The V-2 Program: Operation Backfire to the Hermes Project

Operations Backfire and Paperclip

Although America was slow to recognize the work of Doctor Robert Hutchings Goddard, his work was well known in Germany where experimenters had designed the V-2 rocket engine using his ideas. There was evidence that the Germans had followed Dr. Goddard’s work closely from his first published paper. It was apparent that the V-2 rocket, while much larger, was almost identical to missiles that had been tested at Roswell, New Mexico.

Near the end of World War II in the European Theater, both the British and the Americans realized the tremendous importance and the great possibilities of the V-2. The HERMES Project had been initiated in the United States with the General Electric Company in November 1944.  This project covered the general development of long­ range guided missiles suitable for use against ground targets and against high altitude aircraft. Under this project, the Americans inaugurated “Operation Backfire” and “Operation Paperclip.” The prime purpose of these operations was to gather and record detailed information on certain aspects of the V-2 rocket and recruit personnel from the German rocket program following the end of the war.

The first two phases of work to be done by the General Electric Company were to establish a research group to study and evaluate military intelligence reports concerning the field of missiles, and to send a group of scientists to Europe to work under the Theater Commander. These scientists were to become familiar with German missiles and identify and collect for shipment to the United States such missiles and components as were available.

German V-2 bases had been captured and damaged rockets and components were gathered from the fields, ditches, canals and railway yards.. Sub-assemblies, in various stages of manufacture, were found in abandoned factories. Most of the rockets had been stripped of vital parts and deliberately damaged by fire or gunfire. All were badly corroded due to exposure to the weather. Eight rockets were built , tested and found capable of being fired. Three were successfully set up and launched over the North Sea before the parts were divided for use by the British and American Armies. Those parts allotted to the Americans were crated and shipped to the newly established White Sands Proving Ground.

The arrival of 300 freight-car loads of V-2 components at the Proving Ground by the end of July 1945 necessitated immediate changes in future planning. While the WAC CORPORAL was being tested, preparations were being made for the V-2 Program and modification of existing facilities was started to permit the firing of these larger missiles after they had been reworked and reassembled.

V-2 tail fin sections were loaded on railcars to be shipped to the newly establish White Sands Proving Ground.
V-2 parts to be sent to the US left Europe from the port at Antwerp.

At the end of a six-month period, the Germans were returned to Fort Bliss for renewal of contracts and reassignment. A few of the original group were returned to White Sands Proving Ground to continue work there.

At the outset of the V-2 program, it developed that a static test stand was required where the entire propulsion system of the V-2 could be erected and fastened in a manner to permit firing under full power conditions, but without flight. As there were no existing facilities at the new Proving Ground for such testing, the German scientists directed construction of a 100,000-pound static test stand closely resembling that used in Germany. It was essentially a heavy concrete shaft, open at the bottom on the side away from the diff, with the inner comer rounded in order to deflect the rocket blast horizontally.

While the Army Ordnance Department had been assigned responsibility for the testing and firing of the V-2, the actual assembly of the rocket components was done by the General Electric Company (GECO) under provisions of the HERMES contract. The German interpreted their notes and drawings and instructed General Electric engineers how to assemble, test, and fire the V-2’s. The contractor personnel learned quickly, and within a six-month period were able to assemble the rockets and conduct static tests and firings. However, there was some trouble in assembling the captured parts. Only two missiles could be assembled from the original matched parts. Others were put together by utilizing pieces form sub-assemblies or from the carloads of components. Twenty-five rockets were assembled in this first series. In all, sixty­ seven rockets were assembled and tested at White Sands Proving Ground under contract with the General Electric Company, which terminated on 30 June 1951.

German “Paperclipper” scientists at White Sands Proving Grounds, 25 January 1946.
Operators at WSPG elevate a V-2 rocket into the vertical launching position.

Edit 1: Corrected photo caption incorrectly stating that V-2 parts were being shipped from Amsterdam. The parts were shipped from the port of Antwerp.

Edit 2: Changed “Baltic Sea” to “North Sea.” The three test missiles fired near Cuxhaven were launched over the North Sea, not the Baltic Sea.

7 thoughts on “The V-2 Program: Operation Backfire to the Hermes Project

  1. An amazing history of the early years of today’s space program. Really a treasure trove of information and photographs! I was born in 1951 and in many ways grew up with the space program. The early years are fascinating. I’ve been reading “Rockets, Missiles and Space Travel” by Wiley Ley to gain an understanding of what it was like to be there as space exploration begin.

  2. Three were successfully set up and launched over the Baltic Sea before the parts were divided for use by the British and American Armies.
    This is new to mee following my documentation the British did fire over the North sea from Atenwalde a long the Danish coast.
    Please see Operation Backfire volume 5

    1. Thank you for the correction! I looked at the source document and it does say the Baltic Sea, but that doesn’t make sense considering that Cuxhaven is on the North Sea, not the Baltic Sea. Unfortunately, the source document has no author, so I’m not sure how familiar they were with Operation Backfire itself or if this was just a typo. Thanks again!

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