A Royal Air Force Wing Commander has described how Second World War Spitfire pilots might have used their airborne skills to tip V1 Flying Bombs out of the sky to bring them down.
The tactic has become the subject of urban legend, with many social media commentators discussing if the method is simply a myth, or whether pilots really did use this risky tactic to bring down the feared bombs that were also known as buzz bombs or doodlebugs and which were the early forerunners for modern drones or cruise missiles.
Wing Commander Nick Robson, of today’s RAF Air Command High Wycombe, said: "This was not a routine action.
"It was innovation of the highest degree of skill from our pilots of the 1940s.
"The bumping action was a last resort. The idea was to get the wing of the plane as close to the missile as possible.”
A lively debate was sparked online around the subject in 2018 after Hanger 7 Art, which features historical military digital aviation art by Mark Donoghue, posted one of its creations on social media showing how the Spitfire vs V1 wing tipping might have looked mid-flight.
Amy Casey, of Forces Radio BFBS, got the debate going on air when she discussed the concept during a broadcast at the time.
Spitfires often scrambled to intercept a V1 when one was detected in the airspace.
It is thought that some pilots would not shoot down a flying bomb but instead use the tip of their aircraft’s wing to bump the wing of the V1 – throwing its gyroscope off kilter and in effect ramming the flying bomb out of the sky, forcing it to nosedive to the ground.
Pilots are said to have used the tipping method in a bid to save their limited ammunition or as a last resort once they had expended all their ammunition while still airborne.
The tactic is also thought to have mitigated some of the risks involved in shooting down a highly explosive flying object, as V1s were packed with 1,000kg of Amatol-39, a mixture of TNT and ammonium nitrate, and pilots often had to fly in close to them to take a shot, especially as the pulse-jet-propelled doodlebugs flew at speeds of up to 400mph.
Spitfires reached speeds of about 369mph which meant that pilots had to target a V1 by diving from higher altitudes, about 5000ft, to build up enough speed to allow them to close in on their target at ranges as close as several hundred yards.
This meant that debris from an exploding doodlebug sometimes shattered through a pilot’s fuselage.
If a pilot could dive in and gain enough speed to fly alongside, the tipping method is thought to have saved them from any blast risks, albeit that the tactic posed enough danger in itself.
The ‘wing tipping’ tactic is said to have involved impressive levels of skill in flying given the risks of things going wrong, including misjudging distances and risking a collision if wings hit each other with an unintended impact.
However, Wg Cdr Robson explained that the skill of the Second World War pilots ensured that the wing of a Spitfire did not need to actually ‘hit’ a V1 wing – but instead used an ingenious method of using airflow to throw the flying bomb off course.
Speaking to Amy Casey, of Forces Radio BFBS, he said: “The V1 is what you and I would call today a ‘drone’ – a pilotless missile – that came off the rails, it was pointed towards London, probably from northern France, and it was just fired.
“It was literally fire and forget.
“The problem we found in that time was that shooting it down from the ground was very difficult – they are very fast, and also it’s very difficult to see, so we had to find a way around it.”
He pondered, however, as to what a Spitfire pilot might actually have done.
He said: “There is a difference in air pressure above and below the wing – as it gets closer is it actually touching the wing?
“Some pilots would have touched the wing – the different air pressure at the tip of the aircraft would be enough to cause a disturbance in the aerodynamics around the wing which is then enough to knock it off course, disrupt the gyroscopes and then get the aircraft crash into the ground.
“That’s all it needed to do to disrupt the flightpath, just slightly, and either by physically hitting the wing, or actually it takes more skill, to put the wing so close that the vortexes at the wingtip disturb the air around the V1 wing itself, causing it to go off course.”
He said a mid-air collision could well have done some damage to the Spitfire but pilots would have had to hit the wing of a V1 very hard for that to happen.
Instead, he suggests a different scenario might have been taking place, saying: “We’re not looking at ‘ramming it off the road’ in the sense of the police programmes you see now, this is just very sensitive disruption of the airflow around the wing.
“This is a good example of how the Royal Air Force at that point, roughly in its 50th year, had to be innovative in how it combatted the new developing weapon systems.
“And if you look at RAF 100 and one of the themes of RAF 100 is inspire and innovate, this is exactly what we do in today’s modern aircraft.
“This is a really good example of how the RAF is continually at the forefront of technology and forward thinking.”