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V-1: Hitler Built the First Cruise Missile (It Was a Terror Weapon)

V-1 Missile (A19600341000) at the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum. Photo taken by Mark Avino. Photo taken on December 22, 2017. (V-1_0006) (NASM2018-10160).
V-1 Missile (A19600341000) at the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum. Photo taken by Mark Avino. Photo taken on December 22, 2017. (V-1_0006) (NASM2018-10160).

If you were to ask the average armchair military historian 1) “What was the first cruise missile to be combat-tested” and 2) “What was its country of origin?” they naturally might be inclined to answer “the Tomahawk cruise missile, from the good ol’ US of A.” Which would certainly be understandable, given the impact – both literally and figuratively – the Tomahawk made during the 1991 Persian Gulf War AKA Operation Desert Storm.  

But that answer would be incorrect. It turns out that the country of origin for the first cruise missile to see combat was Nazi Germany, which in retrospect is not terribly surprising, seeing how that regime – despicable though it certainly was – was an incredibly innovative one, giving us among other things the world’s first operational jet fighter and world’s first operational rocket-powered fighter plane

That first cruise missile in question was the V-1 “Buzz Bomb.”

V-1 Early History and Specifications

The V-1 was first developed in 1939, It not only turned out to be the world’s first cruise missile used in combat, it was also the first mass-produced cruise missile, with approximately 30,000 of them being built. They were manufactured by the Gerhard Fieseler Werke aircraft company in Kassel, Germany (a city whose other big historical claim to fame is that of being home to the Brothers Grimm). The Reich Aviation Ministry officially designated it the Fi 103; Deutsch nicknames for it were the Kirschkern (“cherry stone”) or Maikäfer (“maybug”), whilst the Allies dubbed it the “Buzz Bomb” and “Doodlebug.” 

But beneath those cutesy-pooh nicknames lay a very deadly purpose: the terror bombing of London, not unlike the way Saddam Hussein would employ Scud missiles against Saudi Arabia and Israel nearly five decades later during the aforementioned Gulf War. The “V” in “V-1” stood for “Vergeltungswaffe (vengeance weapon).” 

The missile used a revolutionary engine, the Argus As 014 pulsejet, which was invented in 1928 by Paul Schmidt. The motor, which ran on ordinary gasoline, fired 50 times a second, giving the V-1 its distinct and terrifying sound which in turn inspired the “Buzz Bomb” moniker. However, that engine didn’t pack enough oomph to get the weapon skyward, thus necessitating either a launch ramp using a special catapult or mid-air release from bombers. 

The guidance system consisted of 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 the missile, operators simply pointed the weapon in the general direction of the target and set the engine to cut out at the desired distance, relying on gravity the rest of the way. 

The V-1 bore a 1-ton warhead with a range of 160 miles and a cruising speed of 400 miles per hour, thus enabling it to travel from Calais, France to London in 15 minutes. Other specifications included a length of 27 feet 3 inches, a wingspan of 17 feet 6 inches, a height of 4 feet 8 inches, and an overall weight of 4,796 pounds.

Combat Usage: Plenty of Terror, but Little Long-Term Effectiveness

The very first V-1 attack took place on 13 June 1944, exactly one week after D-Day, landing in the Hackney Borough of eastern London and killing six residents. It would be the first of a total of 10,000 “Buzz Bombs” launched at London. Much like the Scuds of Desert Storm, the V-1 essentially functioned as a terror weapon that wasn’t able to turn the tide of the war in the user’s favor, but of course, that’s of slim comfort to the surviving loved ones of the V-1 attacks. As noted in a Smithsonian article written in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the V-1 campaign: 

“When Western forces broke through the Rhine barrier in late March 1945, the V-weapons offensive ended. Was the V-1 a ‘wonder weapon?’ Not at all. It caused perhaps 10,000 deaths in Belgium and Britain, no small number, but the British and American air forces had learned how to burn down whole cities, causing tens of thousands of dead in a night or two. An old cliché about the new Nazi weapons was that they came ‘too late’ to change the course of the war. In fact they came too early to be in any way decisive. They were too inaccurate–barely able to hit a huge urban area part of the time—and they lacked the blockbuster warhead needed: a nuclear weapon.” 

Out of those aforementioned 10,000 missiles launched at London, only about one-fifth of them actually reached the British capital. Approximately 2,000 malfunctioned and crashed shortly after takeoff. Roughly another 1,000 were shot down by RAF fighters, which makes for a convenient segue to two bits of aviation combat gee-whiz trivia: (1) as I write these words, it is 14 June 2023, one day shy of the 79th anniversary of the first successful shootdown of a “Buzz Bomb,” which was pulled off by a De Havilland Mosquito; (2) V-1s turned out to be the only air-to-air kills – 13 such kills in total – obtained by the Gloster Meteor, which was also the only Allied jet fighter to go operational in WWII. 

The last V-1 attack took place on 29 March 1945, striking Datchworth in Hertfordshire.

Where Are They Now?

Surviving V-1s are on display at museums in a dozen different countries, including Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. 

Amongst the Stateside museums hosting the “Buzz Bomb” are the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall in Washington, DC, the Air Zoo in Portage, Michigan, and the Fantasy of Flight museum in Polk, Florida. Meanwhile, the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson AFB near Dayton, Ohio hosts a specimen of the U.S.-made copy of the V-1, the Republic/Ford JB-2 “Loon.”

Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force Security Forces officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS). In his spare time, he enjoys shooting, dining out, cigars, Irish and British pubs, travel, USC Trojans college football, and Washington DC professional sports. 

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Written By

Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon).