V-2 Flying Bombs

In the summer of 1942, Germany began working on two new secret weapon, the V-1 Flying Bomb, a pilotless monoplane that was powered by a pulse-jet motor and carried a one ton warhead. It was launched from a fixed ramp and travelled at about 350 mph and 4,000 feet and initially had a range of 150 miles (later 250 miles).

Germany fired 9,521 V-I bombs on southern England. Of these 4,621 were destroyed by anti-aircraft fire or by RAF fighters. An estimated 6,184 people were killed by these flying bombs. By August only 20 per cent of these bombs were reaching England.

The second secret weapon, the V-2 Rocket, was developed by Wernher von Braun, Walter Dornberger and Hermann Oberth at the rocket research station at Peenemunde.

V-2 Flying Bomb
V-2 Flying Bomb

The V-2 was first used in September, 1944. Like the V-1 Flying Bomb it carried a one ton warhead. However, this 14 metres (47 feet) long, liquid-fuelled rocket was capable of supersonic speed and could fly at an altitude of over 50 miles. As a result it could not be effectively stopped once launched.

Over 5,000 V-2s were fired on Britain. However, only 1,100 reached Britain. These rockets killed 2,724 people and badly injured 6,000. After the D-Day landings, Allied troops were on mainland Europe and they were able to capture the launch sites and by March, 1945, the attacks came to an end.

Primary Sources

(1) In an interview he gave to a journalist in October 1950, Wernher von Braun spoke about the political and moral consequences of going to work for the German Army on rocket technology in 1932.

In 1932, the idea of war seemed to us an absurdity. The Nazis weren't even in power. We felt no moral scruples about the possible future abuse of our brain child. We were interested solely in exploring outer space. It was simply a question with us of how the golden cow would be milked most successfully.

(2) Albert Speer, Germany's Minister of Armaments in the Second World War, was a strong supporter of the rocket programme headed by Wernher von Braun.

Ever since the winter of 1939, I had been closely associated with the Peenemunde development centre, although at first all I was doing was meeting its construction needs. I liked mingling with the circle of non-political young scientists and inventors headed by Werner von Braun - twenty-seven years old, purposeful, a man realistically at home in the future. It was extraordinary that so young and untried a team should be allowed to pursue a project costing hundreds of millions of marks and whose realization seemed far away.

My sympathy stood them in good stead when in the late fall of 1939 Hitler crossed the rocket project off his list of urgent undertakings and thus automatically cut off its labour and materials. By tacit agreement with the Army Ordnance Office, I continued to build the Peenemunde installations without its approval - a liberty that probably no one but myself could have taken.

(3) Walter Dornberger, speech to those working at Peenemunde on the V-2 Rocket (3rd October, 1942)

This is the first of a new era in transportation, that of space travel. So long as the war lasts, our most urgent task can only be the rapid perfection of the rocket as a weapon. The development of possibilities we cannot yet envisage will be a peacetime task.

(4) Edward Murrow, CBS radio broadcast from London (12th November 1944)

I shall try to say something about V-2, the German rockets that have fallen on several widely scattered points in England. The Germans, as usual, made the first announcement and used it to blanket the fact that Hitler failed to make his annual appearance at the Munich beer cellar. The German announcement was exaggerated and inaccurate in some details, but not in all. For some weeks those of us who had known what was happening had been referring to these explosions, clearly audible over a distance of fifteen miles, as "those exploding gas mains". It is impossible to give you any reliable report on the accuracy of this weapon because we don't know what the Germans have been shooting at. They have scored some lucky and tragic hits, but as Mr. Churchill told the House of Commons, the scale and the effects of the attack have not hitherto been significant.

That is, of course, no guarantee that they will not become so. This weapon carries an explosive charge of approximately one ton. It arrives without warning of any kind. The sound of the explosion is not like the crump of the old-fashioned bomb, or the flat crack of the flying bomb; the sound is perhaps heavier and more menacing because it comes without warning. Most people who have experienced war have been saved repeatedly by either seeing or hearing; neither sense provides warning or protection against this new weapon.

These are days when a vivid imagination is a definite liability. There is nothing pleasant in contemplating the possibility, however remote, that a ton of high explosive may come through the roof with absolutely no warning of any kind. The penetration of these rockets is considerably greater than that of the flying bomb, but the lateral blast effect is less. There are good reasons for believing that the Germans are developing a rocket which may contain as much as eight tons of explosives. That would be eight times the size of the present rocket, and, in the opinion of most people over here, definitely unpleasant. These rockets have not been arriving in any considerable quantity, and they have not noticeably affected the nerves or the determination of British civilians. But it would be a mistake to make light of this new form of bombardment. Its potentialities arc largely unknown. German science has again demonstrated a malignant ingenuity which is not likely to be forgotten when it comes time to establish controls over German scientific and industrial research. For the time being, those of you who may have family or friends in these "widely scattered spots in England" need not be greatly alarmed about the risks to which they are exposed.

