In the meantime... (A historical context for the events described in this section):
1944 July 17: Advancing Soviet troops cross River Bug, entering Poland.
1944 July 24: Soviet troops capture city of Lublin in Poland
1944 Aug. 14: Soviet troops begin offensive against German forces from Vistula River bridgehead in Poland. (175)
Searching for details:
The author will greatly appreciate comments, documents and imagery related to the subject. Please contact Anatoly Zak.
Acknowledgement:The editor would like thank Alex Schwarzenberg-Czerny of Copernicus Astronomical Centre in Warsaw, Poland, for his contribution to this section.
Although missiles could not change the outcome of World War II, allied nations fighting Germany, paid close attention to the emerging technology. For the Soviet Union, facing awesome capabilities of the US air power in the Cold War standoff, rockets had an additional appeal as an alternative delivery system of the atomic bomb.
Soviet intelligence on the German rocketry
Since its creation in 1922, the Soviet Union maintained various economic and military ties with Germany, supplemented by active intelligence on both sides. Numerous contacts between military and industrial institutions of the Soviet Russia and Germany had been well documented. (124) Undoubtedly, the nascent rocketry was one of many German advances, which attracted the attention of Soviet agents. For example, one of the correspondents and friends of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, named Shershevsky, was rumored to be a Soviet spy working in Germany. (171)
A post-Cold War Russian source claimed that as early as 1935, the Soviet government had received first intelligence about the secret German missile development program. (170) (The German Army established a department responsible for rocket technology only few years earlier.) (169) During undetermined period of time, the Soviet intelligence was reportedly receiving information on German rocketry from Willy Lehmann, a high-ranking SS official, overseeing security of the military industry in the Third Reich. Lehmann, personally witnessed numerous firings of liquid-propellant rockets developed by Wernher von Braun. Since 1934, Lehmann, under code name A-201 Braitenbach, relayed information to Moscow via Vasily Mikhailovich Zarubin, the head of the Soviet spy network in Berlin. Sometimes in the 1930s, a detailed written report on the German missile tests by Lehmann was delivered to Joseph Stalin, Klement Voroshilov and Mikhail Tukhachevsky. (170) However, it seems that Soviet intelligence had no information on the development of the A-4 ballistic missile in Germany during World War II.
Soviets learn about A-4 test site in Poland
By May 1943, after years of skepticism, the British intelligence was finally convinced in the existence of the German long-range ballistic missile program. Urgent steps to counteract the new Nazi weapon were required. On August 17, 1943, the massive allied air raid targeted German secret rocket development and test center in Peenemunde. In the aftermath of the attack, the Germans decided to back up operations in Peenemunde, with a new training and testing range for the A-4 missile in a remote southeastern region of Poland.
A new launch facility was built within the territory of the artillery range and the SS training grounds in the village of Blizna northeast of the town of Debica. Primary missile impact points were located further northeast, along the shores of the Bug River.
The first A-4 launch from the Blizna test range took place on November 5, 1943. (58) At the peak of test activities in early summer 1944, as many as 10 missiles per day were fired from Blizna. Wernher von Braun, the head of the A-4 development, personally visited the impact areas to troubleshoot the problems discovered during trials. (174)
Despite all measures by the SS to maintain secrecy around the site, the British intelligence soon learned about rocket testing in Blizna from the intelligence unit of the Polish underground Home Army, AK. British were then receiving regular information about the tests from the Polish resistance. A Polish-British team even retrieved remnants of an actual missile from one of the impact sites.
In the aftermath of one of the A-4 launches, a Polish team beat the Germans to the impact site of the rocket near the town of Sarnaki on the Bug river. Members of the resistance managed to dismantle a largely intact rocket and hide its critical components in the Bug river, before the arrival of the German recovery team. As a result, the British intelligence learned an exact location of the rocket impact, despite the inability of Royal Air Force aircraft to fly regular reconnaissance missions in this remote region of Eastern Poland. (522)
Eventually, the Polish resistance managed to load components of one recovered missile onboard a British aircraft, which made a daring landing on the occupied territory in Poland. Concurrently, the British were able to recover another missile, which landed in Sweden.
