The first attacks
Rescue teams and civilians help to recover a casualty after a V1 attack at Clapham in south London on 13 June 1944, the day the first flying bombs hit London. A week before, on D-Day, Allied armies had invaded German-occupied France. Soon after that first V1 strike, Soviet armies launched a massive offensive against German forces in Poland. From the skies over Germany, British and American bombers were able to raid German cities at will. In the face of this disastrous strategic situation, Germany deployed its 'revenge weapons' (Vergeltungswaffen) in a bid to terrorise British civilians and undermine morale. Nazi propaganda hailed these weapons as 'wonder weapons' (Wunderwaffe) that might turn the tide of the war.
“The difficulty of intercepting these doodlebugs, as we call them, is considerable because they're so small and they certainly can shift. The light from the jet at the back makes it rather hard to judge the range accurately, particularly at dawn or dusk. Once you get used to this, it's not so bad, but you've got to be careful that you don't get too close when firing or it'll blow up and you’ll go straight through the explosion, which is extremely unpleasant I can tell you because it happened to me. I saw the doodlebug when it was about two miles out to sea coming up to Dover at about 3000 feet. I was in at right angles to its path and slightly above. I dove to the left until I was dead behind it. That made it about 400 yards away, and then I fired a short burst. That didn't seem to make any difference because it continued to go like hell. I think first and gave it another burst. One moment it was a doodlebug and the next it was a colossal mass of orange flame and black smoke. I couldn't avoid it, and instinctively ducked and closed my eyes. I flew straight into it and my aircraft bumped violently for a few seconds. I lost control and came out upside down. As soon as I realised what had happened, I rolled it over again and came back to base not much the worse. Since then I've shut down another three, probably another and I'm hoping for more this evening.”
The V1 flying bombs - also known as the 'doodlebugs' or 'buzz bombs' on account of the distinctive sound they made when in flight - were winged bombs powered by a jet engine. Launched from a ramp, or later from adapted bomber aircraft, the V1's straight and level flight meant that many were shot down before they reached their targets. This photograph was taken in flight by the gun camera of an intercepting RAF fighter aircraft moments before it destroyed the V1 by cannon fire. In this BBC recording, New Zealand fighter pilot Arthur Umbers describes shooting down a flying bomb. Umbers, commander of No. 486 Squadron RAF, destroyed 28 V1s, but was shot down and killed on 14 February 1945.
The crew of a 40mm Bofors anti-aircraft gun keep watch for flying bombs, June 1944. Defensive measures against the V1 included massed batteries of anti-aircraft guns along the North Downs and the coast of south-east England, and the use of fast RAF fighter aircraft to shoot or 'tip' down the incoming flying bombs before they reached their targets. Anti-aircraft guns were responsible for the shooting down over 1,800 V1s. Similar numbers were downed by fighter aircraft and 200 were destroyed by barrage balloons.
Shooting down a V1
“One fighter, two fighters, three fighters after him. He's heading northwest, the fighters are still after him, three of them swooping and turning round about him. Four fighters, now five, chasing him into the sunset. Here’s another fighter coming up hard. I see just little dots they’re shooting at him now. Now there's a strange side way to the east. Two divers are coming in and, and from this distance they look as if they’re flying in line, one about four or five miles behind the other, and now fighters have joined in this weird procession and tracer shells and, and flying bombs make one long line of fire across, across the sky. The tracer shells seem as large as the diver. I've lost track of the second diver and fighter, they vanished behind the ridge, but the first is still in view going on out northward. And now the searchlights have joined in. A fantastic lighting plot which is a glowing orange robot plane. Plenty of red (inaudible) shells and the cold blue, white light and searchlights, all in front of the backdrop of the sunset. And now, now this tiny orange glow of the divers bust into brilliance. The fighters have got it! And it’s crashed, it's crashed behind a tree clad bridge on the far horizon, I should say about five miles from here.”
