Long before the day of the Chance-Vought SSM-N-8 Regulus, the prototypical submarine-launched cruise missile, and the present-day, incredibly effective BMG-1019 Tomahawk, there was the V-1. This was a ‘terror weapon’ that might not have won the Second World War, but could have delayed the inevitable, if not for some very poor operational decisions by the German High Command.
The V-1, or Fiesler Fi 103, was crude but effective. It had a long gestational period, and had been cancelled at least once, but the basic principles were sound. Take a 1,900 lb Amatol-39 warhead, an Argus As 109-014 pulse jet, crude steel fuselage and wings, with a tubular steel wing spar, compressed air flasks to power the gyroscopically-steered elevators and rudder (no ailerons) and pump the fuel to the combustion chamber, and there you have it. One ‘Vergeltungswaffe –Eins’ (Vengeance Weapon One). The range was around 150 miles, which meant that if the main target was to be London – and it was, at Adolf Hitler’s insistence – then the launching sites could only be in a curved strip of land about 100 miles long by 20 miles deep, in France, Belgian and Holland.
Needless to say, the intelligence services of both the Allies and Germany were deeply interested in this programme. Photographic reconnaissance by Spitfire PR.XI and Mosquito PR. IX aircraft of the Royal Air Force confirmed that Peenemünde on Germany’s Baltic coast was the main testing and experimental site for the new weapon. It was heavily bombed by 324 Avro Lancasters, 218 Handley Page Halifaxes and 54 Short Stirlings on the night of 17/18th August, 1943 (Operation Hydra), and this set the whole programme back by several months.
The Germans also called the V-1 the Flakzielgerät 76, or FZG-76 (Flak aiming apparatus), in an attempt to conceal its real nature. When the Germans set up the unit which would be responsible for launching the V-1 at England, the 155 (W) Flak Regiment, they were less than discrete, in that the regimental sign was the letter ‘W’ over the figure ’8′. The CO of the unit was Oberst Max Wachtel, and since the German for 8 is ‘acht’, this meant that tracking the movements of the unit’s vehicles by the French Resistance was fairly simple. Soon, ‘ski sites’, long inclined ramps surrounded by bunkers and storage buildings, began springing up all along what became known as ‘the rocket coast’. Since they were built on a fixed heading it was easy to work out that the target was London, and a campaign of attacking them – Operation Crossbow – began. However, the targets were relatively small, and as one Typhoon pilot recalled, in ’Flight’ of June 29th, 1944, ‘they are fitted with 10/10th flak’.
As the V-1 campaign rose in intensity (over 100,000 homes in Britain were damaged or destroyed by 27th June), the defensive response altered. Flights of fighters were vectored onto what ’Flight’ magazine had initially called the ’aerial torpedoes’, when they were far out to sea. Then the V-1s encounted guns – mostly 40mm Bofors – firing the new proximity-fused ammunition, which were concentrated on the coastline, with a ‘free-fire’ zone immediately in front of them. Behind this was a ‘fighter belt’, where the fastest Allied fighters available (P-51 Mustang, Hawker Tempest V, Spitfire XIV and the few Gloster Meteor I jets of No. 616 Squadron, Royal Auxiliary Air Force) were allowed to intercept the incoming ‘Divers’ – the code name for the ‘buzz bombs’. As an aside, I was very privileged to meet 'Dixie' Dean at several No. 616 Squadron Royal Auxiliary Air Force Association functions. 'Dixie', whilst holding the rank of Flying Officer with the squadron had made the first 'kill' in an Allied jet fighter, when after his guns jammed he had flipped a V-1 over in flight, using the wingtip of his Gloster Meteor Mk 1, (EE216, 'YQ-E'). This happened near Tenterden in Kent on the 4th August, 1944.
As a last-ditch defence, a balloon barrage was flown at a fairly low height close to the target area. At night, Air Defence of Great Britain used De Havilland Mosquito night fighters which were also capable of catching the 350 – 400 mph V-1. When the surviving static sites were overrun by the advancing Allied armies, the Luftwaffe took to air launching V-1s at night from under the wings of Heinkel He III H-22 bombers of KG53 (Kampfgeschwader 53), based in Holland. These were aimed across the North Sea in the general direction of cities in the North of England, at London, and also at the newly freed port of Antwerp, Belgium. A secret intelligence committee, called the 'Twenty Committee' was in being to play captured German spies back to the German Abwehr from London, and feed spurious information into Hitler's High Command. The name was a give-away, as twenty in Roman numerals was 'XX' - or double-cross! Twenty Committee got its double agents to report that V-1s were falling to the north and west of London, in mostly open country, rather than within 3 or 4 miles of the centre of the city. Hence, the Germans sortened the range, and most of the missiles began falling short of London!
Here we can see a preserved V-1 on a shortened launch ramp, exhibited at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford. It looks ready to be boosted down the track by a piston driven by a chemical reaction between hydrogen peroxide and potassium permanganate which generated a great deal of high-pressure steam. The Argus pulse jet (or athodyde) was a simple ram-jet with intermittent combustion/intake cycles (around 50 per second) which gave it both its distinctive sputtering sound, and around 660 lbs of thrust. To give you something to compare this with, an early Rolls-Royce Merlin would generate about 700 lbs static thrust at the propeller (at least, according to Sir Stanley Hooker, the genius Rolls-Royce engineer) When the last V-1 fell on Patchworth, Hertfordshire on 29th March, 1945, over 22,000 people had been killed, but the great mass of men, equipment and shipping, all vital to the Second Front in Europe, had been ignored until it was too late for the Germans.