Stopping the Nazi V-1 Buzz Bomb

By Tom Laemlein
Posted in #History
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Stopping the Nazi V-1 Buzz Bomb

September 26th, 2023

8 minute read

The current war in Ukraine has seen Russian forces use a combination of cruise missiles and Iranian-made Shahed drones to strike civilian targets in Ukrainian cities. At this point, the Russians have launched more than 1,000 missiles, with some waves targeting Ukraine’s power grid, along with many indiscriminate attacks against homes, hospitals, schools and shopping centers. According to U.S. sources, approximately 3,000 civilians have been killed, and more than 6,000 injured, in the Russian missile and drone attacks.

v-1 buzz bomb brought down in france 1944
This V-1 “buzz bomb” was brought down intact in France during the autumn of 1944. Image: NARA

Ukrainian air defenses have been active, and often effective throughout the war. Anti-missile systems have downed many Russian cruise missiles, and multiple layers of AA defense have destroyed a high percentage of Shahed drones before they could reach their targets. In May 2023, Ukraine claims to have shot down a “hypersonic” Kinzhal missile using a U.S.-supplied Patriot AA system. Even so, Russian missile and drone attacks continue.

The First Cruise Missile

These attacks pushed me to investigate the first use of cruise missiles, and the initial defenses used against them. On June 12, 1944, the first V-1 flying bombs were launched from bases near Pas-de-Calais in France, targeting London. On the night of June 15th, a massive wave of V-1s was launched and 73 hit London, while 53 came down in Southampton and Portsmouth. Each flying bomb delivered a 1,870-lb. high explosive payload. Hitler’s “Vengeance Weapons” made their deadly debut, and England scrambled to find a defense against the robot bomb onslaught.

v1 buzz bomb in france
Officially known as the Fi 103, the V-1 “flying bomb” caused a lot of problems for Allied countries in World War II. Image: NARA

The V-1 flying bomb (officially designated “Fi 103”) was a relatively simple device that leveraged some cruelly innovative thinking. As conventional German bombers were no longer capable of penetrating British air defenses by day, and Luftwaffe night raiders were only marginally more effective, the V-1 provided a relatively inexpensive way to strike targets in England. No pilots were needed for the weapon itself, and as of June 1944, the speed of the V-1 made it particularly difficult for the RAF to intercept.

robot plane v-1 over london
A V-1 caught on film during an attack in London, England. The attacks were often directed at civilian populations. Image: NARA

The downside of the V-1 was that it was inaccurate, and incapable of truly damaging the British ability to make war. It was named a “Vengeance” weapon for a reason — and that is exactly what it was. The unmanned, unthinking, and unfeeling nature of the flying bomb was at once its greatest strength, and ultimately its greatest weakness. The initial shock related to the V-1 was quickly replaced by a grim determination to stop it.

buzz bomb
Germany’s Fieseler Fi 103, better known as the V-1, was the world’s first cruise missile and Hitler’s “Vengeance Weapon.” Image: NARA

The V-1 fuselage was made of welded sheet steel while the wings were made of plywood. It was guided by a rudimentary autopilot that used a gyrocompass (a few used a simple radio transmitter). At its most accurate, the V-1 fell within a 7-mile diameter circle around the target area.

v-1 being deployed for an attack
A V-1 bomb being readied for launch in August 1944. Image: Polish State Archives

Propelled by an Argus pulsejet engine, the buzz bomb moved quickly at an average speed of 350 mph. The flying bomb purposefully flew at a low altitude (between 3,000 to 4,000 feet) — high enough to stay above light automatic AA guns, and low enough to move faster than almost any Allied interceptor below 10,000 feet. The small size of the V-1 made it hard to spot, and most British or American fighters would have to dive steeply in order to catch it.

v1 mounted to heinkel he 111 h-22 bomber
Almost 1200 V-1s were air-launched from Heinkel He 111 H-22 bombers. Accuracy of the air-launched V-1s was significantly worse than those launched from the ground. Image: Author’s collection

British AA gunners soon found that the V-1 was particularly hard to hit — as their traversing speed could not keep up. This was a significant challenge for the standard British QF 3.7-inch AA gun, an otherwise highly successful weapon. For those on the ground, the telltale throb of V-1’s pulsejet was unmistakable, but when the engine went silent the real fear set in — the bomb was falling.

