Ian Kikuchi
Wednesday 18 July 2018

Rescue teams and civilians help to recover a casualty after a V1 attack at Clapham in south London, 13 June 1944.
© IWM (HU 44273)

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 'Doodlebugs'

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.

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Britain's defence

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Britain's defence

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

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 reign to intercept flying bombs over land.

Capturing the V1s

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.

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The V2 Rocket

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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.

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V2 damage in London

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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.

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Building the weapons

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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.

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A failed campaign

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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.

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The legacy of the V-weapons

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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.

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