the 'wonder' weapons of Nazi Germany

an allied aerial shot of Peenemünde

Both the Allies and the Germans invested large amounts of resources and funds inventing new weapons. The most famous and effective wizard weapon was the atomic bomb. Driven by a fear that Nazi Germany would develop and use an atomic bomb first, physicist Albert Einstein wrote President Roosevelt in 1939 to warn him of the potential threat. US Army General Leslie Groves was tasked with creating the American program, which used a mix of eccentric academics and military spit-and-polish officers.

Raids on the German heavy water plants in Norway indicated that their program was behind the Americans, and emphasis switched to using the bomb on Japan after the German surrender.

The Germans were focusing on a number of weapons that were retaliatory in nature. The V-weapons, or “vengeance” weapons, were high-technology guided and unguided missiles: the V-1 flying bomb began attacks on London and Antwerp, Belgium in the summer and fall of 1944, after the Allied landings. Randomly striking targets, the V-1s caused terror out of proportion to their damage, but killed hundreds. Soon the V-1s were supplemented with V-2 ballistic missiles, the first true medium-range guided missile. Developed at the Peenemünde missile complex, both missiles were soon out of range of London as the Germans fell back to their own borders. The V-3, a series of large guns built into the French cliffs and aimed at London, was never completed. Slave labour from the Nordhausen concentration camp was used to build the vengeance weapons, resulting in thousands of deaths from executions and starvations.

The other major German weapon was the Messerschmitt Me-262, the world’s first operational jet fighter. In the space of seven years, the world had gone from biplanes to jet propulsion. Mounting 30mm cannon, it was a capable fighter, but dangerous to the pilot if the fuel was not handled carefully. Furious over bomber attacks on Germany, Hitler ordered the aircraft to be used as a bomber, preventing its defensive use and saving many Allied bombers. Rare metals shortages grounded many planes. If the Me-262 had been introduced a year earlier, the Allied strategic bombing offensive would have been seriously compromised.

The Allies had very different opinions on the use of technology. American combat doctrine called for very heavy firepower to be used to smash a target, even if it could not be seen. This was contrary to the basic combat instruction that taught recruits to only fire at visible targets, but the Americans eschewed most tactical technological implementations. The British, however, developed many operational weapons, most notably under the inventor Barnes Wallis, who was an explosive expert. He developed the ’bouncing bomb’ that smashed Ruhr dams, and the ’tallboy’ and ’Grand Slam’ very large bombs that destroyed submarine pens at Loríent and sank the battleship Tirpitz.

For the Normandy invasion, the British developed a number of new technologies, including flail tanks that set off mines, swimming dual-drive (DD) tanks, and carpet laying tanks. Called ’Funnies’ these tanks were not used by the Americans, except for the DD tanks. Other variants included the Churchill Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers (AVRE) that mounted a large mortar to assault concrete emplacements. Major implementations of new technology at Normandy included Pipe Line Under the Ocean (PLUTO) to provide the Allies with enough gas, and the Mulberry Harbors, artificial breakwaters Churchill insisted on building to facilitate landing men and materiel.

By the time the Allies landed in France, the tide of technological warfare had shifted to the Allies. Almost the entire Allied air force were modern designs created in 1940 or after. The Germans were still using the same designs created in the thirties. Also, the Germans developed several types for each role, diminishing the effectiveness of their armour and aircraft by making four or five types instead of one or two.

Vergeltungswaffe-1 Attacks (the V1)

By Raul Colon
September 24th

During the wee hours of June 13th 1944 a sole Fieseler Fi-103 or V-1 pilotless bomb, rested on its wheeled cradle at Hesdin in the Pas de Calais, ready for takeoff. Its support crew, all members of Abteilung Flakregiment 155; had worked relentlessly on the launching platform during the past seven days.

In just a few more minutes they would know if all of their collective efforts would be paid off. They already had fuelled the missile and had rechecked its navigational and electronic mechanisms. The only thing left was the launch itself. Approximately at 3:49 AM, the Flakregiment’s commanding officer, who sat in a reinforced concrete Kommandostand (bunker), radioed the crew to commence the firing sequence. Three minutes later, the roar of the compressed air filtering into the 75 octane petro chamber of the ARGUS pulse-jet engine began to engulf the bunker. At the same time, a massive supply of air from two parallel tanks on each side of the Fi-103’s launching ramp was being diverted to a chemical combustion chamber.

