The V-Rockets

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The V-Rockets -- the V-1 and V-2 -- were ground-to-ground rockets that were used by the Germans against the Allies toward the end of World War II. The "V" stands for the German word "Vergeltungswaffe", which means "reprisal weapon". The Germans were able to pursue their rocket programs from an early date due to a loophole in the Treaty of Versailles, which was signed at the end of World War I. Although the treaty imposed restrictions on the production of artillery and other types of weapons by the Germans, there were no restrictions on rocket research and production.

The V-1

The V-1 resembled a small, pilotless aircraft. It was 26 feet (8 meters) long and was powered by a pulse jet engine which used gasoline and compressed air as fuel. It was launched from a long ramp and carried a 1,900 pound warhead at about 350 miles per hour (550 km per hour) at an altitude of about 3000 feet (914 meters). It had a maximum range of about 250 miles (400 km).

The V-1's engine made a loud buzzing sound and so they were commonly called "buzz bombs" by the British. Other nicknames were "doodlebugs", "robot bombs" and "flying bombs". As the V-1 approached its target, the buzzing would suddenly stop, and the bomb would then fall silently to the ground and explode. The V-1s were particularly terrifying because they would arrive at all times of the day and in all types of weather.

The V-1 was not controlled from the ground after launch, but instead was directed to its target by a simple guidance system -- a gyroscope system driven by compressed air to keep the missile stable, a magnetic compass to control bearing, and barometric altimeter to control altitude. When the guidance system determined that the rocket was at the target point, it popped out spoilers under the horizontal tailplane to put the bomb into a steep dive to its target, stalling out the engine in the process.

The first V-1s fell on London on June 13, 1944, and from then until March of 1945, about 6,000 people would be killed by V-1s throughout Europe and about 40,000 would be injured. The most deadly V-1 attack of the war in London occurred on June 18, 1944, when a V-1 hit the Royal Military Chapel, Wellington Barracks, killing 58 civilians and 63 service personnel.

Because of the V-1's relatively slow speed and the low altitude at which it flew, many were shot down by fast fighter planes and anti-aircraft fire from the ground, or were brought down by barrage balloons. It was estimated that, of the approximately 8,500 V-1s launched against London and Antwerp, Belgium, only slightly over half actually reached their intended targets. Most of the launch sites were eventually destroyed by Allied bombers. The Germans launched about 1200 V-1s from Heinkel He-111 bombers, and they also experimented with a manned version to be used on suicide missions, but these were never deployed. A total of 32,000 V-1s were made, most by concentration camp prisoners under very poor conditions.

In August, 1944, the USA, after studying some captured V-1 components, began building its own version of the V-1, which was called the JB-2 (Jet Bomb-2). The JB-2 was almost identical to the V-1, but with an improved guidance system. The USAAF initially placed an order for 1,000 JB-2s, with the components being manufactured by Republic Aviation Corporation, Ford Motor Company, Willys-Overland and various other sub-contractors. The JB-2 was first tested by launching from ramps, and then it was test-launched from aircraft, primarily the B-17 bomber. The Air Force was so pleased with the results of the aircraft launches that, in January, 1945, another 75,000 were ordered. They were supposed to be used during the planned invasion of Japan, but the development of the atomic bomb soon took precedence and the JB-2 program was eventually cancelled after only about 1,200 had been built.

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The V-2

The V-2 was the world's first ballistic missile. It was 46 feet (14 meters) tall, 5 feet 4 inches (1.6 meters) in diameter, and it was propelled by a liquid-fuel engine. The engine burned for about 60 seconds, lifting the rocket to a height of about 52 miles. The engine would then shut off and the missile would fall to its target on a ballistic path determined by the pull of gravity. It had a maximum range of about 225 miles (362 km) and carried a 2,000 pound warhead, which was capable of destroying a large building. It took about five minutes for the missile to travel its maximum range.

Since the V-2 had to fly a long distance with some degree of accuracy, it required a guidance system for pointing it in the right direction and shutting off the engine at the proper time. This was achieved through the use of what is called an inertial guidance system, a system in which a stabilized platform remains fixed in space regardless of how the vehicle moves around it. This stabilized platform allows for measuring the position or acceleration of the vehicle, since the platform remains pointed in one direction and the changes in the vehicle can be measured compared to the stable platform. In the middle of the rocket exhaust were four vanes that were used to deflect the thrust and steer the rocket, based upon commands from the guidance system, until engine cutoff. The V-2 also had a radio transmission system that could relay information about the missile's performance to the ground, but there was no communication from the ground to the rocket during flight.

Unlike the V-1, which flew relatively slowly and at low altitude, the V-2 slammed into the ground at 4,000 miles per hour without warning, except for a double sonic boom shortly before impact. Targets could not be pinpointed with precision, due to inaccuracies in positioning the missiles at launch and in timing the engine cutoff, so the missiles would fall anywhere within a wide area of the intended target. Since there was no defense against such a weapon, the Allies concentrated on attacking the fixed launch sites, many of which were located in the Pas de Calais region of France, and they were very successful in destroying the sites. However, the Germans also launched the V-2s from mobile sites, and the Allies were seldom able to locate and attack these. The Germans often launched V-2s from city streets, hoping that they would be hidden from view by surrounding buildings. This could have disastrous consequences if the rockets were located by the Allies, resulting in catastrophic explosions in population centers. It took a German mobile rocket crew about two hours to erect and prepare a group of three missiles for launch.

The V-2 was first launched successfully in October, 1942, and it was first used in combat in an attack on London on September 7, 1944. From this time until March of 1945, more than 1,100 V-2s fell in southern England, most around London and Norwich, causing about 2,700 deaths and over twice that many injuries. Another 2,000 of the missiles were fired at targets on the European continent, primarily Antwerp, Belgium, which had been re-captured by the Allies and had become an important Allied port. London was actually hit by 517 V-2s and 1,265 of the missiles hit Antwerp. At the height of their production, 700 V-2s per month were being built, most under very harsh conditions by slave laborers from concentration camps. A total of about 10,000 V-2s were made. The Germans were making plans to launch V-2s from submarines against the United States, but they were never successful, due to technical difficulties. Shortly after the war ended, the United States was successful in launching captured V-2s from submarines.

The most deadly V-2 attack of the war occurred on December 16, 1944, when a V-2 struck the Rex Theatre in Antwerp, Belgium, killing 567 people (296 of these being servicemen) and wounding an additional 291 people. The most deadly V-2 attack in Britain happened on November 25, 1944 at New Cross Road, where a V-2 destroyed a Woolworths department store and surrounding stores, killing 160 people and seriously injuring 120. The final V-2 attacks of the war occurred on March 27, 1945 -- one on Antwerp, which killed 27 people, and one on England, which seriously injured 23 and killed Ivy Mildred Millichamp, the last person to be killed in Britain by enemy action during World War II. A total of about 7,000 people were killed by V-2 rockets during the war.

Despite the great damage caused by the V-2s, they were actually considered to be a failure as a weapon due to their poor accuracy, great expense and relatively small warhead size. Each V-2 cost 20 times more money to manufacture than a V-1, and yet their warheads were almost the same size. The greatest value of the V-2 was actually realized after the war, when captured V-2s were used by the United States and the former Soviet Union to begin their own missile and space programs.

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