Born: 1895. Died: 1980-01-01. Birth Place: Germany.
Walter R. Dornberger was Wernher von Braun's military superior during the German rocket development program of World War II. He oversaw the effort at Peenemuende to build the V-2, fostering internal communication and successfully advocating the program to officials in the German army. He also assembled the team of highly talented engineers under von Braun's direction and provided the funding and staff organization necessary to complete the technology project. After World War II Dornberger came to the United States and assisted the Department of Defense with the development of ballistic missiles. He also worked for the Bell Aircraft Co. for several years, helping to develop hardware for Project BOMI, a rocket-powered spaceplane.
Joint German Army-Air Force rocket research station opened at Peenemünde on the Baltic Sea. The Army Ordnance rocket program under Capt. Walter Dornberger moved 90 of its staff from Kummersdorf. Thiel and five staff working on V-2 rocket engine development remained at Kummersdorf until the summer of 1940, when the test stands at Peenemuende were finally completed..
The first rocket fighter, the He-176, powered by a Walther engine, was tested at Peenemuende. In competition, Dornberger's team developed a 120-second duration engine to power the He-122. However loss of control in unpowered flights of the latter resulted in it crashing and being eliminated from further consideration. Dornberger's team left further rocket fighter engine development to Walther, and concentrated on the A4 and follow-on ballistic missiles.
This was the first time he became acquainted with liquid rocket engine technology. 300 kgf and 1000 kgf engines were fired in his presence. A colour-coded cutaway model of the A3 rocket was presented and its systems explained. Hitler was quiet throughout the exhibits and asked no questions. Afterwards, while taking lunch at the mess hall, he asked only about the development schedule (clucking when told), the range of the missile, and the impact on the schedule if synthetic 'Eisenbled' was substituted for light metal alloys in the rocket frame. Hitler spoke of deceased rocket pioneer Max Valier - he had known him in Munich, but dismissed him as a dreamer. Dornberger countered by comparing the state of rocket development to the early days of the zeppelin, when Lillienthal made the first primitive experiments. Hitler in turn dismissed airships as dangerous, filled with explosive gas . The Fuehrer finally departed with handshakes and few words. His summary of the day: 'Es war doch gewaltig' (it was impressive, nevertheless). The rocket team was dismayed - it was the first time a visitor had exhibited no reaction to the power the rocket engines when fired for their benefit. But on the plus side, Von Brauchtisch said he was astounded at the progress made by the team in only a few years. Dornberger believed Hitler was enthralled with artillery and tanks, and was unimpressed with rocket technology. He thought Hitler didn't understand the possibilities and didn't believe the time had come yet for development of the rocket as a weapon.
After Hitler's visit, it finally it became clear to Dornberger that either support for the project would have to come from the highest level, or that Peenemuende should abandon rocket research and be devoted to more pressing war needs.
Meanwhile the results of the air war over London showed that the A4 could be an economic weapon. Bombers were averaging only 5 to 6 missions, dropping only 6 to 8 tonnes of bombs before being shot down. Once the loss of trained flying crews was considered, the bomber cost 30 times more than the A4 to deliver a tonne of explosives on London compared to the expendable A4 at its production price of 38,000 Marks. But time was being lost in convincing others in the German leadership that the missile should be put into production.
Von Braun was obsessed by grandiose futuristic fantasies, and Dornberger felt he constantly had to throw cold water on the engineer to keep them in check. But this tendency was easily overshadowed by Von Braun's fantastic ability to solve a technical problem, to throw all the extraneous ballast overboard and concentrate on the solution. In the moment the solution was technically realised, Von Braun no longer had any interest in the issue and dropped it.
There was never any doubt that manned space travel was Von Braun's life goal. The technology needed for manned flight presented many such technical challenges. He realised early on that only multi-staged liquid propelled rockets could achieve his dream. Rockets certainly needed lighter propellant tanks, but there was a practical technical limit to this, and in any case, there still had to be a payload. Von Braun knew that liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen was the ultimate propellant combination, but also that learning how to handle liquid hydrogen would be a long-term affair. A one-year study at the Technische Hochschule in Dresden and Peenemuende showed that other propellant combinations could produce no more than a 20% improvement in specific impulse compared to the existing V-2 technology. Therefore a multistage rocket was the only way to achieve orbital spaceflight.
