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 from bases in the Pas-de-Calais region opposite the English port city of Dover 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 rhythmic 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. A bar­rage bal­loon belt fitted with extra cables south and east of London wasn’t terri­bly effec­tive, bringing down only 300 (15 per­cent) that reached the area. In mid-July 1944 London’s whole anti­air­craft belt was moved down to the coast. These 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 in mid-1944.

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 two-ton bombs with their 1,870 lb war­heads killed 6,184 peo­ple, seriously injured another 17,981, and destroyed or damaged over 1.1 mil­lion structures 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 (1,790 mph at impact), 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.

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

Preparing V-1 for launch Heinkel 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, the first in what the Germans called their “secret wea­pon.” (The second of course was the V‑2.) 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. The majority of V‑1s were launched from contrap­tions that resembled roller coasters whose tracks suddenly halted on the upgrade.

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

Left: Looking like a miniature fighter plane, V‑1s gave off a tell­tale glow from their tails. Altogether 10,500 were launched against Britain during the war. Little more than half 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. Even the Japanese got into the cruise missile game when the Germans, using a U‑boat, shipped them a pulsejet engine. The Baika (“Plum Blossom”) never left the design stage. The Ameri­can ver­sion of the German V‑1 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 set to kick off in Octo­ber 1945. Plans were to produce 1,000 per month. Two U.S. bombs of a radi­cally dif­ferent nature, dropped on Hiro­shima and Naga­saki in August 1945, meant no Loons were ever used against Japan.

Wings of the Luftwaffe: The V-1 Flying Bomb

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