Germany did not manage to produce the Second World War’s most startling new weapon – the nuclear bomb. In the aftermath of defeat some German writers and scientists sought to ascribe this failure to the reluctance of German science to place so terrifying a weapon in the hands of so terrifying a man as Hitler, but the truth seems to be that the Germans failed to produce nuclear weapons because they took a wrong turning. They did, however, produce at the end of the war special weapons which, had they been brought into service earlier, might have had a considerable effect. These were the V weapons, V standing for Vergeltung or retribution. With them Hitler hoped to flatten London and force Britain to capitulate by the end of 1943, while Churchill was so alarmed that he considered using gas in retaliation.
There were three V weapons. The V 1 was a jet-propelled pilotless aircraft twenty-five feet long with a ceiling of 2,000– 3,000 feet, a range of 200–250 miles, a speed of 470 m.p.h. and a one-ton warhead. It cost only £125 and consumed in flight only 150 gallons of low-grade fuel. Beginning in June 1944 2,448 of these weapons hit Antwerp, 2,419 London (out of 10,492 aimed at it) and 3,132 hit other parts of England. The V 2 was a rocket. It was fifty feet long and six feet in circumference and carried a one-ton warhead. It rose into the air for fifty to seventy-five miles and could reach a speed of 3,600 m.p.h. Its range was 220 miles. Its motor, controlled from the ground, was cut at the crucial moment, thus setting it on course. It was impossible to intercept and arrived without warning since it travelled faster than sound. The V 2 was therefore a more terrifying weapon than the V 1, but each V 2 cost about £6,000, exclusive of research and development costs. Again Antwerp was the chief sufferer, receiving 1,265 hits. London received 517 and other parts of England 537.
The V 3 was a long-range gun. One weapon of this kind – originally there were to be two – was installed at Mimoyecques, near Calais. It had twenty-five barrels, each of them 416 feet long, entirely embedded in limestone and concrete, and the whole weapon was serviced and controlled by an extremely elaborate underground network. Its construction absorbed 1,000 tons of steel. It was to fire one shell on London every twelve seconds, but although the site was well prepared the components did not start arriving until early in June 1944. Allied bombing first severed its electricity supply and then scored a direct hit with a heavy bomb. In any case trials in the Baltic had not been completed when the site at Mimoyecques was overrun by the allied armies.
Development and production of the V 1 and V 2 were held up by rivalries between the army, which was in charge of the V 2, and the Luftwaffe, which was responsible for the V 1. These jealousies were accentuated when the SS tried to get control of the whole programme and at one point in March 1944 arrested the brilliant young researcher Werner von Braun and other key scientists. Allied Intelligence had wind of these inventions from November 1939 when the Oslo ‘Report’, a comprehensive report on German war science, was received in London from an agent or well-wisher (who is still anonymous). A year later Peenemünde was identified as the experimental area for these weapons by an agent who appears to have been in or near German military intelligence under Admiral Canaris. No further clues became available for over two years but early in 1943 prisoners of war (including two generals) were overheard talking about Peenemünde and photographic reconnaissance began to disclose some of the test station’s activities. In August of the same year Peenemünde was bombed for the first time and Ultra began to provide information about the nature and capabilities of the V 1 and V 2. Ultra put an end to a debate about whether Hitler was counting on a pilotless aircraft or a rocket by showing that he meant to have both but conflict and confusion persisted on the allied side, particularly over the size of the warheads which the new weapons might carry. These doubts arose chiefly from ignorance about the fuel used, there being a correlation between bulk of fuel, range and size of warhead. In London these differences caused some of the bitterest quarrelling of the war because Lord Cherwell – who was not only an exceptionally stubborn and often ill-mannered man who allowed scientific disagreement to invade personal relations, but who also resented the fact that the coordination of intelligence about Hitler’s secret weapons had been assigned to a committee under Duncan Sandys, Churchill’s son-in-law, whom he did not like – pooh-poohed the existence of any threat from rockets or pilotless aircraft.
The first V 2 was launched at the experimental station on Peenemünde in the Baltic in October 1942 after three earlier failures, and a first V 1 a few weeks later. Attempts were made to cripple the programme by bombing Peenemünde and other places where parts of the apparatus were being manufactured but most of these targets were at long range. On the night of 17–18 August 1943 600 bombers of Bomber Command attacked Peenemünde in three waves in the hope of interrupting research and killing key scientists. As a result of a successful feint towards Berlin the first and second waves suffered only slight losses in spite of a full moon, but fighter attacks on the third wave brought the total loss to forty-one aircraft. At Peenemünde 732 people, mostly non-Germans, were killed, some projects were abandoned or moved elsewhere, but work on the V 1 and V 2 was only interrupted for a short time. The attack on Peenemünde itself and related industrial targets was supplemented from December 1943 by attacks on sites along the north coast of France which had been identified by photographic and other intelligence as launching sites for the V 1. There were about a hundred of these sites known, from their appearance, as ski sites. These attacks were moderately successful but they were countered by swift repair and then by a German ruse. The Germans pretended to be repairing the sites when they were in fact abandoning them, using them as dummies and constructing new sites by a new method which enabled them to build a site in a matter of days. This deception was not discovered until May 1944 and during the first half of the year the allies wasted more bombs on these abandoned sites than the Germans had aimed at London during the eight months of the 1940–41 blitz.