The recording features live commentary on an interception by BBC correspondent Ian Wilson. The painting, A Tempest Shooting Down a Flying-Bomb (1944) by Roy Nockolds, shows an RAF Tempest fighter plane pursuing a V1 that has escaped a barrage of anti-aircraft fire. The image captures some tactical details, such as the deployment of anti-aircraft guns on the coast, which gave fighter aircraft free rein to intercept flying bombs over land.
Capturing the V1s
“This is Bill Herbert of the CBC, reporting from a captured flying bomb or rocket site in the Cherbourg area. No one is quite sure what it is. What I can learn? This is the largest site of its kind in this sector. The actual site in the power plant immediately behind it occupy about 7 acres of land. First, let me describe the site itself. It's located on top of the hill overlooking the sea. Imagine a huge figure U made of cement and steel with the open part facing due north. That will give you a general picture of what this site looks like. The two outside prongs of the U figure are approximately 14 feet thick and are about 24 feet apart. These two walls are about 25 feet high, and they slope gently downwards toward the base or the closed end of U figure. This base, I should say, is 40 feet high and the whole thing is encircled by poles from which flat pieces of bamboo-like camouflage. There are huge tunnels running into the hillside from the eastern wing of the U. These tunnels slope downwards into the hillside, and in some cases I judge that the, they extend at least 100 feet underground. They're huge cement tunnels, reminding you somewhat of the London Underground or the tube stations. These tunnels apparently had a variety of uses. Some were doubtless storerooms where the bombs or rockets, while others were rooms in which oil supplies, radio mechanisms and power units were kept. Others were obviously used as eating places, for we saw abandoned cookers with onions and beans and spaghetti strewn about the whole place. The Germans obviously left in an awful rush. Ammunition is poured over the floor. There are odd bits of clothing about, even three pairs of shoes, someone left a letter lying on the floor. I forgot to say that the two main sides of the site are honeycomb with slots, which I'm told by officers who have examined the site that they're the ramps from which the bombs or rockets are actually launched.
The tunnels I mentioned earlier all run into the eastern section. I suppose that the one close to the base was meant to be the storeroom for the bombs or rockets, while the one next door may have been a storehouse for the wings. All the tunnels are linked to the main part of the site by a narrow-gauge railway. It seems to me that the bombs were meant to roll along this tiny railway onto the ramp, then the necessary adjustments would be made. At the base of the U at the very bottom of it is a small office with a narrow slot carved into the concrete block just at eye level. I'm told that this would be the actual firing point behind which the enemy operators would stand when shooting off these doodlebugs to escape the fire which trails out behind them. Word about the power plant, just a while ago I walked through another maze of tunnels and inspected by flashlight huge diesel motors evidently intended to supply the electrical energy needed to keep the whole site in operation. And already parts of the power supply system are being utilised by the Americans, who are in command of this sector. It's quite apparent looking at one of these sites that the Germans have had great faith in their flying bombs. There's enough steel in this structure alone to build a destroyer, at least, if not a light cruiser and enough solid cement to construct a good-sized departmental store. This site was never an actual operation, but it was well on its way to completion, and we captured it. It would be extremely difficult to do much damage by bombing on this site, except with the series of blockbusters all pinpointed at the same place. As it stands, with the complete casing of cement all around it, which obviously was planned, it would be practically impregnable to bombs. But as I say, this is one of the largest ones. The smaller ones undoubtedly have been given a terrific pasting by our bombers. Some small damage to the exposed portions of the site either caused by bombs or shells, is apparent, but on the whole the site is scarcely touched. A pilot who has flown over this area before since D-Day and before D-Day, said the place is not very visible from the air and was extremely well ringed with ACAC defences.”
In this recording, Canadian radio broadcaster Bill Herbert describes the scene at a captured V1 launch site near Cherbourg in the north-east of France on 27 July 1944. Pictured here is a modified V1 launch site at Belloy-sur-Somme, near Amiens, in northern France.
