“Londoners christened them “buzz bombs” or “doodlebugs.” But despite the charming nicknames, it was clear that these new inventions were deadly killers.”
ONE WEEK AFTER D-DAY, calm had finally returned to the streets of London.
In the hours after the invasion of Normandy, Britons expected Hitler to lash out at the city in a fit of desperation. But seven days had passed since Operation Overlord and still no Luftwaffe squadrons had appeared over London’s rooftops.
On June 13, 1944, the quiet was shattered.
Just after 4 a.m., the skies to the south of the city exploded to the sound of ack-ack guns. As air raid sirens wailed, civil defence crews watched in disbelief as a lone aircraft streaked across the skyline at lighting-fast speed. Searchlight crews struggled to keep the small target illuminated as gunners poured flak into the pre-dawn gloom.
Eyewitnesses reported that the strange plane’s sputtering engine suddenly cut out over northeast London, at which point the tiny dart-like craft fell from the sky and exploded in a fireball. It came down on the borough of Hackney. Six residents were killed in the blast. (Click here to see the exact location of the explosion on Google Street View. Note the small blue plaque marking ground zero). Over the next three days, 72 more of these strange flying machines would slam into the city, leaving hundreds dead or wounded. On June 18, one struck the Guards Chapel near St. James Park (about 100 yards from Buckingham Palace) killing 141. In the wake of the tragedy, newspapers finally confirmed what many had already surmised: the British capital was under attack by guided rockets. Officially, the weapons were known as Fieseler Fi-103s or Vergeltungswaffe 1 (“Retaliation Weapon 1”); Londoners christened them “buzz bombs” or “doodlebugs”. Yet despite the charming nicknames, it was clear that these new inventions were deadly killers.
Here are some amazing facts about the V-1 and its brief but brutal reign of terror.
The Original Cruise Missile
The V-1 was history’s first mass-produced cruise missile. Each could carry a 1-ton warhead nearly 250 km (160 miles) at a cruising speed of 650 km/h (400 mph).
Rain of Terror
Nearly 10,000 V-1s were launched from sites in Northern France over an 80-day period beginning in June 1944. Targets included London as well as other cities in southern England. At the peak of the campaign, more than 100 rockets were hitting Britain a day. Casualties climbed to 22,000, with more than 6,000 fatalities.  Hitler hoped that the new weapons would crush British morale. More would later be fired from inside Germany itself at Liege and the port of Antwerp.
It took a V-1 about 15 minutes to travel from its launch pad in Calais, France to the heart of London — a distance of nearly 95 miles (151 km).
Return on Investment
Each V-1 cost about 5,000 Reichsmarks or $2,000 in 1944 (that’s the equivalent of about $27,000 today).The 21-foot-long flying bombs were made mostly from sheet metal and plywood. Each took about 350 labour-hours to produce. Concentration camp inmates and slave labourers toiling at the Gerhard Fieseler Werke plant in Kassel did most of the assembly work.
The buzz bomb’s revolutionary engine, the Argus As 014 pulsejet, was designed in 1928 by inventor Paul Schmidt. The motor, which ran on ordinary gasoline, fired 50 times a second, giving the V-1 its unmistakable and terrifying sound (♬ listen here). As far back as 1934, the Munich-based rocket scientist envisioned his creation being used to propel high explosive warheads long distances. The Nazi air ministry green-lighted the project in 1940. Years of testing would follow. Despite its power, the V-1’s engine wasn’t strong enough to get the 2-ton weapon into the air. Each had to be hurled skyward along a launch ramp using a special catapult. Later, the Nazis released them from bombers.
Point and Shoot
Each V-1 was guided by a rudimentary pendulum gyroscope that kept the machine flying straight and level at a cruising altitude of between 2,000 and 3,000 feet. To aim a V-1, operators simply needed to point the weapon in the approximate direction of the target and set the engine to cut out at the desired distance. Gravity would take care of the rest.
Within days of the initial attack, British air defences were reorganized to meet the new threat. Anti-aircraft batteries were quickly re-positioned along the southern coast of England. Eventually 1,600 guns were trained on the skies over the channel. Although at first, crews had no chance of bringing their guns to bear on the fast-moving missiles, eventually radar-controlled batteries and proximity-fuse shells became available. By the end of the summer, three-quarters of V-1s launched against Britain were being brought down by flak.
The first successful fighter intercept of a doodlebug occurred on the June 15, 1944 when a RAF Mosquito shot one down in mid-air. Soon, Hawker Tempests, Spitfire XIVs, Mustangs and even new Gloster Meteor jets were assigned to intercept the incoming missiles. About 1,000 Fi-103s were destroyed in flight by Allied aircraft. No piston engine plane had the speed to match a V-1 in level flight, but pilots could achieve the necessary velocity by diving on them from higher altitudes. And if guns didn’t do the trick, a flier could sometimes get in close enough to nudge the buzz bomb off course using a wingtip.
Britain’s intelligence also did its part to reduce the effectiveness of the V-1. MI5 used double agents to feed Berlin misinformation about the location and severity of missile strikes. The bogus data was passed down to Luftwaffe crews who erroneously calibrated their weapons thereby making them fall far short of the city centre. It was a controversial decision; London suburbs, like Croydon for example, were heavily damaged instead. Still, officials were confident that overall the casualties were minimized. 
Buzz Bomb Limitations
V-1s were neither reliable nor accurate. Of the 10,000 fired at London, only about a fifth actually reached the city. In fact, as many as 2,000 V-1s malfunctioned and crashed shortly after takeoff. Yet despite the flaws, the missiles were still a viable alternative to conventional bombing. Doodlebugs consumed less fuel than warplanes, but causes as much damage to London as the Blitz. Plus, the V-1 threat kept hundreds of Allied warplanes and anti-aircraft guns busy protecting the British Isles, aircraft that could have been used to greater effect on the front lines.
The Terror Ends
The V-1 menace finally ended in October when Allied troops captured the launch ramps in France. Sites within Germany continued to direct V-1s at Belgium however. And the horror still wasn’t over for London — Just as the buzz bomb campaign tapered off, more advanced and far deadlier V-2 ballistic missiles began raining down on the city. They would continue to pound England until March 1945.
V-1 technology began falling into Allied hands as early as 1944. Prototypes captured in Poland were soon copied and mass-produced by the Soviets. Moscow built more than 300 V-1s under the designation 10Kh. France’s military acquired a number of the missiles too. It used them as target drones in the Post War period. By the autumn, American rocket scientists duplicated V-1s using wreckage recovered in Great Britain. By VJ-Day, the Ford Motor Company and the aircraft manufacturer Republic had produced 1,300 buzz bomb knock offs known as JB-2s. They remained in the U.S. arsenal until 1950.
Where to See One
Surviving V-1s are sought-after museum pieces to this day. Eight are on exhibit in Great Britain, three of which can be found in London at the Imperial War Museum, the Science Museum and the RAF Museum in Hendon. A total of 17 are on display in North America. One is in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington. Another resides in the United States Air Force museum in Dayton Ohio. Aviation collections in Huntsville, Alabama; Portage, Michigan; Wasilla, Alaska; and Halifax, Nova Scotia, among others, all have V-1s as well. Only one is on display in Germany. It’s at the Munich Museum. Sites in France, Denmark, Sweden, Belgium, the Netherlands, and even Australia and New Zealand all have V-1s on exhibit too.
Ludeke, Alexander. Weapons of World War II. Parragon Publishing. London. 2007.