Key point: These weapons caused more terror than results. Yet there were rightly regarded as a danger.
During any war, combating countries predictably issue reports andcreate publicity more favorable to their own side. Often the difference is subtle, but sometimes it is profound. A perfect example occurred during World War II as Germany unleashed its V-1 and V-2 onslaught against England. Both governments were well aware that the weapons introduced a whole new aspect to an already violent war. How they described and reported it was in marked contrast.
In England the V-1 may have acquired some funny names, but there was nothing funny about its death-dealing power. Its pulse jet engine made a peculiar, raspy, loud sound and it carried a one-ton warhead that Londoners learned to fear. Twenty-five feet long, with stubby wings and a range up to 150 miles, the robot bomb flew at 400 miles an hour. It took only five minutes to cross the Channel, which made defending against it most difficult. The British called it the Buzz Bomb, Doodlebug, or Diver. It was Adolf Hitler’s latest attempt to force England out of the war. Hitler told his rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun, “This will be retribution against England. With it we will force England to her knees.” The ways in which official statements, including broadcast and print media, in Berlin and London reported this new chapter of making war in early 1944 reveal the extraordinary differences between the two governments of the time.
Officially, the Buzz Bomb was the V-1, or Vergeltungswaffe—Vengeance Weapon, simple to build but sophisticated in its engine and auto pilot guidance system. Constructed of plywood and sheet steel, it did not require scarce aluminum. Before Allied armies finally overran its launch sites, it killed more than 6,000 people in southeast England. Soon after, Germany’s even more revolutionary V-2 rockets began to fall, killing another 2,855 persons.
By 1944, as the Allied bombing campaign escalated, German factories and transportation facilities faced mounting destruction. Hitler thirsted for revenge. Under his increasing demands for immediate results, the V-1 program got off to an early, shaky start. Ironically, it might have been ready sooner had Hitler himself not delayed its development. Also, Luftwaffe chief Herman Göring never supported the program. On June 12 that year, Germany launched 19 of the flying bombs. Of the first salvo, only nine actually left the platform, none of which reached England. Of the second salvo, four quickly crashed alarmingly nearby, two went down in the English Channel, four reached England, and only one hit London. Lord Cherwell, an adviser to Prime Minister Winston Churchill, announced, “The mountain hath groaned and given forth a mouse.” All too soon, however, Lord Cherwell would regret his lofty observation.
Citizen John Franklin was one of the first to see this revolutionary weapon. On June 17, the News Chroniclein Croydon quoted Franklin’s description. “When I first caught sight of the plane (sic) it appeared at 300 to 400 miles an hour at about 2,000 feet. In size it was half that of a Spitfire. Soon after it passed over, the engine cut out and it went into a steep dive. A few seconds later, it blew up.” Over the next year as more Buzz Bombs roared across the Channel, Londoners learned to fear the sudden stop of the engine noise that preceded its deadly dive.
The British government had long known of a new, still unidentified, potential threat. As far back as 1939, a secret report out of Oslo, Norway, warned that Germany was beginning research on flying bombs and rocket bombs, but British intelligence advisers downplayed the report, believing it could only involve solid fuel rockets with limited range. Then, as late as October 1943, French spies reported unusual construction at Peenemmude, near Stettin, along the Baltic Sea and on the Normandy coast of France from Cherbourg to the Pas de Calais. The Allies called them “ski-sites” but didn’t yet know what they were. Thousands of slave laborers were used in underground caves under appalling physical conditions to manufacture the craft. As workers collapsed they were replaced with new slave labor taken directly from concentration camps. It was largely because of Albert Speer’s role as armaments minister in supplying such labor that he received the sentence of 20 years at the Nuremberg trials.
In operation, the V-1 engine would be started, and the craft then steam-catapulted off a 157-foot long, elevated launch rail pointed straight at London.
Quickly, the number of V-1s and resulting casualties increased. The British press had to report the obvious. On June 16, 1944, the London Evening News headlined, “Pilotless Warplanes Raid Britain.” The next day, The Times of London carried the official government position: “Militarily, therefore, this new weapon cannot have the slightest effect on the course of the war. The aim of these raids is, no doubt, to shake the morale of the British public.” Of course, they were quite right. That was exactly what Hitler had in mind. The Normandy invasion, landing thousands of troops on “Fortress Europe,” had occurred back on June 6. If he could now break the British will and force England into a settlement of some kind, he might forge a deal short of unconditional surrender. Although that never happened, the Allies watched the mounting death toll in and around London with apprehension. Each new announcement in Europe was followed closely in the United States. Hitler’s plan to create morale-breaking devastation was, perhaps, an unrealistic hope. But, while that is obvious now, it was less so back then.
And so the war of words heated up. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels shouted on Radio Berlin, “The pilotless planes have caused the war to enter a new phase—unique destruction, enormous conflagration, stopping of work in factories and office-panic!”
It was, of course, a wild exaggeration but in England, official concern ramped up to a new level. Herbert Morrison, Minister of Home Security, tried to head off such panic. In an address to the House of Commons on June 16, Morrison announced, “While I have thought it right to inform the House about the new weapon used by the enemy, the available information does not suggest that exaggerated importance need be attributed to this new development. The nation should carry on its normal business. But I must impress on the public the importance of not exposing themselves to danger in the streets out of curiosity.” It was a masterful, understated warning, but clearly the Churchill government was becoming increasingly worried.
By June 19, more than 500 V-1s had hit southeast England. Great Britain tried fooling the enemy by reporting the bombs were landing farther north, when they were not. The hope was that Germany would then alter the launch direction and fire the missiles into unoccupied areas. It fooled no one since honest news reporting revealed exactly where the Buzz Bombs were coming down. The worst single death toll occurred on November 25, 1944, as 168 persons died when a V-1 exploded amid a crowded Woolworth store in New Cross. The pluck and resilience of British public spirit were being severely tested.
Meanwhile, Goebbels raised his propaganda level. He proclaimed, “In London, life has practically come to a standstill as the rain of secret weapons continues almost without interruption.” Soon, Berlin Radio announced, “The British government has given orders for the immediate evacuation of the (London) population.” Not quite true, but in fact by early September and with government urging, more than a million residents, mostly women, children, and the aged or infirm had left. On July 7, United States network radio commentator Raymond Gram Swing announced, “Prime Minister Churchill’s revelation as to the seriousness of the robot bombs took this country aback. We had no idea the German secret weapon was so formidable.” Churchill demanded the best possible defense and, as it turned out, that defense was already taking a heavy toll on the incoming V-1s.
Although the manufacturing and launch sites were heavily defended and partially underground, British and American bombers and fighter bombers hit them again and again. On the English side of the Channel, a combination of antiaircraft guns, barrage balloons, and speedy fighter planes were thrown into the battle. Those three elements, working together, were titled Operation Crossbow.
But, fighter pilots in even fast aircraft like the RAF Hawker Tempest or U.S. Army Air Forces’ North American P-51 Mustang found catching the robot difficult and dangerous. On June 17, 1944, USAAF Mustang pilot Captain William Anderson destroyed one. He recently wrote, “I dove down on the doodlebug at between 3,000 and 4,000 feet. You had to look for two things when chasing and firing at a V-1. One was friendly fire from antiaircraft gunners trying to knock it down, and you didn’t want to get too close while you were shooting because if it blew up in front of you it would take you down with it.” Some daring pilots would catch up to the V-1 and slide in next to it close enough to tip the bomb’s wing with their wing, thus upsetting the missile’s gryocompass and sending it crashing.