Speer meets with Von Braun and Dornberger. A 1:100 model of the planned bunker construction-launch facility for the rocket to be built by Organisation Todt on the British channel was exhibited. Speer reveals that Hitler could not decide about the rocket as a weapon. He did not believe the rocket team's plans could be made to work. But Speer did authorise them to proceed with construction on his own authority - he hoped Hitler could be brought around eventually. But he emphasised that Dornberger would have to use his personal connections to get industry moving on the project. But Dornberger was thwarted when the Army put Degenkolb in charge of organising production of the missile. Degenkolb was a sworn enemy of Dornberger's, and had been implicated in the 'suicide' of General Becker in early 1940. Degenkolb set up a Nazi-supported bureaucracy in parallel to that of Dornberger's, requiring the approval of the Army weapons bureau on any decisions. Degenkolb had the sponsorship of Todt and Saur, who in turn followed the party line - 'like the Fuehrer, we are not yet won over to the concept of a long range missile'.
In order to productionise the A4 design, Degenkolb began authorising many detailed changes. He didn't understand that every change had to be proven in test first, and only incremental steps could be taken. Stahlknecht had planned to produce 300 A4 missiles per month by January 1944, and 600 per month by July 1944. Degenkolb unrealistically decreed that 300 per month be achieved by October 1943, and 900 per month by December 1943.
In a meeting with Professor Hettlage, of the Financial and Organisational Ministry of the German Defence Industry, it was proposed that Peenemuende be made a private country, with the Nazi Party and selected corporations (AEG, Siemens, Lorenz, Rheinmetall) being its shareholders. Dornberger saw Degenkolb behind this plan, and was determined to keep Peenemuende an Army proving ground. He felt that an asset, on which several hundred million Marks had been invested by the government, was being handed over to private hands for 1 to 2 million Marks. The investors intended to recover their entire investment back on a fee paid for each missile built. In the end Dornberger managed to keep Peenemuende an Army proving ground, but then he had to fight off an attempt by AEG to take over the electronics side of the development team. The rocket team's electronic engineers were years ahead of the rest of the industry, and a tempting target.
The V-3 cannon was tested at Misdroy on Wollin Island (now Miedzyzdroje, Poland). The gun was a 60 m long constant-pressure cannon developed by Coenders of the Roechling firm in Saarbrucken. The gun was laid at a 45 degree angle in the dunes. Aiming was accomplished by arranging wood blocks under the concrete sections. The gun demonstrated a 15 km range with a sabot-launched, arrow-shaped warhead. The tests were conducted under Kammler, who was responsible for all V-weapons. Dornberger had been opposed to the concept, but everyone else was enthusiastic, due to Hitler's support and unending fascination with artillery.
A government commission, consisting of Speer, Milch, Doenitz, and Fromm viewed launches of the competing missiles at Peenemuende. The V-1/Fi-103 was much cheaper than the V-2/A4, but it was slow and low - it operated at 160 m/s at an altitude of between 200 and 2000 m - and vulnerable to enemy flak batteries and interceptors. It provided the enemy with a forewarning of attack by its characteristic engine noise and the cut-off of that noise when it went into its terminal dive. It could only be launched from fixed concrete launch ramps, making the launchers vulnerable to enemy air attack. The V-2 was mobile, more accurate, could not be intercepted, and gave the enemy no warning of attack in its supersonic ballistic course to the target. In the end, the commission could find no overwhelming advantage to either of the very different weapons, and both were ordered into production. The positive advantages of each weapon outweighed the negatives. In the tests before the commission, the Fi-103 had bad luck, and achieved no successful shots for two of the A4. '2:0 for your team', Milch told Dornberger. Speer claimed he 'always supported' the A4 but Dornberger ruefully noted they had lost 18 months in delays, primarily due to Degenkolb's incompetence. Speer pressed Dornberger - if Degenkolb really can't make it happen, then just give me the word. He'll be dismissed. But Degenkolb was not dismissed - he had Saur's complete backing.
Dornberger was promoted to Major General. But Degenkolb was still in charge of A4 production, and had sent four engineers to spy at Peenemuende, asking them to provide recommendations on reorganisation of the place, promising the four that they would be made directors of the new enterprise.
Dornberger, Von Braun, and Steinhoff (at the controls) fly aboard a He-111 to the Fuehrer bunker in East Prussia. There they give Hitler a review of the V-2 program, the first since his visit to Kummersdorf in March 1939. The appointment was for 11:30, but then delayed to 17:00.
