Technically Speaking

Flipping It Off: How The British Defeated Hitler’s V-1


Firemen hosing down fires during the Battle of Britain in 1940

In the past few year, there have been some excellent movies about England’s resolve during key battles in World War II. After thoroughly enjoying the movies, Dunkirk and Darkest Hour, I became fascinated with exploring the mental state of the British people at the time. Think about it. For most of the war, there were many battles where they had to defend their homeland against the Germans. One such example was as the Battle of Britain in 1940, where the RAF defeated the German Luftwaffe.

It came at a heavy cost, with huge numbers of civilian deaths, massive destruction, and heavy military losses. You might be led to think that this would fray the British resolve. Yet even in their darkest hour, it strengthened it.

One cannot imagine what it would be like to always have the threat of an attack on your mind. When the British people got over the initial shock of being attacked, they pulled together and helped in any way they could. They also decided that they would continue to go about their ordinary lives. Things still had to be done, you had to go on living your life. One thing is for certain, they all knew the day would come where they would be staring down the enemy on their home soil.

The entire world knew that if the Germans conquered England, they would control all of Europe.

The war would be over.


This got me thinking about the final stages of the war, when Hitler pulled out all the stops in his quest to start chipping away at England. The Allies had been getting a foothold and were starting to make progress. But Hitler had an ace up his sleeve. He had an plan to slowly take out southern England without even putting a German troop on the ground. Germany’s brilliant scientists had developed a new weapon, the first cruise missile.


Between June and October of 1944, the citizens of London were under attack by this new weapon, the likes no one had everGerman ground crews rolling a V-1 into positionseen. It was a flying bomb, with no pilot, and quickly named  “buzz bomb” or “doodlebug” because of it’s unique sound. According to witnesses, it sounded like a raspy, pulsing, buzz. The southern section of London was their intended target. Although many didn’t make it to their final destination, the ones that did strike the city produced sizable loss of life and property. Some say that it was mostly used as a psychological weapon to bomb the populace into negotiating a peace.

The entire city would freeze as they could hear the engine spluttering away. One witness remarked that “you would pray that it keeps going past, hoping its somebody else’s problem in some other street, hopefully nobody you know. Then, the motor cuts out and you know its dropping somewhere near you with half a ton of high explosives and you throw yourself into a doorway and it hits three streets away.”



The V-1 was the first of Hitler’s so-called “Vengeance Weapons”, specifically designed for terror bombing of London. It was powered by an Argus pulse jet engine providing 660 lbs of thrust for a top speed of 390 mph and a range of around 150 to 250 miles. the weapon was 22 feet long, weighed 4,800 lbs and carried a 1870 lb warhead. The nose contained a device that counted the revolutions of a tiny propeller. When it reached the number of revolutions calculated to bring it to its target, the engine would cut out and the missile would fall to earth and detonate on impact.


Intelligence gathered by the British authorities had forecasted German surprise attacks by unmanned weapons. Knowing this, they launched Operation Crossbow on the German research establishment at Peenemünde and also at the factories believed to be involved in the production of the V-1. These attacks delayed the first deployment of the V-1, and worked in conjunction with the preparation of the Normandy Invasion of June 6th, 1944. They attacked many suspected launch sites in northern France, near Calais. The British also heavily fortified their southern coastline with anti-aircraft guns, and set up fighter aircraft patrols to guard the English Channel.

In the Channel, only the fastest fighters were on patrol in order to engage the incoming Buzz Bombs and hopefully shoot them down before they reached the mainland.

Map showing the German V-1 launch sites in relation to their direction to London. The zone resembles a crossbow, hence naming the operation Operation Crossbow


An exploding V-1 is in the background of this shot taken from the streets of London Initial V-1 attacks began on June 12th, 1944.  The Germans launched 10 V-1 bombs, of which seven crashed before they reached London. The first V-1 got through the defenses at around 4 am on June 13th. Word of that breach must have got back to the German commanders, who quickly recalculated their distance settings for their next planned launches. For the next 24 hours, German forces launched 151 more V-1 bombs at London. Attacks went on through the night. Civilians were puzzled as to this new weapon and it’s ominous sound. They came out of their shelters at daylight and see the destruction.

Rattled by this new weapon, life goes on. From that point on, they intently watch and listen to the skies for additional attacks. The military knows that their coastal and perimeter artillery arrangements were inadequate and immediately made changes to strengthen their firepower.



Hawker TempestThe first V1 kill was made over the English Channel was shot down by Flt Lt J.G. Musgrave of 605 Squadron in a de Havilland Mosquito. Knowing that they could now effectively use aircraft to shoot down the V-1, they immediately formed up a fighter wing at Newchurch.

The average speed of V-1 was 340 mph and their average altitude was 3,300 ft. Fighter aircraft required excellent low altitude performance to intercept them and enough firepower to ensure that they were destroyed in the air rather than crashing to earth and blowing up. Most British aircraft were too slow to catch a V-1 unless they had a height advantage. It’s here where the Hawker Tempest’s excellent low altitude performance was better suited than even the Spitfire, which was superior at higher altitudes. The problem was, at the time of the first V-1 attack in June, there were only 30 Tempests available.



