Vengeance Weapons

Jennifer Wilding and Ralph Zuljan

The London Blitz was a time of incredible hardship for those Britons who endured it. But few today realize there was a second Blitz, the "Baby Blitz" during the latter days of the war. This blitz was not carried out by waves of Heinkel, Junker and Stuka bombers, but by mindless robots, the Vergeltungswaffen -- vengeance weapons.

There were two distinct sorts of vengeance weapons, the V-1 and the V-2. Despite the similarity of the names they were radically different weapons. The V-1 was literally a flying bomb, the V-2 a true rocket, the first ballistic missile and brainchild of Werner von Braun, the engineer who made it possible for Man to land on the Moon.

The V-1 had a number of popular designations, primarily the buzz bomb or the doodlebug. It acquired these nicknames as the result of the very loud noise it made as it passed overhead. It has been described as a ticking sound, the sound of a freight train, or a motorcycle. As result of its large, single jet engine the distinctive approach of a doodlebug could be heard up to 30 miles away. In France, where most of the launch sites were situated, it was known as "La Casserole", because it bubbled when it flew.

Advanced weapons research had been going on in Germany since the 1930s, a result of the Versailles Treaty limitations on the size of the German Armed Forces. It did not, however, receive much funding or attention until midway through the war. Despite a spectacularly poor demonstration in May 1943 (the V-1 exploded within seconds of launching) Hitler was persuaded to continue the vengeance program. Launch failures were on the order of 39% at this time. In October 1943 successful demonstrations at Peenemunde convinced him that this weapon would win the war. By June of 1944 launch failures had been reduced to a remarkably low 5% and on June 16 the second Blitz was underway.

Doodlebugs were erratic, to say the least. Sometimes they did not even make it off the launch pad before they exploded, or they spun in the air, whizzing off in unexpected and unwelcome trajectories. Quite often they simply fell out of the sky, far short of any planned target. The 2500 or so that did make it to London had a very low "kill" rate, about one person to one bomb. However the property damage was enormous and many people were killed by falling masonry and flying glass. The only fortunate aspect of the doodlebugs was the shallow blast crater, which was rarely deep enough to hit water or gas mains. Fire was, therefore, not a major aspect of buzz bomb attacks. Terror, however, was. The horrendous noise produced by the doodlebugs was nearly as demoralizing as Hitler had hoped.

The chief advantage to the Germans was the flying bomb attacks could be made in any type of weather. They were not limited to good flying conditions as were human pilots. The "Baby Blitz" continued unabated until March 1945.

The buzz bombs were terribly difficult to shoot down. When the attacks began very few were destroyed, but with the refitting of antiaircraft guns, barrage balloons, improved fighters and techniques the destruction of the flying bombs rose. One popular, daredevil, method of destroying a doodlebug was to come up alongside it, slide a wing tip under the bomb wing tip and flip it over.

In September 1944 a new horror was added to the flying bomb attacks, the V-2's. These were silent until they landed, when the blast could be heard for up to 60 miles. Then came the sound of the V-2's passage. These were supersonic rockets against which there was no defense.

Launched from The Hague, Holland, V-2's took only 5 minutes to reach their destination.

At first, they were a secret weapon. The British government knew they existed but the first hits were described to the public as gas main explosions in order to control panic. It was not until the German High Command announced their successful launchings that the V-2's were publicly acknowledged in England.

Both the V-1 and the V-2 carried a one metric ton warhead, but the V-2 was an immeasurably superior weapon. It could not be defended against and even the blast waves were deadly. It was highly mobile, with no need for permanent launch pads, the trucks upon which they were transported also served as gantries, and could be camouflaged. About the only defense against the V-2's was to strafe the supply trains that carried the rockets and fuel to launch sites. The V-1's needed large, permanent launch sites which could be (and were) bombed out of existence. Some were launched from the undersides of airplanes later in the war, but this was not efficient and put the diminishing resources of the Luftwaffe at risk.

The flying bombs, however, had a number of advantages over their cousins. They were cheap to build, cheap to operate and used only regular gasoline as fuel, all important considerations in a Germany whose economic base was rapidly collapsing. Many V-1's could be produced in the time it took to manufacture one V-2. The V-2 rockets were very fragile, the guidance and electronic systems degraded beyond repair within weeks of manufacture and they were difficult to transport. They also used more exotic fuel, tanks of alcohol and liquid oxygen which were difficult to manufacture in post D-day Germany. Like the V-1's, they were not terribly reliable, and often exploded unexpectedly. The Hague suffered heavy damage and causalities from rogue V-2's.

On the whole, the Nazi vengeance weapons were not successful. They were unreliable, expensive and not the highly efficient killers Hitler had hoped for. They were, however, terrifying. They were a death from the sky that could not be diverted, an entirely new class of weapons that were immune to strategy, tactics and human courage. They simply landed and destroyed whatever was there, mindlessly and automatically. With their deployment warfare entered a new age.

Originally published in "World War II" at on September 1, 2001.
Reprinted in "Articles On War" at on July 1, 2003.

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