The story of the V-1
In this video, IWM Curator Vikki Hawkins looks at why the V1 flying bomb was created, how it worked and who the weapon impacted during the Second World War.
On the 13th of June 1944, a strange sight appeared in the early morning London sky. What looked like a short-winged plane half on fire tore through the sky at over 350 miles per hour with a distinctive buzzing engine noise. Onlookers didn't know it yet, but they had just caught a glimpse of the first Nazi Vergeltungswaffen or 'vengeance weapon' the V1. A few minutes later the engine cut out and the flying bomb went into a steep dive. The aircraft and its 1,800-pound warhead hit a railway bridge killing six and making hundreds homeless.
The V1 flying bomb was one of the most fear-inducing terror weapons of the Second World War. Thousands were killed and wounded by its warhead, but alongside those civilians are the forgotten victims of the V1 the people who made them.
Inside the Harz mountains in Germany tens of thousands of slave labourers from Mittelbau-Dora and its many sub-camps lost their lives in awful conditions as part of the V weapons programme. The V1 then is not just a symbol of Nazi attempts to fight the war in innovative ways, but of their greatest crime of all - The Holocaust.
So today we're going to take a closer look at the V1. At how it worked, at whether it was effective, and at the people who paid the price for its existence. To do that we first need to understand Germany’s strategic situation.
The Combined Bomber Offensive were relentlessly bombing German cities the RAF flew at night under the cover of darkness and the American bombers flew throughout the day. Hitler was looking for a way to combat the bad propaganda that these terrible raids were having and so he looks to create these vengeance weapons as a way to show Britain that they weren't losing the war yet and they would still be able to fight back.
Germany wasn't just losing the bombing war, but the production war as well. That's why pilotless bombs were such an appealing idea. It was relatively simple to produce, used cheaper materials than aircraft, and avoided the expenditure of vital manpower over British skies. All of which meant that Germany could strike back against the Allies in a much more cost-effective way. But how did the V1 actually work?
Well, the most common way of launching a V1 was by ramp, but it could also be launched from a modified aircraft. Once in the sky, it was powered by a pulse jet engine which gave it a top speed of between 340 and 400 miles per hour. A relatively simple guidance system used gyroscopes to regulate its speed altitude and bearing on target. The bomb then flew for a predetermined amount of time, at first out to a maximum of 150 miles and then 250 miles later in the war. After that, the engine cut out and the bomb fell into a steep dive to the target.
The people of Britain called the V1 missiles 'buzz bombs' or 'doodlebugs' because of the distinctive almost like motorbike sound that the V1s produced. People on the ground below started to recognise that if they could hear that buzzing noise the V1 was potentially approaching or flying above them. But as soon as that noise stopped that's when the danger really hit because they realised that the fuel had been cut to the engine it meant that the V1 was probably on its dive and potentially you were in a lot of danger.
Harold Chisnell, National Fire Service in Twickenham: "I think it was damage to morale more than anything because you saw those coming over and you waited for them to cut out and you didn't know where they were going to cut out and I think, from the point of view of the public, that was the worst thing for morale that we had during the war."
Catherine Bradley, Driver with Auxillary Territorial Service: "Well, it was just coming and then I heard it click and saw that it was coming for me and it only dropped about three or four hundred yards past me and it hit a tram. Oh it was terrible. That was another shave."
With a warhead of over 1,800 pounds, the V1 had the potential to cause huge devastation. The vast majority of V1s would be launched on London from sites across the channel in the Pas De Calais. At first in dribs and drabs, then growing to over 200 a day. At 4:25am on the 13th of June 1944, just a week after D-Day, the first V1 fell on London.
It landed in Grove Road in Bow and destroyed a railway bridge and nearby homes. 6 people were killed, 30 people were injured, and 200 people were made homeless. The devastation sent shock waves across Britain.
George Gwyn Evans, Royal Artillery in London: "We just heard the sound and then this flame going across the sky at a pretty rapid rate."