When they were finally ushered into his presence, Dornberger was shocked at the terrible and changed appearance of the Fuehrer. The team begins their briefing, in the presence of Hitler, Keitel, Jodl, Butale, and Speer. The presentation began with a film of preparations and launch of an A4 on the 3 October 1942. Von Braun narrated the film, which had proven a real crowd-pleaser in the past. It showed the A4 in production at the vast assembly hall at Peenemuende, the vertical roll-out, the huge launch complex, and finally launch. Von Braun then presented a model and plans for the hardened production/launch bunker that was being built on the English Channel.
Hitler loved the bunker model, and declared he wanted to build not one, but three such facilities. Dornberger argued that mobile launchers would be militarily less vulnerable and less costly, but Hitler was unconvinced. The 7 m thick bunker walls, he declared, would 'draw every allied bomber like flies to honey. Every bomb they drop there will be one that does not fall on Germany'. Hitler asks if the payload can be increased to 10 tonnes (in order to accommodate a nuclear warhead) or if a 2,000 per month production rate was possible (in order to make mass attacks on Britain with conventional explosive or chemical payloads). Dornberger replies that it would take four to five years to develop a missile with greater payload, and that production was limited by the German industrial capacity for alcohol (used as fuel in the missile).
Dornberger noted that they did not dream of the possibility of short-term availability of nuclear energy in 1936, when the specifications for the missile were set. In any case, after the loss of the heavy water plant in Norway, it would take years to develop nuclear weapons. Hitler was visibly upset that the V-2 would not turn out to be a war-deciding weapon. But Dornberger pointed out it was a great psychological weapon - unstoppable, something against their which there was no defence.
Hitler stated that 'I have only had to excuse myself to two men in my life - and one of them was von Brauchtisch, who always championed the importance of your work, and the other is you. If we had this weapon in 1939, Britain would have conceded, and there would have been no war.
Hitler finally ordered that the V-1 and V-2 missile programs be given the highest priority in the defence ministry. Immediately needed staff and material began flowing into the program. Saur immediately ordered a production goal of 2,000 missiles per month, despite the fact that there was no prospect of producing enough alcohol fuel or training enough launch crews to actual fire the missiles at such a rate. However, there was no disagreement, since any industry leader who did not commit to meeting this production goal was threatened with immediate replacement. German alcohol production would mean the maximum number that could ever be fired was 900 per month.
With only four months to go before Degenkolb's mandated production of 900 missiles per month, the engineers declare the missile is not ready for production. A workable engine has been developed, but it is complex, suitable for prototypes only, and the engineers involved do not have the experience to turn it into something designed for mass production. Continuous changes on the engine also affect other parts of the rocket, resulting in drawing changes simultaneous with the effort to mass-produce detailed parts. Thiel and his team declare that in fact development of the A4 can never be finished before the war's end. They recommend that plans to put it into production should be stopped. Thiel, at the verge of a nervous breakdown, led this engineering 'revolt', although Rees was the spokesman. They declare they would stop work at Peenemuende and retire to the university. Von Braun argued against this position, demanding that production continue. Dornberger suffered a crisis of confidence in the rocket team as a result of this fight, but decided to continue trying to get the missile in production and fielded with the Germany Army.
The production series of V-2's are exploding in flight, and the engineers cannot determine the reason. Peenemuende engineers sought to recover 30% of the missiles for detailed examination. This showed that re-entry heating did not weaken the missile's structure. There was no scorching of the 0.6 mm thick paint applied to the interior of the missile. Only the outer paint showed signs of scorching. The missile still suffered in-flight explosions - attributed to the re-entry heating of 480 deg C and residual propellant vapours that still escaped despite the better sealing. Dornberger thought the liquid oxygen tank was the problem, while Von Braun suspected the alcohol tank. To try to determine the cause, five V-2's were shot with the engine running until all of the alcohol was depleted. These were followed by six shots with improved glass wool insulation of the liquid oxygen tank, over the objections of Riedel III, head of manufacturing at Peenemuende. Three of these shots were made in one morning, and all went off course. These were in turn followed by a series of highly instrumented launches from Peenemuende. The improvements developed as a result of these tests improved the missile reliability from 30% to 70% immediately, and then the reliability slowly increased to 80% as additional changes were made. Only in the last months of the war was it found that the forward part of the outer hull was failing in flight. Once this was strengthened with a belt of sheet metal, the V-2 achieved essentially 100% reliability.
