By early 1944, the Luftwaffe was only a shadow of what it had been at the beginning of the war. Adolf Hitler and Reichsmarshal Hermann Göring were determined to retaliate against British cities, especially London, for Allied air attacks against German cities. A few years earlier, they would have ordered a series of massive air raids against London in reprisal. However, combat losses and the switch to fighter production for the defense of the Reich had drained the strength of the Luftwaffe’s once-powerful bomber fleets. Massive air strikes were no longer an option.
German engineers had developed new and unconventional methods of striking back at the enemy. The Fieseler FZG-76 flying bomb, which would be known as the V-1, was one of the weapons designed for striking at targets in Britain without straining the Luftwaffe’s already depleted bomber reserves. The V-1 was popularly known as the “buzz bomb” to the Allies because of the distinctive noise created by its pulse-jet engine. Theoretically, the V-1 operated with a simple guidance system and was supplied with enough fuel to reach a major target in England or Allied territory on the Continent. Once above the target, the V-1 would have expended all its fuel and begun a random descent to the ground, its warhead detonating on impact.
One of the flying bomb’s many problems, however, was that it was so inaccurate. The bombs sometimes missed a target as large as Greater London, which covers hundreds of square miles, by either flying beyond the entire city or, usually, crashing far short of it. Certainly, the sheer randomness of the attacks contributed to terrorizing the enemy populace, but greater accuracy would have been beneficial from a military standpoint. One way to solve this problem would be to develop a manned V-1: to put a pilot in the unmanned flying bomb.
Luftwaffe headquarters ordered that all special assignments, including the testing of all experimental aircraft, were to be carried out by Kampfgruppe 200, a secret unit that operated from several airfields on the occupied Continent. One staffel (squadron) of KG 200 was formed to operate the manned version of the flying bomb. This unit adopted the name “Leonidas staffel.” Leonidas was the legendary king of Sparta who had fought the Persians at Thermopylae in 480 bc. His stand at Thermopylae was determined to the point of being suicidal. Leonidas and every one of his 300 Spartans were killed in the fighting. The name of the staffel indicated the intention of the unit in its unconventional attacks.
The first attempt at a manned flying bomb had ended in failure when a bomb-carrying Focke Wulf FW-190 fighter aircraft was employed in tests. This idea was scrapped because the fighter was too vulnerable to enemy fighters. The additional weight of the bomb had made the Focke Wulf slower and much less maneuverable. Hauptsturmführer (SS Captain) Otto Skorzeny, the commando leader who became famous following his daring rescue of Benito Mussolini from captivity in the Italian Alps, is said to have suggested modifying a FZG-76 flying bomb to carry a pilot. The FZG-76 could outrun any piston-engine fighter and carried a warhead of almost one ton. With a pilot to guide it, this aircraft would be able to find any target, no matter how small, and would deliver enough explosives to destroy it.
A piloted version of the FZG-76 already existed, although it had been designed strictly for testing. Early models of the flying bomb had many problems with stabilization. The craft kept crashing shortly after being launched. The well-known pilot Hanna Reitsch, an aviatrix who had achieved fame before World War II and become a favorite of Hitler, was assigned to make a test flight of a manned FZG-76 to evaluate the machine’s stability. Reitsch, the first woman to hold the honorary rank of captain, had also been awarded the Iron Cross First Class. Because of her record as a pilot, which included testing an experimental helicopter in the mid-1930s, she was given the job of finding out exactly what was wrong with the FZG-76 and what should be done to fix the problem.
The modified flying bomb, with Hanna Reitsch in the cockpit, was air-launched from a Heinkel He-111 twin-engine bomber.
Catapulting the machine from a ramp, which was the usual procedure, was considered too dangerous.
Reitsch lived up to her reputation as one of Germany’s leading pilots by bringing the FZG-76 to a safe and successful landing after a harrowing flight. Her suggested changes to make the machine more airworthy were implemented by the designers at Fieseler and were instrumental in the success of the V-1 campaign against London in the summer of 1944. The more popular designation “V-1” was short for Vergeltungwaffen 1, or Vengeance Weapon No. 1, which sounded much more dramatic than FZG-76.