The death of the doodlebug: The rise and fall of Hitler’s V-weapons

Wernher von Braun and the V2 rocket

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It was the noise that people remembered best; the distant hum that grew into an eventual booming roar that was followed by a deafening silence, the terrifying moment that marked the imminent arrival of death from above. The distinctive sounds of the German V-1 gave it the nickname the ‘doodlebug’ or ‘buzz bomb’ and it struck fear into those who stood listening underneath.

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Hitler’s V-weapons, the V-1 flying bomb and V-2 rocket, were known as Vergeltungswaffen (‘revenge weapons’), designed to be used for terror bombing in retaliation for the increased Allied attacks on German cities during the latter stages of WW2. London was a primary target and the idea was to terrorise British civilians and undermine public morale to such an extent that Britain might capitulate from the war.

Originally conceived in the 1930s, it would take until late 1943 before V-1 launch sites began cropping up in Northern France. The V-1 was the world’s first operational cruise missile fired from an inclined launch ramp and occasionally deployed from the air. Resembling a small aircraft with no pilot, the flying bomb had a pulsejet engine which made it incredibly noisy but meant it could travel up to speeds of 400mph, allowing it to cross the English Channel in a matter of minutes. At first, it had a range of around 160 miles but that was later increased to around 200.

Equipped with a simple autopilot, a small propeller at the front of the V-1 clocked how far the weapon had flown. At a pre-set distance power was cut to the engine sending the V-1 and its 1-ton explosive payload into a steep dive. This rudimentary guidance system made the V-1 horribly inaccurate – its best application being against large areas and not specific targets. As Winston Churchill declared to parliament in the summer of 1944, ‘London is, therefore, the unique target of the world for the use of a weapon of such gross inaccuracy. The flying bomb is a weapon literally and essentially indiscriminate in its nature, purpose, and effect.’

One moment it was a “doodlebug” and the next it was a colossal mass of orange flame and black smoke

On 13 June 1944, exactly a week after the Allies had stormed the Normandy beaches, the first V-1 was fired across the English Channel towards Britain. It marked the start of a summer campaign that saw nearly 10,000 flying bombs sent towards British shores, which caused over 6,000 deaths, left 18,000 wounded and countless more homeless. Although the destruction was not on the scale of the 1940-1941 Blitz, over a million people still left the capital city seeking safety out of range of Hitler’s new terror weapon.

The British scrambled to defend themselves against this new threat and various countermeasures under Operation Diver were put into place. A mixture of barrage balloons, anti-aircraft guns and fighter planes combined to create an ever more effective defence as the bombing campaign progressed. Daring escapades of the RAF over British soil returned, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the Battle of Britain in mid-1940.

New Zealand RAF fighter pilot Arthur Umbers describes a close counter with a V-1, ‘I saw the “doodlebug” when it was about two miles out to sea coming up to Dover at about 3,000 feet…I dived to the left until I was dead behind it. That made it about 400 yards away and then I fired a short burst…it continued to go like hell. I then closed and gave it another burst…One moment it was a “doodlebug” and the next it was a colossal mass of orange flame and black smoke. I couldn’t avoid it…I flew straight into it and my aircraft bumped violently for a few seconds. I lost control and came out upside down…I rolled it over again and came back to base not much the worse.’

By the autumn of 1944, advancements in anti-aircraft technology (radar-based automatic aiming along with proximity fuses) along with the British Double-Cross System (Nazi double agents feeding back false information about the V-1 accuracy) helped to all but neutralise the impact of the flying bombs. At the same time advancing Allied forces began overrunning V-1 launch sites up and down the French coast.

The V-2 was unlike anything seen before

In fact, Duncan Sandys, a member of the British War Cabinet announced to the press on 7 September, ‘The battle of London is over except possibly for a few last shots.’ Sandys’ optimism was sadly misguided as the very next day Hitler revealed his second and most powerful revenge weapon – the V2. On 8 September, one crashed into Chiswick, West London, causing multiple casualties.

The V-2 was unlike anything seen before. It was the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile. Powered by a liquid-propellant rocket engine and equipped with gyroscopic guidance and rudders, the 46-feet tall rocket was fired from mobile launch sites and flew straight up to the edges of space. It would descend at supersonic speeds towards its target up to 200 miles away. Defence technology against such a threat did not exist providing the V-2 and its 1-ton explosive payload free reign to wreak death and destruction.

The revolutionary V-2 was the work of German rocket engineer Wernher von Braun, who developed the weapon at Peenemünde Army Research Center located on a remote island on the Baltic Sea. Von Braun is one of history’s more controversial figures. Obsession with spaceflight from a young age led the talented engineer to be snapped up by the military to work on the application of rockets in warfare.

When his V-2 was ready for construction, prisoners from Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp did the heavy lifting. Some 60,000 prisoners lived, worked and died building the V-2s in secret underground tunnels. With no daylight, little sleep and no proper sanitation, thousands perished under the appalling working conditions. Those who attempted to sabotage the construction of the V-2 were executed and hung from cranes above the rocket assembly lines for all to see.

The thousand or so V-2s fired at Britain still caused an estimated 2,700 British deaths

After the war, Von Braun was secretly transferred to the U.S. where he’d build upon his V-2 design and play a pivotal role in launching America’s space program, including designing the rocket that landed on the moon in 1969, the Saturn V.

Unlike the V-1, the V-2 was incredibly expensive to produce, consuming large amounts of resources at a time when Germany needed them elsewhere. The V-2s introduction to the war was also consistently pushed back thanks to Operation Crossbow – Allied operations against German long-range weapons. Bombing raids on Peenemünde as well as other storage facilities and depots successfully delayed the V-2 rocket program.

When it finally did enter the war only the atomic bomb would prove more powerful, however, the V-2 failed to make an impact on the result of the conflict. Although more sophisticated than the V-1, the V-2 shared its inaccuracy and suffered from reliability issues. Double agents again played their part, feeding back false information on rocket impact sites, leading the Germans to re-target more towards the less populated Kent rather than London. That being said, the thousand or so V-2s fired at Britain still caused an estimated 2,700 British deaths – 2,000 other rockets fired at Europe led to a further 6,000 deaths.

By the spring of 1945, the brief reign of the V-weapons was over as Allied forces overran all launch sites. The final V-2 landed on British soil on 27 March 1945, the last V-1 two days later, crashing down in Datchworth, Hertfordshire.

Nazi propaganda had hailed these weapons as Wunderwaffe ('wonder weapons') that would turn the tide of war in Germany’s favour. In fact, they came into the fight too late and made little difference to its outcome. Their legacy, however, goes far beyond the result of the war - their technological achievements gave rise to a new age of weaponry and heralded in the birth of the Space Age.