The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging


by Colin Dean

Address to SAMHS Jhb branch on 8 Dec 2005

Tonight's talk is about London and southeast England during the latter years of WW2. It's mostly about civilians and what happened to them and about their memories of the "second battle for Britain".

My earliest childhood memory is of seeing London burn in the Blitz and experiencing the arrival of the German V1 Flying Bomb, or Doodlebug. The sound of the V1 and the Air-Raid-Warning siren still make my hair rise, although I was then too young to be afraid. Unlike thousands of other children I was not evacuated from London, so lived through the whole of the V1 "invasion".

When you heard the V1 engine cutting out, you only had a few seconds to find shelter from the explosion. The first V1 to arrive in our part of NW London exploded just up the street on Christmas day 1944. It blew out all our front windows and covered with glass the precious Xmas turkey my father had brought home on leave from the Staffordshire farm where he was billeted. Fortunately we were in our Morrison shelter when the explosion occurred.

There were two types of household shelters - the Anderson and the Morrison. The Morrison shelters were erected indoors, whereas the Anderson shelters were constructed outside in gardens.

At first, people used their Anderson shelters every night. But after a while most preferred their own home comforts to a dark, cold shelter. The drawback of the Anderson was that it flooded easily and families spent more time bailing them out than sheltering in them. The space inside the shelter was very small, and it was very noisy during an air raid. The Anderson shelter did, however, save a lot of people's lives during the blitz and the V1 raids.

When not in use as a shelter, the Morrison could be used as a table by temporarily removing the welded wire mesh sides. We only used ours as a shelter, but we always slept in it at night, on the mattresses from our beds.

Before the war started, Adolf Hitler first mentioned the existence in Germany of a secret weapon during one of his hysterical broadcasts. Hitler's "secret weapon" made headlines in Britain and was dismissed as a German bluff. Although, the Secret Intelligence Services (SIS) had evidence that suggested the matter should be considered seriously. As the weeks went by it became a national joke.

But, it was no bluff at all. For many years, German scientists had been designing 2 novel weapons. One was a pilotless, jet-propelled aircraft; the other was a long-range guided missile (that was later to become the V2 rocket in the final phases of the war in Europe).

A more secure and secret site was needed for the development of these weapons and, in 1935, Werner von Braun sought and obtained approval for the heavily wooded Peenemunde base on the Baltic coast. The cost of the site was shared between the Wermacht (army) and the Luftwaffe (air force).

The Battle of Britain forced the Luftwaffe onto the defensive and so their inclusion in the Peenemunde operation was perfect for the development of their Vergeltungswaffe (their revenge weapon, or V-weapon). So, the airfield to the west of Peenemunde became the centre for the Luftwaffe to test-fly new aircraft and pilotless flying bombs. Security was so tight that few of the vast army of people that were working there knew what was being made at Peenemunde.

At the end of May 1942, the Luftwaffe's deputy C-in-C, Erhard Milch presented the plan for an Argus-tube-propelled pilotless missile to be made by Fieseler Flugzeugbau, the makers of the Storch aircraft. Each machine would be economical to make and run (thin steel plate, low-grade petrol, 550 man-hours) and be controlled by an auto-pilot. It would carry a 100 kg warhead and be designated Fieseler Fi 103 (later changed to F2G 76). The project was designated "Cherrystone". Development would begin immediately, with production starting toward the end of 1943.

The first V1 missile launching look place on Christmas Eve 1942. There were early failures to fix and modifications to make; the latter were suggested after a cramped manned flight by Flugkapitan Hanna Reitsch. By May 1943 sustained flights were achieved and the project pronounced as "very hopeful".

The devastating series of raids on Hamburg, called "Operation Gomorreh", began on July 24th 1943 and Hitler screamed for retaliation. By then 68 Fi 103's had been test-launched and 28 had been entirely successful; one had flown 243 km and another had reached 600 kph.

The Flak Regiment was established and given responsibility for the actual launchings in France. In France, preparations were under way for the erection of concrete bunkers and ramps for sending large numbers of flying bombs to south-east England. Christmas, 1943 was the date nominated for the first assault.

