Marker commemorating the impact point of the first V-1 attack on London, 13 June 1944 (Wikipedia.org photo)
Along Grove Road in east London, at the spot where the highway passes beneath a railway bridge, there is a small, blue, circular marker. It reads: “The First Flying Bomb on London Fell Here 13 June 1944. Sixty-four years ago this week, Hitler unleashed his vengeance weapons on Europe, ushering in a new era in warfare.
The first of these was the V-1 flying bomb that landed alongside that railway bridge. Six Britons were killed in that first attack, and over six thousand more would die in the months that followed. At the height of the V-1 blitz in late June, as many as 100 buzz bombs were reaching London every day, killing scores of civilians. The euphoria that followed the D-Day invasion was replaced by a “Doodlebug Summer," punctuated by the familiar buzz of the V-1’s pulse-jet engine, which sounded like the Australian insect.
While British papers wrote of “robot bombers,” the appearance of the V-1 was no surprise to Allied intelligence. Allied agents had been providing information on Hitler’s vengeance weapons (including the V-2 ballistic missile) since early 1942, prompting an effort to delay or prevent their introduction. Nicknamed Operation Crossbow, the effort included dozens of raids by U.S. and British bombers against targets in Germany, France and the Low Countries.
One of Crossbow’s most famous attacks occurred almost a year before the first V-1 attack. On the night of 17-18 August 1943, almost 600 RAF heavy bombers struck the German research center at Peenemunde, on the Baltic Coast. British intelligence analysts knew that much of the work on the V-1 and V-2 was being conducted at the complex; the massive raid was aimed at killing German scientists and technicians, and destroying facilities used to build and test the vengeance weapons.
The RAF attack on Peenemunde produced mixed results. Over 800 workers died—including center’s deputy director, Dr. Walter Thiel—and tons of high explosive bombs caused some damage to technical facilities. By some estimates, the raid may have caused a delay of six months or two weeks in the introduction of Germany’s V-weapons. By that point, the programs were too advanced to be eradicated in a single attack. Personnel and equipment were shifted to other locations, and development of the V-1 and V-2 continued.
Crossbow adapted as well. In December 1943, Allied bombers began hitting suspected V-1 launch sites in northern Europe, an effort that continued through the summer of 1944 But the Germans had already built thousands of buzz bombs and hundreds of launch sites; it was impossible for U.S. and British aircraft to locate (and destroy) all of them before launch.
With its simple navigation system, the V-1 was only suitable for attacks against area targets, such as London or the allied port at Antwerp. But, some of the buzz bombs found their mark. An excellent website called Flyingbombsandrockets.com does an excellent job detailing the deadliest attacks against the British capital.
One of them came barely a week into the buzz bomb blitz. On Sunday 18 June, a V-1 struck the Guards Chapel, in the Bird Cage Walk, not far from Buckingham Palace. The chapel was crowded with Royal Guardsmen from the nearby Wellington Barracks, along with their families and friends. At least 121 died; it took rescuers more than two days to pull victims from the debris. The incident provided an awful example of what a V-1—and its 1800-pound warhead--could do in an urban area.
Residents quickly learned the warning signs for a buzz bomb attack; about 15 seconds before impact, the V-1’s pulse jet went silent, giving Londoners enough time to dive under a table, or flatten themselves on the ground. But the daily barrage of V-1s also prompted an exodus from London; many who rode out the German "Blitz" of 1940 decided not to press their luck, and left the city in droves:
People left London in their thousands both through official and unofficial evacuation schemes. By mid July 15,000 a day were leaving the terminal stations on packed trains. Some reports describe a situation at the main stations of near panic as people struggled to get tickets and onto the over flowing trains. It is variously reported that somewhere between 1.5 and 2 million people fled the capital during this period. This created and eerie and empty feeling in many parts. Children disappeared from the streets and food stuff's which had been in short supply became easier to get again. This evacuation must have saved many many lives.
It was a cold dank summer and some of the prevailing impressions of the period are the grey, the Doodlebugs scuttling along in and out of the heavy clouds. The smell of powdered brick dust and plaster filling the air. Mingling with this the smell of crushed leaves stripped from trees by the blast waves. In some places spring arrived twice and trees were reported blossoming and leafing again later in the summer due to their confusion at the conditions. Underfoot the crunch of broken glass and slates from millions upon millions of windows and roofs.The day and night punctuated with the Doodlebugs coming over, sometimes in flights of 10 or more at a time , the ear splitting noise of the engines and then the periodic explosion.
The V-1 menace prompted additional defensive measures. More anti-aircraft guns were deployed around London and their locations shifted, in response to changes in German operations. But gunners quickly discovered that shooting down a buzz bomb was no mean feat; cruising at 2-3,000 feet, the V-1 was just beyond the range of light anti-aircraft guns, but below the optimum engagement envelope of medium-caliber weapons. Additionally, the “Doodlebug’s” relatively high cruise speed (390 mph) made it difficult for AAA gunners to get a bead on their target.
Aerial intercepts of the V-1 were equally challenging. Only the fastest fighters were assigned to the job, primarily P-51 Mustangs, Spitfire XIV’s, and most famously, the Hawker Tempest. One of the most powerful fighters of World War II, the Tempest had enough speed to “run down” a V-1 at low altitude. The RAF’s No. 150 Wing, led by Wing Commander Roland Beamont, shot down 638 buzz bombs—more than half of those credited to allied air defenses. Beamont accounted for 32 V-1s by himself.
Contrary to legend, most buzz bombs destroyed by allied fighters were brought down by cannon fire, instead of the more dramatic “toppling” technique. Using that approach, the fighter pilot maneuvered his plane’s wingtip to within six inches of the V-1’s airfoil, disrupting airflow and causing it to pitch out of control and crash. It was an exceptionally demanding maneuver that required extraordinary flying skill. Only a handful of buzz bombs were downed by that method.
While the V-1 barrage continued during the summer of 1944, allied countermeasures proved increasingly effective. By late August, AAA crews were using American-built gun-laying radars and proximity fuses—inventions based on British scientific breakthroughs. The number of shoot-downs increased dramatically, with the expenditure of fewer shells.
But the allied ground advance across France proved to be the most effective defense. By September, the buzz bomb threat had ended, with British and American troops overrunning the last V-1 launch sites in northern Europe. While the era of the Doodlebug was relatively brief, it demonstrated the viability of pilotless weapons, which would evolve into the cruise missiles of today.
About that same time, a German artillery unit in Holland unveiled a new menace, the V-2 ballistic missile. The first V-2 attacks against Britain began on 8 September, when two missiles landed in west London. Over the next nine months, almost 1,500 more would be launched, primarily against England and Antwerp, the allies’ principal resupply port in Belgium.
While the V-2s inflicted fewer casualties, there was no practical defense against the ballistic missile. One British scheme envisioned a 40 kilometer-wide barrage of AAA fire, along a predicted path for a V-2. That plan was abandoned because the number of unexploded AAA rounds falling to earth presented a greater threat than the German rocket. Viable systems for shooting down ballistic missiles were still 50 years away.
Indeed, of all the V-2s launched by the Nazis in the last months of World War II, only one was shot down--by a burst of .50 machine gun fire from a B-24 bomber, which happened to fly over the V-2’s launch pad as it was lifting off. It was the only confirmed combat “kill” of a ballistic missile prior to the first Gulf War.