The Birth Of Missile Defence: Air Force, Part 3

May 1, 2004 by Hugh A. Halliday

From top: A Canadian soldier stands guard over debris from a V-2 rocket that fell near the docks in Antwerp, Belgium; A member of the French resistance examines a damaged V-1 rocket near Foucarmont, France, in 1944

In November 1939, British authorities acquired a summary of German technical developments so broad in scope and detailed in nature that their first impression was that it was a hoax. The so-called Oslo Report gained credibility as more items appeared, including differing types of radars and a deadly radio-controlled glider bomb. Among its most intriguing references was mention of a long-range rocket carrying high explosives. Exactly what the enemy was creating and what potential it had remained uncertain. Intelligence and aerial reconnaissance pointed to a research station at Peenemunde, on the Baltic Sea. On the night of Aug. 17, 1943, Bomber Command attacked the place by moonlight, losing 40 aircraft and causing much damage. The raid would have been more devastating had it been launched two months earlier when the enemy had begun to dispatch technical drawings to the plants that would build the V-2 rocket. Nevertheless, the bombers delayed the missile campaign several weeks. About the time of the Peenemunde raid, it became clear that Germany was developing another weapon, a pilotless “bomb with wings.” Again, the precise nature of the beast remained vague until May 1944, when wreckage from a test firing was recovered on a Swedish island. However, enough was known to link the flying bomb to a complex of storage depots and concrete structure in northern France that Allied bombers and fighter-bombers attacked with mixed results in the spring of 1944. German engineers quickly developed prefabricated launch facilities that mushroomed in France from the Pas de Calais to near the mouth of the Seine. However, the enemy’s two-pronged weapons program was set back by many factors, including technical problems with the devices and bureaucratic infighting. Finally, on June 13, 1944, Flakregiment 155, the unit charged with operating the new secret weapons, fired 10 missiles. Five crashed almost immediately, one vanished, and four reached England, where they were at once seen and identified by members of the Royal Observer Corps. Three of the arrivals caused no casualties. A fourth, which crashed at Bethnal Green, killed six people and seriously wounded nine. The age of missile warfare had begun. The new weapon, officially the FZG-76 in German air force parlance or V 1 in propaganda, went by several names in British circles, including diver, buzz bomb, doodlebug and flying bomb. Stabilized by gyroscopes, the range determined by its fuel capacity, the V-1 carried 1,760 pounds of explosives in its nose. The scale of the attack grew. Between June 13 and the end of that month, 2,452 were launched against England. About a third of these crashed or were shot down before they reached the coast, while another third crashed or were shot down over southern England outside the target area. The remaining missiles crashed on Greater London. From mid-June to mid-July, fighter aircraft destroyed 924 missiles, anti-aircraft guns took down 261 and barrage balloons caught 55. The guns, however, originally intended to fire on aircraft three miles up, were handicapped when dealing with V-1s approaching low and fast. Then the anti-aircraft defences were redeployed to the coastal area. Thereafter and until early September, when Allied armies captured the “V-1 coast,” guns shot down 1,198, aircraft destroyed 847, and balloons accounted for 176. The defences were organized in layers, starting with fighters over the Channel, a gun belt, an inland zone where fighters again had free hunting, and finally the balloon barrage. Canadian fighter pilots had a relatively small role in the battle, chiefly because most Royal Canadian Air Force fighter squadrons had been deployed to support the Normandy invasion and were not diverted from that task. Three RCAF units did participate, shooting down 97 flying bombs: 82 by 418 Squadron, 10 by 409 Sqdn. and five by 402 Sqdn. The most successful Canadian pilot was Squadron Leader Russel Bannock of 418 Sqdn.; with his British observer, Flying Officer Robert R. Bruce, he shot down 19 V-1s, four of them in a single flight. His closest V-1 rival was Flight Lieutenant Colin Evans, also of 418, who shot down eight, assisted by his RAF navigator, Pilot Officer S. Humblestone. The