The V3 was the natural development from the V1 and V2 weapons that had terrorised London in 1944 – a weapon for revenge (‘Vergeltungswaffen’). The V3 was never fired at London though it was used in a very minor way in the Battle of the Bulge.
On July 6th, 1944, nineteen RAF Lancaster bombers from 617 Squadron (the ‘Dambusters’ Squadron) carpet-bombed a hillside on the French northern coastline between Calais and Boulogne. To all intents their target appeared to be a railway tunnel. In fact, inside the hill itself was an emplacement that would have fired the V3 if the chance had been there for it to do so – part of the firing mechanism is in the photo above.#
However, the Lancasters attacked the hill with 35 tons of high explosive bombs. Their target were the concrete and steel-lined covers of the massive gun barrels that were meant to attack London with the intention of reducing the inner city to rubble. The V3 was not a rocket like to V2 nor a pilot-less plane like the V1. It was a dart-shaped shell nine feet long and the 416 feet gun barrels targeted by the Lancasters were, on paper, capable of firing 600 of these shells every hour. However, one of the ‘Tallboy’ bombs (12,000 lbs of explosives) developed by Dr Barnes Wallis penetrated one of the five gun barrel shafts and did so much damage to the ‘guts’ of the project that it was eventually abandoned.
The idea of a weapon that could destroy London was sold to Hitler by the firm Roechling – a leading German armaments and steel firm. Because it had the backing of Hitler, great sums of money and manpower was thrown into the project. Men such as Werner von Braun claimed that the money was better spent on upgrading Peenemunde but Hitler had got his mind set on the destruction of London – something the Luftwaffe had failed to do during the Blitz.
Project ‘High Pressure Pump’ was started in August 1942. The man at the head of the project was August Coenders, a machine gun engineer. He had studied captured French documents from 1918 for a multi-stage long barreled gun that was meant to be the French answer the the Germans ‘Big Bertha’ long range gun that had fired 320 eight-inch shells into Paris from the distance of 78 miles. Coenders boss, Hermann Roechling, was a personel friend of Hitler and he saw this as a chance to greatly elevate himself in the eyes of the Führer. By 1943, Albert Speer was also willing to add his name to the project.
Speer’s plan was to build 50 of these huge guns set in giant underground emplacements near the hamlet of Mimoyecques in the Pays de Calais. The guns were designed to fire one round from each barrel every five minutes which, Speer hoped, would produce a “saturation coverage” of London with a maximum of 600 shells hitting London every hour.
Ballistic experts in Nazi Germany doubted whether the plan had any reality. Lieutenant-General Erich Schneider believed in the development of the V1 and V2 but he always believed that the V3 was in the realms of fantasy. In this he was probably correct. The initial tests on the shells showed that when they were fired they had a tendency to flip over in flight as they lack stability. Therefore, from the earliest tests, London appeared to be safe. However, this did not stop Speer pushing for Hitler to continue his support the project.
The huge emplacement was built at Mimoyecques using slave labourers, POW’s and German workers. Such activity obviously attracted the attention of the French Resistance who fed intelligence back to London. 1000 artillery troops were quartered underground; the complex had its own power station that powered an air conditioning unit. Speer got it into his head that the V3 was to be the weapon that would bring Britain to its knees and vast sums of money was thrown at the project, so much so that it is said that the campaign in Russia was affected by this. It became the weapon that had overriding priority within Germany.
RAF photo reconnaissance planes also spotted a tell-tale sign – haystacks out in the autumn when all others had been brought in within the region of the Pay de Calais. These haystacks disguised the gun barrel covers of the V3 project. In November 1943, the RAF made its first attack on the complex but it made little impact.
In January 1944, the guns that were to be used on the V3 project were fired for the first time in Germany at a test range. The velocity of firing was only 1000 metres a second – 50% too weak for a shell to hit London from Mimoyecques. As important, the shells that were fired were well below the size expected for an all-out attack on London:
|“The explosive charge they could carry was so small that they were quite useless against a huge target like London; what we needed was an atom warhead but Hitler would not see that.”Lieutenant-General Erich Schneider|
However, the expert opinions of the likes of Schneider were ignored and he had to tread carefully in an era when “defeatism” was punishable by a term in a concentration camp and possible death.
Those who were concerned that the V3 was absorbing far too much money, time and manpower. They called in Professor Werner Osenberg, head of the German Wartime Scientific Research Council. He quickly realised the the ‘High Pressure Pump’ project was fraught with scientific problems that probably could not be solved. Osenberg complained that the V3 project was not based on any form of scientific thinking and he referred to it as “messing about”. Roechling complained to Hitler about such comments but this became irrelevant when in June 1944, the Allies landed in Normandy. Movement up the coast to the Pays de Calais would not take long and the project was doomed to failure.
Perhaps the most pertinent comment about the whole project came from an engineer who worked on ‘High Pressure Pump’, Anton Huber:
|“The actual project itself seems not to be scientifically perfect, and its development has not been sufficiently long. The workers are wasting a lot of time on the site because there are not enough trained concrete makers.”|
On July 4th 1944, Huber wrote to Osenberg that the complex had been without electricity for seven days and that nothing had been achieved. On July 8th, Huber wrote that the project had effectively been wiped out as a result of the Lancaster bombers raid. However, Hitler, still convinced that the V3 would win the war for him, ordered that the project should be moved to Germany itself and placed under the control of the SS. Hitler saw it as the secret weapon that would push back the Allies as they tried to advance to Germany.
One barrel was used with just 44 rounds in the Battle of the Bulge. The very last V3 shells fell on Luxemburg. After this, the barrel was destroyed. The final order to end the V3 project came in February 1945.