Allied Intelligence was totally ignorant of what was happening at Peenemunde. It took them six years before they realised what was going on. In November 1939 the "Oslo Report" spoke of the rockets, but this was regarded as a German "plant" and was ignored. Peenemunde was not heard of again for 3 years. Finally, in June 1943 (following reports from agents), air-reconnaissance photos showed the rockets: the RAF bombed Peenemunde and declared it "obliterated'.

But, the airfield where the V1s were being tested was untouched and the British were unaware of this weapon.

A few weeks after the Peenemunde raid, on November 9th 1943, a "suspicious erection" was noticed on a set of reconnaissance photos at Bois Carr, near Yvrench in France. This was the first V1 launching site to be analysed. It shows the long, low building of heavy concrete (christened a "ski site") which was used for the storage of flying bomb components. Within a few weeks, similar constructions were identified on photographs between Dieppe and Calais. The sites were ordered to be destroyed without knowing their purpose. Thousands of pictures of north-west France were taken and examined. By the end of November 1943, Flight Officer Constance Babington Smith had spotted a tiny cruciform shape at the lower end of inclined rails. She had made the first British sighting of a flying bomb. The cross-channel threat was established beyond doubt as the Flying Bomb. It was estimated that the each of the 100 "ski sites" could house 20 missiles, so some 2,000 bombs could be launched a day!

Attempts to destroy the "ski sites" by Allied bombing were paltry. By the end of December 1943 only 7 sites had been destroyed and the Germans were completing new sites faster than the Allies could destroy them; the loss of Allied aircraft and crews was appalling. The bombing was wildly inaccurate.

The Germans' favourite site was a small wood (of 5 to 10 acres) close to a hard road, where trees in both summer and winter gave them perfect cover. They built hundreds of such sites and supply depots. But they also chose more domestic sites.

Orchards of apples and pears were used, and they even used back gardens of French peasants in remote villages. On at least one occasion they built an entire launching site in a village street!

The New Year proved more successful, but defences were strong and losses heavy. By the end of May 1944, 82 sites were believed to have been neutralised, but the Allies had lost 154 aircraft and 771 aircrew were dead or missing. Further reconnaissance over Picardy, Normandy and Artois showed that the majority of the sites had now been abandoned. The British War Office believed that a simplified launching system for the flying bombs had been devised.

The Flakregiment 155(W), which was responsible for deploying and dispatching the V1s, was now almost mobile. It was building "modified sites" of minimal construction with a ramp, concrete roads and a few essential buildings. Each site took about 6 days to erect and could be abandoned when discovered by the Allied bombers.

On the 16th May 1944, Field Marshal Keitel (on Hitler's orders) issued the order for "The long range bombardment of England to begin in the middle of June."

Soon after midnight on the night of June 12/13th, the Nazis' cross-Channel batteries started firing. In Folkstone, more than a 1,000 homes were damaged and 10 civilians injured; Maidstone was also hit.

The first V1 ("a fighter on fire") was spotted from Observer Post Mike 3, high on the Kent Downs at Lyminge. Message was passed to the Royal Observer Corps and the Observer Post Mike 2 in a Martello Tower at Dymchurch took up the track of a noise like "a model-T-Ford going up a hill". The code message "Diver, Diver, Diver" was passed rapidly up the command line, finally reaching the Mandarins and Gods in Whitehall and Washington. The missile flew steadily across Kent, eventually diving to earth and exploding on open farmland at Swanscombe.

Meanwhile, in France, Colonel Max Wachtel (in charge of Flakregiment 155(W)) was experiencing great difficulty in meeting the Fuhrer's demands of 500 flying bombs a day. He had already withdrawn his men from the ski sites where they had been filling in craters after heavy Allied bombing. He was hoping that the first modified launching sites in the Pas de Calais would be ready by the evening of June 12th, but the invasion of Normandy had seriously affected his progress. The French railway system was in total disarray. Trains had been held up and many catapults had failed to arrive. By 11.15 pm on June 12th, when the opening salvo was due to be fired, only 18 of 64 sites in the Pas de Calais were operational and even on these essential equipment was missing. The attack was delayed until 3.30 am when battery commanders were told to open fire.

