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The V-1 Flying Bomb: The Nazi Cruise Missile

At 4.25 am on 13th June 1944 a strange sound was heard above London’s East End. Some later described it as sounding similar to a motorbike, to others a steam train struggling up a hill. Moments later a sound that Londoners had become all too familiar with split the air. The explosion on Grove Road all but obliterated a nearby railway bridge as well as several houses – in an instant, six people were dead.

For a city that had been terrorised by the German Luftwaffe during the Blitz, bombs falling from the sky were nothing new. Except, night bombing of the English capital had all but ceased up until that point. Whatsmore, what fell on Grove Road in the early hours hadn’t come from an aircraft. This was a new terror – the first V-1 flying bomb. 

Revenge is in the Air 

It was no coincidence that just one week after the Allied landings in Normandy Hitler authorised the use of a weapon that had remained under wraps until that point. Of course, after only one week of intense fighting in Normandy, nothing was certain, but most agreed that the best chance of throwing the allies back into the sea, as Hitler liked to say, had come and gone. As troops, tanks and equipment poured into northern France and with allied air forces continuing to pin down the struggling Luftwaffe while relentlessly attacking German cities, the situation was already looking desperate. 

The V-1 is often referred to as a ‘revenge weapon’ – a desperate maniacal roll of the dice when it became clear that the Allied landings had succeeded. That’s not entirely accurate as I will come to shortly, but it does sound good. Just how desperate Adolf Hitler felt at that moment we’ll never know, but the carnage in the east had shown him that the once seemingly invincible German army could be defeated. As Allied soldiers inched through the hedgerows of northern France, he authorised the use of the V-1 with the hope of landing a series of demoralising blows to Britain.   

Development     

Thankfully for the allies, and the millions who would eventually become accustomed to the buzzing sound above them, the V-1 entered service too late to make any significant impact on the war. Had it been available a few years before, their contribution to the Blitz could have been devastating. While it can be tempting to call it a revenge weapon, the truth is that Hitler couldn’t have used it much earlier. 

The idea for a flying bomb began in the 1930s, with aerospace engineer Paul Schmidt and Professor Georg Hans Madelung submitting a proposal to the Luftwaffe in 1935. Their design, which included a jet engine was groundbreaking and underscored how far ahead German engineering was at the time. But perhaps a little too far ahead because this initial design was rejected. 

Separately, a man by the name of Fritz Gosslau who worked for the Argus Motoren company was finalising his own hugely innovative design of what would be a remote-controlled target drone – the FZG 43. And though this design eventually led to a working prototype, it quickly became a failure. 

Both of these ideas had failed separately but used together, it might just be a different story. Schmidt and Gosslau began collaborating and were later joined by Robert Lusser, an aircraft designer who had spent time working with Willy Messerschmitt, an engineer responsible for the most famous German aircraft of the war. 

In 1942, the group began sketching out a design that would form the basis of the V-1. It included a pulse-jet above the tail and initially came with a gyroscope to aid orientation. In April 1942, the design was submitted to the Luftwaffe and two months later was approved. The project was officially named Project Fieseler Fi 103, with the code name Kirschkern (cherry stone in English) – and had the additional cover name Flakzielgerat (which translates as anti-aircraft aiming device) 76 – just in case. It was clear that this was one particular project that the Nazis wanted to keep close to their chest. 

In just three months the first fuselage was ready, while the first test flight involving a V-1 occurred on 10th December 1942 after being airdropped by FW Condor. A few weeks later on Christmas Eve – they were a festive bunch weren’t they the Nazis – the first ground-launch took place, which saw a test V-1 travel around 900 metres (1000 yards) for less than one minute. 

The Nazi hierarchy no doubt liked what they saw and in May 1943, the V-1 was put into full production and a few months later another test flight saw a V-1 travel for 243 kilometres (152 miles) and detonate within 1 kilometre (0.6 miles) of its intended target. OK, compared to the highly precise bombing we often see today, that’s not particularly impressive, but this was the 1940s and jet engines were still in their infancy. 

The V-1  

To call this weapon cutting edge would be an understatement and it’s hardly surprising that once the war concluded, the British and American governments began snatching up German scientists and engineers faster than you can say hold my schnitzel. 

Forget just for a moment that these men were working for one of the most repugnant regimes in history, they were absolutely brilliant. Designs for the V-1 and V-2 rockets would go on to form the basis for intercontinental missiles during the Cold War, while the most famous designer, Werner Von Braun played a pivotal role in the space race as the principal architect of the Saturn V rocket that eventually took Apollo astronauts to the moon.   