John Barlow, Air Raid Warden in Dartford: "I said it's got a sheet of flame from its tail. It's like a plane with the wings cut off to one-third the length and I am quite sure that the chap at the other end was convinced that I had been drinking all day."
Pamela Pullen, Schoolchild in London: "It very nearly hit our house. the wing of the bomb hit a tree at the end of our garden and my mother my grandmother and myself were in the house. But we were in a Morrison Shelter then inside and we had to wait for firemen to come and get us out. And we were covered in soot and the smell of soot takes me straight back to that."
Although the British public were just meeting the V1, Allied leadership had been aware of the weapon for some time thanks to information from resistance groups and aerial photography. This is the photograph from which Flight Officer Constance Babington Smith confirmed the existence of the V1.
Churchill received reports that Germany had been experimenting with new technology at a place called Peenemünde on the German Baltic coast. So in 1943 bomber command launched a raid on Peenemünde which destroyed many of the assembly shops and the laboratories there.
If the Germans had been able to launch their attacks at the time they'd planned the results might have been far more devastating. For over a year the RAF have been waging a war against the new weapon, blasting its experimental stations, destroying many of its bases, they are still doing it.
It was attacks like these on test sites and production facilities which eventually forced V1 construction underground as the Allies gained further control of the skies over Europe. Meanwhile in Britain concern was mounting. In this image, you can see the impact of three separate V1 attacks in Lewisham in London. Entire streets were being levelled in a single hit and thousands were being made homeless.
This series of photographs is particularly heartbreaking. They show a man who went for a walk with this dog while his wife was cooking Sunday lunch. He returned home to find his house completely destroyed with her inside.
The blast of the flying bombs and rockets exceeded anything London experienced in the earlier Blitz. Day and night men women and children were being killed and maimed. Hundreds of thousands of houses were destroyed and damaged and by September alone nearly a million needed some sort of repair.
The fear that this weapon induced meant that the British needed to find ways as quickly as possible to counteract it. The V1's straight and level flight meant that many were shot down before they even reached their targets by anti-aircraft guns along the north downs and the southeast coast. RAF fighter aircraft could also shoot down or tip the wings of the incoming flying bombs before they reach their targets. Pilots had to dive from higher altitudes to get close enough to the V1s. The wing tipping required impressive levels of skill from the pilots. If they misjudged the distance they could risk colliding with the V1. About 200 V1s were destroyed by barrage balloons which were large balloons tethered to the ground and they raised steel cables which would collide with the V1 and knock it off course. And finally, attempts were also made to identify and bomb V1 launch sites before the weapons could even be launched.
What eventually saved London from the V1s were Allied advances in Europe. As the allies pushed through France into the Low Countries they took control of launching sites along the coast and eventually put the V1s out of range of London. But that then put other cities into the firing line like the vital Allied port of Antwerp. Compared to London, Antwerp was much harder to defend as the V1s had a shorter distance to travel and could come from multiple different angles of attack.
Archive Footage: "The number of bombs that rained down on Antwerp steadily increased. Life in Antwerp was transformed. Each bomb killed or wounded an average of 38 people. The lives of children playing in the streets were violently interrupted. Homes became a ghostly setting for those who escaped death."
By the end of the war, almost 10,000 V1s had been launched at London and another 2,500 at Antwerp, but like the Blitz and the Combined Bomber Offensive before it, the V1 never quite have the impact that was intended.
The V1s were certainly terror weapons and struck fear in the hearts of British civilians. But actually, civilian morale did not break. There were plenty of countermeasures that the British were able to enact to stop the devastation being as large as it could have been. V1s were launched right up until the end of the war, but the V weapons campaign failed to change Germany's disastrous strategic situation. The last launch site was overrun in March 1945 by Allied troops who were advancing into Germany and civilians across Europe could breathe a sigh of relief.
