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Operations Crossbow and Hydra: The Aerial Attacks Against Peenemünde

The evening of Aug. 17, 1943, had passed pleasantly for Wernher von Braun, the technical director of the Peenemünde Army Research Center, the home for Germany’s rocket powered weapons system program. He and members of his team had entertained his longtime friend, test pilot Hannah Reitsch, who was scheduled to conduct a test flight of the Me 163 Komet rocket powered fighter the next day. When the party broke up, von Braun retired to his bachelor quarters. Shortly after midnight he was awakened by the sound of air raid sirens. Dressing quickly, he strode to the nearby air raid alert and communications center to get a status report.

At 12:35 a.m. on Aug. 18, the first bombs in Operation Hydra began falling on the center for Nazi Germany’s V-1 and V-2 weapons program.

Peenemünde, located on the Baltic island of Usedom near the present border between Germany and Poland, was on the “minimum flak exposure route” used by British bombers attacking Berlin and other areas farther south. Consensus by von Braun and the watch crew that the aircraft overhead were heading for Berlin appeared to be confirmed when they heard on the radio that German night fighters were being dispatched to Berlin to intercept the bombers.

Wernher von Braun

Wernher von Braun (center), the technical director of the Peenemünde Army Research Center with German officers at Peenemünde, March 21, 1941. The British attempt to incapacitate the leadership of the German rocket program was unsuccessful. Von Braun and most of the important German scientists survived Operation Hydra. Bundesarchiv photo

Von Braun later recalled that as he was walking back to his quarters he “noticed that the artificial fog system enshrouding the Peenemünde facilities had been activated. Through the thin fog shone the pale reddish disc of a full moon. Suddenly, I saw a flare lighting up through the fog, and within a minute the sky was covered with what we called ‘Christmas trees.’”

Those “Christmas trees” were colored marking flares dropped by Mosquito pathfinder aircraft. Von Braun and the watch crew were wrong. The raid on Berlin, Operation Whitebait, was a diversion to lure the night fighters away from the real target, Peenemünde. At 12:35 a.m. on Aug. 18, the first bombs in Operation Hydra began falling on the center for Nazi Germany’s V-1 and V-2 weapons program.

The research and development operations at Peenemünde first came to the attention of British intelligence through the Oslo Report in November 1939. Though initially met with skepticism, additional information from several different sources soon verified the Oslo Report’s intelligence. But Britain’s desperate situation in the early years of the war and the lack of long-range bombers and navigational aids initially made Peenemünde a low-priority concern.

V-2 Testing At Peenemünde

A V-2 rocket is launched during testing at the Peenemünde Army Research Center, ca. March 1942. Peenemünde was targeted during Operation Hydra because it was the center of the German rocket powered weapons system program. Bundesarchiv photo

By April 1943 enough data had been gathered about Peenemünde and its work on the V-1, V-2, and rocket powered fighters, and British long-range bombers and navigational aids were sufficiently advanced to enable the Air Ministry to put Peenemünde on its priority photo reconnaissance mission list.

Two months later, on June 29, Chief of the Imperial General Staff Gen. Sir Alan Brooke wrote in his diary, “[Defence Committee] met to discuss the new rocket weapon which the Germans are supposed to be developing. . . . Arrived at conclusion that definite threat exists, and that we should bomb Peenemünde at earliest possible date.” Because of the short summer nights, the earliest date for the nocturnal Bomber Command was mid-August.

Though a sprawling complex of about 9.6 square miles, compared to most Bomber Command targets, Peenemünde was small. To better ensure accuracy, the almost six hundred bombers assigned to Hydra would use the recently installed H2S radar to guide them to Usedom and bomb their targets from 8,000 feet instead of 19,000 feet.

Peenemünde became one of a number of targets in Operation Crossbow, whose mission was to destroy “all phases of the German long-range weapons program.” Crossbow’s first raid was Operation Hydra, and like the mythological multi-headed hydra, Operation Hydra had multiple parts. Peenemünde would be attacked in three successive waves over a period of about an hour.

Peenemünde

An aerial reconnaissance photograph taken after Operation Hydra. This photo shows a number of destroyed and badly damaged buildings that were part of the Rocket Development Works at Peenemünde East. Imperial War Museum photo

Though a sprawling complex of about 9.6 square miles, compared to most Bomber Command targets, Peenemünde was small. To better ensure accuracy, the almost six hundred bombers assigned to Hydra would use the recently installed H2S radar to guide them to Usedom and bomb their targets from 8,000 feet instead of 19,000 feet. Additionally, Mosquito pathfinders would drop color-coded marking flares over the targeted sleeping and living quarters (first wave), factory workshops (second wave), and experimental station facilities (third wave).

Plagued by unexpected problems with the H2S radar, delays that threw off the bombers’ timing, flak, and, with the third wave, the arrival of Luftwaffe night fighters rerouted to Peenemünde upon the discovery that the Berlin raid was false, only the second wave successfully dropped the majority of its ordnance on target. Forty-one British bombers never returned to England. Full V-weapons production suffered a delay of about six weeks.

In The Rocket Team, authors Frederick I. Ordway III and Mitchell Sharpe wrote, “Perhaps the greatest failure of the raid was that it did not achieve one of its major objectives: killing or incapacitating as many of the scientific and technical personnel as possible.” Only two important people were killed. Hydra also caused the Germans to disperse production. V-weapon tools and machinery were transferred to a subterranean plant in central Germany. Though still important, by September Peenemünde was no longer the sole center of Germany’s rocket program.

Peenemünde

An aerial reconnaissance photograph taken after Operation Hydra. This photo shows the heavily damaged Trassenheide forced labor camp where many foreign workers were killed. Imperial War Museum photo

On June 13, 1944, one week after D-day, the first V-1 flying bomb roared off its launch rail and headed for London. Then, on Sept. 8, the first V-2 lifted off. Though they were too few and came too late to change the outcome of the war, Germany had won the rocket weaponry race.

YouTube features a number of videos about Peenemünde and its operations. A full color video showing the V-2 and Wernher von Braun can be seen at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IN4M1p_tTKU. A longer black and white video showing more of the operations can be seen at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uYN1Gw_kJQo.

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...