The first effective drone.
Gerhard Fieseler remains one of the most unappreciated airmen of the 20th century. At age 22, Fieseler came to prominence as Germany’s leading World War I ace on the Eastern Front, scoring 19 victories. A world-class aerobatic pilot, by 1930 he earned enough to buy out a sailplane company that became Fieseler Flugzeugebau. Flying his own design, he won the world championship in 1934 and expanded his business, producing the classic Storch in 1936.
During the next war, Fieseler sub-contracted Bf 109s and FW 190s, but made a technological leap with the Fi 103—the world’s first practical cruise missile.
Due to the project’s extreme secrecy, the V-1 was called Kirschkern (Cherry Stone) and the Fieseler FZG-76, “antiaircraft sight.” More popularly it was dubbed Maikäfer, or Maybug, becoming “Doodlebug” to the Allies.
The V-1 began in 1936 as a concept from the Argus Motor Company, producers of the Storch’s engine. Three years later, shortly after WW II began, Argus teamed with Arado and another firm to propose a pilotless, remotely-guided aircraft. The Luftwaffe had little interest at first, but in June 1941 Fieseler was selected as manufacturer of Adolf Hitler’s first Vergeltungswaffe, or vengeance weapon—the V-1. By then Argus was well along developing a pulse-jet engine producing about 650 pounds of thrust.
Following development at Pennemunde on the Baltic, the V-1 was first flown in December 1942. Construction was sheetmetal fuselage and plywood wings.
The V-1 was an “area weapon,” incapable of bombsight accuracy but adequate to hit somewhere in London, one of the world’s largest cities. Direction was determined by a gyro-stabilized autopilot while a propeller in the nose was set to shut off the engine after a specific number of revolutions. When the pulse jet stopped, the V-1 nosed into a terminal dive and exploded on impact. The Kirschkern’s powerful warhead was 1,870 pounds of Amatol, a binary explosive of TNT and ammonium nitrate.
Launch sites in northern France opened the V-1 campaign on June 10, just after D-Day. Only four of the first 10 landed in Britain.
The missile came off the launcher at about 350 mph, sometimes achieving 400 at the typical cruise altitude of 3,000 feet. With a range of some 150 miles, Doodlebugs in Northern France and Holland were well within reach of metropolitan London.
London was ringed with anti-aircraft guns in multiple belts from the coast inland, plus barrage balloons. Gunners learned to lead the “doodlebugs” at various deflection angles, but the most effective defense was standing fighter patrols. The best V-1 killer was Hawker’s superb Typhoon, with four 20mm cannon and 430-mph speed. Seven of the top 10 V-1 aces flew Tempests, led by Wing Commander Ronald Berry with 60. Mosquitos, Spitfires, and Mustangs trailed in that order.
Amid the grim reality was occasional mirth. A 16-year-old aviation enthusiast quickly learned to duplicate the staccato sound of the V-1’s engine, considering it grand sport to see how quickly the adults could duck under tables and chairs. Twenty years later he was an RAF wing commander who could still produce that sound at pub parties.
When Glenn Miller’s Army Air Forces Band arrived in London in June 1944 the group was quartered in west London, amid “Buzz Bomb Alley.” Shortly thereafter Miller moved the band, and a day later a V-1 destroyed the previous building, killing scores of people.
Meanwhile, a political battle centered on the V-1 was waged across the Atlantic. On the “Potomac Front” the U.S. Army clashed with the Marine Corps in mid-1944 when Corsair squadrons prepared to deploy with large Tiny Tim rockets considered accurate enough to destroy pinpoint targets like V-1 launchers. During a briefing by Cdr. Thomas Moorer—a future Joint Chiefs chairman—Gen. George C. Marshall stood up: “That’s the end of this briefing. There’ll never be a Marine in Europe as long as I’m Army Chief of Staff.”
Of some 8,000 V-1s launched, perhaps 2,500 survived the defenses or avoided mechanical error. They inflicted nearly 23,000 casualties and destroyed or damaged 1.1 million buildings, or fewer than three casualties per launch.
The V-1 campaign largely ended in September 1944 when Allied armies over-ran French launch sites. Nocturnal launches from German bombers continued sporadically thereafter, lasting almost until war’s end.
A piloted V-1 gained support owing to an odd cast of players including SS chief Heinrich Himmler, ever adding fiefdoms in the Nazi hierarchy. His top commando, Colonel Otto Skorzeny, knew test pilot Hanna Reitsch, who endorsed the concept. Design and testing began in the summer of 1944, producing the Fi 103R for Reichenberg. Though the pilot could jettison the canopy, the mission profile was essentially a Teutonic kamikaze.
Transition from cruise missile to piloted suicide aircraft proved nearly impossible. Testing resulted in two crashes—one fatal—before Reitsch completed a successful flight. In late 1944 V Gruppe of KG 200, the Luftwaffe’s special-operations wing, was designated the Reichenberg’s operational unit. But production and technical problems dragged on until March when the project was canceled after some 175 Reichenbergs were built.
Far downstream in the entertainment world, the V-1 was subject of a fanciful 1965 movie, Operation Crossbow. The cast had a high “babe factor” with Sophia Loren and Barbara Rutting as Hanna Reitsch.
Reverse-engineered V-1s were tested in America before war’s end, a collaboration between Republic and Ford becoming the JB-2 Loon. Navy missiles were launched from surfaced submarines in 1947, showing the way toward 21st century weapons.
Some three dozen V-1s are displayed worldwide, including at least 15 in the U.S. Additionally, four Reichenbergs are known surviving.
By Barrett Tillman