Churchill on the V1: Praise for Ingenuity, Horror over Effects

Churchill on the V1: Praise for Ingenuity, Horror over Effects

Excerpt­ed from a Q&A post on the V1 for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. For the unabridged arti­cle, please click here.

Robert Lusser and the V1 “Flying Bomb”

A jour­nal­ist writes about the life of her grand­fa­ther, Robert Lusser, chief design­er of the V1 fly­ing bomb. She searched for what Churchill said about the V1 in his mem­oirs of the Sec­ond World War. “He men­tions the weapon’s destruc­tion in 1944 but noth­ing of what he thought of the V1 mil­i­tar­i­ly. My grandfather’s papers sug­gest that Churchill praised the weapon after the war. Even then, what he said must have been con­sid­ered polit­i­cal­ly incor­rect.”

1954: A “new and ingenious design”

Churchill’s appraisal of the V1 did come after the war, in Tri­umph and Tragedy (1953-54). From pages 34-35 of the 1954 British edi­tion:

To Lon­don­ers the new weapon was soon known as the “doo­dle-bug” or “buzz bomb,” from the stri­dent sound of its engine, which was a jet of new and inge­nious design. The bomb flew at speeds up to 400 mph at heights around 3000 feet, and it car­ried about a ton of explo­sive. It was steered by a mag­net­ic com­pass, and its range was gov­erned by a small pro­peller, which was dri­ven round by the pas­sage of the bomb through the air. When the pro­peller had revolved a num­ber of times which cor­re­spond­ed to the dis­tance of Lon­don from the launch­ing site, the con­trols of the mis­sile were tripped to make it dive to earth. The blast dam­age was all the more vicious because the bomb usu­al­ly explod­ed before pen­e­trat­ing the ground.

It imposed upon the peo­ple of Lon­don a bur­den per­haps even heav­ier than the air raids of 1940 and 1941. Sus­pense and strain were more pro­longed. Dawn brought no relief, and cloud no com­fort. The man going home in the evening nev­er knew what he would find…. There was lit­tle that he could do, no human ene­my that he could see shot down.

1944: “One person per bomb”

The Churchill Doc­u­mentsvol. 20, Nor­mandy and Beyond, May-Decem­ber 1944con­tain many ref­er­ences to the V1. Churchill’s first pub­lic state­ment came on July 6th. Britain, he said, had known about the V1 for a year. Com­pared to Allied raids over Ger­many, he said, the V1 was a pinprick—but a fright­ful one, because of its sur­prise nature:

…but peo­ple have just got to get used to that. [Hon. Mem­bers: “Hear, hear.”] Every­one must go about his duty and his busi­ness what­ev­er it may be—every man or woman—and then, when the long day is done, they should seek the safest shel­ter that they can find and for­get their care in well-earned sleep.

We must nei­ther under­rate nor exag­ger­ate. In all up to 6 a.m. today, about 2,750 fly­ing bombs have been dis­charged… A very large pro­por­tion of these have either failed to cross the Chan­nel or have been shot down and destroyed…. Nev­er­the­less, the House will, I think, be favourably sur­prised to learn that the total num­ber of fly­ing bombs launched from the enemy’s sta­tions have killed almost exact­ly one per­son per bomb. That is a very remark­able fact, and it has kept pace rough­ly week by week.

The threat subsides

Churchill did not then praise V1 tech­nol­o­gy, but ques­tioned its moral­i­ty: “The intro­duc­tion by the Ger­mans of such a weapon obvi­ous­ly rais­es some grave ques­tions upon which I do not pro­pose to trench today.” He was sure, mean­while, that Lon­don “will nev­er fail and that her renown, tri­umph­ing over every ordeal, will long shine among men.”

What Lon­don­ers were going through then adds some per­spec­tive to the rel­a­tive impor­tance of what excites its cit­i­zens today.

The V1 was not hard to destroy through anti-air­craft or fight­er fire. But launch­es in mid-1944 were fre­quent enough to allow many to get through. They killed 6000 Lon­don­ers and 1.5 mil­lion were evac­u­at­ed. By mid-Sep­tem­ber V1 dam­age had fad­ed as Hitler launched the V2 rock­et, a much more for­mi­da­ble threat. V2 attacks killed 3000, but as more launch­ing sites were cap­tured in France, the dan­ger eased.

A quality of detached admiration

Churchill’s 1953-54 appraisal of the V1 as “inge­nious” illus­trates a rare aspect of his char­ac­ter: the detach­ment to acknowl­edge the clev­er­ness of ene­mies. Sim­i­lar­ly, in 1940, he referred to Germany’s Blitzkrieg as “a remark­able com­bi­na­tion of air bomb­ing and heav­i­ly armoured tanks.” In 1942 he said of Field Mar­shal Irwin Rom­mel dur­ing the North Africa cam­paign: “We have a very dar­ing and skill­ful oppo­nent against us, and, may I say across the hav­oc of war, a great gen­er­al.”

That took lis­ten­ers by sur­prise and caused con­ster­na­tion. Churchill in his mem­oirs was unre­pen­tant. Rommel’s “ardour and dar­ing inflict­ed griev­ous dis­as­ters upon us,” he admit­ted. Nev­er­the­less, “he deserves the salute which I made him….

…although a loy­al Ger­man sol­dier, he came to hate Hitler and all his works, and took part in the con­spir­a­cy of 1944 to res­cue Ger­many by dis­plac­ing the mani­ac and tyrant. For this he paid the for­feit of his life. In the som­bre wars of mod­ern democ­ra­cy chival­ry finds no place…. Still, I do not regret or retract the trib­ute I paid to Rom­mel, unfash­ion­able though it was judged.

By 1953, when Churchill pro­nounced the V1 “inge­nious,” its cre­ator was in Amer­i­ca with Wern­her von Braun’s rock­etry team. Lusser’s the­o­ries on the con­tri­bu­tion each com­po­nent makes to the over­all reli­a­bil­i­ty of a rock­et sys­tem became known as Lusser’s Law. For the nonce, they punc­tured von Braun’s com­pli­cat­ed scheme for a Moon land­ing. Robert Lusser almost lived seen the land­ing hap­pen. He died in Jan­u­ary 1969, six months before Apol­lo 11 land­ed on the Sea of Tran­quil­i­ty.

Further Reading

“The Fly­ing Bombs,” in Robert Lyons and G.C.B. Dodds, “Pri­vate Sec­re­tary G.C.B. Dodds Remem­bers Churchill in Wartime,” 2019.

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