Sergei Korolev, Rocket Man

As early as 1955, the Soviets launched the world’s first Sea Launched Ballistic Missile, besting the USA and so introducing the world’s first SSBN. They probably could not have done that without the help of a banished man.

On September 16, 1955 the Soviets made a breakthrough. A converted Zulu submarine launched an R-11FM ballistic missile in a White Sea testing ground, the sea in between the Kola Peninsula and Ark’angelsk. The R-11, or ‘Scud’ missile as its known in the west, was developed under the guidance of Sergey Korolev, also known as the father of the Russian missile program.

Born in Ukraine in 1907, Korolev became a prodigy of all things aircraft and rocket and eventually though secretly designated as the USSR’s ‘chief designer’. Under his guidance the Sputnik-program was started and executed, as was the Vostok-program that would put Yuri Gagarin into space as the first human to look down on our planet from the sky. But he was also the father of the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile.

Together with Igor Kurchatov he was instrumental for the Soviet Union’s strategic ballistic missile program. Yet while he was doing all that magnificent work for the Soviet Union, he was a pariah.

In the late 1930s, when Stalin’s crazy purges reached their high point, or low point if you will, one of Korolev’s underlings who was out for his position denounced him to the NKVD, from which point on he was deemed an enemy and sent to the Gulag.

When World War II started, he was ordered to work in a labor camp where he and his colleagues designed some of the Soviet Union’s most successful bomber aircraft of the war. He was released from the labor camp and moved to the occupied Soviet zone in eastern Germany after the Nazi surrender and moved German rocket scientists to the USSR. There, under Korolev’s management, they would build on their experiences with the V2-rockets to design what would later become the R-11 ‘Scud-A’ missile.

This all culminated in the successful launch of the R-11FM, the world’s first sea launched ballistic missile. The missile had only limited range, not more than 70 kilometers with a heavy nuclear warhead attached, but it served its purpose. The fact that the missiles were fitted in a Zulu long range submarine was lost on no one. It could potentially move to the US East Coast or to the British coast to lob nuclear warheads at US bombers on British air bases.

Things didn’t end well for Korolev. The fake charges against him weren’t dropped until 1957 and although dubbed the ‘father of the Soviet missile program’, most of his work was kept secret. He died on January 14, 1966, after a life spent mostly in terrible conditions in forced labor camps during which many of his organs suffered badly. Only years after his death was he fully rehabilitated, and his important work publicly acknowledged.

After the Zulu V, which was really a one-off experiment, Soviets started production of Golf and Hotel ballistic submarines that would see longer range R-13 missiles installed.


Your host, Kaj Leers. 1975, Amsterdam dweller, submarine aficionado.

Further reading

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