Just before sunrise on June 13, 1944, the Royal Observer Corps in Kent sighted several small aircraft with loud engines and bright exhaust plumes trailing behind. Shortly thereafter, one of them crashed to the ground in the east end of London, causing a large explosion in Bethnal Green.
Six people were killed, 266 left homeless. Remains of the little airplane were found in the enormous bomb crater. Newspaper accounts attributed the damage to German Luftwaffe “raiders,” but British officials knew better.
Pressed by boastful claims from Germany about strikes by new weapons, the British home secretary disclosed that Britain was being bombarded by “pilotless aircraft,” also described as “robot planes.”
The Bethnal Green attack was the first by the V-1 flying bomb, designated Vengeance Weapon 1 (Vergeltungswaffen 1) by the Germans. The British called it the “doodlebug,” or “buzz bomb,” because of the distinctive sound of its pulsejet engine.
The V-1 was not the technological marvel initially imagined. That description applied better to the V-2—Vengeance Weapon 2—a ballistic missile introduced later. Whereas the V-2 was technically advanced, the V-1 was constructed mainly of sheet metal, cheaply produced, and quickly assembled. It resembled a small airplane with short, stubby wings. It was propelled by a simple jet engine that ran on 80-octane gasoline.
The V-1 was constructed mainly of sheet metal, cheaply produced, and quickly assembled. It resembled a small airplane with short, stubby wings. It was propelled by a simple jet engine that ran on 80-octane gasoline.
With a limited range of 148 miles, the buzz bomb had to be based forward on the French side of the English Channel. From there, it was fired from a slanted ramp pointed toward London. That determined its direction in flight.
Over the next three months, the Germans launched more than 8,000 V-1 strikes, nearly all of them against London, killing 5,500 people, injuring 16,000, and forcing the evacuation of more than a million.
The British had considerable success in fighting the V-1s with antiaircraft guns, fighter interceptors, and barrage balloons. The first phase of the V-1 assault on Britain ended in September 1944 when Allied armies in Europe overran the launch sites.
The attack on Britain continued for a while with an air-launched version of the V-1, carried aloft by He-111 bombers, but the main targeting for the buzz bombs shifted to Belgium, principally the port of Antwerp. An improved ground-based variant, introduced late in the war, could reach Britain, but only about a dozen got that far.
About 30,000 V-1s of all kinds were manufactured. Between June 1944 and March 1945, almost 25,000 were launched against targets in England and Belgium. Of these, 7,000 managed to hit somewhere in England, with fewer than 4,000 landing in the greater London area.
The Germans had been working on flying bombs and rockets since the 1930s. The program was concentrated at Peenemünde, a sprawling complex of laboratories and test facilities on a remote section of the Baltic coast near the Polish border. The technical director at Peenemunde was Wernher von Braun, who was the driving force behind the V-2.
Development moved into high gear in 1942 because of the interest of Führer Adolf Hitler, who wanted new weapons to strike back at Britain for the bombing of German cities. The Vengeance weapons, with their potential for spreading terror, suited his wishes.
The A-4 rocket—later the V-2—was a project of the ordnance branch of the German army. The Luftwaffe, unwilling to concede the bombardment mission to the army, devised its own program, the FZG-76 pilotless bomb, which became the V-1.
The V-2 was flight-tested in June 1942. First flight of the V-1 was in December 1942. Operation Eisbar (“Polar Bear”) was supposed to begin in December 1943, devastating London with a combination of V-1s and V-2s.
Hitler would not listen to proposals to use the vengeance weapons against other targets, such as the ports in southern Britain where the armada for the D-Day invasion was gathering. He was obsessed with retribution against London, although he also hoped that the V-weapons might help reverse the course of the war.
In the German plan, London was “Target 42,” with the Tower Bridge on the River Thames as the specific aim point. As it turned out, no V-1 ever hit the Tower Bridge.
British intelligence had been aware since 1939 of the experimental station at Peenemunde but they did not know its full purpose. In May 1943, a skillful Royal Air Force photo interpreter determined that a curving shadow on an aerial photo was an elevated ramp, and that a T-shaped blot on the ramp was an airplane without a cockpit.
The British had seen and recognized the V-1 for the first time. Reconnaissance in July discovered a V-2 prototype on a transport trailer near its test stand.
The attempt to eliminate the V-weapons was “Operation Crossbow.” In August 1943, hundreds of RAF bombers destroyed Peenemunde, but the essential research work was done. The Germans moved the production work elsewhere.
Crossbow turned to the “ski sites”—so called because the launch ramps looked like ski jumps—on the French coast. Between August 1943 and August 1944, 14 percent of Allied heavy bomber sorties and 15 percent of the medium bomber missions were allocated to Crossbow targets.
