This is the first in a new series of posts looking at the development and implementation of Germany’s secret weapons programmes. As part of this series I will be looking at the V1 and V2 weapon systems. In later posts I will look at the less well known V3 and V4 projects. In addition, there will be posts which assess the role played by Germany’s development of the jet fighter. Finally to conclude the series I will address the German atomic bomb project and its relationship to Germany’s other secret weapons programmes.
The V-1 was a flying bomb developed by the German air force as a means of penetrating enemy airspace in circumstances where the Luftwaffe no longer had air superiority. It resembled a mid-wing monoplane and was powered by a pulse-jet engine using petrol and compressed air. The V-1 carried a relatively modest explosive payload of under a ton. Once launched the V-1 could reach speeds of approximately 375 miles per hour and had a maximum range of 130 miles.
It was launched using a catapult ramp system. Once the rocket had reached its preset distance, the elevators in the wings would deflect, the engine would cut out and the rocket would dive. However, the V-1 was not an accurate weapon. It is estimated that 80% of V-1s landed within 8 miles of their targets. Furthermore two-thirds of the V-1s launched crashed before hitting their target. The V-1 was vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire or being shot down by enemy fighters. The Royal Air Force devised a manoeuvre of flying alongside a V-1 and then flicking a wing tip under the fins of the rocket. This would cause the V-1 to fly off course and crash. The first V-1s were launched against London on June 12-13, 1944. In total 22,400 V-1s were launched at targets in South-East England and Belgium.
The German rocket programme began as a joint venture in 1935 between the German Army and Luftwaffe. The collaboration between the two services led to the creation of the Peenemunde secret weapons centre on the Baltic coast in May 1937. In early 1939 the Luftwaffe and the army ended their joint programme for rocket research. Consequently, it was the Luftwaffe that developed the V-1 whereas the German Army was responsible for the A-4 rocket (which was later later designated the V-2). The first successful launch of a V-2 rocket took place on 3 October 1942. However, it was not brought into production until January 1944.
The V-2 was a 13-ton liquid fuel rocket which could reach speeds of 3,600 mph. It was 46 feet high and was launched from an upright position. The incredible speed of the V-2 made it impossible for RAF fighters to intercept it in the air. It could also reach a maximum height of 100,000 feet. However, like the V-1, the V-2 rocket technology was still in its infancy and results were inconsistent. Whilst there were no defences to the V-2 rocket, many of the them failed to reach their targets. In total only 3,200 V-2s were fired at targets in Britain and Belgium (primarily civilian targets in London and Antwerp. Whilst the attacks were terrifying for the civilian population, the number of rockets fired were insufficient to have had any impact on changing the course of the war. The total explosive payload of all of the V-2 rockets fired at Britain in 1944-45 combined was less than that of a single large-scale bombing raid against Germany by the RAF during that period.
Furthermore the resources required to construct the V-2 rockets were enormous. At the beginning of 1944 large-scale production of the rockets involved a work-force of 200,000 as well as 1,000 tons of aluminium a month (enough to build 2,000 FW 190 fighters).
The V1 and V2 were a foretaste of the future of modern warfare. The V1 flying bombs alone caused 24,000 casualties in England and an even greater number of casualties in Belgium. However, ultimately both the V-1 and V-2 programmes were failures. Neither the V-1 nor the V-2 were produced in significant enough numbers to have any affect on the outcome of the war. Furthermore whilst the technology was advanced for the time, the guidance systems on both weapons were too primitive too allow for accurate targeting and consistency. Both weapons systems were primarily weapons of terror which cost over 5 million marks and took up resources which could have been used to produce more conventional (and reliable) weapons which were desperately needed by the Germany military in 1944-45.