Exactly a week after D-Day, on June 13, 1944 Londoners looked to the night sky and cheered. A long flame and sudden crash led them to believe they had just witnessed a German bomber being shot down.
They had not. They had just witnessed the world’s first cruise missile, the V1, making its devastating arrival in the capital, killing eight people.
Within weeks, this new weapon had several new names: doodlebug, buzz bomb, or simply flying bomb.
In Civil Defence reports it was labelled ‘fly’. Hitler approved of its unofficial name, Vergeltungswaffe Eins (‘Vengeance Weapon 1/V1).
In 1937, German engineer Fritz Gosslau (1898–1965) proposed the development of a remote-controlled aircraft with a 1-tonne warhead.
Two years later, he added a pulsejet to his design. The project was overseen at the Peenemünde Army Research Centre.
Its first flight was in December 1942.
The 27ft-long missile was catapulted at 250mph from a launching ramp. After three minutes, at a cruise speed of 400mph and height of 3,000ft, a directional gyroscope took control.
At a pre-programmed distance, measured by a wind-driven impeller in the nose, the Argus pulse-jet cut out and the missile fell on its target.
D-Day had brought forward the missile’s intended launch date.
British intelligence knew of the weapon but its deployment came as a surprise to most Britons.
At its peak, more than 100 V1s a day were fired at southern England. Londoners learned to listen for the V1’s distant throaty grumble.
Those under its flightpath dived for cover and waited 10 seconds for the explosion. The V1 had an ‘accuracy’ radius of seven miles, at best.
But it proved devastating. Its blast levelled rows of houses. One of the worst incidents occurred on Sunday, June 18, 1944, when a V1 hit the Guards’ Chapel, in Birdcage Walk, Westminster, during a service, killing 121 soldiers and civilians.
Earlier that day, an NFS fireman manning a rooftop observation post on Dulwich fire station – directly below the V1 flightpath – hurriedly scribbled pencilled notes of their journey and deadly impact in this rare logbook.
In one hour, from the start of his shift at 4.50 am, the fireman noted eight V1s passing over. In his record of this early V-weapon ‘Attack on London’, he calls the missiles ‘Aerial torpedoes’, but over the next few days, starts to refer to them as ‘P. Planes’ (Pilotless) and ‘robots’.
The fireman’s shaky scrawl must have been caused by his exposed position in the high observation post with V1s passing by and exploding around him. The log only lasts seven days, possibly indicating he was a relief fireman brought in from outside London.
Record show a V1 was ‘chased by two Spitfires’, while the following day, notes a V1 was ‘shot down by Bofors [AA gun] at Dulwich’.
But intercepting V1s over the capital often downed missiles that could have flown past.
Around this date, under Operation Diver, Winston Churchill ordered the redeployment of London’s AA defences to Kent and Sussex.
The following month, these defences were moved further south, creating a coastal band of more than 500 AA guns and 2,000 barrage balloons.
This allowed RAF fighters, including the new Gloster Meteor jet, to intercept their unmanned prey over the open countryside, where there was less chance of the missiles causing damage. They accounted for 4,261 V1s, saving thousands of lives.
The only true way of defeating the V1 menace was the destruction of their Continental launch sites. The last V1 to hit Britain landed at Datchworth, Hertfordshire, on March 29, 1945, just over a month from VE Day.
In total, more than 10,000 V1s were launched against England. Some 2,419 reached London, causing 6,184 fatalities.
Released to the press on August 3, 1944, this image shows a V-1 flying bomb falling on London.
The buildings in the foreground are the Royal Courts of Justice (Law Courts) on the north side of the Strand. This particular V-1 fell in Wild Street on Wednesday, June 28, 1944.