During World War II, which lasted from September 3, 1939 to May 8, 1945, Adolph Hitler kept insinuating that he had a “secret weapon.” He did this on three occasions. These turned out to be the V-1, the V-2 and the Atomic Bomb. He did in fact, launch the first two but the German scientists were still trying to develop the atomic bomb when the war ended.
The V-1 and V-2 were both developed at Peenemunde under the guidance of Wernher von Braun’s Cherry-stone project. The V-1 or Maybug as the Germans called it, became a Buzz-bomb or Doodlebug in England. It was a simple ram-jet or pulse-jet engine with wings and a warhead. It was fueled with just enough kerosene to get to its target, at which time the engine stopped and it either fell to the ground or glided some distance before doing so. The design made it very inaccurate and it was believed by the Germans that only 20% reached their target.
The V-2 was even less accurate and was the first long distance guided missile. It was fueled by kerosene and liquid oxygen. It was first used on September 8, 1944 and about 3,000 were used on several Allied troop targets as well as about 1,500 sent to London. It went over 60 miles high and travelled at three times the speed of sound. Its only warning was the sonic boom which was heard for the first time in London. It did however, become a daily experience for about seven months. By the ruse of leaking information to the enemy that most were over-shooting London by 20-30 miles, they started falling about that distance short of London, with far fewer casualties or damage.
The first V-1 was launched on June 13, 1944 seven days after Hitler learned that the Allies had landed on the Normandy beaches on D-Day, June 6, 1944. This was the first of 9,521 sent to London and the south of England. The frequency reached about 100 per day with each of the launch sites trying to fire a target of 10 per day. (The record number was 18 per day and the average nearer 8 per day.)
British defenses consisted of bombing the launch and storage sites but of those actually launched, it is believed that only 20% actually reached London. Some crashed prematurely, some were shot down by anti-aircraft guns, over 1000 were shot down by the RAF and many had various engine or navigation problems. (Some RAF pilots learnt the trick of flying alongside the V-1 and tipping a wing with one of their wings. This was effective until the Germans put a detonator in the wing tips.)
As the Allied forces penetrated into France, Belgium and Holland, they began to push the launch sites further from London and the frequency started to decline. Eventually, the Germans could only attack our troops in Antwerp and Belgium with an occasional foray into the Midlands counties north of London. The last V-1 successfully launched was on March 21, 1945. A total of 2,948 V-1s were directed at these alternate targets. The number of people actually killed by V-1s seems to be unknown but the damage done was evident for several years. Londoners generally went about their business but rapidly took shelter when an alarm sounded, or more likely when they heard the loud engine noise and even more so when the engine stopped. The psychology of frightening the enemy was partly successful although it just became part of every-day living.
I went to London on September 16, 1944 with a four year scholarship in Chemical Engineering at Imperial College, so I missed three months of V-1s but was just in time to hear the V-2’s sonic boom and its louder noise almost a minute later. I went home to my village of Ailsworth in Cambridgeshire for the Christmas break. At that time, my father was still the Chief Air Raid Warden for the village and was also the station-master of our village’s sole railway station. This was about one mile down Station Road opposite our house. The station was called Castor Station since Castor was the larger of our two joint villages. (Castor also had the only church and school but we had just as many pubs as they had, three.)
On January 3, 1945 my father had been on air raid duty since we had received a warning signal. Hearing a loud but distant explosion, my mother and I went outside and were told there was an explosion down Station Road. A warden was dispatched on his bicycle to find the cause. He returned to say that the Castor Station had received a direct hit and there was a large hole in the ground. It was verified later, that a solitary V-1 had been in our area and had made the hit. Until my father died, he always claimed that his station was the intended target. In fact, it was a freak accidental target of what could quite well have been the last V-1 launched at England. The last V-1 launched when the final launch site was over-run by the Allied troops was reported in German records as March 29, 1945 and, because of its location, could not have been directed at England.
Dad’s Doodlebug might not have been the accurate and deliberate shot he thought it was but it may well have been the last one ever targeted for England.