V-WEAPONS - Jim Mclean
Like everyone who grew up in London, I am well aware of Hitler’s obsession with Veltungswaffe (reprisal weapons). I grew up in a neighborhood that was pocked-marked with great big holes, the rows of houses interrupted by patches of overgrown wasteground; sometimes still with bits of shattered brickwork jutting up out of the ground. Many of them were relics of the 1940–41 ‘Blitz’, the work of incendiary bombs for the most part, but others were made later in the war by the ‘doodlebugs’ (V-1 – we British always give cute names to terrifying things) and V-2s.
My local area – south east London – wasn’t hit particularly hard during the Blitz of 1940–41. Whereas in the east end the firebombing wiped out whole neighborhoods, in the south east it just carved straight lines of destruction that ran through rows of residential streets. Growing up in the 1990s, I’m probably part of the last generation of Londoners who spent their childhoods playing hide-and-seek in bombed out buildings and football on turfed-over mounds of rubble. The destruction left by these bombs was oddly limited and compartmentalised, however. Even in the Victorian era, London’s building codes had strict rules about fire-breaks, so there would often just be one or two absent houses, and then the terrace would resume intact, as if nothing had happened.
The holes left by the V-weapons, particularly the V-2, were different. On 11 February 1945, one landed at the end of my street. A rocket about the size of a school bus, weighing 12 tonnes and packed with 2,200 lbs of high explosive, hit the ground at around 1800mph. It took out a 100-yard-long row of houses and killed 14 people. It also left all the houses within about a 400 yard radius crooked and cracked. Nothing in my house is quite square. The doorframes are wonky – the doors trimmed into funny trapezoids to fit – the plasterwork is all from the late 1940s. Some of it is actually concrete, because plaster was hard to come by.
Even for a populace that was quite astonishingly blasé about death from above, the V-2s were scary. There was no siren, no approaching planes, there wasn’t even the intimidating buzz-buzz-buzz of the V-1’s engine. By the time they reached the descent stage of their ballistic arc, they were falling almost straight down, engines off, silent. Even if they weren’t silent, they were travelling several times the speed of sound anyway, so you couldn’t have heard them coming. In the winter of 1944 buildings would seemingly just spontaneously explode, sending shrapnel and debris in every direction. My grandmother had an office building collapse from under her in the spring of 1945, another relative was wiped off the face of the earth cycling to work one morning. They never found a body, just bits of his bike.
Despite all the destruction a single rocket could cause, they were strategically useless. Each one cost more than 100,000 Reichsmarks – slightly more than a Panzer IV and only marginally less than a Panther. They also couldn’t be reliably targeted on anything smaller than a large city, making them unusable for any tactical purpose. The total cost of the V-weapons program was astronomical. It ended up costing the Nazi government 30 percent more than the Americans spent on the Manhattan project, but yielded nothing like the same results. Writing about the program after the war, the American scientist Freeman Dyson stated, “From our point of view, the V-2 program was almost as good as if Hitler had adopted a policy of unilateral disarmament.”