This entire process was going on while production was ramping up at the underground facility at Mittelwerk. There was pressure from the highest quarters to get the missile fielded and attacks on England underway. Every change resulting from these tests and research meant that the production line at Mittelwerk had to be stopped, and retrofits made to undelivered missiles.
The cause of early detonation of the warhead during the engine burn time is understood, but the crashes at the end of the trajectory are still a mystery. Dornberger is ordered to report to Hitler at Berchtesgaden. The call is received at 7 pm in the evening, following a bomb raid and ice storm. Dornberger is told that on the following morning Von Braun, Riedel II, and Groettrup are to be arrested for sabotage of the A4 program. Groettrup selects Dr Steinhoff as his representative. The men are accused of not putting all their energy in development of the A4 as a weapon - instead only using the financing of the Reich to support their private plans for manned spaceflight. Dornberger know he cannot complete the program without these men - Von Braun and Riedel were the key leaders, and Groettrup was head of the electrical systems section. Dornberger finally achieves their release by demonstrating to the SS that the biggest impediment to the program was Hitler's dream that the A4 would never reach London. After a few days in detention, Von Braun was moved to Schwedt, and then freed. The others were allowed out a bit later.
The plan this time was for the launch centre to be privatised, made part of Siemens, with the SS running day-to-day operations. Dornberger was unsuccessful in fighting this effort off, and in July-August 1944 a series of government decrees gave the SS full control.
Dornberger was relegated to command of the training batteries for the rocket troops. Von Braun spoke to Dornberger, telling him that he must accept the situation and assist Kammler. Following the July 1944 assassination and coup attempt against Hitler, Dornberger had no backing in the leadership for keeping the program in Army hands. Dornberger finally agreed to cooperate - rockets had been his life's work, and he could not bear not to be involved. Dornberger hoped to 'put my words in Kammler's mouth and make them appear to be his'. All Army commanders in the rocket program were dismissed and replaced by SS officers - Kammler was in complete control.
The Wasserfall surface to air missile was launched from a table, as was the V-2. The missile was optically steered to its target, and had a potential range of 26 km and ceiling of 18 km, with a flight speed of 600 m/s. Goering observed the first launch from Test Stand IX. He was immensely fat, wearing a fantastical outfit, downing pills every five minutes, and uninterested in the proceedings. Dornberger ruefully noted that the Reich is losing the war due to the leadership's shortsightedness. They had not accepted Von Braun's rocket plans in 1939 or the Panzerfaust in 1942. They only became interested in the latter when the first American bazooka fell into German hands in Tunisia.
A total of 107 V-2 launches were made from Heidekraut. At the end of December Dornberger made his last visit to Heidekraut. By then the Russian Army was approaching, and the test launch area had to be moved south of Wolgast, with the impact area being in the Tucheler Heide. But in fact the test battery never shot again. It was moved to the forest near Wolgast in mid February, then again to Rethen an der Weser, with an impact area off the coast of Schleswig-Holstein.
Speer puts Dornberger in charge of an office within the Munitions Ministry to oversee further development of the A4 and other rockets, drawing on staff from Peenemuende. Everyone knew the war would be over in a few months -- nothing could be accomplished. Kammler still made sure that Dornberger was only responsible for technical aspects. All further developments of the A4 had been on hold for years, and any further work was now impossible. Only simple things could be worked on, such as converting 6 cm smoke rockets to use as an air-to-air weapon. In the short turnaround typical of the times, the team drove to Kummersdorf and built a 21-cm diameter pipe that could fire a barrage of four smoke rockets. Two days later, it was reported back that the device was used successfully in combat, and it was put into production. It was first used against allied bombers over Schweinfurt in January 1945.
The group's first priority was to evalute the prospects for rapid development of an effective surface-to-air missile to combat the incessant Allied bombing raids. It had to be beam-riding instead of optically guided, in order to be effective at night and in bad weather. The group found there was no single 'wonder weapon' that would end the war in a few months. But Kammler still believed the Reich still could hold out for six months, enough time to develop and deploy a new weapon. Dornberger's team disagreed, but they had to try nevertheless. Therefore the Schmetterling, Wasserfall, and X4 missiles went into simultaneous final development and production. But realistically none of them could be mature enough to be sent to the front until early 1946. If the Reich could hold out that long, then it was possible it could slowly win back territory.