First V1 Rocket hits London
The Blitz between September 1940 and May 1941 had a huge impact on British morale, and on effectiveness, as civilian life, industry, and administration were all hit by the rain of German bombs. A further mini-Blitz was started in the early part of 1944, when it was increasingly obvious that the war could not be won by Germany, in an attempt to disrupt allied plans and to press the allied leaders to seek a peaceful end to the conflict.
This attack on British morale was intensified when the Germans began launching V1 flying bombs from sites in Northern France, the weapon proving to be both devastating and extremely difficult for the allies to counter.
The V1 was a pulse-jet powered drone aircraft, unmanned, with a simple but effective guidance system using gyroscopes and timers to bring the 2,000lb bomb to its target. Launched from ski-slope ramps by powered catapults, the V1 was a cheap weapon, reasonably easy to conceal, though the allies did target storage areas and the launch sites when identified.
It was a very difficult weapon for the allies to defend against. It could outrun many of the conventional aircraft lined up against it. At its operational height of between 2,000 and 3,000 feet the V1 was just out of range of light anti-aircraft weapons, and just under the most effective range for heavier AA guns.
When the faster aircraft capable of catching it were deployed against the V1, they found it difficult to down. This was due to the simplicity of the pulse-jet engine, which had few vulnerable components – the fuel line being one – and of the robust bomb, hitting the detonators being the only reliable method of destroying the thing. Added to this, the sheet steel construction of the craft meant that conventional machine gun bullets failed to penetrate the skin, leaving only explosive cannon ammunition as useful in attacking the V1. Detonating the bomb with cannon fire close-in risked the destruction of the chasing plane.
Eight civilians were killed by the first V1 to land on London, in Grove Road in the Mile End district. This hit the capital in the early hours of June 13, 1944.
Initially it was thought that the V1’s range was set by the amount of fuel used, the engine cutting out when the fuel was exhausted, the ‘doodlebug’s’ droning engine note ceasing ominously just before it dived to earth. This was not the case, and the fault that cut the engine out when it began to dive was later corrected to enable the machine to hit its target in a power dive.
Eventually the allies improved defences against the weapon. Semi-automated AA firing guided by radar was one advance. Faster planes, including the jet-engined Meteor, were developed. Barrage balloons were arrayed in the anticipated flight paths – only a few were downed by this method, as the V1 had cable cutters on the leading edges of the plywood or steel wings. In the end the allied advance in France over-ran the launch sites in September 1944, putting London out of range.
By the time this happened almost 7,000 had been launched against London, with several thousand directed at other targets in the South East. About 3,500 were destroyed by fighter planes (including some tipping the V1’s wings up causing it to plummet to earth early). More than 2,000 of the flying bombs reached the capital, and the death toll from them there exceeded 6,000.
Although the main method of launching became impossible, the Luftwaffe continued to send some V1s, though far fewer, against the British mainland by launching them from modified Heinkel bombers. This method was, however, less effective, the bombers being slow and vulnerable to attack by conventional fighters.
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From Graham Smith on 19th December 2012
Little did I know,on June 13th 1944, that in two months and three days time my mother would be killed as a result of a V1 destroying a railway bridge. I find it even harder, as a no longer young man, that we are fast approaching seventy years since the event.