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 anti­air­craft guns, radar, and com­muni­ca­tion 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