(5) In a letter to R.W. Reid, the author of a book on science and morality, Wernher von Braun, wrote about the problems of developing new weapons for Adolf Hitler and his Nazi government (May, 1968)

With the tight press censorship imposed by Hitler, the abuses of his regime were not nearly as visible to the average German as they were to an outsider who had free access to the international news media. For this reason, I must say, more by way of a statement than as an apology, that I never realized the depth of the abyss of Hitler's régime until very late and particularly after the war, when all these terrible abuses were first published. I guess until about a year before the war's end I shared the feelings of most Germans that while Hitler was unquestionably an aggressor and a conqueror, that this put him more in a class with Napoleon than with the devil incarnate. While right from the beginning I deeply deplored the war and the misery and suffering it spread all over the world, I found myself caught in a maelstrom in which I simply felt that, like it or not, it was my duty to work for my country at war.

(6) Jim Woods, interviewed in 1987 about his experiences as a child during the war.

The V1s were quite noisy and you could hear them in the air-raid shelter. They sounded like a motorbike running without a silencer. You would listen for them to stop and if they stopped overhead you knew they would hit close by.

Sometimes they came over during the day. As kids we were curious to see them rather than running for a shelter. They were more body than wings. Pointed at the front and cut off at the back. They had short square wings. It was as big as an aircraft. Probably bigger than a spitfire in size. You couldn't mistake them for anything else. When they landed they could devastate a whole area.

Later they sent over V2s. They were rocket propelled bombs. They flew much higher and you could not hear them. They flew much higher and you could not hear them coming but they caused more damage when they hit the ground.

(7) Stella Hughes, interviewed in June, 2001.

I joined the Voluntary Nursing Service working from the Chingford post most evenings and at weekends in order to do my bit, so to speak, in the war. Five days a week I made soldiers uniforms working for Rego in Edmonton North London and then nursed at Whipps Cross Hospital in East London travelling there by bus. Along with my "indoor and outdoor" uniforms, which I was given I was issued a tin hat (which I had to pay for) but all this made me feel great.

I recall on one occasion our factory where I worked was hit by a V2 rocket and my nursing training came in handy. When I got home I was filthy and dishevelled and I remember my Mother saying to me "why are you home early?" no mention of the state I was in.

(8) Manchester Guardian (27th April, 1945)

It is understood that the total number of V2s which fell in Southern England was 1,050. The first rockets fell on the evening of September 8 at Epping (Essex) and Chiswick and the last at Orpington (Kent) on the afternoon of March 27. The attack reached its crescendo during February, when 71 dropped in a week on Southern England. The first to fall in London was at Brentford. Eight houses were destroyed and 50 damaged by blast. Two people were killed and ten seriously injured, and gas and water mains were affected. The highest number of incidents in any one 24-hour period was 17 and the total casualties were, killed 2,754 and serious injured 6,523. Totals of fifty or sixty rockers a week were common throughout January, February, March, many of them on London and Essex with some in Kent and Hertfordshire.

(9) Studs Terkel interviewed Jean Wood about her experiences in London during the Second World War for his book, The Good War (1985)

I saw schoolchildren killed one Saturday morning. No warning. That's when the V-2s came. They were like big telegraph poles that shot through the air. No pilot, no nothing. They went into a building and laid low a whole street. On this morning, kids were shopping at Woolworth's. You couldn't buy much. You couldn't buy candy without your coupons. My mother's house was two blocks over and we heard this terrible crash. We all ran out to see. It was this Woolworth's and all these kiddies' bodies were brought out. They said they buried them. They don't know what arms and legs belong to people's arms and legs. They had cardboard coffins. We made so many, but we never made enough.

When the war ended, we thought it was going to be a better world. I remember feeling so elated, I really do. I don't think I've ever had such good feelings since. I could see everybody being kind to each other because we'd been through such dreadful things.

The housing was terrible. When the men came back from service and found their wives sleeping in these subway shelters and weeks went on, they took over the Savoy Hotel and became squatters. It was the best hotel in London at the time. The working people rallied around them. They went to these big hotels and the servicemen would let down buckets on ropes and we all put what bits of food we had in them. They occupied those hotels for ages. The authorities were petrified. They thought it was going to be Bolshevism or something. The squatting went on spasmodically for about six months. Then they put up prefabricated houses. They built them in one day. Every available construction worker was busy putting up these houses.