As the gas mixed with the chemical liquids, a violent reaction occurred propelling the ramp’s firing piston forward taking with it the F1-103 at nearly 250 miles per hour. As the missile began to slowly pickup altitude, the launching crew cheered  in unison. Their week-long work had, not only paid off, but had been a resounding success. Once the Fi-103 was airborne, the firing squad watched in awe as the 103 climbed to a low angle as it built up airspeed. Three minutes after the launch, the 103’s navigational compass took over the missile steering. The compass shifted, ever so slightly, the 103’s trajectory to compensate for the forecasted headwinds. Three more minutes passed and now the V-1 had achieved its expected cruising altitude of 3000’. One minute later, the Fi-103 had crossed the French coast heading for England. 

Meanwhile, operators at the British radar station in Swingate, near the Dover Straits picked the faint signature signal of the now cruising V-1 at around 4:02 AM. Four minutes later, spotters aboard a Royal Navy torpedo boat patrolling the Straits picked up the Fi-103’s silhouette. 

They recorded the “sighting of a bright horizontal flame” travelling north-westward from the direction of Boulogne. Five minutes later, the Observer Corps near Dymchurch saw an incoming “object” heading northwest toward the English coast. Reports began to flood in to headquarters and soon a code name was gave to the incoming “pilotless airplane”: Driver. As Driver began to move over the Kent countryside, spotters and radar stations all across the V-1 path continued to report its trajectory. At 4:20 AM, the Fi-103’s internal navigation system automatically shut itself down at the preset coordinates. Immediately, two electrical contacts closed the circuit which fired a couple of detonators housed on the tail of the craft in order to secure the V-1’s elevators and rudder in the pre-arranged position. While this was happening, the spoilers under the tail plane sprang out, thrusting the tail structure upward thus forcing the missile into a steep dive position.

The resulting negative G-forces conveying on the platform pushed the remaining fuel to the front of the pulse-engine storage tank, uncovering the feed pipe forcing the pulse engine to flame out. After which, the 4858lb weapon plunged violently towards the ground. The first V-1 crashed on to an open field area near Dartford, a full fifteen miles from its intended target, Tower Bridge in the centre of London. Three additional flying missiles would be fired from northern France during a two and a half hour period. Two of them crashed in open fields causing no casualties or damage. The third   plummeted onto Bethnal Green killing six people and injuring ten more. Six additional V-1s followed up the initial barrage, five of them crashed into the Channel waters and one over Dover itself without causing any damage. With these firings, the long awaited “rocket” bombardment of England commenced. 

The infamous Fieseler’s Fi-103 flying bomb was perhaps Nazi Germany’s main terror weapon during that period of the war. Known as V-1 or Retaliation Weapon Number 1, was in fact a first generation cruise missile platform. It was powered by a powerful ARGUS pulse jet engine which produced around 560lb thrust at a 400 miles per hour. It had a wingspan of 17’-6”, length of 29’-1.5” with a total wing area of  55 square feet. It carried a 1870lb warhead (there was an extended-range version of the V-1 which carried a 1000lb) that detonated on impact. The Fi-103 could travel up to 130 miles (extended version 200) at an average top speed of 420 mph (480). Operational ceiling was around 4000’. Total weight at takeoff was 4858lb. For guidance and navigation, the V-1 possessed a rudimentary compass mechanism, an automatic pilot system and an air log counter. The Fi-103’s airframe was a simple structure. It had to be due to the massive shortages of aluminum alloys inside the fast shrinking German Reich. The system made its maiden flight in December 1942. The weapon’s testing phase lasted until the next July when it was ordered to into full production mode by an overstretched and overmatched Luftwaffe.    

When the Allied Army landed on the Normandy beachheads on June 6th, the Luftwaffe’s commanders, which along with most German senior military leaders still believed that the main Allied attack would come on the Pas le Calais, thought that all of the newly built V-1 launching platforms would almost certain be lost before they were to become fully operational to the advancing allies invading force. As the landings were taking place, Flakregiment 155 received orders from Berlin to commence the planned massive bombardment of the British capital. The June 13th would only be the first salvo in a powerful missile barrage planned against London. Following this up was an incredible work schedule, under constant duress from allied bombing and strafing.

