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Is Moscow Burning?

Part 1 By Chris Oakley

From the very beginning of the Second World War Adolf Hitler had been fascinated by so-called “wonder weapons”-- i.e., innovative new applications of military technology that promised to grant Germany triumph over any nation that dared opposed it. One of the most famous examples of Hitler’s obsession with “wonder weapons” was the V-weapon rocket development effort that had been going on since 1940 and began kicking into high gear shortly after the German invasion of Russia in June of 1941. Originally the V-weapon rocket program had been planned as a method of striking terror into the hearts of the British, but in a memo to Hitler written just before Operation Barbarossa was launched an associate of scientist Werner Von Braun persuasively argued that a judicious use of V-weapons against the Bolshevik enemy could hasten the Reich's final victory over the Soviet Union.

   On the heels of that memo Hitler issued a directive to the V-weapons research team at Peenemunde fast-tracking the development of the V-1 and its larger cousin, the V-2. Despite concerns by Von Braun about how the Führer's decision might affect the safety of the Peenemunde staff, there was considerable support among that staff for hastening the development process. So it was that on June 26th, 1941, four days after the invasion of the Soviet Union, preparations got underway for the first test firing of the V-1 prototype. With a delegation of Wehrmacht and SS officials in attendance, von Braun instructed his launch crew to launch the prototype rocket against a simulated Red Army fortified bunker.

    While not quite the roaring success that Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda machine later tried to make it look like, this maiden launch of the V-1 did indeed yield some sensational results; the mock Soviet bunker took a level of damage that in a real combat situation would have left at least a half-dozen men dead. Duly impressed by what they’d seen, the Wehrmacht and SS delegations quickly returned to Berlin to recommend an increase in funding for the V-weapons program-- a recommendation which Hitler was only too happy to take to heart. He immediately approved a sixty percent increase in funds for the development project and directed the SS to go and round up groups of "volunteers" from the Third Reich's prison camps to work in the factories where the V-1 and V-2 would be constructed and their anticipated successor, the V-3, would be prepared for use against the United States in future wars. Once Moscow had been brought to heel, Hitler promised himself, he would unleash the full destructive force of the V-weapons on London and New York....


     ...but achieving those aims would prove easier said than done, especially as Soviet resistance to the German invasion stiffened and the previously rapid Wehrmacht advance slowed to a crawl. To make an already complicated task even more difficult for the V-weapons team, many of the developmental models of the V-1 and V-2 had an alarming tendency to prematurely explode during their test flights-- or worse yet, not make it off the launch pad at all. Desperate to prevent this catastrophic flaw from taking the lives of one of his research team, and fearful of what his own fate would be if he failed to produce a working ballistic missile for the Führer, von Braun quickly embarked on a radical redesign of not only the V-1's propulsion system but also of its internal guidance apparatus; the most significant alteration he made to the V-1's design was the replacement of its original static tailfins with a more flexible tail assembly that could move up or down like the ailerons on a conventional aircraft and allow the rocket more flexibility in dealing with sudden changes in air pressure.

     The changes paid off handsomely; in subsequent test launches the V-1 achieved a ninety percent success rate in hitting simulated targets. Impressed with the results of his reworking of the V-1 propulsion system and tailfin assembly, von Braun proceeded to effect similar changes with the V-2. He and his team continued to make improvements to the V-weapons as summer turned to fall, and in mid-October of 1941 the V-1 was finally declared ready for active service by the Wehrmacht. The first V-1 attack was scheduled for November 7th, the 24-year anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution which had put the Communists in power in Russia and paved the way for Stalin's eventual rise to the leadership of the Soviet Union.


    With classic German efficiency and punctuality, the first V-1 rocket hit Moscow at exactly 6:00 AM on the morning of November 7th, 1941. The V-1's warhead exploded just four blocks from the Soviet capital's famous GUM department store, killing twenty-two civilians and blowing out every window within a 50-foot radius of the impact site. Joseph Stalin. who at the time of the attack had been preparing to give a speech at the annual Red Square parade marking the revolution's anniversary, responded to the news of the attack with an outburst of rage considered volcanic even by the Soviet dictator's own legendary standards and directed the Red Army to find and kill the fascists responsible for the outrageous action. But no sooner had he given this order than a second V-1 hit, this one crash- landing in Red Square itself.

     For any head of state governing in wartime it would be a harrowing experience to find his nation's seat of government coming under attack; for the notoriously paranoid Stalin, the German attempt to lob a V-1 at the Kremlin felt like the universe itself was betraying him. He ordered the commander of Moscow's main air defense regiment executed and demoted three of the commander's senior staff officers for supposed incompetence in the line of duty. His brain was finding it tough, if not impossible, to absorb the fact that he was being confronted with a threat unique in the history of warfare up to that point. Nor was he alone in his initial lack of comprehension of the new threat: Red Army field marshal Georgi Zhukov, in his first report to Stalin about the November 7th attacks on Moscow, erroneously described them as having been carried out by a long- range railway artillery piece.

      It took an outsider, British prime minister Winston Churchill, to realize the true nature of the devastation the Nazis had just inflicted on Moscow. SOE agents inside Germany had been keeping him up to date on the von Braun team's research and development efforts, and although the agents hadn't been able to pin down a precise date for the first German rocket attack on the Soviet Union they had determined such an attack was likely to come before the first winter snows. The agents' assessment of the state of the German V-weapons program had also quite rightly deduced the most probable first targets for a rocket strike would be Moscow and Leningrad. And sure enough, even as the dead were being pulled from the rubble of the Germans' initial V-1 strike against Moscow, the Wehrmacht was deploying additional V-weapons launch crews to the Finnish border to make preparations for a wave of rocket attacks on Leningrad.

      When the British embassy in Moscow telephoned Churchill that night to confirm there had in fact been a rocket attack on the Soviet capital, the prime minister was nearly every bit as alarmed by the news as Stalin had been. He understood all too well that the same V-weapons inflicting death and destruction on Moscow one day could well do the same to London the next, and as hideous as the Luftwaffe terror bombings of the British capital had been up until that point a rocket attack on the city had the potential to be worse-- much worse.






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