Walter R. Dornberger, 84, the German general who supervised Wernher von Braun's development of the V2 rocket bomb during World War II, died last week while on a visit to his homeland in West Germany. The cause of death was not reported.
After two years in a British prisoner-of-war camp, Gen. Dornberger came in 1947 to the United States where he worked for the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force. Like more than 100 other German-born rocket scientists, he later became an American citizen. He also went to work for Bell Aerosystems Co., becoming a vice president.
Born in Giessen in the Ruhr Valley of western Germany, Gen. Dornberger joined the Imperial Germany Army as a volunteer during World War I and remained a career soldier through the days of Hitler's Wehrmacht to the end of the second world war. Between the two wars, he studied physics and in 1932 was put in charge of a group of fledgling scientists in a forest south of Berlin to test rocket concepts.
In 1937, Gen. Dornberger moved his rocket command to Peenemunde on the Baltic Sea in what is now East Germany. The first successful test of the V2 rocket took place Oct. 3, 1942, prompting the general to turn to Von Braun and say: "Do you realize what we accomplished today?" Von Braun was said to have replied: "Yes, today the spaceship was born."
Gen. Dornberger directed the firing of more than 1,000 V2s on London and its suburbs in the waning years of the war and was said to be working on a rocket bomb that could strike New York when the Red Army advanced to within 50 miles of Peenemunde Gen. Dornberger once complained that Germany was defeated because his colleagues "were more interested in the possibilities of space travel than with victory in war."
When the war neared its end, most of the Peenemunde scientists fled to Bavaria in southern Germany where they surrendered to American troops and offered the U.S. their services as rocket scientists.
"We despised the French," explained one of them at the time, "we were afraid of the Russians and we didn't think the British could afford us. That left the Americans."
When he went to work for Bell Aerosystems outside Buffalo, N.Y., Gen. Dornberger became an outspoken critic of the foot-dragging by the Army and Navy in getting into the Space Age. Before the Mercury program to put Americans into space was ever begun, he urged the United States to undertake a manned space effort before the Russians did.
The one-time Wehrmacht lieutenant-general often complained that deskbound people worried too much about the perils and pitfalls of technology.
"When we were ready to fire the first V2," he said once, "some scientist in Berlin tried to have it called off. He said the upper air was full of loose oxygen and hydrogen atoms and we would cause a terrible explosion by shooting our rocket into this. I'm still waiting for the bang."
In 1958, almost three years before President John F. Kennedy made it a national goal to land men on the moon before 1970, Gen. Dornberger predicted man would stand on the moon in 10 years.
"Whether he is Russian or American depends on how much money Congress is willing to spend," Gen Dornberger said. "It all depends on the effort."