At 4.20am, the second flying bomb landed in a field behind Mizbrooks Farm, Cuckfield in Sussex. The blast blew open the door of a pig-sty in a nearby smallholding and pigs were running everywhere. The third clattered on towards London and the fourth flying bomb came down at Platt, near Borough Green. It crashed in the back garden of a very large house and "made a terrible mess of two rows of greenhouses".

It was the third bomb which caused the first V1 fatalities. It landed at 4.25 am on the railway bridge over Grove Road in Bethnal Green. This was the main railway line from Liverpool Street to the north-east of England, via Chelmsford. Two tracks were torn up, the parapet partly collapsed, two houses were demolished and several others badly damaged. The blast injured 30 people and 6 were killed.

After many delays and frustrations caused by the Allied advance through Normandy, the Luftwaffe units responsible for launching the next wave of flying bombs finally got their act together and, in the 24 hours from midday on Thursday June 15th, more than 200 missiles were fired.

The men on the anti-aircraft batteries in Kent and Greater London could hardly believe their luck as wave after wave of enticing targets came rattling over, all flying a straight course and all trailing a flaring exhaust. The gunners greeted the monsters with more enthusiasm than accuracy and aimed wildly into the air, cheering madly when the sudden cut-out by the engine seemed to indicate yet another score. "Look", shouted one man, "they're shooting the bastards down like flies."

It didn't take long for the people of Kent and the men on the suburban batteries to realise that they were now under attack from the first of Hitler's "secret weapons".

Mrs Greta Flanders of Tunbridge Wells was 13 years old when she heard her father say to her mother: "Quick, Ada, get the children up and come and see this lot. The bloody Huns are sending over planes on fire."

The comments and writings of those who lived through this period of the war reveal that the dominant memory is the sound of the V1. Cyril Oakley (then living in Gravesend): "It is the noise I remember best. The distant hum, getting louder and louder, growing into a roar and then a deafening rattle as it passed overhead." R.A. Barham (in Ashford during the war): "... our family was awakened by a strangely menacing sound, once heard never forgotten, but difficult to describe ..."

Londoners would hear the noise of the engine, followed by that terrifying moment when it stopped. The 15-second silence was the hardest to bear. Then came the explosion and the mushroom of rubble and dust thrown high in the air.

Hitler's secret weapon, for so long a music hall joke, was no longer amusing.

At 4pm on Saturday afternoon, June 17th, rescue parties were rushed to St. John's Hill, Battersea where a V1 had landed in the road, damaging the Surrey Hounds public house, two passing trolley buses and a row of shops. The death toll was 24.

One of the victims of the Battersea bomb was Sylvia White, aged 14. That morning she was shopping with her mother when the air raid siren started. Sylvia writes that: "... a man standing in the doorway said: "there's one of them funny things up there and they're firing at it. It might come down". He gave me a shove back into the shelter of the shop. The next thing I remember is regaining consciousness in complete blackness, my mother shaking me like a terrier and slapping my face and her voice shouting 'wake up, wake up, for God's sake, wake up.' Then I became conscious of other voices calling out saying they knew we were there and they would soon get us out. The bomb had fallen on the baker's and the pub on the other side of the road and the blast had blown in the front door of the butcher's shop and brought down part of the first floor. Thanks to the stranger in the shop doorway I am still alive to tell the tale. When the rescue services had dug us out we were taken to the Granada cinema which was being used a casualty clearing station. We were then taken to ... have our wounds dressed and to be given certificates to say we were official war casualties."

By Sunday night, 6 days after the first firing, Flakregiment 155(W) had fired its 500th missile - enough to make the people in southern England think the blitz and the "battle for Britain" had started all over again!

The guns of London were withdrawn because, as General Sir Frederick Pile, the head of Anti-Aircraft Command, says in his book Ack-Ack: "... the mere act of hitting ... the Flying Bomb... was of very little use, for all they succeeded in doing was to bring the missile down on to the very target at which it was aimed."

