The American Scientists Who Saved London From Nazi Drones 

Within days, the test results were on their way to England.

By the middle of July 1944, more British citizens had been killed by German V-1s than had been lost over the first fifteen days of the Battle of Normandy.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill was holding meetings every other night with Royal Air Force leadership and General Frederick Pile, head of Anti-Aircraft Command. Pile argued forcefully that the existing defensive strategy against the V-1s wasn’t working. RAF airplanes, which still had first priority over the guns to police the skies and engage with the pilotless aircraft, were simply not gaining enough of an advantage over the Nazi’s terror weapons.

“All right,” Churchill replied, “from next Monday…General Pile is to have a free hand.”

Now, with General Pile in charge, the anti-aircraft guns would be relocated to the southern coast and given free rein to fire the smart fuse. Section T’s radio fuses had already begun to arrive in bulk in April. At Pile’s request, British gunnery instructors had been indoctrinated with the basics of the device. So had American anti-aircraft battalions stationed in England.

The coast of France was so close to one new American position that troops using binoculars could read the clock on the city hall tower of Calais.

“On a clear day,” said Ralph Griffin, an American gunner stationed near Dover, “we could see the Buzz Bombs almost as soon as they were launched.”

Under moonless, dark skies, night firing was an otherworldly event. At first, the pilotless aircraft appeared as mere “pin heads” glowing in the black, specks of fire groaning in the distance. At the sight of a V-1 quickening in the darkness, nervous gunners focused “on the little ball of fire.” The search beams locked onto V-1s, tips of guns flashed bright cotton-candy explosions, bursting flak flashed, and multicolored tracer bullets drew curved lines into the sky.

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A V-1 warhead exploded by ack-ack fire would illuminate the night with a “terrific burst of yellow flame” followed by, after several seconds, a concussive blast wave that jarred the gunners, shook the earth, and whipped the tents.

At first, the American gunners found the V-1s to be maddeningly elusive targets. “But after we got proximity fuses,” one recalled, “we started to knock them down. We got to where we could get them if they were in range.”

Section T was on the coast also, training the gunners. One of Tuve’s friends, the physicist Ed Salant, arrived on July 30. He practically lived with the coastal batteries, motoring in an Army Jeep along narrow country roads in the blackout, scrambling between the gun sites.

In that first week after the guns had been shifted to the British coast, the percentage of V-1s shot down by Allied batteries had risen from 9 to 17 percent. Seventeen percent of V-1 “kills” then quickly grew to 24 percent. As the weeks passed, with the help of better radar and aiming devices, Section T’s smart fuse began to master the V-1.

Twenty-four percent became 46. Then the figure hit 67. Then 79.

Salant estimated that only a hundred shells fitted with the fuse were needed, on average, to shoot a drone out of the sky—a figure five or six times better than standard fuses could deliver. General Pile noted that his best batteries were “getting one bomb for every forty rounds.” Ten times better than regular fuses.

By September, the V-1 attack on England was effectively stopped.

“More was learned about the potentialities of anti-aircraft work in 80 days,” Pile recalled, “than had been learned in the previous 30 years.” He thanked Salant personally.

“Our reputation in the knowledgeable circles here is very high!” Salant wrote on September 5, 1944, in a letter back to Section T. “You can be sure that the [fuse] has saved the lives of thousands here. I do not believe we are through with the flying bomb, but I do not believe it will be a serious menace to London anymore.”

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