On this day, the V1 bomb first took to the skies over Germany at the start of a career of violence that would cause over 6000 casualties in Britain between 1944 and 1945.
n this day, the V1 bomb first took to the skies over Germany at the start of a career of violence that would cause over 6000 casualties in Britain between 1944 and 1945. Designed as the first of Hitler’s V or ‘vengeance’ weapons, the V1 was a small pilotless flying bomb that was the fore-runner of the modern cruise missile. Its engine had a characteristic sound that led the British to christen it the ‘Doodlebug’. The bomb had fuel for a set distance and when this was finished, the engine on the early versions would cut out, giving the frightened civilians below a few seconds to realize that the fearsome weapon was about to fall to earth and explode. The V1 contained 2000lb of explosive and caused catastrophic damage. This extract from Fortress 20: British Home Defences 1940-45 gives more detail about the sinister weapon and the measures taken to counter it.
On 9 November 1943 in a speech at the Mansion House, not far from the Cabinet War Rooms, Churchill warned the country: “We cannot exclude the possibility of new forms of attack on this island”. Churchill was not merely trying to eradicate any complacency given the infrequency of bombing raids from June 1941 onwards: he had sufficient intelligence from PRU [Photographic Reconnaissance Unit] flights over northern France and Germany, “Ultra” decrypts and agents’ reports to know that the enemy would soon have new weapons at his disposal. Flights over the Baltic by Mosquito reconnaissance aircraft had spotted major activity on the coast at Peenemünde in Germany. Missile-like objects had been seen on the ground, and even missile launches witnessed. Intelligence reports revealed the existence of a small pilotless aircraft (the V1, also known to the Germans by its manufacturer’s name Fieseler Fi 103), launched from a rail, and a vertically launched rocket (the V2, known also as the A4).
To counter the threat posed by this German research establishment, a heavy bombing raid was launched by RAF Bomber Command on the night of 17-18 August 1943, codenamed Operation CROSSBOW. The aircrews were not told of the true nature of the target site. Almost 600 aircraft took part in the raid, comprising Lancaster, Halifax and Stirling bombers, and some 40 aircraft and their crew were lost during the mission. Numerous workers, scientists and technicians were killed on the ground, including several key figures in the research program: unfortunately a large number of the fatalities were conscript labourers, who as such were denied access to any form of shelter. Although the mission was only partly successful in terms of the destruction of the site, it did put back development at Peenemünde by several months.
From the end of 1943 plans were put in place for the defence of London, Portsmouth, Southampton and Bristol against the flying bombs. London would be protected by lines of fighter patrols and a great belt of eight-gun HAA [heavy anti-aircraft artillery] batteries located to the south of the North Downs in Surrey. Barrage balloons would provide a screen around the capital.
Such caution was not misplaced. The V1 rocket plan had been in development since 1942, and was already well advanced, with much construction work on launch sites taking place in 1943 and 1944. The parallel development of other, even more deadly threats, the V2 and V3 weapons, was another reason for concern. Once discovered, the launching rails for the V1 and the hardened sites for the V2 missiles in northern France were pounded by the RAF and USAAF. So concerted was this effort that by 6 June 1944 it was believed that the threat had been removed. In fact, in respect of the V1, the Germans were already adopting new tactics by siting new, easily erected launching rails in centres of population or disguising them using other forms of camouflage. The first V1 to land on London came in the immediate aftermath of D-Day, launched from a site between the River Seine and the Belgian border of France, and landing in Bethnal Green. Thousands more would follow, causing over 6,000 fatalities.
Once launched and on its way to Britain, this small missile, flying at about 3,000 ft, posed severe tactical problems to the defenders. It was potentially possible to launch 200-300 per day, a volume that could swamp the resources of the defenders. It flew at a speed of up to 400mph, almost as fast as the then-fastest RAF fighters. Fighter pilots needed to close in on the small target, risking being brought down by the ensuing explosion. As an alternative to cannon fire, a risky tactic adopted was to fly alongside the V1 and attempt to flip it over, upsetting the guidance gyroscope, and causing it to crash. Its operating height and small size presented grave problems to HAA and LAA [light anti-aircraft artillery] defences. The pre-D-Day defensive tactics were found to be severely wanting: for example, LAA and HAA could not engage the missiles when they had entered the fighter ‘box’.
In July 1944 Gen. Pile, Commander-in-Chief of AA Command was finally given a free hand in the re-organisation of the defences. A massive migration of guns, Nissen huts, troops and their equipment moved in three days to the south coast of England to form a 5,000 yd-deep ‘Diver Belt’. This would leave the defence of the rear area to the fighter aircraft. Guns were moved from ‘safe’ parts of the country and priority was given to the powered version of the 3.7in. gun. New devices, such as the US SCR 584 Ground Controlled Interception radar and the British-invented but US-developed proximity fuse, helped the AA forces to build up an impressive hit rate of up to 75 per cent of V1s destroyed (comprising all means). Allied disinformation also led the Germans to believe that the V1 was overshooting London (many were in fact falling short), leading to the missile’s range being further curtailed.
The advance of the Allies in France in 1944 denied the Germans launching sites in the Pas de Calais and the missiles were moved to Dutch sites, whilst others were launched over the sea by Heinkel bomber aircraft. By the time that the last V1 flew, landing in Suffolk on 29 March 1945, some 10,500 had been launched and around 4,000 had been destroyed.
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