By the 15th  Flakregiment 155 was able to have all of its assigned Fi-103 launching platforms in the Calais area operational. Commencing on the afternoon of the 15th until midnight of the 16th, Flakregiment 155 launched 244 Fi-103s. Of the 244, 45 units either failed to make it from their launching pads or crashed soon afterwards. Forty units, which managed to clear the pad area, crashed into the sea soon after takeoff. Only 153 units were able to cross into British territory. Waiting for them were the newly deployed anti-aircraft artillery pieces and recently formed dedicated fighter squadrons, all stationed on the south Great Britain in preparations to meet this improvised German terror weapon. This screen of guns and aircraft were able to shoot down twenty two V-1s. Of the remainder of the striking force, fifty units crashed onto open fields across the south of England without causing any damage. Unfortunately, seventy three Fi-103s did find their marks and crash landed in downtown London causing loss of life and severe structural damage. 

For the next fifteen days, Flakregiment 155 launched 2442 flying bombs against the beleaguered English capital. Of this impressive total, only about 810 were able to reach their target. The rest were either shot down during their trajectory or they simply malfunctioned while in launching mode. The June 1944 Fi-103 barrage killed 2441 citizens while another 7107 were seriously injured. Not all of the V-1 attacks were directed at London. Few pre-programmed flying bomb were actually targeted at military installations inside the Greater London area. But, as with much of its conventional force, the Fi-103 failed to make any significant dent in military operations. This did not mean that it failed to cause havoc on some installations. Such was the case on June 18th when a sole flying bomb crashed on the Guard’s Chapel at the Wellington Barracks. Sixty three soldiers and fifty eight civilians who were attending the services perished in the attack.  

Because of the amount of flying bombs being launched at Britain, its leaders re-directed their air effort to look for and destroy all V-1 launching sites near the Pas de Calais sector. Thus a new phase in the ongoing air war above northern France began. Allied reconnaissance aircraft were constantly on patrol looking for V-1 launchers. Once detected, forward air controllers would call in air strikes onto them. Unfortunately for the allies, the Germans were by now versed in the art of deception, thus most of their V-1 launchers were well camouflaged. Nevertheless, allied aircraft did find some sites and they were constantly bombarded. But the Germans also proved very adept at rebuilding and soon, the attacked sites were back in operation.

Post war German records tend to support this claim. Of the 64 available sites, twenty two were seriously damaged and 18 suffered medium damage. Of the forty, only two sites were lost, the others were rebuilt and back in operation within days. During the month of June, twenty eight Germans were killed while working on the V-1 sites, a further 79 were injured. But while the allied air attacks did not prevent the site from operating it did hinder the Germans re-supply system. The already frail rail and road system Flakregiment 155 utilized for weapon and systems transportation was constantly attacked by allied bombers affecting the interval time between V-1 launches. Before the landings, the Luftwaffe had assigned a window of thirty minutes between each flying bomb launch. Flakregiment 155 had reduced the lapse time to 25 minutes, but now, due to the air harassing tactics of the allies, the interval time climbed to 1.5 hours.

Notwithstanding the allied strike campaign against the launching sites, the launches continued almost unabated during the month of July. In fact, during August 2nd, the 155 launched its most massive attack so far. During a 24 hours window, the 155 launched 316 missiles at London. One hundred and seven of them fond their target. In fact, three or five Fi-103s crashed on the Tower Bridge damaging it. But by now the German operations in the Calais area were fast coming to an end. On the 7th, orders were issued to the 155 to stop all repairs and new construction of Fi-103 facilities south of the River Somme. Two weeks later, the whole German Western front began to collapse. Flakregiment 155 began a hastened eastward retreat leaving all of the V-1 sites open. The last flying bomb launched from the Calais sector took off on the 1st of September 1944.  

The situation on the ground altered the German’s Fi-103 strategy. Since early July, III Gruppe Kampfgeschwader 3 had joined Flakregiment 155 on the bombing of London. Commanded by the famous Major Martin Vetter, the Gruppe utilized a modified Heinkel He-111 heavy bomber fitted with a special carrying device to launch the V-1 missiles. The He-111 launched Fi-103 were modified from the original version. These new flying bombs carried a state-of-the-art FuG-101 Radio Altimeter and a Lichetenstein’s Tail Warning Radar Array. As the four engined bomber began to alter its flight pattern in order to be able to deploy the new version of the 2.5 tons V-1 system. The He-111 was the long awaited hope for a by now almost none-exiting Luftwaffe’s bomber arm. It was an advanced four engine heavy bomber.

