Jets, Bombers and Rockets: Nazi Germany's 5 'Wonder' Weapons of World War II
The V-1 resembled a small plane with a stove pipe over its tail and no cockpit. It was about 25 feet long, with a 17-foot wingspan. The jet engine, which was housed in the stove pipe assembly, was fueled by 80 percent octane petrol. It carried a one-ton warhead and was launched by an inclined catapult or launching ramp 158 feet in length. The bomb flew along a preset gyroscopic-controlled course. Although it was not very accurate, it was accurate enough to hit its intended objective: London.
Commencement of the missile attack on the British capital (codenamed Target 42) was scheduled for Christmas Day 1943, but endless technical difficulties in the V-1’s manufacture pushed the strike date back to the summer of 1944 when 5,000 operational V-1s were finally ready to be sent against London. The operation was put under the control of Lt. Gen. Erich Heinemann’s LXV Army Corps. The missile offensive would be carried out from more than 95 launch sites. These were mostly small facilities with ski-shaped buildings designed to protect the personnel firing the missiles from explosions set off by unassembled flying bombs. During December 1943, 52 of these sites were bombed by Allied air units, resulting in the complete destruction of seven sites. In response to the relentless Allied bombing, detachments of antiaircraft guns were positioned around each installation. Despite this added protection, by January 1944 a quarter of the V-1 launch sites had been put out of action by Allied aerial attacks.
On June 13, 1944, even though only 10 of the 55 V-1 launching ramps were ready for action, the first flying bombs, traveling at 360 miles per hour, flew from their bases in northern France each loaded with 2,000 pounds of high explosives. The aiming point for the V-1 was London’s Tower Bridge, and it took only 22 minutes to reach this target. Of the five successfully launched flying bombs that day, one fell into the English Channel, three landed in open areas on the English east coast, the fifth hit a railroad bridge killing six people and injuring nine. On June 15 and 16, the missile offensive was resumed from 55 operational V-1 sites, which delivered 144 bombs on southern England, 73 of which struck London.
For the next three months the battle of the flying bombs was fought over the counties of Kent and Sussex, as well as London, with the Germans firing an average of 97 bombs a day at the capital. Due to the weapon’s speed, British antiaircraft artillery was helpless to combat the menace. By the end of August, 2,224 V-1s had dropped on England killing 5,476 British subjects and destroying thousands of homes and many factories. It was only repeated Allied air attacks and the advance of their ground forces in France and Belgium that caused the Germans to dismantle their V-1 bomb installations in those regions, ending the V-1 blitz by September 1.
Although the V-1 danger was finished, a far more serious missile threat was initiated by the Germans: the V-2. Fired from Holland, the V-2s used mobile launchers. In transit the 12-ton, 46-foot-long rocket was laid out on a Meillerwagen trailer, which not only transported the weapon but served as its firing platform. Any small clearing would do to launch the V-2, and it only took an hour to prepare and fire the missile, which could gain an altitude of 55 miles and a speed of 3,580 miles per hour with a range of 200 miles. Just four minutes after takeoff, the V-2 could come crashing down on London.
With the program now controlled by the SS, the first V-2s were fired at Paris and London on September 8, 1944, from the area around The Hague in the Netherlands. During the next weeks more rockets (V-1 and V-2s) hit London, with 82 falling on the city in November, killing hundreds of civilians. Antwerp was hit by 924 rockets up to the end of the year while a total of 447 were aimed at London.
The last rockets of the war were fired from The Hague on March 27, 1945. The final V-2 exploded in London, killing 134 people and injuring 94 others. In total, Hitler’s V-2s killed 2,754 and wounded 6,523.
After V-1 flying bombs and V-2 guided missiles rained down on wartime Britain, Hitler had one more murderous “Retaliation Weapon” surprise: the V-3, codenamed Hochdruckpumpe (High Pressure Pump). The V-3, or London Gun as it was sometimes called, was in effect an artillery piece. Following the initial firing charge that forced the projectile up the barrel, a series of secondary charges placed in lateral chambers along the length of the barrel, spaced three yards apart and fired electronically, would detonate, adding to the propellant’s pressure and thus increasing the projectile’s velocity and range to a maximum of 102 miles.
The V-3’s supergun projectiles were nine feet long, finned, and fitted with a 300-pound high-explosive warhead. The site for this new weapon, planned for the installation of a 50-gun battery, was a cavernous two-mile labyrinth of concrete-lined tunnels and galleries dug out by forced labor near the village of Mimoyecques in the Pas-de-Calais area of northern France.
The largest guns ever manufactured, the V-3 barrels were 412 feet long, made of soft steel with six-foot bores in diameter, and all fitted with conventional breech-loading mechanisms.