Just as the Allies were getting to grips with the V1 another new weapon appeared in London skies - the V2. These guided missiles were faster than the speed of sound and struck before they could be heard making them almost impossible to defend against. What the V1 and V2 have in common however are the of forgotten victims from Mittelbau-Dora and its many subcamps. Thousands lost their lives across the production process.
Now in these underground tunnels, prisoners became slave labourers and endured horrendous conditions. As the tunnels were being built the prisoners were forced to sleep underground, not seeing sunlight for months, and they had to constantly endure the terrible noise, the dust, and noxious gases from the blasting and from trains hauling rock. The only toilets were oil barrels cut in half, the smell in the tunnels became intolerable cases of pneumonia, tuberculosis, typhoid, and dysentery took a dreadful toll. Combined with the total exhaustion inflicted by these 12-hour days of back-breaking labour with poor sleep and minimal equipment. As many as 20,000 labourers died making the V1 and the V2s, more than actually the number of civilians who are killed by the weapons.
Jan Imrich, Mittelbau Dora survivor: "The Holocaust and the personal histories of those that managed to survive most definitely should be narrated to as many people as possible. We simply have to make sure that the young people know what happened in those days and simply hope, against hope sometimes I feel, that it will stick in their minds and that they will remember."
This connection between the V1 as a weapon of war and as a part of the Holocaust is a key theme in IWM's new Second World War and Holocaust Galleries open now at IWM London. The project makes IWM London the first museum in the world to house dedicated Second World War and Holocaust galleries under the same roof. Our V1 Flying Bomb will be suspended between the two galleries presenting a striking symbol of how the Holocaust and Second World War are interconnected. You can find out more about the new galleries or book a visit at the link below.
The V2 Rocket
The first V2 hit London on 8 September 1944. A streamlined rocket which stood as tall as a four-storey building, the V2 was highly advanced technology. Powered by a rocket engine burning a mix of alcohol-water and liquid oxygen, the V2 blasted its way to the edge of space, before falling back to Earth at supersonic speed. It was also enormously expensive, at a time when Nazi Germany desperately needed more economical weapons.
V2 damage in London
The ruined flats of Hughes Mansions, on Vallance Road in East London, following the explosion of a V2 rocket on the day of the last V2 strike on 27 March 1945. The V-weapons inflicted immense suffering in Britain, causing over 30,000 civilian casualties and left hundreds of thousands homeless. The V-weapons' apparently random strikes were unnerving. They caused dismay among a British population that had hoped that enemy air attacks were now a thing of the past. Despite their psychological impact, the destruction wrought by the V-weapons was less than that endured during the Blitz of 1940-1941.
Building the weapons
Despite their expensive and complex technology, the V-weapons were manufactured by slave labourers. Tens of thousands of civilians from occupied Europe were subjected to a brutal regime of starvation, torture and frequent executions while working for the Nazis. An estimated 20,000 died as a result of this treatment. More slave labourers died making the V-weapons than the civilians killed by them during the offensive. This photograph was taken at the Central Works, a vast underground production plant at Nordhausen in the Harz Mountains in Germany, shortly after its capture by Allied troops in the spring of 1945.
A failed campaign
The V-weapons campaign failed to change Germany's disastrous strategic situation. The offensive ended in March 1945 when the last launch sites were overrun by Allied troops. The V2 rocket in this photograph, which was taken on 10 April 1945, is marked with the words 'nach England' ('to England') and had been loaded onto a railway truck at Leese, Germany, in preparation for transport to the launch site. Within weeks, Germany had surrendered.
The legacy of the V-weapons
The scientists and engineers responsible for V2 went on to play key roles in the post-war space programmes of the United States and Soviet Union. In particular, the V2's chief designer was rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, who would go on to design rockets for the United States military. This 1945 photograph shows von Braun (sixth from the right in the front row) and his colleagues outside their research facility at Fort Bliss, Texas. In 1969, a rocket designed by von Braun carried American astronauts to the Moon.