Friday, 11 July 2014

D is for Doodlebugs and Divers

The devastation caused by a V-1. This is Shirley Way, Croydon (author's collection)

Seventy years ago exactly, London and the southeast of England was in the midst of another German air offensive. Unlike the First Blitz of 1940/41 and the subsequent, smaller incursions of the Baedecker Raids and the Little Blitz that had petered out earlier in 1944, these attacks were all the more sinister because they were the aircraft involved, and aircraft they surely were, carried no pilot nor any other aircrew, hence the early use of the 'robot' name.
Perhaps the Vergeltungswaffe Eins, or V-1s, as they were more correctly known, acquired more nicknames than any other German weapon during the Second World War. At first, the Civil Defence services rather coyly referred to them as 'Pilotless Aircraft' or 'PACs', later re-naming them 'Fly Bombs' or 'FLY' as abbreviated in the Incident Logs themselves. The RAF pilots sent up to intercept them in their Spitfires, Tempests, Mustangs or more rarely, the new Gloster Meteor jet fighters, referred to them as 'Divers' and indeed, their patrols soon became officially known as Anti Diver Patrols. To the long suffering British public as well as the many overseas servicemen and women in the south of England, they became known as 'Buzz Bombs', 'Doodlebugs' or 'Doodles', although some ruder citizens were known to refer to them as 'Farting Furies' due to the distinctive rasping sound made by their pulse-jet engines.

We have examined the V-1s in some detail in an earlier edition of this blog, so rather than repeat things too much, perhaps now is a good time to examine to raw statistics behind the first of Hitler's vengeance weapons.

St Mark's Church, Greenwich South Street (Greenwich Heritage Centre)

The V-1, although a sophisticated piece of technology by 1944 standards, was a remarkably cheap weapon to construct. The contract with Volkswagen, the main suppliers of the Flying Bomb, allowed an average cost of £125 per bomb and indeed the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough estimated after the war, that a British factory, awarded a large scale contract, could have built a similar weapon at a cost of £115 each. When this is compared to the usual quoted price for a Lancaster bomber of around £15,000 plus the cost of training and paying it's crew and supporting ground crew, this appears to be a real bargain basement weapon.

It was estimated that some 9,250 V-1s were launched at targets in Britain, mainly from their fixed, ramp sites in the Pas de Calais area, although some were air launched from converted Heinkel III bombers. These fixed launching sites ensured that most V-1s, far from 'doodling', tended to remain on a fixed course, the only imponderable being how far along this course would the engine cut out. British civilians who lived beneath these fixed routes, especially nearer the coast, tended to be wary, though quite sanguine about the constant stream of Doodlebugs roaring overhead. Those nearer to the intended target of London, became heartily sick of them and very soon certain areas of London, mainly the south and southeastern suburbs, began to resemble a battlefield, with damage far more concentrated than that caused by the earlier Blitz of 1940/41.

Unlike the V-2 rockets which were to follow, effective countermeasures could be taken against the V-1. The British Government set into motion Operation Diver, which entailed moving around 2,500 anti-aircraft guns from their London sites to a coastal ribbon along the Kent and Sussex coasts where the guns could fire at the incoming V-1s without fear of shooting them down over a built up area. The guns ranged from the 'heavy' batteries using the excellent 3.7 inch gun, to the 'light' units equipped with the 40mm Bofors. All were equipped with proximity fuses and assisted by gun laying radars. At first the results were modest, with only 17% of bombs destroyed in the first week of operation. This quickly rose to around 60% by August 1944 and on one day towards the end of the month, an incredible 82% of all V-1s intercepted were shot down by the anti-aircraft guns. Overall, the guns were thought to be responsible for shooting down 1,460 Doodlebugs.

RAF Spitfire toppling a V-1 over Kent (IWM)

Inland of the guns was next deployed a 'layer' of barrage balloons, designed to entangle the onrushing 'Divers' in their steel tethering cables. The balloons were rather less successful than the anti-aircraft guns in bringing down the V-1s, but were still credited with downing around 231.

