Johannes Winkler was born on May 29, 1897, in Karlsruhe, Germany. He attended primary school in Karlsruhe, and middle school in Oppeln. After graduating high school in Liegnitz in 1915, Winkler enlisted in the army. Seriously wounded in 1916, during the Battle of Lake Narocz, he spent seven months recuperating in the hospital. Upon release, he was excused from further military service and decided to study machine construction at the Technische Hoshschule in Danzig (now Gdansk, Poland), graduating in May 1918.
In the 1920’s, Winkler developed a love for astronomy, aviation, and rocketry while working as an engineer at the Junkers Aircraft Company. On June 5, 1927, he and two other rocket enthusiasts founded the German Rocket Society (VfR – Verein fur Raumschiffahrt) in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland). Within a year the VfR would boast a membership of 500, including most of the early twentieth century’s European rocket pioneers. From 1927 to December 1929, Winkler edited and published the club’s magazine, The Rocket (Die Rakete) , the world’s first journal of rocketry while also serving as the VfR’s first president.
In 1929, Johannes Winkler quit his job at Junkers to pursue rocketry full time. By 1931, using rocket pioneer Hermann Oberth’s calculations, Winkler designed, built, and flew the first liquid propellant rocket in Europe, five years after Robert Goddard of the United States had launched the world’s earliest liquid-fuelled rocket. Winkler’s rocket, the HW-1, was two feet high and weighed eleven pounds at takeoff. It was propelled by high-pressure nitrogen gas forcing liquid methane and liquid oxygen into a combustion chamber. Launched in Dessau, Germany on February 21, 1931, the HW-1 failed after flying only ten feet. Undeterred, on March 14, 1931, Winkler launched another HW-1, this one soaring to more than 1500 feet.
On October 6, 1932, after months of work, Winkler launched a more advanced rocket, the HW-2, on the Baltic Sea coast near Pillau, Germany. Unfortunately the six-foot high rocket had been exposed to corrosive sea air for weeks during launch delays and some of its alloys had deteriorated. An internal breakdown led to an explosive propellant mix in the rocket, and after rising only ten feet, it exploded. With the failure of the HW-2, Winkler gave up rocketry as a profession and returned to his old job at Junkers. He continued to experiment with rockets on his own for a year, until Adolf Hitler’s Nazi government outlawed all private rocket research in Germany. Johannes Winkler worked for the German military’s Aeronautical Research Institute during World War II, designing Jet Assisted Take-off (JATO) units and sounding rockets but none of them were ever put into production.
His health ruined by the war, Johannes Winkler died in a refugee camp at Braunschweig-Querum, Germany on December 27, 1947.