A V-1 missile being pulled by soldiers on sledges to its launching position. Wikimedia Commons photo.
On the morning of June 13, 1944, four V-1 missiles screamed across the English Channel, traveling at over 350 miles per hour toward Britain. The missiles, each carrying a 1,800-pound warhead, tore across the sky over south London before striking a railway bridge and killing six civilians.
The devastating attack marked the beginning of a ruthless German bombing campaign against Britain and Belgium. In the span of less than a year, from June 13 until around the end of the war in Europe, Germany launched an estimated 20,000 V-1 missiles at Allied military and civilian targets, wounding and killing thousands.
The V-1 missile, sometimes referred to as either a “buzz bomb” or “doodlebug” for its noisy pulsejet engine, was developed by the Germans for the primary purpose of terrorizing civilians. The flying bombs were pilotless and could be launched from a ramp on the ground or deployed by an aircraft in flight. Nazi propagandists described the V-1 as one of Adolf Hitler’s “wonder” or “revenge” weapons and suggested they could turn the tide of the war in Germany’s favor. But thanks to the Allies’ defensive tactics, offensive bombing raids, and other factors, the rockets proved to be less effective than the Germans had hoped.
A detailed, yet simple depiction of the parts of a V-1 missile. Screenshot from YouTube/Imperial War Museums.
Nevertheless, in the broader evolution of modern warfare, the advent of the V-1 missile was a game changer. In 1940, after the Luftwaffe suffered numerous casualties in the Battle of Britain, German military strategists began searching for another way to attack Allied cities without losing valuable pilots and expensive aircraft. Applying research that had been underway since World War I, German flying ace Gerhard Fieseler and his team led the charge in developing a new missile with an autopilot feature, an effort that culminated in the creation of the V-1.
The V-1 relied on gyroscopes to regulate its speed and altitude and flew on a predetermined flight path with a range of between 150 miles and 250 miles. Its unique-sounding engine, which hummed like a motorbike, gave a distinctive signal to people on the ground that a V-1 was flying overhead. Then the noise would stop in an instant, which meant that the missile’s engine had cut off and that it was now in a nosedive toward its target. With its massive payload, a single V-1 could wipe out entire city blocks, leveling homes and destroying critical infrastructure.
The Germans produced more than 30,000 V-1s between 1944 and 1945, employing forced labor to build them. Many were launched from sites in France to fly over the English Channel and strike London.
The psychological impact of the missiles on British citizens prompted a swift response.
The scene around a shattered omnibus on St John's Hill, Clapham Junction, London, while stretcher parties rescue victims of one of the first flying bombs to fall on south-west London. Photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museums.
In the summer of 1944, only two months after the first V-1 strike on London, the Allies went on the offensive to put an end to the attacks. The Royal Air Force conducted vicious bombing raids against V-1 testing sites and factories, which, over time, forced production of the missiles underground.
Meanwhile, on the homefront, the Allies implemented a number of defensive countermeasures to protect against the German bombardment, such as anti-aircraft weapons, barrage balloons, and interceptor aircraft. According to the National Air & Space Museum, of the nearly 7,500 V-1s launched across the English Channel toward Britain, about 4,000 were destroyed before reaching their targets.
In time, the Allies advanced through France and destroyed many V-1 launch sites. When London was no longer in striking range, the Germans shifted their fire to target the Belgium city of Antwerp, and the V-1 bombardments continued until the final stages of the war.
Of course, despite all the fear and devastation they caused, the V-1s ultimately failed to win the war for Germany. And yet the weapons were effective enough to change warfare forever, sparking a proliferation of pilotless, inexpensive flying bombs that still feature prominently on battlefields today, a recent example being the Iranian-supplied Shahed-136 drones — notorious for their buzzing motors just as the V-1s were more than 70 years ago — that Russia is currently using to kill and terrorize civilians in Ukraine.
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Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.
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