The flying bomb that had been created measured 8.32 metres (27.3 ft) in length and was powered by an Argus As 109-014 Pulsejet, which pulsed 50 times per second. Inside the engine, gasoline was forced from the 640 litres (169 gallons) fuel tank through the fuel jets with the aid of compressed air. The jets themselves were composed of three banks of atomizers with three nozzles each. Atomizers were initially developed to be used to spray fine liquid – the old-fashioned pump that you used to get with perfume is an atomizer and today it is still used for humidifiers and airbrushes – as well as of course fuel injection systems. 

The fuel coming into the nine atomizing nozzles mixed with an airflow inside which resulted in a series of controlled explosions. After each explosion a spring controlled flap valve system closed, creating compressed gas which was then forced out of the back of the V-1, pushing it forward. Now, that’s the process slowed down for the human mind to comprehend, but in reality, this was a series of actions that happened repeatedly 42 times per second.     

Long before complex computer systems, the V-1 used a variety of simple, yet ingenious methods for its guidance system. Essentially, it had an autopilot consisting of two gyroscopes, which controlled yaw (twisting on a vertical axis) and pitch (up and down movement), while a magnetic compass located in the front of the V-1 controlled the azimuth (a very complex word which roughly translates into simple English as ‘the direction’). 

The V-1’s altitude was maintained with the help of a barometric device, which is typically used to measure atmospheric pressure. The guidance mechanics inside were powered not by the jet itself, but rather by compressed gas stored in two spherical tanks which also drove the pneumatic servo-motors controlling the rudder and elevator located at the back. 

But how did it know when to fall? Well, here’s another innovative aspect of the V-1. It used a very basic form of an odometer (a speedometer) with a wind vane anemometer located on the nose. Shortly before launch, the odometer was set to count backwards starting at a number decided through mathematical equations. Sounds incredibly complex, but basically it was a small wind vane that flew around as the V-1 travelled through the sky. By calculating speed and prevailing wind conditions, it was possible to have a semi-precise idea of how many times this wind vane would turn over a set distance. It was usually calculated that one number on the odometer would be equal to 30 rotations on the vane. 

After around 60 km (37 miles), the odometer would automatically arm the warhead and once the number had reached zero, two detonating bolts were fired from within the V-1, which cut off power to the rudder leaving it plunging to Earth. It took a V-1 roughly 15 minutes to travel from Calais to London and typically flew at an altitude of 600 to 900 metres (2,000-3,000 ft). 

Each V-1 cost roughly 5,000 Reichsmarks ($2,000 in 1944 and about $30,000 today) to produce and their production was mainly done through slave labour in concentration camps. The Mittelbau-Dora camp was established close to the major production site near Nordhausen in central Germany. And it was here that an estimated 20,000 people died here working in awful conditions to produce the V-1.  

Warhead

When the V-1s went into operation their accuracy was fairly weak and they initially normally landed within a circle 31 kilometres (19 miles) in diameter, but by the end of World War II, that number was down to around 11 kilometres (7 miles). Considering most of the V-1s were being hurled in the direction of London (with the standard target often set as Tower Bridge) but without any truly defined or likely targets, the V-1 fell wherever they did. Remember, these were designed to strike fear into the population, rather than hit specific targets.   

The warhead that accompanied this flying machine consisted of 850 kg (1,873 lbs) of Amatol – a 52A+ high-grade blast-effective explosive – along with three fuses. An impact on the nose or its belly could trigger the main electrical fuse, while the second was a slow-acting fuse which allowed the V-1 to burrow into the ground before detonating. The third was set to go off two hours after landing, which wasn’t necessarily designed to cause further damage (though no doubt it did) but rather to destroy the weapon so it wouldn’t fall into enemy hands. This third trigger was so successful that there were almost no unexploded V-1s recovered during the war.   

Launch

The V-1 was launched with help of a Dampferzeuger – which translates as a steam generator in English – but was often called a Walter Catapult after its creator, Hellmuth Walter Kommanditgesellschaft. The Dampferzeuger functioned when steam was generated through the mixing of hydrogen peroxide and sodium permanganate. The high-pressure steam-propelled a piston within the catapult that was also connected to the bottom of V-1. It had a launch speed of 321 km/h (200 mph) which was fast enough to allow the pulse-jet engine on the V-1 to begin operating. 