It was powered by two Daimer Benz DB-610 engines generating each 2950 horse power. Each DB-610 were complemented by two DB-605 engines attached together while driving a single propeller alignment. This arrangement gave the 111 a top speed of 270 mph at 20000’ with a cruising speed of 210 mph at 20000’. Operational range was an impressive 3240 miles. The He-111 was a bulky armed aircraft with no less than six gun emplacements compromising of one MG-151 2cm cannon and one MG-81 7.9mm heavy machine gun firing in the forward position (all from the nose cone housing). Two MG-81 machine guns on the rear fuselage. On each side, two heavy MG-151 machine guns. One more 151 on a dorsal turret plus a MG-131 in the extreme rear of the tail structure. The bomber was able to carry up to 13200 pounds of ordinance in internal bomb bays plus, either a Fritz X guide bomb or a Hs radio guided missile system.

At least six crewmen were needed to mange the aircraft in flight. The He-111 Fi-103 profile called for the bomber to cruise  over at 170 mph at an altitude not exceeding 300’. As they approach the deployment area, the 111 turned into the target and commenced to slowly climb to the safe deployment altitude of 1700’. When the He-111 reached the targeted altitude zone, it levelled off at 200 mph. Before the bomb was deployed, the crew started up the 103’s pulse engine for up to ten seconds, this put in peril the aircraft’s ability to survive the mission, before deploying the weapon. Once the V-1 was dropped, it would fall for 300’ before the autopilot was activated and began to correct the weapon’s course and altitude. Meanwhile, the pilot and co-pilot of the 111 were turning the big, lumbering bomber the other way in order to escape the expected British fighters which would most likely trace the muzzle signature of the deployed bomb.      

From early July through the first week of September, He-111s launched 300 flying bombs at London, 90 at Southampton and a few to other population centres. Then, on September 8th a new and more terrifying weapon arrived over London, the vaunted A-4 (V-2) ballistic missile. The rocket, which was fired from the outskirts of The Hague, Holland; nearly 200 miles from the British capital, made a lasting impression among its citizens and their leaders who vowed to destroy the new terror weapon.

From September 1944 through the 27th of March 1945, 1054 A-4 were launched towards England. Of them, 517 hit London killing 2700 of its citizens. Meanwhile, the use of the He-111 to deploy the V-1 flying bombs continued through the autumn and winter of 1944. Gruppe Kampfgeschwader 3 continued its assault on Britain from bases at Aalhorn, Handorf-bei-Munster and other facilities in northern Germany. Unfortunately for Germany, the accuracy of these new airborne 103 was even worse that the ground launched systems. Late in the autumn of 1944, and newly re-formed Gruppen Kampfgeschwader 3 was joined by converted Gruppen KG 53 for V-1 operations. But by this time Germany was experiencing a huge petrol shortage which forced the Luftwaffe to curb many offensive-types of operations. Almost disregarding this fact, both Gruppens continued, but at a more conservative pace, to launch V-1s towards London. Although the British capital was the preferred target centre for Luftwaffe’s commanders, there were other cities attacked during the winter months. An example of one of those attacks was Operation Martha.

Martha was a large group bombing mission against the city of Manchester. On the morning hours of December 24th 1944, fifty He-111 deployed their Fi-103s over the North Sea. Thirty V-1s crossed the English coast at Bridlington then proceeded westward. Of the thirty bombs, only one actually crashed in downtown Manchester, fourteen others crashed in open fields around the city. The unexpected attack forced the Royal Air Force to re-deploy air defence assets to other locations outside London. This was the last major operation of the year. By January, the Gruppens combined strength was 79 He-111 from a preliminary force strength of 160 units. Meanwhile, German engineers were feverishly working on an extended-range version of the 103. One that could travel up to 200 miles from its deployable bases. On March 3rd, after nearly two months of lull in 103 launchings, the Luftwaffe fired the first of 275 Fi-103 units launched during the month. The longer range version proved even more inconsistent and easy to destroy that previous system. The greater distance provided the British with more opportunities to shoot them down.    

More than 10000 Fi-103 were launched against Great Britain. Nearly 87 percent of them were ground launched. Of the total number, 7488 were able to reach the British coastline, 3957 of them were shot down leaving 3531 flying bombs to pass through the British defences. Of those that “got away”, 2419 crashed onto London, 30 onto Southampton and Portsmouth while only one reached Manchester. Total losses were 6184 killed and 17981 injured. Forgotten is the fact that there were other countries attacked by the German’s V-1 weapon. On the 21st of October, Fi-103 bombardment against allied positions in Holland commenced. The attacks were concentrated against two targets: the major port facility of Antwerp and Brussels. Some 740 flying bombs were fired against the two cities. The bombardment caused widespread damage to an already structurally deficient infrastructure on both cities. 

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