London, England · June 13, 1944

Beginning on this date in 1944 in London, one week after the Allied D-Day landings in Nor­man­dy, France (Operation Overlord), the Germans unleashed their pilot­less flying “retali­a­tion wea­pon,” Ver­geltungs­waffe‑1, on Eng­land. Only one of ten V‑1 flying bombs launched that day caused any casual­ties—eight civilians killed when a V‑1 struck next to a rail­way bridge. Con­ceived in 1937 as a radio-con­trolled flying drone for use in tar­get prac­tice, these “buzz bombs,” so-called for the coughing and putt-putting sound their pulse­jet engine made, turned into one of the crudest, cheapest, and simplest terror wea­pons ever made. Flying at an opera­ting speed of 400 mph and an alti­tude of be­tween 2,000 and 3000 ft, the “buzz bombs” (also known as “doodle­bugs”) were diffi­cult to bring down at first. Bar­rage bal­loons weren’t terri­bly effec­tive, bringing down only 300. Flak guns were effec­tive when paired with the simple com­puters of the time. RAF pilots devel­oped a tech­nique of “tipping” a V-1, meaning a pilot approached the flying bomb and tipped his wing onto that of a V‑1 to knock it off balance, sending it careening to earth. The most success­ful pilot downed 60 of these cruise missiles this way. Adolf Hitler hoped the daily rain of these two-ton missiles would force London’s evacu­a­tion (one million people did leave), weaken Britain’s resolve to stay in the war, and snatch a Ger­man vic­tory from the jaws of looming defeat after the West­ern Allies had firmly estab­lished them­selves on the Euro­pean con­ti­nent. Launched from fixed sites in France and Holland or from air­craft, 3,531 flying bombs reached Eng­land, with 2,420 falling on Greater Lon­don. At its peak, over a hun­dred V‑1s a day were fired at south­east Eng­land, which acquired the sobriquet “Hell Fire Corner.” The bombs killed 6,184 peo­ple, seriously injured another 17,981, and destroyed or damaged 100,000 homes until the last V‑1 site in range of the British Isles was over­run by Allied forces in October 1944. The succes­sor to the V‑1 proved even dead­lier—a true shock-and-awe wea­pon feared for its super­sonic speed, silent approach from 50–120 miles high, and aw­ful devas­ta­tion. About 3,500 V‑2 rockets were fired at London and other cities be­tween Sep­tem­ber 8, 1944, when the first V‑2 landed on British soil, and the end of March 1945.

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V-1 “Buzz Bombs”—Nazis’ Crude, Cheap, Simple Terror Weapons

Preparing V-1 for launchHeinkel 111, V-1 mothership

Left: A German crew rolls out a V‑1 in 1944. The Germans manufactured close to 32,000 of these flying bombs. V‑1 launch sites in France were located in nine gene­ral areas, four of which had launch ramps aligned toward Lon­don, and the remain­der toward Brigh­ton, Dover, New­haven, Has­tings, South­ampton, Man­chester, Ports­mouth, Bris­tol, and Ply­mouth. To help counter the V‑1 threat, 23,000 men and women with anti-air­craft guns, radar, and com­muni­ca­tions networks were in­stalled along the English coast. RAF squad­rons, con­sisting of the newest Spit­fires, Hawker Tem­pests, and even Gloster Meteor jets, were also em­ployed. To­gether these defenses destroyed 3,957 V‑1s.

Right: Luftwaffe Heinkel He 111 H‑22 twin-engine bombers air-launched V‑1s from low al­ti­tude over the North Sea toward Britain. Only a few of these air­craft were pro­duced in 1944, when bomber pro­duc­tion was largely halted in favor of fighter aircraft.

V-1 in flightU.S. "Loon," a reverse-engineered V-1

Left: Altogether 10,500 V‑1s were launched against Britain during the war. Little more than half these missiles hit their targets (the figure also includes V‑2s). Bomb disposal teams were dis­persed to sites where V‑weapons had failed to explode on im­pact in order to render them harm­less. The last V‑1 launch site was overrun on March 29, 1945, five weeks before war’s end. V‑1s were assembled near Wolfs­burg, at the Mittel­werk under­ground fac­tory and at All­rich in cen­tral Ger­many, at Barth close to the Baltic Sea, and in the Buchen­wald con­cen­tra­tion camp complex (V‑1 parts).

Right: From captured V‑1 components both Americans and Soviets built ver­sions of the Ger­man cruise missile. The Ameri­can ver­sion was a proto­type known as the “Loon,” seen here being launched from a B-17 Flying For­tress during wea­pons testing in 1944. The inten­tion was to use these flying bombs as a key com­po­nent of Opera­tion Down­fall, America’s knock­out punch to Japan. Plans were to produce 1,000 per month. Two U.S. bombs of a radi­cally dif­ferent nature, dropped on Hiro­shima and Naga­saka in August 1945, meant no Loons were ever used against Japan.

Wings of the Luftwaffe: The V-1 Flying Bomb