Today we call them cruise missiles, but back then they were called V-weapons. In German, the V stood for Revenge. Hitler promised that his revenge weapons would punish the Allies for their bombing of German cities. And these jet-propelled missiles almost won the war.
Even before the war, the Nazis realized that the land, sea and air defences around Britain made the island nation almost impenetrable.
So Hitler assigned his most brilliant scientists to come up with a long-range weapon, propelled by jet fuel, that could be fired on England from hundreds of miles away.
With any success, they could even be fired on North America.
And the plan almost worked. As early as 1938, scientists had a testing facility on the north coast of Germany, on the shores of the icy Baltic Sea. It was called “Peenemünde.” After the war revved up, hundreds of conscripted foreign workers from conquered countries labored there, creating test weapons that were fired out over the open water.
The best German scientists, like the father of rocket science himself, Wernher von Braun, who moved to the United States to work in rocket technology after the war, were known as “Peenemünders.”
After many attempts and numerous explosions and crashes, they came up with two successful prototypes.
The V-1 was a tiny aircraft that flew without a pilot, launched off the end of a ramp. It was powered by a pulse jet engine, and carried one ton of powerful explosives. It looked like this.
The V-2, meanwhile, looked like a rocket.
Even hidden away on this remote strip of sand, their nefarious activities were noticed by the Polish underground and reported to the Allies.
Reconnaissance aircraft were sent over the area to take photographs, which were mostly baffling as the interpreters didn’t even know what they were looking for. One of their orders was to look for “anything queer.”
But eventually, photo interpreters detected both V-weapons at Peenemunde. One of them was the brilliant and brainy Constance Babington Smith, and you can read more about her by clicking: The Woman With the X-Ray Eyes.
(My wartime novel Bird’s Eye View is fact-based fiction, the story of a Saskatchewan farm girl who joins the air force and works at RAF Medmenham as a photo interpreter. To read one thrilling chapter, click here: Bird’s Eye View Excerpt.)
On the night of August 17, 1943, a 600-bomber stream was sent over from England to wipe out Peenemunde, which was located at the very limit of the RAF’s bombing range at the time.
It was a bloody raid. The German defences surrounding Peenemunde were formidable, and forty bombers were lost. Many foreign workers who were imprisoned in a camp beside the testing station were killed by stray bombs.
However, the raid was considered a success because it ended the testing at that particular site. But it didn’t stop there. The Germans picked up their V-weapon program and moved it to an underground cavern, far away from prying eyes.
Meanwhile, the photo interpreters began to detect the launching sites for the flying bombs. They were called “ski sites,” because they were long, narrow installations, curved at one end to protect against shock waves, mostly hiding in the forests of northern France, all facing towards London. Here’s an abandoned launching site near Hazebrouck, France.
In 1944, Allied bombers tried to eliminate the threat entirely by targeting the launch sites again and again.
But just one week after D-Day, when the Allies finally got their boots back onto the continent and spirits were running high, the first V-1 flying bombs began to land on southern England.
Just before dawn on June 13, 1944, the crew of a naval patrol boat in the English Channel saw “a bright horizontal flame” in the sky speeding towards England from the French coast at more than 400 miles per hour. And on the coast, two air wardens heard “a swishing sound” and saw it pass overhead.
It was the first cruise missile in history.
The first few flying bombs landed harmlessly in fields, but the fourth cruised into the heart of London, its auto-pilot directing it towards its target, the famed London Bridge.
When its jet-fuelled engine cut out, it plummeted onto a railway bridge and one ton of explosives detonated, killing eight people and rendering 200 homeless.
Here’s a photo of a flying bomb headed towards London, the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral clearly visible.
The new attack was devastating, mainly for psychological reasons. The “buzz bomb” or “doodlebug” as it was called, because the engine made a “putt-putt” sound, was inaccurate and unpredictable.
Nevertheless, the renewal of this unexpected blitz, so late in the war, had a devastating effect on morale.
In spite of all the Allied efforts to destroy the launch sites, some 10,000 buzz bombs were fired on England. At their peak, 100 buzz bombs a day were fired, gradually lessening as the launch sites were overrun by the invading Allies.
The onslaught lasted for 79 days and killed some 6,000 people. The last flying bomb was fired on September 1, 1944.
Some of the V-1s were brought down by anti-aircraft fire as they crossed the coast. Occasionally, a skilled fighter pilot could catch up to the little critter and tip it over so it would crash in the open countryside before it reached London.
