Peace Time: Another Cruise Missile Threatens London

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July 30, 2007: Last week, construction workers in Britain unearthed a German V-1 cruise missile, that crashed in London in 1944 or 45, and got buried by other debris. It has lain unnoticed until now, its explosive warhead still intact. The V-1 was a 25 foot long, 2.1 ton missile with a range of 250 kilometers and a .9 ton warhead. It actually looked like a small aircraft, with a 18 foot wing span. The V-1 used a jet engine, and flew at a low (2-3,000 feet) altitude. That, combined with their relatively high speed (630 kilometers an hour) made them difficult to hit with anti-aircraft artillery, especially since the crews were accustomed to firing at propeller driven aircraft flying at slower speeds (closer to 500 kilometers an hour). Initially, only 17 percent of V-1s spotted were hit by anti-aircraft. But as the gun crews adapted, that eventually rose to 60 percent.

Since most incoming V-1s were spotted by radar, fighters could be dispatched to go after them. But the V-1 traveled faster than the propeller driven fighters, which had to patrol at a high altitude and dive in order to catch the missiles. Even then, gunfire was not as effective as it was against a manned fighter. There was no pilot to hit. If the warhead went off, the attacking fighter was sometimes destroyed or damaged (machine-guns were used at a range of a few hundred meters, at most.) Some fighters were able to get adjacent to a V-1, and use its wing to bump under the V-1 wing and tip it over, and out of control. This was only used a few times. With all that, nearly a thousand V-1s were destroyed by intercepting fighters. Balloons ("barrage balloons") were also used over likely target areas (southeast London), and over a hundred were downed that way, until the Germans fitted wire cutters to the V-1 wings (which often just cut the tethering cable.)

The Germans fired some 10,000 V-1 cruise missiles at Britain, starting in June of 1944. The V1 was primitive, but it was the ancestor of today's cruise missiles. Some 2,419 V-1s managed to hit London, while 4,261 were destroyed by guns, aircraft and balloons. Many others just went missing or landed in the countryside. Those that hit London killed 6,184 people and injured 17,981. There was considerable property damage as well. The guidance system was primitive, so the huge London metropolitan area was the most likely target to be hit.

A few months after the V-1s began arriving, the V-2 ballistic missiles appeared. These used a complex guidance system to get them to even more distant targets. More than 4,000 were launched and, unlike the V-1, could not be shot down. In the 1980s, some 600 Russian Scud missiles, based on the V-2 design, were fired during the Iran-Iraq war. Iraq used about 70 Scuds during its 1990-92 war, and thousands of Scuds are still available for use. But London still holds the record as the target for the greatest number of cruise and ballistic missiles.

World War II era munitions continue to show up throughout Europe. Although most of the millions of land mines were removed from Europe within a few years of the war ending in 1945, there are still a huge number of unexploded of grenades, shells and bombs buried all over the place. At least the mine fields were easy to find, although dangerous to clear. But the remaining munitions were left behind, in unrecorded locations, for some pretty simple reasons. First of all, many bombs, artillery and mortar shells (over ten percent, for some manufacturers) do not explode when they are supposed to, but just buried themselves into the ground. These shells are still full of explosives, and often have a fuze that, while defective, is often still capable of going off if disturbed. Other munitions are left in bunkers, or elsewhere on the battlefield, and get buried and lost. Most of these lost munitions eventually get found by farmers, or anyone digging up the ground for construction. London and Berlin, two of the most heavily bombed cities during World War II, still suffer from construction crews unearthing unexploded bombs or, in this case, cruise missiles.

The World War II munitions will be showing up like this for a while yet. Unexploded munitions from the American Civil War, which ended in 1865, are still showing up, and some of them are still deadly. Currently, over a thousand World War II munitions are discovered each year in Europe.

 


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