Further inland still, any surviving divers that made it through, were then fair game for the RAF fighters. Many will have seen the iconic image of a Spitfire seemingly toppling a V-1 by flying alongside it and tipping it's wingtips overs but many were actually shot down rather than toppled. This was no mean feat; flying behind a fast flying one tonne warhead required a special kind of courage. The main RAF aircraft employed on these Anti_Diver duties was the Tempest, which was also the most successful, being credited with 638 'victories' over the V-1s. The next most successful was the Mosquito with 428, then the Griffon engined Spitfire Mk XIV with 303, the Mustang with 232 and all other piston engined types combined 158. An oft-quoted myth is that the new Gloster Meteor jet was responsible for turning the tide against the Robots. This was not so; the Meteors were new into service and like all new aircraft prone to teething troubles, not the least of which was a tendency for their cannon armament to jam at the most important time. Because of this, the Meteors were responsible for the downing of only 13 V-1s, but it was an important chapter in the dawning of the jet age. In total, the fighters were responsible for bringing down 1,772 V-1s.

Perhaps less known than these obvious countermeasures was the part played by deception of British agents. The now celebrated 'Agent Garbo', real name Juan Pujol was thought by the Germans to be working for them and was requested by his German controllers to provide accurate data on the impacts of the V-1s on London. Unknown to the Germans, Pujol was a dedicated anti-Nazi, a loathing formed during the Spanish Civil War and had deliberately set himself up as a double agent to feed the Germans false intelligence with the express aim of harming their war effort. Pujol therefore fed back information which downplayed the impacts to the south of the capital whilst concentration on those impacts to the north and west of London, therefore giving the impression that the V-1s were consistently overshooting their targets. The Germans were unable by this time to perform aerial reconnaissance over London to check the results and so largely believed Pujol's reports and adjusted the ranges of the V-1s accordingly.

Croydon was London's most 'Fly Bombed' borough. This is Zion Road, Thornton Heath (author's collection)

One unwitting downside of this was that the south and south east London boroughs became even more heavily bombed than before and a 'league table' of the most heavily bombed London boroughs reads as follows:

Croydon - 141
Wandsworth - 122
Lewisham - 114
Camberwell - 80
Woolwich - 77
Greenwich - 73
Lambeth - 71
Beckenham - 70
Orpington - 63
West Ham - 58

As can be seen from the above, the only borough in the 'Top Ten' was West Ham, with 58 impacts. The remainder of the league table also showed a distinct bias of impacts to the south of the Thames. Outside London, the story was a similar one. The county of Kent bore the brunt with 1,444 impacts, with Sussex next on 888, with Essex coming in third on 412. There were impacts elsewhere in the country, although these northern V-1s were of the air launched variety rather than those coming from France.

Lest we forget (author's photo)

The monetary cost to the Allies was staggering and it can be argued that this aspect was the most successful for the Germans. It was estimated by the British Government that the cost to the British taxpayer (and to a lesser extent, the American) was in the region of £48 million (at 1944 prices), this was in aircraft and airmen lost, bombs dropped on the V-1 production sites and launching ramps, shells fired and balloons lost, the clearance of damage and lost production. Add to this the estimated (by the Ministry of Health) cost of £25 million  for replacing or repairing lost or damaged housing, then the sum is indeed incredible. Compared to this, the German cost was estimated by the Air Ministry to be in the region of £12.6 million for constructing the launch sites, training the launching crews and the capital outlay for building the missiles.

However, compared with the human cost, the financial outlay is unimportant; it was estimated that some 6,184 civilians and 2,917 Allied servicemen and women were killed in the V-1 campaign, with a further 20,000 seriously injured. This then, was the true cost of the 'Robot war' which was to largely fizzle out when the launch sites were overrun by the Allied armies by early September 1944.

Air launched V-1s continued to be launched right through until late March 1945, although these were mainly only of 'nuisance value' compared to the onslaught of V-2 rockets which was to commence in September 1944 and against which there were no effective countermeasures.

Published Sources:

The Doodlebugs - Norman Longmate, Hutchinson 1981
Most Secret War - RV Jones, Hamish Hamilton 1978