The anti-V-1 sorties by fighters were known as “Diver patrols” (after “Diver”, the code name for V-1 sightings). Early attempts to intercept and destroy incoming V-1s often failed, but improved techniques soon emerged.  Machine guns didn’t always have lethal effect on the V-1’s sheet metal structure. There was a considerable danger in mounting an attack on a V-1. Pilots often reported completely expending their shells on a V-1, but it having no effect.A V-1 rocket in flight over the English Channel

If a cannon shell detonated the warhead, the impending explosion could destroy the attacking aircraft. Its explosion could be lethal in the air within 200 yards and in the early weeks of the attacks, several pilots were killed and or attacking aircraft were badly damaged. Diving on to the bomb to attain extra speed brought the danger of entering the lethal distance while shooting. The turbulence of the hot gases from the jet engine also upset the aim of a fighter attacking from the rear.

One RAF pilot said, “You had to hit them from dead astern and not get closer than 300 yards or you might be brought down by the explosion. This meant you were presented with a very small target and it took several hundred rounds to bring one down.”

The best form of attack had to be discovered by trial and error and eventually most pilots found that it was best to allow the bomb to overtake them and then fire deflection shots as it passed.



Trial and error lead to the discovery of a tactic that was both risky and brilliant. The attacking pilots figured out that it you used your own airplane to divert the V-1 off of it’s course, you could defeat it. Brave pilots were essentially creating a mid-air collision with the V-1. The first known example of this was by RAF pilot, Taduesz Szymanski in a P-51 Mustang on the first day of the attack on July 12, 1944.

Szymanski and his wingman were on “diver patrol” and were directed to a V-1 intercept. Szymanski shot down the V-1, and got another call of an inbound. His wing man had experienced radio problems and had returned to base.  Szymanski then engaged the V-1 and fired his guns. He saw direct hits just as his ammo ran out. Calling back to base and asking for an assist, he was informed that there were no other fighter aircraft nearby.


Szymanski flew in close to observe the bomb and had an idea. “As soon as I put the port wing under its wing it started lifting. Then I put enough of my wing under it and made a sharp bank to starboard. After I straightened out from my bank it had straightened itself out but had lost some height.” He then repeated the maneuver eleven times with the same result.

An RAF aircraft moves into position to roll the V-1 off of it's course

Knowing that he was unarmed and running out of time, he pulled up as if beginning a loop striking it with his wingtip once more. This time, when he recovered, the V-1 was flying upside down. It went into a gradual dive and crashed into the English Channel. the pilots quickly discovered that if the pilot continued to turn the V-1 to a point where the on-board gyroscope would turn more than 90 degrees, the V-1 could not recover. If properly executed, this maneuver could override the gyro and send the V-1 into an out-of-control dive.

INCREASING THE KILL RATEBritish anti-aircraft guns in position during the V-1 barrage from June to October of 1944

Within a few months, the gun batteries on the coast and the perimeter made great gains as well.  At the beginning of the V-1 attacks, they quickly discovered that the altitude of the incoming V-1s was higher than the effective range of the light anti-aircraft guns and just below the optimum engagement of the heavier guns. This led to the development of proximity fuze shells and the introduction of fire control radar. The radar changed the “kill percentage” from 17% on the first week to 74% by October.  In the first week, one V-1 was destroyed for every 2,500 shells fired. By October, it had gone down to one for every 100.


All combined, these air and ground measures were so successful that by August 1944, about 80% of the attacking V-1s were destroyed.  By the end of the barrage in October, records show that a total of 6725 V-1s were fired at southeast England. In all, about 1,000 V-1s were destroyed by aircraft, and nearly 3,400 were shot down by anti-aircraft fire. Even with all of the brave efforts, 2,340 V-1s reached London, killing  5475 people and injuring nearly 16,000.


Before I started researching this subject, I had no idea that the usage of the V-1 was so short. I had always assumed that they were deployed for a much longer period of time. In my research, I also found many different opinions of their effectiveness. Some experts say that the V-1 was effective from the standpoint that it used a huge amount of resources to counter it, and say that its effect on the war itself was minimal. Some say that it was mostly used as a psychological weapon to bomb the populace into negotiating a peace.  

Regardless of what the expert opinions are, one thing is certain.  This period in history is further proof of the toughness of the British people. They had the enemy knocking at their door. Instead of running and hiding, they stood up to the challenge and didn’t back down. After the V-1 and V-2 attacks ended, they would be celebrating victory within a year.  As an American, I take special pride in knowing that our two countries stood shoulder to shoulder in solidarity during the darkest time in history.  Maybe one day , I can take a trip to England and see many of the battle sites that I have read about in the history books. And as they used to say in the famous English war posters…

Stand Firm.

Winston Churchill flashes the victory sign, then learns that this direction means something quite different.


“Victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival” –Winston Churchill


Author’s Notes:

All images within this document were sourced from existing internet sites.  Please support those sites by visiting them for additional information on this subject.

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Alex Welsh

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