The V-1’s destructive power came from its 1,870-lb. Amatol warhead, which produced a tremendous blast effect. When the flying bomb hit an urban area, the explosion was enough to shatter an entire neighborhood. To make certain of its detonation, the Germans equipped the V-1 with three fuses:

  1. An electrical fuse triggered by nose or fuselage impact
  2. A short time delay to allow deeper ground penetration
  3. A longer time delay designed to go off two hours after launch
spitfire chases v-1 over england
A pilot in a Supermarine Spitfire chases a German V-1 over England. Image: NARA

The V-1 was a ticking time bomb from the moment it was launched. Ultimately, the three-fuse system was very effective and few unexploded V-1s were ever found. Most of the flying bombs’ secrets were uncovered when Allied forces captured their launch facilities and recovered bombs intact.

British Defenses

The QF 3.7-inch AA gun (94mm) was Britain’s primary anti-aircraft gun, similar in many respects to the German 88mm flak and the US 90mm AA gun. Introduced in 1937, the 3.7-inch gun performed admirably throughout the war, particularly in the Battle of Britain. It was a massive artillery piece, weighing nearly 21,000 pounds, and supported by a crew of seven. The QF 3.7-inch gun fired a 28-pound shell and featured a rate of fire of up to 20 rounds per minute. Maximum altitude for AA fire was 45,000 feet.

spitfire pilot tips wing of v-1 bomb mid-flight
Late model Spitfires accounted for 303 V-1s destroyed. Here, a Spitfire tips the wing of a V-1 to throw it off course. Image: Author’s collection

When the first V-1s appeared over England, the 3.7-inch guns struggled to hit the fast-moving, low-flying buzz bombs. However, later in 1944, the U.S.-designed proximity fuse (“VT Fuse”), coupled with a Bell Labs fire-control system (using an analog computer) turned the QF 3.7-inch into a buzz bomb killer. By early 1945, British AA units were knocking down more than 90% of the V-1s they fired upon.

Allied interceptors: When the V-1 onslaught began, the RAF quickly concluded that the aircraft most capable of intercepting the buzz bomb was the Hawker Tempest. Unfortunately, there were only a small number (less than 30) of the speedy Tempests in service. Intercepting the V-1 proved to be a tricky business as the target was small and fast, and if detonated in the air the blast was enough to knock down an interceptor close behind.

Tempests became the most prolific of the V-1 interceptors with 638 kills. The de Havilland Mosquito was next with 623 V-1 kills, followed by the Supermarine Spitfire XIV with 303, and the U.S. North American Mustang with 232. The British pushed their jet-powered Gloster Meteor into service as a V-1 interceptor, but teething problems with the new jet limited it to only 13 buzz bomb kills.

Barrage balloons: The British deployed a defense line of barrage balloons around London, aiming to snag V-1s in the mass of cables dangling beneath. Some V-1s were fitted with cable cutters on the leading edges of their wings, but even so the barrage balloons were able to stop nearly 300 flying bombs.

America’s Battle Against Buzz Bombs

While the British anti-aircraft guns and interceptors defended London against the V-1 blitz, American AA units in Western Europe fought their own battle against the buzz bombs. Stationed around the critical port of Antwerp, Belgium, the US 90mm anti-aircraft guns made their own mark in the war against the robot bombs.

damage from v-1 in london
An explosion from a V-1 could do considerable damage. Shown above is the aftermath of a V-1 attack in London. Image: NARA

The U.S. 90mm M1A1 AA gun: America’s heavy anti-aircraft gun is one of the least celebrated of the great AA weapons of WWII, but the M1A1, first built in 1940, was certainly one of the most effective. The 90mm guns were normally radar-directed, and by 1944 the guns leveraged an advanced SCR-584 microwave radar coupled with a Bell Labs M3 gun data computer and M9 gun director.

