Living with Nazi V Weapons
The Germans' WWII attack on the UK
During the blitz of 1940 and early 1941 air raids on London occurred almost every night. From about the middle of 1941 onwards raids became less frequent, although they remained a fairly regular happening right through '42 and '43. After the invasion of France on D-day, in early June 1944, we began to think that the war was nearly over, especially for us in London. We were convinced that the Germans would have their hands too full to worry about bombing us.
One Saturday, soon after D-day, the siren went but nothing happened, then the all clear. On the Sunday, just after breakfast, the siren went again. We were surprised but not alarmed, just a stray raider we thought. We heard some distant aircraft and a distant explosion then nothing. The morning wore on with no sign of activity. My brother and I decided that they must have forgotten to sound the all clear, so we set off down the road to go to the paper shop. After we had gone about 800 yards we heard a plane approaching at high speed. The noise became very intense very quickly; clearly there was more than one plane. We stopped and watched and very soon there appeared a strange looking craft flying at no more than 10,000ft and going like a bat out of hell. Before we had a chance to recover, the reason for the rest of the noise became apparent as two spitfires of the latest type, possibly Mk 22s, came over the roof tops flying even lower and going even faster. It was apparent that they were not gaining very much on the other thing. That was our first introduction to the V1, or flying bomb or buzz bomb or doodlebug.
The V1 was a tiny aircraft the body of which contained almost 2000 lb of high explosive, a compass and gyro based guidance and control system and fuel. It was propelled by a novel and extremely simple pulse jet engine mounted above the main fuselage. This engine had hardly any moving parts but was capable of propelling the craft at speeds that only the fastest of our fighters could better. It was mainly some versions of the Mosquito and Spitfire that were noticeably faster, and then not by all that much. The only exception was the Meteor, our first jet-engine aircraft in service, and there just was not enough of them. Attempting to shoot down a V1 could be a very hazardous pastime. Various techniques were developed later, probably the most successful of which was one where the attacking aircraft placed its wing under that of the bomb and suddenly tipped it. This appeared to upset the control system of the bomb and caused it to crash. Of course if this could not be done over open countryside there was not a lot of point.
The high speed and relatively low altitude of the V1, most of them flew at about 4000ft, made it difficult for the heavy anti-aircraft guns and they were just too high for light guns. The engineering genius of the V1 had to be admired and the desire of the Germans to use them was understandable. They manufactured them in very large numbers. What, however, was unforgivable, as we learned after the war, was that this had been achieved by the use of slave labour.
After this introduction and for the next few weeks our lives became pure hell. Unlike the good old-fashioned air raids, we now went for very long periods without an all clear. The doodle-bugs kept coming so frequently that it was often possible to hear the next one coming before the one before had either passed over or come down. I had not left school at that time but, once again, school was out of the question. We spent our days trying to get on with things and keeping one ear open for the now familiar and characteristic sound of the doodle-bug. Once heard, if possible, you made a dive for a shelter and there you waited to hear if the engine stopped. I found these weapons much more frightening than the blitz. The wait for the engine to stop and worse, the wait after it stopped for the explosion, was very stressful. In the initial stages it was more like a bombardment. In the first two weeks over 20,000 houses were destroyed and almost 2,000 people killed. Because of the manner in which the bomb often glided down there was little penetration of the bomb which made the blast even more effective. One bomb could destroy a significant number of houses, as we witnessed when a number of them came down in our neighbourhood.
The range of the bombs was somewhat limited so they were all launched from locations in France and all followed a similar route to London. They came in across the southeast corner along a path, roughly as wide as from Bromley to Croydon. This path was christened doodle-bug alley, and we were in it. The bombs kept coming right through June and July with a high proportion getting through the defences. By the end of July the defence services got themselves more organised. They had fighters patrolling the channel to intercept the doodle-bugs, they moved the anti-aircraft guns from around London and set them up on the south coast across doodle-bug alley. They had more fighters over south-east England behind the guns and they used barrage balloons on the approach to London.. In fact, it was a fairly effective defence in that it succeeded in bringing down a good proportion of the incoming bombs. By the end of August only 10% were getting through, or so we were told, but from where we were standing there still seemed to be too many. The onslaught lasted until the beginning of September when advancing allied forces in France overran the launch sites. A few continued after that, which were launched from beneath Heinkel bombers. Before the doodle-bugs were defeated, however, we were to experience another weapon, the V2.
We had three V2s land within a mile or two of our house; one just half a mile away. When a V2 hit, the initial explosion was tremendous and came out of the blue. No warning whatsoever; enough to make you jump clean out of your skin. Because it traveled so much faster than sound, possibly Mach 7 at its fastest, it was after the initial explosion that you heard the thing approaching. The sonic booms and roaring sound was quite unlike anything I have heard since. Some likened it to an express train passing through a station. But it was much different to that; more like thunder rolling round hills but with a greater noise intensity that was maintained longer and stronger. Many people regarded this as the worst terror weapon. For my part they worried me a lot less than the V1s or the blitz. I think this was partly because there were fewer of them and partly because of adopting a somewhat fatalistic philosophy, recognising that once you heard it you knew it had missed you.
On September 8 there was a violent explosion in Chiswick, which destroyed a large number of houses. This was claimed to be a gas explosion. It was followed in the next few days by more explosions; the noise of these explosions was quite extraordinary. Foolishly the authorities stuck to the story of gas explosions for a while. After another explosion one woman was heard to say another flying gas explosion. The V2 was a ground-to-ground rocket propelled missile. It had a greater range than the V1 and, once it was fuelled up, it could be launched from a mobile launcher. It reached a height of over 100,000ft and attained a maximum speed of 3,600mph. There was no defence against such a weapon; with a ton of explosive and its own mass, 12.7tons at take off, and travelling at such speed it was very destructive. Even without the explosive charge it would have done a lot of damage.
By November over 100 V2s had landed on London. In Croydon, four landing close together had destroyed 2000 houses. On 25th November, a Saturday, one fell directly on Woolworth's in New Cross. The building was completely destroyed of course and the scene was one of terrible carnage. 160 perished and a further 200 were seriously injured, mostly women and children. These attacks continued into April of 1945 almost within a month of the end of the war.
The technology was far in advance of anything that the allies had in that field. The V2 used alcohol and liquid oxygen as the main propellants. Apart from small solid propellant rockets largely for air to ground use, the allies had not attempted to develop rockets. A man named Goddard had done some good work in the USA but the government had not backed him. In Britain the British Interplanetary Society were the main sponsors of work on rockets and they were largely regarded as cranks. The allies had devoted their R&D efforts to improving existing technology and developments in other fields, including the A-bomb.