On July 13, 1944, the British Prime-Minister Winston Churchill sent a letter to Joseph Stalin, which reportedly for the first time informed the Soviet leader about German rocket weapon being tested in Poland. (58) In his letter, Churchill asked Stalin to instruct his troops, then some 50 kilometers from Debica, to preserve any hardware found at the site after it was captured by the advancing Soviet Army. He also asked Stalin to permit British experts to visit Debica. Stalin eventually granted all Churchill's requests, while concurrently ordering his army intelligence and Minister Shakhurin to get ready for the evaluation of the German rocket trophies. Shakhurin had an order to have his experts in Debica before the British. Golovanov even cites a handwritten note by Stalin given by Shakhurin to Fedorov and urging him to investigate the matter as soon as possible. (18)
On August 4, 1944, the Soviet State Defense Committee issued a "mandate" No. 6311 directing a group of aviation specialists to join General Kurochkin's 60th Army, an element of the 1st Ukrainian Front, to conduct the investigation of the A-4 test range in Poland. The document, signed by Stalin, named Major General P. I. Fedorov (chief of NII-1) Yu. A. Pobedonostsev, M. K. Tikhonravov, N. G. Chernyshev, M. A. Shekhtman and R. E. Sorokin as members of the group. (170)
The group departed Moscow on the morning August 5, 1944. By the time, specialists landed in Poland, the front-line was approaching Debica, however, the test range in Blizna remained under German control. Soviet military intelligence reported that the site in question was occupied by the camp of the SS troops, who were evacuating the facility. (52) The last launch from Blizna range apparently took place at the beginning of July 1944. (10)
First A-4 remnants in Russian hands
The Soviet troops entered Blizna around August 6, or some ten days after Germans abandoned the test range with last pieces of the secret hardware. (10) Several Russian sources agree that first remnants of A-4 missiles were recovered in Poland by troops of the 60th army led by General P. A. Kurochkin. (18, 170)
At the time, Colonel General V. I. Kazakov, the commander of the artillery at the 1st Belorussian Front, and Major General N. M. Trusov, the chief of intelligence, assigned a group of soldiers recovering from injuries behind the front line to conduct a search for A-4 debris around the missile impact areas. One of the members of the group, the officer of the Katuysha rocket unit, Georgy Dyadin, said in his memoirs that initially the search effort produced only insignificant fragments of the A-4. (170) In the meantime, some of the injured soldiers in the search team needed help of local doctors. At one point, Polish physicians, Marian Korzhik and Zygmunt Niepokoj, themselves members of Polish resistance, attended the soldiers. They told Russians that last spring Polish resistance fighters found a combustion chamber of one of the A-4 on the shore of the Bug River not far from the town of Sarnaki. After the hardware was photographed, Polish fighters rolled it into the river and later could not find it (10); however, according to Dyadin, his search team easily located the site. The group then delivered the hardware to the intelligence of the 1st Belorussian Front, who shipped it to Moscow. (170)
A-4 pieces reach NII-1 institute
Concurrently, Fedorov's search group supervised personally by Chief of Soviet Military Intelligence General Serov, scouted the area from Aug. 5 to Sept. 4, 1944. Apparently, they couldn't get much sense of the place, until a British team led by Colonel Terence R. B. Saunders has arrived a week later with detailed maps, pinpointing exact location of the launch site and numerous points of missile impacts. As late as 1991, Vasily Mishin claimed that while Churchill "bombed" Stalin with his requests to allow British experts to visit the A-4 test range in Poland, NII-1 specialists were busy recreating the A-4 design. (53) However, Boris Chertok in his memoirs later said that without Churchill's letters to Stalin, the Red Army would pass Blizna with no knowledge whatsoever of the town's significance, while without British officers with their maps the search for the A-4 would be all but fruitless. (58)
Near Blizna and around impact sites along the Bug river, the British-Russian team collected a number of debris, including avionics and the entire combustion chamber from the A-4. The trophies also included propellant tanks, fragments of the rocket body, graphite rudders and pipelines. All or most hardware was packed for shipment to London via Moscow.Here Russian and Western sources are in major disagreement about the events that followed. According to Boris Chertok, before the cargo was handed over to the British embassy in Moscow, four Soviet engineers from the NII-1 including Chertok himself and Pilugin examined its contents. (58)
However according to Western sources the A-4 parts recovered in Poland had never made it to London. Instead, British authorities found old airplane parts in the boxes that arrived from Moscow. (10)
It is clear that one way or another, some or all hardware recovered by the Russian-British team in Poland ended up in NII-1. The trophies were placed in the conference room of the NII-1 under heavy security. Initially, only director Fedorov and his scientific deputy Bolkhovitinov had access to the room. Eventually, Isaev, Chertok, Pilugin and Mishin ware also allowed in. They all could hardly believe their eyes. The size and capabilities of the combustion chamber was far beyond of anything Soviet engineers could dream at the time.