In the defense of the Normandy beaches, and then the “gun line” protecting Antwerp, the M1A1 crews (1 gunner and 7 loaders) fired their 23-lb. HE shells at up to 20 rounds per minute — all with amazing accuracy for the era. In the final equation, the human gunners of the Allied AA units proved more than a match for Hitler’s robot flying bombs.

v-1 attack in london
This photo of a V-1 attack was taken in London as the flying bomb was in its terminal descent.

The following entries from the official war report of the US 407th AAA Gun Battalion tell the story of their battle with the buzz bombs.

Late October 1944, near Antwerp:

Since its liberation on 3 September by British forces, the port’s populace had labored day and night to prepare the 40 miles of docks for use by Allied shipping. Men and women strolled carefree along the streets and there was a general belief that the war would be over by Christmas. However, on 13 October the first V-1 struck Antwerp. Without delay, two brigades of American anti-aircraft artillery were rushed to the scene.

The battalion was attached to the 21st Army Group and our primary mission was to man an assigned sector in a gun belt with the purpose of engaging, under certain conditions, robot bombs (V-1, “divers”) fired over the sector.

On 1 November 1944, the battalion was authorized to engage “diver” targets without waiting for the completion of GOR lines from Group Headquarters. Although we did not know it at the time, the defense of Antwerp against V weapons was to be our most important mission of the war.

Little did we realize that the next six months’ activities, completely free of personal contact with enemy forces, would provide most of us with the most nerve-wracking, heart-tingling experiences of our Army lives. For we were to witness the heartless German buzz bomb assault on Belgium’s leading industrial city. Thousands of civilians were to be killed as an average of twenty-six V-1s and ten V-2s hurtled down daily on the crowded streets.

The destruction of V-1s was divided into two distinct categories, “A”, when blown up in the air, and “B”, when crippled and forced to the ground before reaching the city of Antwerp.

For example: From 28-30 November, Battery A claimed 1 Category A and 6 Category B kills. Battery B claimed 3 A and 4 B. Battery C claimed 4 Category A and 3 Category B, while Battery D claimed 1 Category A and 5 Category B.

On 18 January, “A” Battery broke a firing record when its expert gunners registered a kill on a “diver” expending only two rounds of HE ammunition.

From 1 November 1944 to 19 April 1945, the 407th engaged 787 pilotless aircraft, destroying 134 in the air, and brought down 262 others. Along the US AA gun line during that time, 2183 V-1s were blasted from the sky — only 211 got through.


The V-1 represented a desperate bid by the flailing Third Reich. And while it may not have held the potential to turn the war in their favor, it did exact a painful toll upon those in its sights. Thanks to the efforts of the brave Allied defenders, its effect was minimized as much as possible, and the inevitable end of the German threat would soon bring peace to Europe.

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Tom Laemlein

Tom Laemlein

Tom Laemlein is a historian. While that might sound mind-numbingly awful to some, he enjoys it. His deep dives into historical research keep him (mostly) out of trouble and, yet, too often away from the rifle range. Tom is the author of more than 30 books on military history and weapons systems. He regularly contributes articles to national magazines and websites on military history and firearms topics, and historical photos from his collection are used by publishers around the world. In those times that he is cornered in a corporate environment, he will talk about marketing until he is released. Tom is married to a very patient woman, and they live on America’s North Coast, near Lake Ontario. His regular misadventures with Wally, his young Tibetan Mastiff, remind him that life must be enjoyed full-bore, at least until you are ready for a nap.

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