An important aspect of using a "revenge weapon" is to tell everybody about its use. The Germans conducted a widespread propaganda and psychological campaign using leaflets and newsletters. Aerial propaganda material has been disseminated by a host of systems. The most common is the aeroplane: other methods include balloons, artillery, mortars, grenades, and small rockets. During WW2 all the combatants fired leaflets at each other mostly by artillery. But the German Board of Ordinance (under General Domberger at Peenemunde) designed and developed small solid fuel rockets that could carry propaganda leaflets about 10 km. The rockets had a container tightly packed with leaflets that were fired against front-line Allied troops in Italy. In the "Diary of a German Soldier", Wilhelm Pruller says, "We got a new gun today with a barrel made of cardboard ... the bullets are propaganda bombs which comprise more than 100 leaflets." Many of these leaflets were about the V1 bombings in England, and how "you boys" would have no home to go back to.

Similar V1 material was distributed to Allied troops in Europe as well as delivering the stuff to civilians in England using long-range guns firing the canisters from the French coast.

But, they also used the V1s to deliver propaganda "messages". They were placed in a small canister, which ejected automatically from a hole near the wing as soon as the engine turned off, thus scattering the leaflets in the area of the explosion.

Examples of the leaflets vary from insults to American Generals, through graphic drawings and pictures (overprinted with large red V1 characters) to cause fear and dismay; to imaginative disinformation about the Allied "atrocity" bombing of German cities; to letters purporting to come from British POWs in Germany.

Desperate measures were used by the Germans to keep up the bombardment. One of these measures was to attach the missile under the fuselage of a Heinkel III and to launch it from the air. By this means, and by flying from Belgium, the Germans were able to bring the industrial centres in the British midlands within range of the V1.

The last phase of the V1 offensive began on March 3rd 1945 when Flakregiment 155(W) launched a few doodlebugs from ground ramps at 3 sites in Holland. Fighter bombers attacked the two of the sites and put them out of action, but the RAF never discovered the Delft site and from here came the closing shots. On March 28th 1945, during the night, 21 V1s were launched but only one managed to evade the guns and fighters and dived to earth in a sewage farm near Hatfield. The last V1 Doodlebug to reach England was launched in the early hours of March 29th from Delft - it was shot down by anti-aircraft fire and exploded in open country near Sittingborne, close to the A2 road.

Back in June 1944, Colonel Wachtel had told his men that their hard work was soon to be rewarded: the V1 was a weapon with which they could win the war for the Fatherland. The fact that they failed was due to all those people who stopped the V1s from reaching London - the bomber crews who attacked the factories, the depots and the launching sites - the fighter pilots and the men and women of Anti-Aircraft Command who destroyed the bomb in flight.

Colonel Wachtel was driven from his last launch sites in Holland. He retreated to Luneberg in NW Germany and reformed his troops into infantry to fight the advancing British on the ground. On May 4th 1945, along with other German forces, he surrendered to unconditionally to Field Marshal Montgomery. The men of Flakregiment 155(W) were not tried as war criminals and Colonel Wachtel, at the end of hostilities, secured a post in a different kind of aviation as the manager of Hamburg airport.

Between June 13 1944 and March 29 1945 a total of 9,251 flying bombs were plotted. Of these 2,419 reached London. The total number destroyed was 4,261 - 1,971 by anti-aircraft fire, 1,979 by the Royal Air Force, 278 by balloons and 33 by the Royal Navy.

In the words of Bob Ogley, who wrote the book on which a lot of this talk is based: "Those who lived through the summer and autumn of 1944 and the winters of 1944 and 45 will never forget the Vengeance Weapons. Many loved ones lie in communal graves, beneath headstones on which are inscribed the words 'By enemy action', and others still bear the scars of injury. Thousands of families, who lost precious possessions when their homes were destroyed, can look back with a slender slice of comfort - the battle of the flying bomb was a victory for the Allies. Victory at a price."

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