When we usually think of rockets, we imagine a missile rising vertically from a launch pad.
The V-1 rockets were different. The German Air Force's pilotless "buzz bombs" looked and flew a lot like conventional airplanes, were catapulted from ground ramps or air launched from bombers, and used advance jet engines for propulsion.
The V-1 (Vergeltungswaffe 1 or vengeance weapon 1) was part of a series of super weapons that Adolf Hitler's Nazi regime deployed near the end of World War II (another was the V-2 rocket). Hitler was convinced that these wonder weapons could help reverse the course of an increasingly disastrous war by bombing enemy populations into submission. He also wanted revenge for the bombing of German cities.
The V-1 rocket took nearly 8 years to develop. Fritz Gosslau, an employee of the Argus Moteren aircraft engine company, began working on a follow-on vehicle to the company's AS 292 remote-controlled surveillance plane in late 1936. Five years of hard work, and a partnership with Lorentz AG, followed only to have the German Air Ministry reject the project in 1941 because it felt the remote control system would not work.
Undaunted, Gosslau continued with work, simplifying the control system's design. The V-1 rocket he designed was airplane-like in appearance, with a conventional steel fuselage, two flat wings made of plywood, and a tail. The unmanned vehicle lacked a cockpit; a one-ton bomb was placed in the nose section.
Instead of propellers mounted on the nose or under the wings, the V-1 had a large Argus pulse jet engine mounted above its fuselage. A high pressure air source was connected to three air nozzles in the front of the pulse engine. Ignition was accomplished using a spark plug and acetylene gas. The external air hose and connectors were removed once the engine started and the temperature rose to the operation level. The pulse jet engine, which sounded like a car without a muffler, gave rise to the nickname "buzz bomb."
In June 1942, the Air Ministry gave a high priority designation to V-1 production. The first flight took place in December as the bomb was dropped from aircraft. V-1s would also be launched from ground ramps at speeds of 360 miles per hour (580 km per hour) using a device called the dampferzeuger ("steam generator").
It took another two years of development before the V-1 rocket was ready for use. On June 13, 1944, a V-1 slammed into London, killing eight civilians. Over the next 9 months, approximately 10,000 V-1s would be launched at England, killing more than 6,000 people and injuring nearly 18,000 more. Antwerp and other targets in Belgium were hit with 2,448 V-1s.
Unlike the V-2, which came in at very high speeds, the V-1 flew much slower and could be defended against by conventional means. Fighter pilots would use the wings of their aircraft to tip the wings of V-1s, adjusting their flight paths away from populated areas. The buzz bombs would crash harmlessly in a field instead of hitting cities.
The V-1 did not help Hitler win the war. They were introduced too late in the war and were too inaccurate to have much of a military impact. However, they did help to inspire modern cruise missiles and ramjets – two modern inventions resulting from a catastrophic war.