A fearsome terror weapon

The V1 Flying Bomb, also known as a 'buzz bomb' or 'doodlebug', was one of the most fear-inducing terror weapons of the Second World War. In the face of relentless Allied bombing of German cities, Hitler created its 'revenge weapons' (Vergeltungswaffen) in an attempt to terrorise British civilians and undermine morale. But alongside the civilians killed and wounded by the V-1 are the forgotten victims of the vengeance weapons, the people who made them. Tens of thousands of slave labourers from the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp lost their lives building the tunnels where the weapons were made.

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.

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