Scattered reports of German “secret weapons” found their way into the news. In February 1944, British Prime mMnister Winston Churchill acknowledged the existence of installations in France for rockets or robot planes (or both). The erroneous public assumption, often repeated, was that the weapons were radio-controlled.
The bombers succeeded in destroying most of the ski sites, approximately 100 of them, and about 2,400 V-1 missiles in the production and delivery pipeline. The Germans replaced the ski sites with simpler, modified sites. There were few outbuildings and little construction other than the launch facility itself. Modified sites could be built in eight days each, and were much easier to camouflage and hide. It was several months before the Allies identified the first one of them.
Crossbow did not stop the V-1 program, but it did slow it down. Hitler missed his goal of starting Operation Eisbar in December 1943. It was not ready to go until June 1944, a week after the D-Day landings began in Normandy.
It would not have mattered much to the invasion if the V-1s had been used. They were so inaccurate that they would have been as likely to hit the German defenders as the Allied soldiers on the beaches.
The V-1’s wings had no ailerons or other control surfaces. The missile was placed on the inclined ramp and launched toward London. The takeoff was assisted by a piston catapult, after which the pulsejet engine took over. At its cruising speed of 400 mph, the buzz bomb was across the English Channel in five minutes.
The pulsating sound—described as “similar to a Model T Ford going uphill”—could be heard from 10 miles away. It was generated by the opening and closing of the combustion chamber as the jet engine fired at 50 cycles or “pulses” per second.
Distance was measured by counting the revolutions of a propeller in the nose of the bomb. When the propeller had spun a predetermined number of times, the ignition stopped, and the nose of the bomb tipped downward into a steep dive.
In theory, the ignition cutout happened when the V-1 was above the target. In fact, there was considerable variation from the intended flight path. Of the four buzz bombs launched in the first attack on June 13, one landed on the periphery of London. None of the others came closer than 22 miles.
Residents of London and the surrounding territory learned quickly that when the noise of the buzz bomb quit, they had about 12 seconds to take cover before the missile exploded on impact with the ground.
The V-1 was not that powerful in an absolute sense. Its 1,830-pound warhead was equivalent to less than two of the general-purpose bombs carried by aircraft. However, the random nature of the attacks created great fear. Nobody knew when or where the next buzz bomb might fall.
Following the explosion at Bethnal Green, the V-1 attacks on London continued for seven weeks. “Between 100 and 150 flying bombs, each weighing about a ton, are being discharged daily,” Churchill said in July. The casualties were running at “almost exactly one person per bomb,” he said.
The damage was extensive. “Soon not a pane of glass remained in the city buses,” said historian Rick Atkinson. “Tens of thousands of houses were smashed.”
The peak of the assault came Aug. 3, when 316 missiles were launched, about 220 of them getting to London. One of the buzz bombs narrowly missed Buckingham Palace. It struck a tall ash tree on the grounds and exploded before reaching the ground, blowing out a number of windows in the royal residence.
The only information the Germans had on where the buzz bombs struck was what they could glean from the British, who used double agents to send back false reports. Deceived, the Germans retargeted with the result that the bombs were more likely to fall on less-populated places. “The subterfuge had to be kept secret of course—not only to fool the Germans but also to keep from the population of the southeast suburbs and countryside that their lives were being endangered to make central London safer,” said Nigel Blundell in a Daily Express look back.
V-1 launches declined in the middle of August as the Germans retreated from launch sites in northern France to avoid capture by the advancing Allied invasion forces. The last buzz bomb fired from France was on Sept. 7.
Between June and September, the total of V-1s launched was 8,617. More than 1,000 crashed on takeoff and almost half were shot down by the British defenses. Many landed far afield and only a quarter of them struck anywhere in London. The Germans began relocating the launch sites to eastern Germany for use against continental targets.
The British government announced on Sept. 7 that, “Except possibly for the last few shots, the Battle of London is over.” Within 24 hours, the first of the V-2s fell on the city. They kept coming intermittently for the next six months, although not in numbers comparable to the V-1s.
The Defense Belts
The Operation Crossbow attacks on the V-1 sites, never all that effective, were abandoned. What worked was an active defense in four layers: a fighter belt at sea, a coastal belt of antiaircraft guns, an inland fighter belt, and, closest to London, a belt of barrage balloons.
The best of the RAF interceptors was the new Hawker Tempest V, fast and maneuverable at low altitudes, but available only in limited numbers. Between June and August, Tempest pilots shot down 638 flying bombs. Other fighters, the Mosquito, Spitfire XIV, and Mustang, were also effective.
