V-1s: The Flying Bombs That Terrorized Britain

A V-1 at the moment of launch. YouTube

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.

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.

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.