V-1s: The Flying Bombs That Terrorized Britain

V-1s: The Flying Bombs That Terrorized Britain

Khalid Elhassan - September 13, 2018

The Third Reich’s scientists had an alarming tendency to think outside the box and come up with lethal technological innovations. More alarming yet was their ability to quickly transform their sinister brainstorms into practical designs, then rush them through production and get them into the hands of the German military. Fortunately, Nazi scientists fell short when it came to WWII’s greatest technological innovation of all: figuring out nuclear fission, splitting the atom, and developing the A-bomb.

That was good news, because the technological innovations that Nazi scientists came up gave Germany’s enemies more than enough to worry about. Of those, none was more worrisome – at least to the Western Allies, and especially the British – as was the Vergeltungswaffe 1 (“Vengeance Weapon 1”), better known as the V-1 Flying Bomb. Also nicknamed the Buzz Bomb because of the sound it made in flight, or the doodlebug, the V-1 was the world’s first cruise missile, and a terror weapon that struck fear into the hearts of the civilian populations it was deployed against.

V-1s: The Flying Bombs That Terrorized Britain
V1 FLYING BOMB (C 4431) A cut-away and annotated drawing of the Fiesler Fi 103 flying bomb. Imperial War Museum

Development of the V-1

At the outset of WWII, the Luftwaffe ruled Europe’s skies, and the unprecedented ferocity and destructiveness of its bombers terrorized Germany’s opponents. It was not until the Battle of Britain, in 1940, that the Nazis’ aerial ascendancy got its first check. From then on, the balance of the war in the air gradually tipped against the Third Reich, and Germany was subjected to a steadily intensifying bombing campaign operating out of bases in Britain. While German cities were gradually being reduced to rubble, the Luftwaffe found itself in the humiliating position of being unable to return the favor.

Unlike the British, or the Americans who joined the war in late 1941, the Germans had no heavy strategic bombers of the kind that the Allies were using to dismantle German cities. Luftwaffe doctrine was based on medium and light bombers that were suitable for ground support, but that were woefully inadequate for penetrating enemy airspace defended by a first rate air force, such as the RAF. The Battle of Britain had made that abundantly clear.

However, Hitler and the German public demanded retaliation for the increasingly destructive Allied air raids on the Third Reich, so a way had to be found to visit destruction upon Britain. It was decided that if German bombers could not deliver bombs to Britain, then perhaps the answer was to deliver bombs to Britain without German bombers. In 1942, the Luftwaffe approved the development of an inexpensive flying bomb, capable of reaching Britain, and that December, German scientists test flew the world’s first terror weapon, the V-1.

V-1s: The Flying Bombs That Terrorized Britain
A V-1 being taken out to its launch ramp. Wikimedia

It was an unguided cruise missile, whose final production version was a 27 feet long device, with stubby wings measuring 17 feet, that could carry a warhead filled with 1900 pounds of explosives. For propulsion, it relied upon an unorthodox pulse jet engine, fueled by 165 gallons of 75 octane gasoline, that was capable of launching the V-1 at speeds of up to 393 m.p.h., and to a range of up to 160 miles. In it its heyday, which was mercifully brief, it was the most terrifying weapon imaginable, causing death and destruction far out of proportion to its size.

From June to August of 1944, over 9500 hundred V-1s were launched at area targets in southeast England, with the London Metropolitan area being especially hard hit. At the peak of the Buzz Bomb’s campaign, over a hundred missiles were fired each day from launch facilities in northern France and along the Dutch coast. England finally got a reprieve when V-1 launch sites within range of Britain were overrun by advancing Allied armies. The Germans then redirected the missiles at the Belgian port of Antwerp, which became the Allies’ major supply and distribution center in continental Europe after its liberation from the Nazis.

V-1s: The Flying Bombs That Terrorized Britain
A V-1 in flight. The Slaughen Archives

Deployment and Effectiveness of the Flying Bomb

Modern cruise missiles can deliver explosive payloads to their targets with pinpoint accuracy, flying at extremely low altitudes while self-navigating and correcting their course as necessary en route. The V-1 was their direct, if cruder, ancestor. Its guidance system was primitive by modern standards, but quite effective for its era and intended purpose: the missiles were simply placed on inclined ramps pointing in the target area’s direction. The missile could not take off under its own power over the short distance provided by the ramp, so it was launched with a steam catapult, similar to that used in aircraft carriers.

The heading was controlled by a magnetic compass, stability was maintained by an internal gyroscope, and altitude was controlled by a barometric altimeter. A rotating wind speed measuring device known as a vane anemometer measured distance and drove an odometer. When the odometer hit a preset mark corresponding to the distance to the target, it triggered a mechanism that cut off power to the engine. That caused the V-1 to tip over and dive, and impact fuzes in its warhead caused it to explode when it hit the ground.

