge of Backfire commented “for the sake of their very existence, Britain and the United States must be masters of this weapon of the future.” Indeed there was some suggestion that part of the motivation for Backfire was to temp the rocket team to the UK, though other sources show a persistent disbelief in the potential of such missiles in UK defence community. In addition there was a certain resistance to basing research on German work. Essentially the guidance technology of the time could only guarantee hitting a city size target, the limited power of conventional explosives meant that until an atomic warhead became available the ballistic missile seemed an expensive and inefficient weapon. It is considered that more people were killed in the manufacture of A4s than were killed by the missiles in operation.

However this was not to be the end of British involvement with the A4. Among the members of the BIS who heard the sound of an A4 landing on London were the first people to seriously design a Moon mission. In 1938 the BIS set out to see if a flight to the Moon was possible with existing technology, solid rocket motors! The end result, detailed in a BIS paper, was an ingenious plan built around a colossal rocket created by clustering many small solid rocket motors together. It had six layers of motors arranged in a hexagon, they were ignited in series from the rim inwards and thrust and direction were controlled by how many motors were lit and in what order. The individual motor mountings were then designed so that they would detach once the thrust from the motor had decayed. They specified new fangled liquid rocket engines for lunar landing and another stack of solids for lunar departure, before using aero braking and a parachute to return to earth.

Once the A4 proved that large liquid rocket engines could be made to work they redesigned the mission, based on much more efficient liquid propulsion, and reduced the scale and cost with an ingenious orbital rendezvous scheme. The allied inheritance of the A4 also presented the BIS with the chance of moving beyond theory. Two members of the Moon mission team, H E Ross and R A Smith, carried out a study for a piloted A4 which they submitted to the Ministry of Supply for further funding. The warhead was to be replaced with a pressurised capsule for one pilot and the body of the rocket was to be enlarged and strengthened. Perhaps most daring from a design point of view, they intended to dispense with the fins to save weight and drag and rely solely on the jet vanes in the exhaust for stability. After launch, which could conceivably have been from a coastal location in the UK, the pilot was to be provided with a throttle lever to control the thrust and G loading he experienced. After engine cut out the capsule was to separate and continue on its sub-orbital trajectory, reaching a peak altitude of somewhere over 62 miles making its occupant the first man in space. After decelerating to a reasonable speed in the lower atmosphere the capsule would have deployed a parachute before splashing down in the sea to be recovered by the Royal Navy.

Unfortunately it was not to be, at least not for the BIS; there just were not the funds, or presumably the political interest, available in post war Britain. However an almost identical mission did carry the first Americans into space in the Mercury Redstone programme. The Redstone rocket that launched them was developed from the A4 by the Peenemunde team after their move to the US. Although they retained the fins, the shape of the A4 tail unit can be seen on both the Redstone and Jupiter rockets used into the sixties, and enlarged the rocket the flight was very similar to that proposed in the late forties. It is interesting to consider what may have happened if the BIS had received the necessary funding; or indeed if the Peenemunde team, who of course had similar plans, had been able to start straight onto space flight upon their arrival in the US. The BIS team members went onto work in their respective fields in the UK aerospace programmes and science fiction literature. The BIS continues to this day and retains a reputation for visionary astronautical studies, notably the first serious studies of interstellar space probes and Alan Bond’s work that so nearly led to a UK aerospace plane, HOTOL, getting off the ground.