During WWII, the Germans were developing a wide range of superweapons that would turn the tide and ensure ultimate victory. Most of them never made it off the drawing boards and only a few saw active service but a number of them laid the foundation for weapons that are still being used today.
We start off with the most famous trio, the V weapons.
V1 – The First Cruise Missile
The V-1 flying bomb (Vergeltungswaffe 1 – Vengeance Weapon 1) was known to the Allies as the buzz bomb, or doodlebug it was an early pulsejet-powered predecessor of the cruise missile.
The V1 was designed for terror bombing of London; it was fired from launch facilities along the French (Pas-de-Calais) and Dutch coasts. The first V-1 was launched at London on 13 June 1944, one week after the successful Allied landing in Europe.
At its peak, more than one hundred V-1s a day were fired at south-east England, 9,521 in total. This decreased in number as sites were overrun until October 1944 when the last V-1 site within range of Britain was overrun by Allied forces. After this, 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 when the last launch site was overrun on 29 March 1945.
The British operated an arrangement of air defences (including anti-aircraft guns and fighter aircraft) to intercept the bombs before they reached their targets as part of Operation Crossbow while the launch sites and underground V-1 storage depots were targets of strategic bombing.
V2 – The First Ballistic Missile
The V-2, technical name Aggregat-4 (A4), was the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile. The missile with liquid-propellant rocket engine was developed as a “vengeance weapon”, designed to attack Allied cities as retaliation for the Allied bombings against German cities. The V-2 rocket was also the first man-made object to cross the boundary of space.
Beginning in September 1944, over 3,000 V-2s were launched by the German Wehrmacht against Allied targets during the war, firstly London and later Antwerp and Liège. The attacks resulted in the deaths of an estimated 9,000 civilians and military personnel while 12,000 forced laborers and concentration camp prisoners were killed producing the weapons.
V2 Rocket on its transport carriage (Bundesarchiv – CC BY-SA 3.0)
As Germany collapsed, teams from the Allied forces—the U.S., Great Britain and the Soviet Union—raced to capture key German manufacturing sites and examples of German guided missiles, rocket and jet powered aircraft, and nuclear experiments. Wernher von Braun and over 100 key V-2 personnel surrendered to the Americans.
Through a lengthy sequence of events, a significant portion of the original V-2 team ended up working for the US Army at the Redstone Arsenal. The US also captured enough V-2 hardware to build approximately 80 of the missiles. The Soviets gained possession of the V-2 manufacturing facilities after the war and proceeded to re-establish V-2 production and move it to the Soviet Union.
V3 – The Nazi Super Gun
The prototype V-3 cannon at Laatzig, Germany (now Poland) in 1942 – Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1981-147-30A / CC-BY-SA 3.0
The weapon was planned to be used to bombard London from two large bunkers in the Pas-de-Calais region of northern France, but they were rendered unusable by Allied bombing raids before completion. Two similar guns were used to bombard Luxembourg from December 1944 to February 1945.
Me 262 – The First Operational Jet Fighter
The Messerschmitt Me 262 Schwalbe (English: “Swallow”) of Germany was the world’s first operational jet-powered fighter aircraft. Design work started before World War II began, but engine problems and top-level interference kept the aircraft from operational status with the Luftwaffe until mid-1944.
One of the most advanced aviation designs in operational use during World War II, the Me 262 was used in a variety of roles, including light bomber, reconnaissance, and even experimental night fighter versions.
This airframe was surrendered to the RAF at Schleswig in May 1945 and taken to the UK for testing. Public Domain
Me 262 pilots claimed a total of 542 Allied kills, although higher claims are sometimes made. The Allies countered its potential effectiveness in the air by attacking the aircraft on the ground and during takeoff and landing. Engine reliability problems, from the pioneering nature of its Junkers turbojet engines—the first ones ever placed in mass production—and attacks by Allied forces on fuel supplies during the deteriorating late-war situation also reduced the effectiveness of the aircraft as a fighting force.
In the end, the Me 262 had a negligible impact on the course of the war as a result of its late introduction and the consequently small numbers put in operational service.
Fritz X – The First Guided Missile
Fritz-X being developed (Bundesarchiv – CC BY-SA 3.0)
Fritz X was the most common name for a German guided anti-ship glide bomb used during World War II. Fritz X was a nickname used both by Allied and Luftwaffe personnel. It is one of the precursors of today’s anti-ship missiles and precision guided weapons.
The Fritz X was a further development of the high-explosive bomb SD 1400. It was a penetration weapon intended to be used against heavily protected targets such as heavy cruisers and battleships.
Fritz X (Air-to-Ship Wireless Guided Gliding Bomb) – By Kogo – Own work, GFDL
On 9 September 1943, the Luftwaffe achieved their greatest success with the Fritz X. After the Italian armistice with the Allies was announced on 8 September 1943, the Italian fleet had steamed out from La Spezia and headed to Malta. To prevent the ships from falling into Allied hands, six Do 217K-2s took off, each carrying a single Fritz X.
The Italian battleship Roma, flagship of the Italian fleet, received two hits and one near miss, and sank after her magazines exploded. 1,255 men, including Admiral Carlo Bergamini, died. Her sister ship, Italia, was also damaged but reached Malta.
ME 163 – The First Rocket Propelled Airplane
A ME 163 after landing, picture taken in the 1950s in Melbourne Australia / Public Domain
The Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet, designed by Alexander Lippisch, was a German rocket-powered fighter aircraft. It is the only rocket-powered fighter aircraft ever to have been operational.
Its design was revolutionary, and the Me 163 was capable of performance unrivaled at the time. German test pilot Heini Dittmar in early July 1944 reached 1,130 km/h (700 mph), a flight airspeed record.
The first actions involving the Me 163 occurred on 28 July 1944 , when two USAAF B-17 Flying Fortress were attacked without confirmed kills. Combat operations continued from May 1944 to spring 1945. During this time, there were nine confirmed kills with 14 Me 163s lost.
A Me 163 being shot down, as seen from USAAF P-47 gun camera – Public Domain
Feldwebel Siegfried Schubert was the most successful pilot, with three bombers to his credit. Allied fighter pilots soon noted the short duration of the powered flight. They would wait, and when the engine exhausted its propellant supply, pounce on the unpowered Komet.
However, the Komet was extremely manoeuvrable in gliding flight. Another Allied method was to attack the fields the Komets operated from and strafe them after the Me 163s landed.
Due to the skid-based landing gear system, the Komet was immobile until the tractor, could back the trailer up to the nose of the aircraft, place its two rear arms under the wing panels, and jack up the trailer’s arms to hoist the aircraft off the ground or place it back on its take-off dolly to tow it back to its maintenance area.