The attack on Germany's super weapons

On the night of August 17th, 1943, RAF Bomber Command attacked the weapons research facility at Peenemunde with a force of 596 bombers. Intelligence reports had indicated that Nazi Germany was developing long-range weapons there, weapons that would be unmanned and difficult to intercept. Acting on Polish intelligence, photo-reconnaissance planes had brought back pictures, one of which showed a small winged aircraft on a ramp, with another showing what appeared to be the shadow of a pencil-shaped vertical object, possibly a rocket. The decision was taken to bomb.

To aid accuracy, the attack took place during a full moon, with the bombers flying at 8,000 feet instead of their normal 19,000. And for the first time there was a master-bomber directing the raid. A diversionary force of Mosquitoes and Beaufighters, codenamed Whitebait, dropped flares on Berlin as if setting targets for a heavy bombing raid, in order to lure German night fighters away from the real target.

The bombing of Peenemunde, Operation Hydra, marked the start of Operation Crossbow, designed to neutralize as far as possible the new super-weapons. The raid caused much destruction, killing 170 German civilian workers, including two of the leading rocket scientists, as well as several hundred slave labourers the RAF had not known about. Crucially it set back development and production of the new weapons by about two months, and diverted effort away from development and testing, and into the transfer to elsewhere of the production.

Those two months were vital because it meant that the V1 and V2 rockets would not be ready ahead of the anticipated Allied landing to open a second front. In fact the first V1 flying bombs began their assault on June 12th, six days after D-Day. Had they been able to launch a sustained barrage against the Allied preparatory build-up in England's Southern ports, the D-Day operations could have been compromised.

The technology behind the new long-range weapons was a leap ahead of conventional weaponry. The VI flying bomb was the first cruise missile, and the V2 rocket was the world's first ballistic missile. Each was an astonishing achievement for a nation in the throes of a war against two continental powers. Critics claim that the super-weapons diverted resources and manpower away from other, more vitally needed sectors.

The Peenemunde raid brought Britain time to develop and evaluate measures that might be effective against the new weapons. The V! attack was blunted by a combination of artillery, especially armed with proximity fuses, barrage balloons, and fast fighters that could match their speed. But even before then, their numbers had been curbed by the destruction of many of the launch ramps that pointed towards London.

There was no defence against the V2 except a relentless ground advance cross Europe that finally pushed its mobile launch platforms to where they were out of range of England. Many of the team that made the V2 were scooped up by the American after the war, including its chief scientist, Wernher von Braun. Had von Braun been among those killed in that night raid on Peenemunde, the man who made the V2 would not have gone on to build its successor, the Saturn V, the rocket that sent men to the moon, and which won a huge propaganda victory to begin the demoralization of the Soviet Union.