Mosquito pilots hunted by night, tracking their targets by the flickering ramjet engines. Until they realized the need for altitude and diving speed, they found the targets hard to catch and difficult to hit. The missiles were most vulnerable over the Channel, when they were just beginning to accelerate. Although V-1s could neither manoeuvre nor fire back, they could be dangerous if blown up at close range. This was demonstrated on the night of June 21, 1944 when a Mosquito, crewed by flying officers Sid Seid and Dave McIntosh, opened fire on a buzz bomb from a range of 50 feet. The blast that followed burned the paint from the fighter—even the roundels. Colin Evans, having destroyed a doodlebug on the night of July 6, blew up another; debris hit the Mosquito and stopped the starboard motor. Flying on one engine, he dived on a third V-1 and shot it down. The three kills were accomplished in a space of 30 minutes. One difficulty pilots reported was loss of night vision, following the explosion of a missile. To compensate, they resorted to closing one eye before opening fire. A typical combat report from the battle, filed for the night of Aug. 3, 1944 by Flight Lieutenant Peter S. Leggat (Flight Lieutenant Frank L. Cochrane as observer) described the tactics: “At 0227 hours a diver was sighted crossing out from north of Le Touquet on a course of 330 degrees Magnetic at 2,000 feet. Our aircraft was then flying across the sea from Dieppe to Le Touquet at 9,000 feet, and turned to port of the track of the diver, diving down in an attempt to overshoot, but pulled up astern when reaching the same altitude. At 400 yards range, three short bursts of cannon and machine-gun were given and our aircraft broke off as the diver was pulling away at indicated air speed 400. Immediately afterwards the light on the flying bomb was seen to go out. The diver hit the sea and exploded on impact.” Canadian pilots scattered through RAF squadrons had their own V-1 adventures and faced the same hazards as their comrades operating Mosquitos. The most successful buzz bomb killers piloted brand-new Hawker Tempests. The top-scoring diver ace was Squadron Leader Joseph Berry (British) who shot down 59 on this type. A Canadian among the ranks of Tempest pilots was Flying Officer David Ness, who destroyed five as a member of 56 Sqdn. The usual stratagem was to fire on a V-1 from a discreet distance. The “Battle of the Flying Bombs” included instances of pilots flying alongside a missile and tipping it over. Airflow kept wingtips from touching, but matching speeds was difficult. Newspapers and popular histories of the campaign made much of what was actually a very rare tactic. One Canadian who did resort to it was pilot officer Benjamin R. Scaman, flying a Spitfire of 610 Sqdn. ( July 28, 1944). He dived on a buzz bomb but found he was closing too quickly. Rather than have the missile blow up in his face, he tucked his port wing under the V-1’s stubby starboard wing and tipped it over; the device exploded in the sea. Among the more unusual kills were those scored by Flying Officer William H. MacKenzie (August 16, 1944) and FO Jack Robert Ritch the next day. Both men were flying Meteor I aircraft of 616 Sqdn. and were the first Canadians to see combat in jet-propelled fighters. The Combat Report filed by Ritch read, in part: “Two Tempests were seen flying approximately 300 yards behind the diver. One Tempest was seen to fire but no strikes were observed by Flying Officer Ritch, who was then flying alongside the leading Tempest. The Tempests then broke away and the diver continued on its course straight and level. “Flying Officer Ritch then went in to attack and fired one long burst from line astern at range 150 to 100 yards. Strikes were seen and the diver rolled over and fell to explode on the ground four miles southeast of Maidstone at 0657 hours.” The Germans were anxious to know what effect the V-1 was having. At first, their most reliable evidence was obituary notices in British newspapers. When these were banned, the enemy looked elsewhere. Private L.S.G. Moore, a Canadian who was taken prisoner briefly in Normandy, reported of his captors’ questioning on July 21, 1944: “The interrogating officer was particularly interested in the effects of the flying bomb, and agreed that fighter planes would have been of more service to his troops.” Overrunning the French coastal area ended the principal V-1 campaign against Britain. Starting in mid-September 1944, the Germans resorted to air-launched