To read my interview with Canadian Spitfire pilot Ben Scaman, who actually managed to tip over some of the V-1s, click here: Doodlebug Destroyer.
But they didn’t have much time. From launch to landing, the flying bomb took about twenty minutes to reach its target. Here’s a photo of a chase in progress.
Then things got even worse. A week after the last flying bomb was fired on England, the V-2 rockets began to arrive.
In the early evening of September 8, a rocket powered by liquid oxygen was fired from a suburb of The Hague in Holland, still under Nazi occupation.
It went straight up into the stratosphere, then plunged down towards London. A mere six minutes after it was launched, it landed on a city street, killing three people and making a crater thirty feet deep.
Worried about the effect on morale, the government censors told the newspapers to call it an exploding gas main. However, it didn’t take the civilians long to figure out that this was a new and more frightening threat.
The V-2 carried the same amount of explosives as the flying bomb, but nobody could hear it coming, since it travelled faster than the speed of sound.
On the ground, the V-2 was easily mobile on a trailer and almost impossible to track down. Once launched, it couldn’t be stopped in mid-air. It was simply too fast.
This was a weapon against which there were no counter-measures.
Londoners had no choice but to bear the worst that could be thrown at them. In November 1944, a packed department store took a direct hit and 186 people died. In March 1945, 110 were killed while shopping in a meat market.
Here members of the British Ambulance Corps arrive after a V-2 strike.
Thankfully, there were a lot fewer of them dropping from the skies, averaging between four and seven a day. And in the end, the V-2 campaign petered out as the Allies carved into Germany and military resistance stopped.
In seven months, around 1,400 rockets had fallen on London, killing 3,000 and injuring 6,500. This was minor compared to the number of civilian deaths from the “terror bombing” of Germany.
But if the V-weapons had been invented earlier in the war, they might have exacted a terrible cost – and may even have reached North America.
For the Germans, it was simply a case of too little, too late.
And now for an eyewitness account. Before my father Douglas Florence died in 2003, he told me about his own close brush with a V-2 rocket.
He joined the RCAF in 1941, and in 1944 he was working in the RCAF’s administration headquarters in London as a payroll officer.
Here’s his story:
“When I arrived in 1944 you could see bomb damage, of course, but by then the heavy bombing was over. It was amazing how little did show. They put a lot of effort into cleaning everything up and hiding the damage, so as not to affect morale.
“While I was in London there was just the odd bomber coming over. The surprising thing to me was the big anti-aircraft guns in Hyde Park. When they started firing, the noise was just deafening. They never got anything, it was just to keep up morale that they fired them. They would only fire for about fifteen minutes or so, until the bombers left again.
“Then the flying bombs started arriving.
“I was stationed at the RCAF headquarters, located on the third floor of Harrod’s Department Store.”
(Here’s a photograph of the historic department store today.)
“One evening I was on fire duty there overnight, taking my turn with the rest of them. There was nothing to do, so another guy and I were playing bridge with two nurses who were also on duty.
“Earlier that day I’d gone over to the pub across the road called Charrington’s. It was run by some Irish guys, since the Irish were exempt from the draft. I’d asked them for some thruppence, which were three-penny bits, since I was collecting coins for souvenirs.
“While we were playing bridge that evening, a buzz bomb hit the pub!
“The table we were sitting at must have lifted two feet off the floor, and all the shades over the light fixtures hanging from the ceiling shattered.
“We ran outside, but there was already a crowd of people gathered around, and we couldn’t do anything. The pub was completely destroyed. There was no fire, no dust, nothing — just a pile of rubble where the pub used to be. Those Irish guys and everyone else inside were killed.
“The next morning I was on my way home, feeling tired after the sleepless night and the shock, and I met a British officer and I forgot to salute. He stopped me and called me down for not saluting. I explained that I had been up all night, but I had to apologize before he’d let me go!
“By the next week there was no trace of the pub at all – they had spent the whole night hauling away the rubble and there was nothing there but a vacant lot. The British were good at that.”
And here, copied from my father’s old photograph album, are three photographs of the former pub.
You can certainly see the devastation wrought by a single flying bomb carrying one ton of explosives.
This photograph shows the ledge on the right, part of the Harrod’s building, showing how close the bomb landed to the department store. Someone (perhaps my father) was taking a photograph from one of the windows of Harrod’s.
We must be thankful that the V-Weapons never achieved their full potential. Thanks to the photo interpreters, the deadly program was delayed by several months and the Nazis simply ran out of time and jet fuel. Had they developed V-weapons earlier in the war, there might have been a very different outcome!