Rediscovering the V1
Photographic evidence of the various sites gave the Allies a good idea as to how the construction work on the various was sites was progressing and this suggested that the Germans would be in a position to begin launching the V1 within a matter of months — possibly even weeks — from some of the sites.
Operation Crossbow was set up to bomb the Bois Carré sites concentrating on those at the most advanced stage of construction.
These missions were named, “No-Ball Missions”, and the very first was launched against the installations at Ligescourt by B-26 bombers of the USAF on 5th December 1943. To be honest, when you look at the condition of the buildings at the site today you can see that apart from one of the ski structures they pretty much missed their target.
In effect, with very few exceptions, none of these bases ever got to be used because they were just too obvious and ended up drawing the RAF and USAF bombers onto them. This eventually became an advantage to the Germans who ensured that the French workers were occupied in repairing the sites.
As for the massive Wasserwerk bunkers, they were found to have structural flaws and couldn’t be used anyway, but of course the Allies didn’t know that.
My elderly neighbours would say that the RAF became so tunnel-visioned about Ligescourt that they missed the light launch site on the other side of the village, a few kilometres away.
By the middle of March 1944 over half the sites had been severely damaged and the Germans seemed to have given up on constant repair work. Where it did occur, the work concentrated on the ramp and the building aligned to it. That building was clearly important but the connection between it, the V1 and the launch ramp had yet to be made.
The light ramp launch sites
Throughout the Spring of 1944 the allies continued with their aerial coverage, constantly on the lookout for repair work on the previously targeted sites and the construction of new ones. Operation Overlord, the Normandy landings, was just weeks away and the new missiles could pose a serious threat to not just London but also England’s southern ports, where troops and equipment were being concentrated in readiness for the beginning of June.
Suddenly a new form of site was discovered at Le Bel hamelin close to Nouainville a few kilometres south-west of Cherbourg. More such sites were identified and these new, more basic, sites were directly opposite the troop concentration zones for the invasion of France. This new lighter site was given the name of the hamlet to differentiate it from the Bois Carré sites.
In order to resolve the problem of the high visibility of the larger complexes the German command had ordered the creation of launch sites with fewer bunkers and a basic ramp. These were quicker to build and much easier to repair. The Germans only used slave labour and German engineers to carry out the work, which allowed for greater secrecy.
These modified sites were much more discreet in their construction and were only identified for what they were days before the V-1 blitz on London began on 13th June 1944.
With the first of these new Belhamelin sites all being found along the Normandy coast and aligned not on London but the ports of Bristol and Portsmouth a new flurry of overflights had to be carried out. This meant flying and photographing the entire coastal area within about 250 kilometres of London or Portsmouth and then scrutinising each frame trying to spot a ramp or its accompanying building.
It was clear from Belhamelin that much of the infrastructure that made the original sites so identifiable (despite the Germans’ best efforts of camouflage and use of the terrain), was not applicable to the new sites.
As Overlord approached aerial reconnaissance was required for it and the work on finding the new sites became increasingly difficult without up-to-date coverage. Without the ski-bunkers a new signature was needed and this was found in the foundations for the ramp and the prefabricated aligned building.
This was a difficult task because the ramp no longer had the significant blast walls either side of it allowing the ramp to be bolted onto its blocks and removed again after firing.
As luck would have it, coverage of the Luftwaffe’s training base on the Baltic coast revealed a Belhamelin site under construction. Sections of rail and the parts for the building were brought in and a site could be up and running in forty-eight hours !
The period immediately prior to 6th June (D-Day) saw as many of the new sites bombed as possible but they were far harder to hit and took bombers away from other essential tasks. The weather was not great (D-Day itself was delayed by twenty-four hours because of it) so photographic missions were curtailed for a while.
Then on 11th June a mission showed that some sites had been fully installed. The calculation had been that forty-eight hours would be sufficient for the site to begin launching and the first batch were indeed launched on the night of the 12th/13th June. It wasn’t an auspicious start with only four of the ten missiles making it to England.
A sigh of relief could be heard in London : the terror weapon was a failure.
Four nights later, having reviewed their methods, the Germans launched a larger salvo and seventy-three bombs hit London. During the Blitz Londoners had became used to the bombing but each V-1 carried a warhead equivalent to five Heinkel He 111 bombers (accounting for the weight and far more efficient explosive).
Between 13th June 1944 and 29th March 1945 about 10,000 were fired at England ; 2,419 reached London, killing about 6,184 people and injuring 17,981. All in all some 30,000 V-1s were manufactured.
Unlike the previous Blitz the V-1 allowed for no pauses. They could arrive during broad daylight as easily as night. Heavy cloud cover brought no respite as the pilotless aircraft didn’t need to see its target. It simply flew until its fuel ran out. Those below could only hope that the buzzing passed overhead and on towards somebody else.
One of the ways of limiting the destruction of London was by falsely reporting the strikes. By stating that the outer suburbs on the far side had been bombed instead of the centre, the launch teams reduced the fuel, causing short falls. This may well have limited the damage to the capital but the bombs still fell on somebody.
Eventually though the Germans got crafty and began equipping some of the missiles with transmitters that their own radar systems could track.
As the Allies advanced out of Normandy the Germans were forced to give up many of their launch sites. Now, a newer form of site began appearing. This consisted pretty much of just a ramp and the firing bunker.
I have a couple of such sites near to the house and, up in the woods at the top of the hill, is a large concrete platform originally intended for the V-2 rocket. By the time the first of those had been fired at London (from the Netherlands) on 8th September 1944 the village had been liberated and the pad now serves as a storage point for cut wood.
Visiting the sites
Many of the V1 sites are on private property and within woods which makes visiting impossible in many instances.
However, as the sites come in more or less three categories of, Bois Carré, Belhamelin and Hotot once you have visited one the rest become much of a sameness and most of the fun is simply knowing that it exists.
Without a doubt it is easiest to visit them during the late autumn or early spring when the foliage makes spotting things so much easier.
Some sites have been effaced either by bombing or the farmers recovering their fields. This is especially so for the very light sites where it may only be the presence of a few blocks of concrete that give away the position of the ramp. Other blockhaus have been turned into farm buildings.
There are two well known sites freely open to the public. One is at Huits-Rues near Wallon Cappel in the Nord and the other at Le Val Ygot, near Ardouval in Normandie. Both have explanation panels explaining the purpose of each building. The latter (and a few other sites) has a reconstructed ramp and V1.
There were certain similarities between the bases through necessity of preparation. There were bunkers to store the chemicals for the catapult (hydrogen peroxide and potassium permanganate) and an anti-magnetic building constructed without any iron in it at all.
This was the last building that the rocket passed through before launch and it was here that the magnetic compass would be set. The entire flight depended on the compass working properly and so any possible interference had to be avoided at this stage.
The one building that seems to have been augmented was the firing bunker which now offered the firing crew a better field of vision and better protection.
Posted : 13 May 2022