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Around 4 a.m. on June 13, 1944, two elderly men of Britain’s Royal Observer Corps were sitting in a sandbagged emplacement on the Kent coast. A week had gone by since the Allied armies stormed the Normandy beaches, and the British knew the Germans might try some desperate retaliatory measures. Suddenly one of the observers heard the stuttering rattle of what sounded like a peculiar two-stroke motorcycle engine high in the sky. He nudged his companion, and together they looked up to see a pulsing flame moving across the sky in the general direction of London. One man took a quick sighting through his plotting instrument while the other reached for a telephone. The battle of the buzz bombs, or “doodlebugs,” as the British called them, was about to begin.

While they did not inflict as much widespread damage and suffering on British cities and towns as bomber raids, Germany’s V-weapons–Vergeltungswaffe 1s and 2s, or V-1s and V-2s–generated a special brand of horror all their own. The V-1 doodlebugs, which were powered by pulsejets, approached faster and in a more unpredictable fashion than airplanes, and when their engines cut out there was no telling where the missiles would fall. The V-2 rocket bombs fell without any warning after approaching soundlessly and at great speed.

Ian V. Hogg has provided a comprehensive, highly detailed study of the V-weapons, as well as the rest of Nazi Germany’s secret weapon program, in German Secret Weapons of the Second World War (Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, Pa., 1999, $34.95). Hogg, one of the world’s most respected authorities on military weaponry, displays a stunning wealth of technical knowledge, but he clothes his expertise in a brisk and understandable narrative.

In addition to discussing the V-1s and V-2s, he profiles a host of air, land and sea weapons, including Messerschmitt 163s and 262s; the Arado 234; Kurt, Germany’s answer to the Royal Air Force’s “dambuster” bomb; recoilless guns; air-to-ground rockets; anti-ship weapons; anti-aircraft missiles; K-12, the cross-Channel gun; taper-bore guns; rocket artillery; torpedoes; fast attack boats; midget submarines; and cannons designed to shoot down aircraft, using blasts of wind and sound waves.

There was certainly no dearth of ingenuity in the Nazi armaments laboratories, but many of the weapons were never put to use. Hogg points out that this was mostly because the secret weapons program had no central authority with the ability to assess ideas, reject bad ones, allocate research facilities to good ones and organize production. Almost every field of activity could muster five or six authorities, all competing to be the supreme arbiter in that particular area of expertise. Thus, says Hogg, instead of fastening on an idea and throwing the entire weight of the national effort behind it, Nazi weapons programs competed among themselves for priorities in materiel, manpower, research facilities and production resources.