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. Adolf Hitler crowed to his rocket pio­neer Wern­her von Braun, “This will be retri­bu­tion against England. With it we will force England to her knees.” 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—six civil­ians killed and nine injured when a V‑1 struck next to a rail­way bridge. A week later more than 500 of these new weapons had hit South­east England—244 falling on London on June 19—killing hundreds of people and injuring thousands more. Exacting revenge for the massive Allied aerial bombing of Germany appeared off to a good start.

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 and simplest terror wea­pons ever built. They were also rela­tively cheap to make. Con­structed of ply­wood over­laid with sheet metal, they did not require scarce alu­mi­num. Equipped with a rudi­men­tary gyro­scope to keep them flying straight at between 2,000 and 3000 feet/­610 and 914 meter over the Channel, the “buzz bombs” (also known as “doodle­bugs” and “divers”) fell indis­crim­i­nately over a large target area when their engine cut out and the bombs went into a steep dive. With an opera­ting speed of 400 mph/­644 km/hr, they 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 flying souped-up, stripped-down Spitfires 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 the thing careening to earth where it exploded on impact with the ground. The most success­ful pilot downed 60 of these cruise missiles this way. (Pilots had to con­sider whether there was any friendly fire from anti­aircraft bat­teries in the area before engaging in this daring-do.) Hitler hoped the daily rain of these death-dealing, 2‑ton missiles would force London’s evacu­a­tion (1 mil­lion mostly women, children, the aged or infirm 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 the Netherlands, Belgium, and France (more than 50 on the French Pas de Calais coast alone) or from air­craft, 3,531 flying bombs reached England, with 2,420 falling on Greater London. At its peak, over a hun­dred V‑1s were fired each day at South­east England, which acquired the sobri­quet “Hell Fire Corner.” The 2‑ton flying bombs with their 1,870 lb/­848 kg war­heads killed 6,184 peo­ple, seriously injured another 17,981, and destroyed or damaged over 1.1 mil­lion struc­tures until the last V‑1 launch 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/­2,880 km/hr at impact), silent approach from 50–120 miles/­80–208 kilo­meter 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 Weapon

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

Left: A German crew rolls out a V‑1 in 1944. The V‑1 resembled a mini­a­ture stubby-wing fighter plane with no cock­pit. It carried a 1‑ton, high-explo­sive war­head. Atop its tail was a stove­pipe pulse­jet engine that burned 80 per­cent octane gaso­line. As its fuel ran out, the V‑1 plunged to earth and exploded with devas­tating effect. The Germans manu­fac­tured close to 32,000 of these 25‑foot/­7.9‑meter-long flying bombs, the first in what the Germans called their “secret wea­pon.” (The second of course was the V‑2 bal­lis­tic missile.) 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. In oper­a­tion, the V‑1 jet engine would be started and the flying bomb steam-catapulted off 157‑foot/­48 meter-long tracks pointing directly to its target.

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

Left: 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.

The V-1 Flying Bomb: The Nazi Cruise Missile