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World War 2:
German "vengeance weapons"
- V1, V2 and V3

German research to develop secret weapons
Development of the robot bomb (V1)
Long range rockets (V2)
Long-range cannon (V3 - "last hope" weapon)

German research to develop secret weapons 1930-42

German rocket scientists had two unofficial research projects "on the drawing board" as early as 1930: a "pilotless plane" (or "robot bomb"), and a long range rocket. The Nazis were sufficiently impressed to give their leader Werner von Braun a rocket base and test-firing range at Peenemunde on the Baltic coast. By 1937 both projects were being developed by the Nazi German government.

Lack of urgency
In 1940 it seemed that Germany had almost won the war - there was little urgency for new weapons. Britain stood alone - but refused to be defeated. Nazis tried to crush RAF fighter plane resistance in the Battle of Britain; they tried to sap Britain's will to fight by bombing cities in the 'Blitz'. Both caused terrible damage, but failed. Operation Sealion, the German plan to invade Britain, was cancelled.

Only then did Hitler give top priority to the long range rocket project. Thousands of people were sent to work at Peenemunde - most of them slave labourers. Test-firing the new fourth version rocket began in March 1942, and its fourth launch in Oct.1942 was successful. When Hitler heard the news he gave the immediate go-ahead to mass-produce the rockets, and to build concrete launching bunkers in the Pas-de-Calais. Back to top

 V2
Test firing a V2 at Peenemunde, safely out of range of British bombers until the later part of the war.
Peenemunde
The long distance rocket on a mobile launcher, being lifted to vertical position before firing

Development of the V1 robot bomb 1942-43
Hitler also authorised full-scale development work on the "pilotless airplane" in June 1942. On paper it looked ideal, given the bottlenecks and shortages plaguing Germany's war effort - it was built of plywood and sheet steel, so didn't use scarce aluminium; it burnt low grade petrol instead of aviation spirit; it only took 500 man-hours to manufacture (excluding the explosive and autopilot).

The problem was, getting it to work! In tests it kept crashing. Eventually a brave woman pilot volunteered to fly one (with makeshift controls) to see what was going wrong. She found that the autopilot responded wrongly to cross-winds - by May 1943 the modified V1 was working OK.

1944: launching V1s from Northern France
By spring 1944 the war was going badly for Germany. The first V1 "doodlebugs" were not launched until June 13th - a few days after the D-Day landings. Their long launching ramps (
right) were hidden in forests, but easily spotted from the air, so were rapidly bombed. The Germans switched to mobile ramps, which they moved around the Pas-de-Calais area.

Almost 9,250 V1's were fired against London, but less than 2,500 reached their target. In flight they were almost as vulnerable as their ramps: about 2,000 were destroyed by anti-aircraft gunfire; 2,000 by fighter planes, and almost 300 by barrage balloons.
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V1
V1 rocket in flight
V1 factory
V1 rockets being assembled in an underground assembly-line factory
 V1 launch
V1 rocket launching ramp - speedily erected, but easily spotted from the air

Feared long-range V2 rockets
Meanwhile V2 rocket was only a few months behind. Since 1943, two heavily-protected launch-pads had been under construction near St-Omer: the '
blockhaus' at Eperlecques and La Coupole. An elaborate supply network was in place, using concentration camp prisoners to assemble the mechanisms for this, the most sophisticated weapon of World War 2, in Germany, then take them by rail to France. The V2 rocket carried 2,000 lbs of explosive, and took only 4 seconds to reach its target at up to 3,500 mph. It was feared because it came down from the stratosphere without warning - unlike the "doodlebug" V1's, it could not be spotted, nor shot down in flight.

map 
1. MAP: sites for testing, mass-production and launching of the secret weapons
2. The DORA camp at Nordhausen where deportees from all over Eirope assembled the complex V2 mechanisms.

V2 launching bases - never used
During 1943-4 Allied bombing targetted the V-weapon bases, and the railways that supplied them - achieving vital delays. By the time V2 rockets were ready to fire (September 1944), the Allies had captured the still unfinished bases in north France. So the Germans set up mobile launchers in Holland, and managed to fire over 1,000 V2's in a last-ditch attack against London, with a success rate as high as 50%. Continental targets included Lille, Arras, Cambrai, and Brussels. Paris was by this time out of range. Back to top

blockhaus  La Coupole
1. Eperlecques - the first concrete bunker which was built for assembling V2s, part destroyed by bombing with "Tallboys". The nazis switched it tomanufacturing liquid oxygen fuel for rockets at la Coupole nearby.
2. The second V2 rocket base is now La Coupole Museum - the concrete dome in the hillside shelters a bomb-proof bunker where the rockets would have been assembled and prepared for launching. Back to top

Long range guns - V3 "last hope" weapon

Shelled street in Dover  German cross-channel gun  V3 rocket
1. Conventional long range guns shelled Dover (Snargate St, left) from the coast of Nord PasdeCalais. 2. Cross-channel gun - Dover was constantly shelled across the 20 mile Straits. 3. V3 rockets: towards the end of the war, these longer-range projectiles could be fired from a super-long gun barrel on the French coast to reach London.

V3, the third vengeance weapon, consisted of barrages of small rocket projectiles fired from an underground cannon and capable of reaching London from the north French coast at a speed of 1500 metres a second.

Waves of 300 rockets an hour could have been fired, but the V3 was also abandoned unfinished as Allied troops captured it after D-Day. Both the V2 and V3 bases were subjected to heavy bombing raids with the "Tallboy" - a bomb specially developed to pierce the thick concrete of the V-weapon bases. (picture below R) Back to top

Building V3 base 1943
Work on building the V3 cannon at Mimoyecques

Places to visit:
V1 bases: you can see a real V1 launching ramp which has been re-erected at Eperlecques Blockhouse - near Watten
V2 bases: you can visit both installations:
-
La Coupole Rocket Museum - near St-Omer
-
Eperlecques Blockhouse - near Watten
V3 base: you can enter:
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Fortress de Mimoyecques - base for the V3 secret weapon

Tallboy bomb 1944
"Tallboy" concrete piercing bombs - developed to shatter the thick "bomb-proof" concrete of the V-weapon bases

Related background information
Second World War
Operation Fortitude South and the Atlantic Wall

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