The first of thousands of V-1s was launched against London on June 13th, 1944. It was crude, and highly inaccurate by today’s pinpoint standards. Indeed, so great was the V-1’s margin of error, that it was useless to aim it any specific target. Instead, the Buzz Bomb was a plain terror weapon, launched at area targets such as the sprawling London Metropolitan Area. The Germans figured that in such a heavily built up and densely populated area, wherever the bomb landed it was bound to hit something and cause some damage.

V-1s: The Flying Bombs That Terrorized Britain
A typical V-1 launching facility. Yvrenchy

The Buzz Bomb was terrifying to civilians below, and the bee-like drone of its pulse jet was nerve wracking. Even scarier was when the buzzing stopped: that meant that the missile’s motor had cut off, and that the bomb had begun its terminal dive on whatever lay below. They were effective from a German perspective, causing roughly 23,000 casualties in England, and inflicting widespread terror and hardship. The flying bombs caused nearly as much damage in Britain within two and a half months in 1944 as the Blitz of 1940-1941 had inflicted over a period of twelve months. And the V-1 campaign cost Germany only a fraction of what it had expended during the Blitz.

Vast resources had to be deployed to defeat the V-1s. Defensive measures included rings of flak guns, barrage balloons that dangled cables to snag the flying bombs’ wings, and squadrons of fighter aircraft to shoot them down or tip them over with their wings. Many bombing sorties were also flown against suspected V-1 launch sites. The menace to London finally ended only after Allied armies in Northern France overran the last V-1 launch sites within the weapon’s 160 mile range. The Germans then shifted them to other targets under Allied control, such the vital port city of Amsterdam. It is estimated that between Allied countermeasures, and the V-1’s mechanical unreliability and guidance errors, only about 25 percent of the missiles launched actually hit their target areas.

V-1s: The Flying Bombs That Terrorized Britain
Bofors 40mm antiaircraft gun. Wikimedia

Countering the Buzz Bomb

Antiaircraft guns were the first line of defense against the V-1. The missile was initially intended to fly at an operational altitude of 9000 feet, which would have put it beyond the range of most antiaircraft guns, except the heaviest ones. However, it was discovered during testing that flying at such heights led to frequent failures in the missile’s fuel system, resulting in a sudden loss of power and a premature terminal dive. So a month before the V-1s went operational, their operational altitude was reset to about 4500 feet. The reduced height reduced the incidences of fuel system failure, but it also brought the missiles within range of the Bofors 40mm antiaircraft gun most commonly used by the Allies.

However, the Allies discovered that the V-1s relatively low altitude, speed, and small sizes compared to airplanes, made it a very difficult target to track, follow, and hit. Most of their antiaircraft guns simply had a traverse rate that was too slow to keep up with the Buzz Bombs. Fortunately, a new secret weapon introduced in 1944 arrived just in time to help counter the V-1s speed and small size: the proximity fuze. Unlike conventional shells equipped with contact fuzes, proximity fuze shells did not need to directly strike the hard to hit V-1s. Instead, the new shells just had to get close enough to the flying bombs, and when the fuze detected that it was within range to do damage, it detonated the shell.

Allied fighter planes were another effective countermeasure. Spotting the tiny V-1s was often difficult, and the planes had to be in the right position to dive upon a missile once spotted in order to shoot them down. It was a dangerous task: while the V-1s did not shoot back, the warhead, if it detonated in midair, could damage the fighter that had shot it down. So some Allied pilots developed an innovative tactic of flying wingtip-to-wingtip with a V-1, then sliding their fighter’s wing beneath that of the missile. If done right, airflow over the fighter’s wing would cause the V-1s wing to tip up, overriding the missile’s internal gyro and sending it into an uncontrolled dive.

V-1s: The Flying Bombs That Terrorized Britain
A Spitfire using its wing to tip over a V-1 and send it crashing to the ground. Pintrest

While all the preceding measures cut into the V-1s, the menace was not brought under control until the last V-1 launch sites within operational range of Britain were overrun by advancing Allied ground forces in October of 1944. That was when the port of Antwerp became the missile’s new main target. However, the Germans sought to maintain at least some of the V-1 campaign against England, so they resorted to aerially launched missiles. V-1s were slung beneath specially modified Heinkel He 111 bombers

Aircrews developed a special tactic they named “low-high-low” to launch their missiles. To avoid enemy radar, they flew across the North Sea to Britain at wave top level until they neared their launch point. Then they rapidly climbed to launch altitude, fired their missiles, and dove back to low altitude to make their escape back home. Flying bombs continued to plague Britain until the last weeks of the war, and the final enemy action of any kind on British soil was a V-1 bomb striking a village in Hertfordshire on March 29th, 1945.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources & Further Reading

BBC History – V Weapons

Encyclopedia Britannica – V-1 Missile

Museum of Flight – The Fieseler Fi 103 (V1) German ‘Buzz Bomb’

National Archives, UK – British Response to V1 and V2

Wikipedia – V-1 Flying Bomb