Nazi Germany invented the prototypes of most modern weapons and equipment in use today including night vision goggles, the assault rifle, swept-wing jet aircraft, the ballistic missile, and the cruise missile. When one reads modern criticism of Allied war efforts against Nazi Germany as being too extreme and going too far such as the bombing of Dresden et al, it is worth remembering how dangerous the Germans were.
Hitler kept promising German soldiers and civilians that “miracle weapons” would soon be deployed and turn the war around. The V-1 was the first of these weapons and it was a miracle. We had nothing like it. Fortunately, the V-1s went into production before the kinks were worked out. Close to 10,000 of these missiles were fired at Great Britain, almost all launched from bases in German occupied France since the missile only had a range of 125 miles/200 km. Of those 10,000 launched, 2,512 malfunctioned and either didn’t get off the launch ramp or crashed on takeoff. 7,488 crossed the English coast and of those 3,957 were shot down and 2,419 hit Greater London.
As ineffective as the V-1 was in fulfilling the hopes the Nazis placed in it, the missile did kill 6,184 people in the UK, mainly civilians. Another 17,981 people in Great Britain, also predominately civilian, were wounded.
Defending against it required new tactics which had to be developed on the fly. One defense against the cruise missile was putting up an intense anti-aircraft barrage for the V-1 to fly through. But this took several months to set-up since thousands of anti-aircraft guns had to be re-deployed. Eventually this proved the most effective defense, stopping almost 80% of missiles as they crossed the coast but it took an average of 2500 shells to knock down a single V-1.
A second defense was having fighter aircraft shoot them down. But the V-1 was fast, over four hundred miles an hour (640 km), and only a handful of fighters were fast enough to catch it, the Spitfire being one. The German missiles also flew low to the ground at an altitude of 2,000 to 3,000 feet. Regular machine gun bullets just went through them and didn’t do much damage. The best way to stop one was to fire several twenty millimeter rounds at the warhead which contained slightly less than 1,870 pounds of explosive (850 kg). One small problem: if you got too close and hit the warhead, the explosion would bring down both your plane and the V-1.
A Supermarine Spitfire (right) using its wing tip to topple a V-1 flying bomb (left).
Finally, there was one other way to bring a V-1 down although it wasn’t done that often because it was a heart stopping maneuver performed by RAF fighters. The pilot would close on the V-1, usually diving down on it to build up speed, then come alongside. In a delicate ballet which required extraordinary courage, the pilot would ease his starboard wing under the stubby port wing of the V-1 (or vice-versa) until the two wings were no more than six inches apart. At that instant, the pilot would bank his plane to port which would cause his starboard wing to rise, hit the underside of the V-1’s port wing, and flip the missile over. This had the effect of completely disabling the missile’s guidance system and it would crash.
(All statistics from: The Oxford Companion to World War Two.)
The progeny of the primitive V-1 are the far more modern cruise missiles fired from from Allied ships in the Mediterranean at Libya. Here are some very cool US Navy official photographs of some of those launches: