The History Place - World War II in Europe

A German V-1 bomb in flight about to crash and explode in London.

The 'V' came from the German word Vergeltungswaffen, meaning weapons of reprisal. The V-1 was developed by German scientists at the Peenemünde research facility on the Baltic Sea, under the direction of Wernher von Braun and Walter Dornberger.

They were nicknamed "buzz bombs" by the British due to the distinct buzzing sound made by the pulse-jet engines powering the bombs, which overall resembled a small aircraft. Other British nicknames included "doodlebugs" and "flying bombs." Each V-1 was launched from a short length catapult then climbed to about 3,000 feet at speeds up to 350 miles per hour.

As the V-1 approached its target, the buzzing noise could be heard by persons on the ground. At a preset distance, the engine would suddenly cut out and there would be momentary silence as the bomb plunged toward the ground, followed by an explosion of the 1,870 pound warhead.

The first V-1s were launched against London on June 13, 1944, a week after the D-Day landings. During the first V-1 bombing campaign, up to 100 V-1s fell every hour on London. Over an 80 day period, more than 6,000 persons were killed, with over 17,000 injured and a million buildings wrecked or damaged.

Unlike conventional German aircraft bombing raids, V-1 attacks occurred around the clock in all types of weather, striking indiscriminately, causing suspense and terror among the population of London and parts of Kent and Sussex.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill recalled, "One landed near my home at Westerham, killing, by cruel mischance, twenty-two homeless children and five grownups collected in a refuge made for them in the woods."

According to German records, 8,564 were launched against England as well as the port of Antwerp, with about 57 percent actually reaching their designated targets. The remainder failed as a result of antiaircraft guns, barrage balloons, and interception by fighter planes.

Over 29,000 V-1 bombs were built, mainly through slave labor at a huge underground factory near Nordhausen. Launch sites and production facilities were specially targeted by Allied bombers during Operation Crossbow. In those raids, nearly 2,000 Allied airmen were killed.

Eventually, British and American planes knocked out the majority of the launching sites. By September of 1944, however, the Nazis introduced the V-2 rocket, a liquid-fueled rocket that traveled at supersonic speeds as high as 50 miles, then hurtled down toward its target at a speed of nearly 4,000 miles per hour, smashing its 2,000 pound high explosive warhead into the ground without warning. Unlike the V-1, the V-2 rockets could not be intercepted. Over a thousand were fired at London.

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(Photo credit: U.S. National Archives)

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