V-1 – First Operational Cruise Missile

V1Nowadays, every major nation (and many not-so-major nations) has deployed air-,  ground- and sea-launched cruise missiles. A cruise missile is essentially a small jet-powered aircraft designed to deliver a large (several hundred kilograms of high explosives) warhead over long distances with high precision.

Although during the interwar period several nations – the United States, Britain, Germany, the Soviet Union, etc. – experimented with rudimentary cruise missiles, the first mass-produced and operationally deployed missile was Fieseler Fi 103 better known as the V-1.

“V” stands for Vergeltungswaffe – the “revenge weapon”. Which from a military standpoint was a very, very dumb idea. For a very simple reason – the fundamental objective of the war (any war) is not revenge. It is victory. Victory is not everything – it is the only thing. And in World War II victory was either an unconditional (or conditional) surrender of your enemy or a peace treaty – on your terms.

Consequently, the fundamental objective of any weapon (revolutionary or not) was not to exact revenge. It was to force your enemy either to surrender or to sue for peace – and thus to agree on your peace terms.

All Vergeltungswaffen (V-1 cruise missile, V-2 ballistic missile and V-3 long-range cannon) were designed with a very different objective in mind – to exact revenge for the Allied bombings of Germany (especially for mass murder of its civilian population).

Consequently, it is no wonder that none of these weapons had any effect at all on the military situation on the Western front. Which means that from a purely military perspective (which was the only perspective that mattered at that time), development and deployment of these weapons (no matter how revolutionary they turned to be) was a major strategic mistake. A colossal strategic blunder even.

And a colossal waste of resources which should have been directed to the development and deployment of only three Wunderwaffen that could have won the war for the Third Reich – a nuclear bomb, its delivery system (long-range, high-speed, high-altitude jet bomber).

V-1 (as all other V-weapons) was initially used for “terror bombing” of London. It could carry a 1000-kg HE (Amatol-39) warhead to targets within the 250 km range from its launch site and thus had to be launched from specially constructed sites along the French and Dutch coasts of the English Channel.

The first cruise missile was launched at London on June 13th 1944, one week after (the successful Allied landings in Europe. At peak, more than one hundred V-1s a day were fired at targets in London, decreasing in number as sites were overrun by Allies until October 1944, when the last V-1 site in range of Britain fell to Allied forces.

In total, 9,521 missiles were launched at London, but only 2,419 (just over 25% or one in four) hit their targets, killing about 6,184 and injuring 17,981 civilians. Given the fact that just one Allied bombing killed tens of thousands of German civilians, it was not an efficient revenge at all. A miserable failure, actually.

Three out of four loss of V-1s happened due to efficient British of defensive measures (radars, barrage balloons, AA guns, fighter aircraft, etc.), mechanical unreliability or guidance errors.

A major disadvantage of V-1 was its relatively low cruise speed (640 km/h) which made it an easy prey for Mosquito, Tempest, Spitfire, Thunderbolt, Mustang and later jet-powered Meteor interceptors. And its low flying altitude (less than 1,500 m) made them vulnerable to 40-mm automatic Bofors AA guns.

Ironically, Meteors, although more than fast enough to catch the V-1s, suffered frequent cannon failures, and accounted for only thirteen (!) missiles shot down by RAF fighters.

The V-1 guidance system used a simple autopilot developed by Askania in Berlin to regulate altitude and airspeed. Which made it a highly inaccurate weapon which could be used only against civilian targets (which was a war crime – plain and simple) or against military bases that had a high concentration of military personnel and equipment (such as Antwerp or Liege).

Hence, after they could no longer target London due to loss of in-range launch facilities to Allied troops, the V-1s were directed at the port of Antwerp and other targets in Belgium, with 2,448 V-1s being launched. The attacks stopped only a month before the war in Europe ended, when the last launch site in the Low Countries was overrun on 29 March 1945.

Most V-1s were launched from static sites on land, but from July 1944 to January 1945, the Luftwaffe launched approximately 1,176 missiles from modified Heinkel He 111 medium bombers. About 40% of air-launched V-1s failed to reach their targets – a far better result than ground-launched missiles delivered.

After the war, the armed forces of France, the Soviet Union and the United States experimented with the V-1. The French began producing copies for use as target drones, starting in 1951. The drones could be ground-launched using solid rocket boosters or air-launched from a LeO 45 bomber. More than 400 were produced, some of which were exported to the UK, Sweden, and Italy.

The Soviets developed a reverse-engineered copy of V-1 called 10Kh – which became the first mass-produced Soviet cruise missile (about 300 were produced before the program was canceled in in the early 1950s). 10Kh was a strictly air-launched missile delivered by a Pe-8 heavy bomber and Tu-2 medium bomber.

However, it was the good old USA that became the first nation to recognize the potential of a cruise missile and thus the first one to mass-produce the reverse-engineered copy of V-1.

The United States reverse-engineered the V-1 in 1944 from salvaged parts recovered in England during June. Already September 8th, the first of thirteen complete prototype Republic-Ford JB-2 Loons, was assembled at Republic Aviation.

It was planned to be used in the United States invasion of Japan (Operation Downfall), but it never happened due to the Soviet Union entry into the war with japan, so the JB-2 was never used in combat.

However, 1,391 missiles have been produced (including the first sea-launched cruise missile designated KGW-1). JB-2/KGW-1 played a significant role in the development of more advanced US surface-to-surface tactical missile systems such as the MGM-1 Matador and later MGM-13 Mace.


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