There are times when one finds oneself eye witnessing history, yet not fully realizing the implication of what one saw at the time.
Such an event happened to me in the pre-dawn hours of Tuesday, June 13, 1944, exactly a week after D-Day, June 6, 1944.
Just an eighteen year old lad at the time, in the first year of four years voluntary Army service with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, although I had no idea that I would be “called up” for what is proving to be almost one twentieth of my lifetime - at this stage at least.
I suppose that is why I write this now, forty nine years to the day since witnessing an event that brought a new and terrible element to the horror of war - the forerunner of the cruise missile - the first German V1 Flying Bomb to reach and explode on London proper.
At that time my REME posting was at the Royal Military Depository, Woolwich, where my trade duty was as Lathe Turner in the once Royal Artillery Academy Officer Training Workshops; but also as an Army Fireman with the Repository Fire Fighting Crew, thus billeted at the Repository rather than the REME No.1 Holding Unit at the Royal Artillery Barracks on the edge of Woolwich Common.
After the momentous events of D-Day and of watching the Air Armada that preceded and accompanied the Normandy Landings at dawn on June 6, 1944, with countless planes of allsorts from Lancaster heavy bombers to “Dakota” DC3 transport planes, some towing gliders and others loaded with paratroops Commandos destined to land behind the beachheads, an incredible, unforgettable sight with planes approaching London Town from the west and still coming until the vanguard had disappeared over the eastern horizon and the English Channel, spread, seemingly from overhead the Thames towards the Essex countryside, the days after D-Day was an anticlimax.
Yet we had been alerted to expect a reprisal from Adolf Hitler, in the form, we expected, of an airborne counter attack on London, and we had been trained for such in the weeks prior to D-Day.
Yet we had another warning well before that, when London editions of the evening papers headlined warnings that Hitler had “secret weapons” in store for London, that wrote in vague terms of long range rockets and other “Vengeance weapons”.
In our hut we discussed such “H G Wells” threats and remembered the scenes of destruction depicted in the late 1930s film “Things to come” based on Wells’ 1933 novel “the Shape of Things to Come”, which so accurately predicted an England isolated from Europe and the Battle of Britain “Blitz”. The finale depicted the hero and heroin being shot into shape in a rocket (so much like the German V2 long range rockets that rained on London late in 1944 until spring of 1945) taking the to the moon.
So, in a way, we half expected the World shattering events of the predawn hours of Tuesday June 13, 1944, when the early morning silence was first shattered by the unforgettable staccato throb of a V1s simple pulse jet engine - the sound we dreaded the end of and the seconds of terror until, hopefully, the one tonne high explosive warhead exploded far enough away to not destroy whole streets of houses around its bombed site - with unholy silent prayers that it would keep going - to destroy some other poor Londoners’ homes!
Tuesday 13th. June 1944, just after 4 a.m.
The air raid sirens sounded in Woolwich just before the first light of dawn flecked the eastern horizon; a week before the shortest night of the year as the Summer Solstice approached, with the darkness of night not really dark at all.
It was the first time the sirens had sounded since D-Day, a week before, even months before then the warnings had been “False Alarms” has German reconnaissance planes peeped over the Port of London and the Thames Estuary to see if Churchill was readying for the invasion of France.
So we of the permanent fire picket at Woolwich’s Royal Military Repository were in no great rush to man the fire station and our Scammel heavy duty trailer pump.
Not since the “Little Blitz” of winter 1943-44 had a bomb dropped on London, that when Hitler’s fast fighter-bombers sped through the air defences and dropped HE and incendiaries on well selected targets, without a great deal of success.
The early morning was warm and we simply donned battle dress trousers, shirts, socks and gym. shoes to be at our places as quickly as possible, hitherto a lapse of a least ten minutes, often more, came between the first intermittent warning wail and the sounds of approaching enemy planes, with the sound of distant anti-aircraft fire preceding even that sound.
But Tuesday’s dawn on the thirteenth of June 1944 was to be the exception to break precedent in all future air raid alarms - pilot less warfare had arrived!
The fire picket hut stood a little apart from the rest of the workshop and administration buildings, with a tarred parade ground and roadway between the hut and the main buildings, where stood the simple brick, concrete roofed “air raid shelter” fire station, so typical in WW2 Britain.
In less than a minute we of the duty fire crew tumbled out of the hut and headed to the fire station, quickly, but not unduly hurried.
Then we all, as a man, stood and gaped south eastwards towards the slopes of the high ground of Shooters Hill towards Bexley, about a mile or so away, which lay obscured to our view behind the main office building.
Although still not loud, the sound of the ack-ack guns was unusual, the clatter of Bofors light antiaircraft guns rather than the heavier boom of the usual 3.7 inch antiaircraft guns that usually tackled high flying bombers.