The German failure to bring the V 1 and V 2 into operation before the summer and autumn of 1944 respectively, by which time allied armies were approaching, was largely due to teething troubles. British estimates of the production and effects of these new weapons were unduly pessimistic. Plans were made to evacuate the population and the government from London on the assumption that V 1s would arrive at the rate of 45,000 a month, and that the V 2s, arriving at the rate of one an hour and carrying a ten-ton warhead, would cause 108,000 casualties a month. At the beginning of the war the German production targets for the V 1 and the V 2 were 3,000 and 900 a month. In 1944 the former target was raised to 8,000. This figure was never reached but the earlier one was passed in 1945. Altogether 32,000 V 1s were produced. Production of the V 2 rose from fifty in January 1944 to 253 in April when it fell back because priority was given to the V 1. It picked up again later in the year, was steady at around 630–60 in the last four months and reached 690 in January 1945. Nearly 6,000 were produced in all. These figures were creditable to the Germans and would, timing apart, have been alarming for the British.
Hitler’s plan of attack on England was to fire a salvo of V 1s at dawn and dusk every day with intermediate single launchings every twenty to thirty minutes, but when the attack began on 12 June from fifty-five sites it was a rushed fiasco. On the first day ten V 1s were launched, of which four arrived. Appreciable damage was caused to rail traffic, factories, hospitals and housing, mostly south of the Thames. There was then a pause of three days but in the ensuing two weeks 2,000 were launched. At first spotter aircraft gave warnings but the number of V 1s destroyed was small. Anti-aircraft guns in the London area had to cease firing after the first two days because they were bringing the V 1s down in the city. Batteries were re-deployed along the south coast and, with the help of radar and proximity fuses, gradually succeeded in hitting half and then three quarters of their incoming targets. Some V 1s were destroyed by aircraft. The attack on London was suspended in September (Antwerp and Brussels came under fire a few weeks later) but it was followed by the V 2 attack.
There was still much doubt about the potency of this weapon. In June parts of a V 2 fired from Peenemünde had come down in Sweden and valuable information about it had come into allied possession. Another came down in Poland without exploding; it was hidden, dismantled and secretly conveyed to England. But there were still controversies about the size of the warhead; estimates varied between ten tons and one ton (the latter being correct). On 6 September two V 2s were aimed at Paris but the firings were a failure. On that day Duncan Sandys announced in London that ‘except possibly for a few last shots, the Battle of London is over’. Two days later the first V 2s struck London. They were fired from Holland. The worst aspect of the attack was the number of men, women and children who were blinded by flying glass before they knew that anything had struck. In spite of doctors working round the clock on delicate eye operations many lost their sight for life. There was also severe material damage, but the firing sites were already threatened and had to be removed as the British armies approached them. The weight of the attack was diverted to Antwerp which was more seriously damaged than London and did not get relief until March 1945.
There has been a tendency to laugh at Hitler’s V weapons. This is partly because it seemed in 1944 the best thing to do. But the weapons were not negligible and would have been extremely dangerous if they had been available earlier. In the first two weeks the V 1s killed 1,600 people, seriously injured another 4,500 and damaged 200,000 houses; the casualty rate in England in June 1944 was as heavy as it had been in September 1940, although the weight of attack measured in tons of explosives was much lighter. Over the whole period of the V 1 and V 2 attacks 29,400 houses were completely destroyed in London and over a quarter of a million damaged. It may be argued that Hitler could have used to better purpose the 200,000 persons engaged in the development and production of the V 2 – he might, for example, have got more from their brains and their labour if they had worked on defensive projects – but against this must be set not only the chance that the V weapons might have been ready sooner, but also the hard facts that the British had to increase their fighter, anti-aircraft and balloon defences, suffer appreciable material damage and divert a significant air effort to Peenemünde and the launching sites. The V weapons failed but their failure does not prove that they were ridiculous. They were the forerunners of much that has been developed since the war. They may not have been the weapons that Hitler hoped for to settle the result of the war, but if their appearance had not been delayed by allied bombing by a few months, they could hardly have failed to affect its course.