Initial calculations done by Mikhail Tikhonravov and Yuri Pobedonostsev showed that the trust of the A-4 engine was around 25 tons.A group of NII-1 engineers, which included N. A. Pilugin, A. Y. Bereznyak, B. E. Chertok, L. A. Voskresensky, V. P. Mishin, M. K. Tikhonravov, U. A. Pobedonostsev, V. A. Borodachev, A. A. Borovkov, Y. N. Konovalov, I. F. Flerov, received an assignment to recreate on paper the overall design of the missile, means of its flight control and its major characteristics. General V. F. Bolkhovitinov, a prominent aviation designer, supervised the effort of the group.Valentin Glushko, an experienced rocket engine designer, who at the time led a "sharashka" (design bureau in prison) in the City of Kazan, also traveled to Moscow to review remnants of the A-4. (173)
V-1 cruise missile
In October 1944, in addition to the A-4 parts, British allies shared with the Russians the V-1 cruise missile, which was shot down over London. (170) As it was the case with the A-4 ballistic missile and with the American B-29 bomber, Stalin ordered the development of an exact copy of the V-1 in the USSR. Plant 51 in Moscow was charged with the task. It was the start of the Soviet cruise missile development program and the beginning of Vladimir Chelomei's design bureau.
Conclusion of work in Poland
By November 1944, the NII-1 research group completed its study of the A-4 and also made some calculations about the missile's trajectory and aerodynamics. According to Vasily Mishin, the institute's engineers even proposed a A-4-based rocket with the range of 600 kilometers. However, the management of the Soviet aviation industry, MAP, was skeptical about the A-4 potential, as well as about institutional responsibility for this type of technology. As a result, Bolkhovitinov's group at NII-1 was disbanded, while the chief of Aviation industry, A. I. Shakhrin proposed to transfer any further work on rocketry to the armaments and munitions industry. (53, 126)
By the beginning of 1945, the news about more findings in Poland and Stalin's interest, made General Fedorov himself to lead a 10-member search team. It also included radio engineer Roman Popov and the developer of the short-range solid rockets L. E. Shvartz. They left for Poland on February 7, 1945, onboard the DC-3 transport plane. During the flight, an army jeep sitting in the cargo bay of the plane got loose, causing a crash of the plane near Kiev and killing all its passengers. (18) In the wake of the accident, General-Leutenant Yakov Lvovich Bibikov was appointed a new director of NII-1.
Next chapter: Soviet search for the A-4 (V-2) technology in Germany
Writing and cartography by Anatoly Zak
Last update: October 16, 2011
All rights reserved
Flight trajectory of German A-4 launches in Poland during World War II. Click to enlarge: 400 by 296 pixels / 44 K. Copyright © 2003 Anatoly Zak
Test and training site for the German A-4 crews in the village of Blizna in southeastern Poland. Click to enlarge: 432 by 262 pixels / 36 K Copyright © 2003 Anatoly Zak
German signposts at Blizna test range. Click to enlarge.
British-Soviet search team in Blizna in September 1944. Click to enlarge.