A shell from a 20 mm cannon could blow a hole through the steel covering of the buzz bomb, but the pilots dared not get too close. When a V-1 exploded in the air, it threw metal in all directions. A few pilots discovered that they could slide a wing under the V-1 wing and tip it over and out of control. Three V-1s were destroyed this way.
In good weather, the fighter-interceptors were more successful than the guns, and the Germans concentrated their main efforts on days when bad weather kept the fighters out of action. Results from the guns improved markedly with the arrival of proximity-fuzed shells from the United States.
The barrage balloons caught a few of those making it through, accounting for about eight percent of the V-1s intercepted. As a countermeasure, some of V-1s were equipped with balloon cable cutters on the leading edges of their wings.
“By the end of August, not more than one bomb in seven got through to the London area,” Churchill said.
As the war progressed, the Germans developed several more variants of the V-1. On July 9, a Heinkel He-111 bomber approached within 60 miles of England and fired a buzz bomb it carried under the port wing, inboard of the engine.
Between July and January 1945, some 1,600 air-launched V-1s were employed against Britain, nearly all of them aimed at London. The accuracy was even worse than the ground-launched weapons. In September, half of those dropped from He-111s missed London by 24 miles.
In October, the V-1 threat shifted to Belgium, especially the key port of Antwerp. Between then and March 1945, the Germans rained 11,988 V-1s against Belgium—more than were sent against England. Accuracy was still poor. Only 211 buzz bombs ever fell into Antwerp.
V-2 rockets struck Belgium as well. The most deadly day was Dec. 16,when a V-2 hit a movie theater in Antwerp, killing 567.
Meanwhile, the Germans were working intensively on a longer-range version of the V-1 that could target Britain from launch sites in Holland. The result was the F-1 variant, which had a larger fuel tank and smaller warhead. It achieved greater range but at the sacrifice of explosive impact. Only 275 of these variants were fired at England, all in March 1945, with just 13 of them reaching London.
The last V-1 development was a piloted version, intended for attack against high-value targets. Supposedly the pilot could bail-out at the last moment. Several test flights were conducted before the Luftwaffe canceled the whole thing in 1945 as a bad idea.
About 10,500 V-1s of all kinds were fired against England. Two thousand crashed on takeoff or shortly after. The defenses shot down 52.8 percent. Some got through, but they had no real effect on the outcome of the war.
“The average error of both weapons [the V-1 and V-2] amounted to more than 9.3 miles,” Churchill said. “Even if the Germans had launched 120 weapons per day and had we not shot down any of them, their effect would not have exceeded the dropping of two or three one-ton bombs per square mile per week.”
The Germans paid a substantial opportunity cost for the V-weapons. “The resources that went to build them could, according to the American bombing survey, have produced an additional 24,000 aircraft,” said historian Richard Overy.
The Americans shipped a supply of V-1 parts to Wright Field in 1944 and built their own copy of the buzz bomb, the JB-2 “Thunderbug,” but the program dwindled away with the end of the war.
Hanson Baldwin of The New York Times was among the first to perceive the legacy of the V-weapons. “The flying bomb will not win this war,” he wrote in August 1944. “And unless its cousin, the giant rocket the Germans are preparing for use against London, has undreamed of potentialities, neither will the rocket. But both of them are weapons of the future. Both have had and will continue to have considerable effect upon military operations.”
A major role for ballistic missiles and space boosters was not long in arriving. Peenemunde research chief von Braun went on to become director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. And the V-1 is clearly recognizable as the forerunner of the cruise missile, which has been pervasive in modern military operations.
The V-2 rocket, much larger than the V-1, was a ballistic missile rather than a pilotless airplane. It was fired from a mobile transporter-erector-launcher called a Meillerwagen.
Although the technology was more advanced, the explosive yield of the V-2 warhead was no greater than that of the V-1. Since there were fewer of them—a total of 3,170 launched against England, Belgium, and other countries—the damage inflicted was limited.
A little more than a third of the V-2s aimed at London and Antwerp hit the cities. And since the V-2 could not normally be intercepted in flight, it did not tie down defensive fighters and antiaircraft guns the way the V-1 did.
An exception occurred when by coincidence a V-2 overtook and passed through a formation of B-24 bombers returning to England after a mission. One of the machine gunners opened up on the rocket and demolished it.
“The cost of the development and manufacture of the V-2 was staggering, estimated by a postwar US study as about $2 billion, or about the same amount as was spent on the Allied atomic bomb program,” said historian Steven Zaloga. “Yet the entire seven-month V-2 missile campaign delivered less high explosives on all the targeted cities than a single large RAF raid on Germany.”
John T. Correll was editor in chief of Air Force Magazine for 18 years and is a frequent contributor. His most recent article, “The Euromissile Showdown,” appeared in the January/February issue.