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The air-launched missile campaign

Although there had been plans to begin launching FZ076 missiles from the He-111 bombers of III/KG3 at the start of the Operation Eisbär in June, delays in equipping and training the squadron delayed its start. On July 9th, the squadron began attacks on London from Dutch airbuses. By July 21st, a total of 51 FZG-76 missiles had been launched. On the evening of September 2nd, 23 were launched against Paris with little effect. By September 5th, 1944, when the first wave of attacks ended, III/KG.3 had launched 300 missiles against London, 90 against Southampton and 20 against Gloucester at a cost of two He-111 bombers.

A V-1 on its way to London photographed during the summer 1944 attacks. (NARA)

The air-launched missiles were particularly inaccurate; none hit Gloucester and British authorities thought the shots against Southampton had been aimed at Portsmouth. About half the air-launched missiles fell within a circle 50 miles around the target, which was about three times worse than the ground-launched versions. The rapid Allied advance into Belgium and intense Allied air activity over the Netherlands forced the squadron to withdraw into Germany. Reorganization and expansion followed, with III/KG3 becoming I/KG53 and two more squadrons were allotted to the mission in October. When ready, the three wings deployed again to Dutch airbases.

At first, the British air defenses did not realize that aerial missile launches were being conducted but radar began tracking the missiles coming in from the North Sea, and starting on September 16th the gun belt was extended towards Great Yarmouth to deal with the threat. The air campaign proved costly and difficult for the Luftwaffe. For example, on a typical night assault on the evening of September 16th, of 15 bombers setting off, only nine released their missiles successfully; three of these were shot down by ships, two more by antiaircraft and only two reached the London area. Launch failures averaged a quarter to a half of all missiles dropped.

A V-1 falls towards Piccadilly on June 22nd, 1944, during the opening phase of the missile attacks on London. (NARA)

When the land-launched V-1 campaign ended on September 1st, 1944, the air-launched missiles became more conspicuous and the RAF began a more vigorous effort to stamp out the threat. On September 24th, No. 25 Squadron began deploying Mosquito night fighters over the North Sea to look for the intruders. The Heinkels were caught unawares and on the night of September 25th, four bombers with their missiles were shot down, and two more were lost on September 29th. The weight and drag of the missile reduced the cruise speed of the He-111H-22 to 270km/hr (170mph) and, even though the bombers were fitted with Liechtenstein radar-warning receivers, if a Mosquito spotted one, the Heinkel stood very little chance of survival. Three more bombers were caught by Mosquitoes in October.

The V-1 was designed with very sensitive fuzes to detonate on contact. This shows the devastating results of an impact at St. John's Hill, Battersea on June 17th, 1944, during the first week of the attacks. (MHI)

The campaign continued through the fall, with the force slowly growing. On October 20th, KG53 had an operational strength of 77 bombers and a further 24 under repair. In November 1944, improved navigational aids were introduced including the Schwan ("Swan") FM transmitter and three Zyklof) ("Cyclops") beacons on the Dutch coast. By early November, a total of 1,287 Fi-103 missiles had been launched during the air attacks. In December, fuel shortages reduced the sortie rate to only 20 per day and operations had to be halted for two weeks after a dozen bombers were lost in two operations when missiles detonated prematurely. On Christmas Eve, KG53 staged Operation Martha, its first and only large scale attack against Manchester by 50 bombers. Only 30 Fi-103 missiles reached the English coast; half of these got to within 15 miles of the center of the city but only one actually landed within the city. By this time, KG53 had reached its peak operational strength of 117 bombers plus 85 more under repair. The last aerial launch was conducted on the night of January 14th, 1945, and nine days later the flights came to a halt due to the lack of fuel. By the end of the campaign, 1,776 missiles had been launched of which Allied radars identified 1,012. Of these, 404 were shot down including 320 by anti-aircraft, 11 by the Royal Navy, and 73 by the RAF. Only 388 impacted in England of which only 66 reached London. A total of 77 He-111 bombers was lost during the attacks, at least 16 to Mosquitoes, and the rest to weather and accidents. In other words, less than four percent of the missiles reached their target and more than one bomber was lost for every missile reaching London, a woefully ineffective record.

A fairly intact specimen of a V-1 found near a Ninth Air Force airfield in northern France. Judging from the warhead, it is an FI-103A-1, the standard type used in the campaign against London. It has had its two fuzes removed. (NARA)


Although FR155W had made repeated requests for changes and improvements to the Fi-103, the manufacturing plants were very reluctant to make any substantial alterations that might lower production. As a result, all of the missiles used in the summer 1944 campaign against London were the basic Fi-103A-1 version. Once production was well underway by the summer of 1944, a series of improvements and changes began. In June, a portion of the Fi-103s arrived with a hardened-steel cable-cutting blade along the front of the wing and the first 50 of these were launched on June 28th-29th. Provision was added for dispensing propaganda leaflets: a cardboard container about 1.5m (5ft) long could be carried in the tail and then released using a pyrotechnic device. FR155W also conducted its own experiments, dropping incendiary bombs and small anti-personnel bomblets from the missile.

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