doodlebugs. Some 1,200 were fired up to mid-January 1945, of which only 235 ever exploded on British soil. In March 1945, the enemy fired 275 newer, long-range V-1s from ramps in Holland; only 34 detonated in Britain. The conclusion of the main V-1 assault on England was followed closely by another horror—the V-2 rocket. The first two fell Sept. 8, 1944. The principal launch sites were in northwestern Holland, an area that remained in German hands until the end of the war. The V-1 could be shot down, but the V-2 rockets—plunging faster than sound from higher up—were another matter. There was little to be done except attack their storage depots and launch sites until the army could overrun them. Fortunately for the Allies, V-2s were still unreliable weapons. Flight Lieutenant J. Anatole Côté of Quebec City (439 Sqdn.) witnessed this. Shot down in Holland on Jan. 14, 1945, he was hidden at Dalfern by the Dutch Underground and saw just how faulty were these weapons: “There was a mobile V-2 site quite close to the farm and during my stay I saw quite a number of rockets fired. The majority of these dived to earth almost vertically after reaching an altitude of 1,500 to 5,000 feet. The rear would suddenly stop and the projectile would then nose over and dive. I noticed that each time this occurred there was a delay of 10 seconds between impact and explosion.” Faulty or not, the V-1s and V-2s provided additional suffering for people who had already endured much. Early in the V-1 campaign, there were signs of sagging British morale, as measured in workplace absenteeism. The most troubling thing about the missiles was the knowledge that it did not matter how many were shot down—without crews to sacrifice, the Germans would keep on firing them. Both missiles were indiscriminate; they could not be aimed at anything more precise than a large urban area. Some of the results were horrific. A V-1 hit on the Royal Military Chapel, Wellington Barracks, on June 18, 1944, killed 58 civilians and 63 service personnel, two of them Canadian officers. The attack injured 68 other people. A rocket falling at New Cross Road on Nov. 25, 1944 killed 160 and seriously injured 108. There were several other instances of V-2s killing more than 100 people. When all the numbers were tallied, it was concluded that V-1s had killed 6,184 in Britain and seriously wounded 17,981; the V-2s had killed 2,754 and wounded 6,523. Approximately 15 Canadian soldiers were killed in Britain by V-1s, including nine members of the Lincoln and Welland Regiment on July 5, 1944. The weapons were not confined to British targets. In September 1944 the Germans fired several V-2s in the direction of Paris. A more sustained assault, directed principally at Antwerp, Belgium, began in October; lesser numbers fell on Brussels and Liege. From then until the end of March 1945, the enemy dispatched 11,988 V-1s and 1,766 V-2s at continental targets—slightly more than had been fired at England. On the other hand, European casualties were lower; a total of 5,400 killed and 22,000 seriously wounded. On Dec. 16, 1944, a V-2 hit the Rex Theatre in Antwerp, killing at least 492 people (another estimate put the number at 567). It was the worst single missile attack of the war. The Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, would not allow fighters to be detailed in the defence of Antwerp and any V-1s intercepted there were the result of chance encounters by aircraft. On the other hand, he committed a massive number of anti-aircraft guns to be deployed around the port. In fact, there was scarcely a cubic foot of airspace that was not covered by at least two guns. This was possible because the Luftwaffe had faded as a threat, leaving the gunners free not only to defend cities but to participate in land battles. The last RCAF crew to encounter V-1s was that of Flying Officer Martin G. Kent (with Pilot Officer James Simpson as observer) in a Mosquito of 409 Sqdn. On March 28, 1945 they observed a salvo of V-1s being fired near Arnhem in the Netherlands, presumably bound for Antwerp. They dived to 2,000 feet and picked off two divers that exploded in open country.In the end, the weapons failed. They did not seriously affect British morale (although they might have done so had the V-1 assault begun before D-Day), and they did not close the port of Antwerp. But they did introduce the world to missile warfare (cruise and ballistic), an event we do not celebrate, but do remember.

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