The catapult itself had a launch rail 49 metres (160 ft) long but was comprised of 8 modular sections each just over 6 metres (16.9ft) long connected, along with a muzzle brake, which was designed to soften the recoil of the catapult. These were placed within specially designed installations mainly located in the Pas-de-Calais region as it was the closest point to the British mainland, but others were eventually added near Caen and Rouen. In theory, these launch sites could handle 15 V-1 launches per day, but this was rarely achieved.  

In Operation   

As we know, the first V-1 to fall on London came early in the morning on 13th June 1944 and was part of Operation Eisbar. But the operation had actually started the previous night, with none of the 9 V-1s launched reaching England. The following day, four reached the English coast, and early in the morning, the first V-1 hit Grove Road. 

The following week, the success rate shot up, with 144 reaching England over the 15/16th June. 73 landed in London, while the other 53 were shared between Southampton and Portsmouth. As the level of destruction began to climb, Allied commanders began prioritising attacks on V-1 launch sites in Northern France and by September 1944 all had been overrun. 

But a month later came a new target. Antwerp and Brussels became the new victims of the flying bomb as Hitler desperately tried to slow the Allied advance towards Germany. The final V-1 hit Antwerp on 30th March 1945 – less than six weeks before peace was finally declared in Europe. 

Countermeasures 

While the V-1 attacks caused plenty of chaos and thousands of deaths, those on the ground quickly found ways to fight back. The first method was simply to start aiming anti-aircraft guns at them, but this proved difficult because of their speed. Guns were rapidly redeployed to form a belt around southern England, but it was another invention that helped them rise to the V-1 challenge. 

The gun-laying radars which began appearing in 1944 were primarily supposed to be used during and after D-Day, but it quickly became clear that the anti-aircraft predictor fire-control system based on an analogue computer, dramatically improved success rates against the V-1. This was further aided by the introduction of the proximity fuse which could detonate an explosive device when it reached a predetermined proximity to a chosen object, meaning that even if a shell didn’t hit a V-1, a detonation close by would often be enough. 

These two countermeasures were rapidly rolled over over the summer of 1944 and saw almost immediate success. In the first week of attacks, 17% of V-1s were destroyed but by 23rd August, the gunners on the ground were regularly downing 60% of what came their way. In the last week of August that number reached 74% and on one memorable day 82% of V-1s were successfully shot down. Such was their success rate, that the ratio of fired shells to downed V-1s went from one thousand shells to one V-1, to one hundred per flying bomb.

Aircraft were also used to intercept the V-1s with varying degrees of success. As with the early anti-aircraft gunners, poor early efforts improved significantly with practice and technological advancements. By September 1944, interceptor aircrafts had shot down 638 flying bombs, while there were plenty of stories that verge on the mythical with incredible tales of allied aircraft using their wings to ‘topple’ V-1s after their ammunition had been spent.

Another countermeasure that had great success was misinformation. The crews back at the V-1 launch sites needed to know how accurate their flying bombs were, so the Nazi’s asked their spies inside the UK to report back on where the V-1s were falling. One problem with this was that almost all of the spies in the UK had already been turned and began feeding false information back to Berlin. The result was that V-1 crews began underfiring regularly, saving Central London more damage, but inflicting significant destruction on towns such as Croydon such south of the capital.   

V-1

Nicknamed the Doodle Bugs in the UK, the V-1s certainly struck a new sense of terror into Londoners over the summer of 1944. A nation that had perhaps afforded itself a slight pat on the back with how the D-Day landings were going were given a painful reminder that Hitler was not going to go quietly. 

The V-1 attacks on the UK killed 5,475 people – and while that is a large number, it pales in comparison to the 40,000 to 45,000 people who died during the Blitz in 1940 and 1941. The effect of the V-1s could have been significantly worse as only around a fifth of the 10,000 flying bombs fired in London’s direction actually made it. While the attacks on Belgium resulted in the deaths of 4,000 people. 

The V-1 is remembered perhaps more for its psychological effect than for its actual impact. As the war-weary nations limped towards a distant victory, flying bombs screeching overhead must have added a new, terrifying aspect to the war. In late March, the final V-1 rockets landed in London and Belgium two days after. But by this point, the Allies were already streaming through Germany. The production sites were soon overrun and the V-1’s short reign of terror came to an end. 

V-1 flying bomb – Wikipedia

The Terrifying German ‘Revenge Weapons’ Of The Second World War | Imperial War Museums (iwm.org.uk)

The first doodlebug of World War II fell on Grove Road | Roman Road LDN (romanroadlondon.com)

Buzz Kill – 13 Remarkable Facts about the V-1 Flying Bomb – MilitaryHistoryNow.com

Remains of Nazi ‘Flying Bombs’ Uncovered in British Woods | Live Science

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