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Above: The Rheinbote missile.
Previous chapter: A-4
Rheinbote (Rhine Messenger) marked the re-emergence of solid-propellant missiles after their demise in the 19th century. It became the first weapon of this type that significantly exceeded the range of traditional artillery. Ironically, its appearance on the scene was almost completely overshadowed by the development of the A-4 liquid propellant missile and it is often barely mentioned even in specialized literature on Nazi secret weapons. Rheinbote preceded numerous sounding rockets which were used for penetrating the upper atmosphere at the dawn of the space era. Superficially, Rheinbote's slim, multi-stage design also resembled future solid-propellant ICBMs and space launch vehicles, such as American Scout, Russian Start and Indian SLV-3. In fact, the velocity achieved by Rheinbote at the conclusion of a powered flight was exceeded only with the appearance of the Cold War-era ICBMs.
During the 1930s, the range of rockets burning smokeless powder approached a limit of 35-40 kilometers. To push the range further the idea of a multistage rocket was born. In Germany, the Rheinmetal-Borsig company based in Berlin started the development of one of the first multi-stage rockets burning smokeless powder in August 1942. The rocket had no guidance or flight control system and would be aimed at the target by pointing its launcher (converted from a 88-millimeter anti-aircraft gun mount) in the direction of the flight. However most accounts say that the missile was launched from a "Meillerwagen" originally developed to transport A-4 project, whose erecting boom was upgraded with an eight-meter guiding rail. Both claims are correct, as available photos show the missile on two types of launching devices. One could've been used for tests and another for operational deployment.
The missile's four stages worked in sequence burning solid propellant. Each higher stage would be fitted into the previous stage via a tube-like interface. A charge of flash powder and nitroglycerin placed at the top of each stage would be ignited at the end of the burn, passing the torch to the stage above.
The rocket's oversized first stage with six nozzles, borrowed from R-1P anti-aircraft missile, would fire only for one second delivering impressive 38,000 kilograms of thrust and crashing 3.5 kilometers from the launch pad. Second and third stages were identical and would fall 12 and 25 kilometers downrange respectively. The fourth stage had slightly lower thrust and would remaining attached to the warhead. Some 25.5 seconds after a blastoff, the Rheinbote's fourth stage would achieve a speed of a mile per second.
The vehicle would climb to an altitude of under 80 kilometers into the stratosphere, before descending and impacting as far as 215 kilometers from the launch site. (213) Slightly canted fins on each stage were intended to spin the rocket in flight, promising to increase accuracy.
Flight testing of the Rheinbote missile was conducted from Blizna test range in Poland, the same location, which was used for A-4 trials. Tests quickly showed that despite unmatched flying characteristics for a solid-propellant missile, Rheinbote's very small payload of explosives rendered it virtually useless as a weapon. The point was illustrated by an anecdote later relayed to a space historian, Willy Ley, by Walter Dornberger, who oversaw test flights in Blizna. According to the story, during one of the launches with a live warhead, the rocket's fin allegedly hit some obstacle, causing the vehicle to climb nearly vertically (...or was it an unofficial attempt to reach a maximum altitude?) The warhead then crashed not far from the trench where frightened personnel rushed to hide from the inevitable explosion. To their surprise only a small shallow crater was found at the impact point.
Apparently, more advanced versions of the missile, designated Rheinbote-2 and 3 were under consideration, but never built.
Despite proven inefficiency of Rheinbote as a weapon, desperate Nazi leaders, particularly Special Commissioner, Hans Kammler, apparently with the blessing from Hitler himself, ordered the operational use of the missile. According to various accounts between 20 (213) and 200 Rheinbote were fired from a Dutch city of Zwolle in a direction of Antwerp beginning in November 1944, apparently producing no military effect whatsoever. In January 1945, as many as 60 such rockets were fired against Antwerp, again with little results. (348) Even in larger extent than A-4, Rheinbote remained a purely experimental vehicle with little accuracy and small payload. Its industrial production was also limited. Nevertheless, along with the A-4, Rheinbote became the only long-range ballistic missile, which saw combat in World War II, thus ushering a new age of warfare and space exploration.
Post-Cold War publications of Soviet documents did show a major interest of the Soviet government in the rocket systems developed by Rheinmetal-Borsig. On May 31, 1945, Stalin personally signed a decree No. 8897ss (top secret) to evacuate all equipment of the company's rocket-production factory in Berlin-Marienfelde to Plant No. 67 and Central Design Bureau No. 1 of the Munitions Narkomate. In his summary of German rocket trophies, General Sokolov reported evacuating around 50 boxes of blueprints and technical documentation from the Marienfelde plant. The report listed Rheinbote as one of the rockets produced by the factory. (473) Russian sources later described Rheinbote as a failed experiment in achieving long range with a multi-stage solid motor design. It was noted that the payload was comprising only 6.4 percent of the vehicle's total mass, resulting from a cumbersome design. In addition, each stage separation in the absence of the trajectory control would cause angular deviations up to 0.5 degrees, thus reducing accuracy. (494)
Known specifications of the Rheinbote missile (213):
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Page author: Anatoly Zak; Last update: July 9, 2011
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Most available photos show the Rheinbote missile on a mobile launcher borrowed from the A-4 missile.
Rheinbote could also be launched from a modified anti-aircraft gun mount.
Rheinbote in flight a second after the liftoff, during the burn of the first stage.
A modified version of the Rheinbote missile was under consideration, but never built.