World War II was fought with upgraded and greatly improved versions of weapons that had been on the battlefields during World War I. Submarines, torpedoes, aircraft, bombs, tanks, artillery – they had all been in action in 1918. There was, however, one entirely new weapon that saw extensive service in 1944 and 1945: the unmanned missile.
There had been missiles of a sort for centuries before World War II broke out. The Chinese and later Indians had been using gunpowder-fuelled rockets to launch explosive charges for centuries. The development of such weapons reached its most sophisticated form in the early 19th century when British engineer William Congreve produced a number of rockets designed to supplant conventional artillery. Congreve’s rockets had a range of up to two miles and could deliver an explosive charge of 24lbs that sprayed an area with shrapnel when it went off. However, all these weapons werefor use at the tactical level and were erratically inaccurate.
The idea of a long-range missile to be used against strategic targets was often discussed, but practical problems with finding a suitable propellant meant that such rockets were never produced.
It therefore came as a very nasty surprise to the British population when missiles carrying warheads of close to a ton of high explosive began falling from the skies. The weapon was officially the Vergeltungswaffe (vengeance-weapon) 1, but was more widely known as the V1. It was also dubbed the doodlebug or buzzbomb from its characteristic noise.
The British government, however, had known for some time that a number of top-secret weapons were under construction. The information had come from spies and from intercepted radio signals. Although they had little idea of what the weapons were, they knew that they were being developed at a top-secret base on the Baltic island of Peenemunde.
On 17 August 1943 a bomber raid had been sent to Peenmunde in an effort to halt the work. The aircrew were not told about the secret weapons, but were told that the target was so important that if it were not destroyed the bombers would be sent back every subsequent night until it was destroyed, no matter what the cost. The raid did do extensive damage to the development and construction site. The Germans, however, responded by moving the main factories producing the weapons to other sites. It was later estimated that the raid had delayed the start of the V1 attacks by about three months.
from "Historical Atlas of Weaponry" by Rupert Matthews