Looking towards the rapidly closing sound of the Bofors gun and their exploding shells we saw searchlight beams crossing under the low cloudy sky - crossing purposefully, rather than sweeping the sky to spot the enemy.
It was such an unusual sight and we, to a man, stopped in our tracks and stared at the strange transition of events, so different to the usual events of an air raid on London.
Each twinned searchlight pair crossed on their obvious target, bring rapidly from south eastwards to north eastwards as the rapidly approaching enemy aircraft neared closed in on us at incredible speed, so much faster than our RAF Spitfires or the Luftwaffe equally fast Messerschmit fighter-bombers, we were suddenly aware that something extraordinary was happening.
In less than a minute the searchlights within London’s south-east suburbs had opened fire and our “local” searchlight ad illuminated and immediately lit the fast approaching enemy and we glimpsed the enemy plane briefly before it disappeared behind the low workshops building.
In that split second sighting we could see flames from the aircrafts tail.
Woolwich Military Repository is on the western edge of Woolwich Common, a high plateau on the south side of the Lower Thames, and affords extensive west-looking views from the adjoining Royal Artillery “Rotunda” museum side.
The panorama extending from Dagenham, Essex, in the east, to Waltham and beyond to the north, the earliest London television transmitter towers on Alexandra Place in North London plain to see.
Looking westwards towards The City of London, in the foreground down on Greenwich Reach of the Thames to the north east and with Tower Bridge, the Tower of London, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Big Ben and Westminster, even to Hampstead Heath beyond, then, before high rise building blocked the view; with Greenwich Palace, Greenwich Park and the Royal Observatory in easy sight only a couple of miles away.
In fact one of the best panoramic views of central east London to be found anywhere, so, we all ran that way to get a better view of what we thought was a fast German fighter-bomber making a sneak attack on Central London.
In the time it took us to run the hundred or so yards from our billet hut to the vantage point overlooking the artificial lakes on the Charlton side of the Repository grounds the strange sounding ‘plane was over Blackheath Park and less than two miles away from us, flying low the high ground of Blackheath at a height of about 1,000 feet - with its tail ablaze and leaving a short trail of brilliant flame.
“They’ve hit the bastard” Cried someone.
A great cheer went up at the thought that the anti-aircraft batteries had hit the fast flying “Jerry”.
But it continued on its direct unswerving track and was over Greenwich Observatory in a few seconds and still hurtling headlong towards the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral that already stood out clearly in early dawn light.
Then over the Thames’ Greenwich Reach and Rotherhite, tow miles further on in a few seconds, the reverberating throb of the plane’s engine sounding so much like a plumber’s blowlamp that instinctively one thought of some odd sort of rocket engine.
That sound was to haunt us for rest of our lives, those who suffered the trauma of hearing the approaching sound, hearing it close overhead, then the abrupt cease of the deafening pulsation, followed by those dreadful seconds of silence until the ear shattering explosion came.
If one lived to hear the explosion there was such gratitude to The Almighty that one’s silent prayers of those internally long seconds of silence before the blast came had been answered. To quickly change to pity for those who failed to live to hear explosion, then so quickly forgotten at relief of still being alive.
Somewhere over Rotherhithe the flame went out, just as all the crowded shipping in The Pool of London downstream of Tower Bridge, busily being loaded with stores and supplies for the D-Day landing beachhead in Normandy, opened fire with everything fireable on those heavily armed ships.
By this time, only a mere four crow-fly miles away and less than a minute from the weapon coming into clear view, we were sure that the aircraft was doomed and stood waiting for the flash of its ground impact and explosion, somewhere in Central London.
But none came.
It took many seconds after the exhaust flame disappeared before we heard the sudden end to the ‘planes engine and the sound of the gunfire from the ships and shore batteries by the Pool of London.
We all stood in puzzled silence, watching in fascination to see what part of the City or Westminster would suffer the blast of the downed enemy plane.
Our vigilant watch was rudely ended when shrapnel from the antiaircraft guns started to pepper the area - luckily a corrugated iron roofed lean-to shed was close by and we took refuge under its open-ended awning, with still a view over towards Central London.
Silently the six or so of us watched and waited for the flash of the explosion.
A minute, maybe more elapsed, but no sign of any explosion came and we all fell to wondering about the strange sights and sounds we had witnessed so remarkably.
Then, it came, the boom of a relatively distant explosion, not in front of us to the west, to our right, northwards, from the North Woolwich area on the other side of the River Thames.
Then silence, until several minutes later the air raid sirens sounded the “All Clear.”
We returned to our beds, almost in silence, wondering if it had all been nothing but a dream!
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Woolwich, Thursday, ,June 16, 1944.
The events of the early hours of the day before where the subject of much speculation, conjecture and rumour, but nothing official - the radio and newspapers were silent about the vent, only a brief comment “A solitary enemy raider was shot down in the south-east of England.” - the usual Ministry of Information Press release inferring an air raid on London.
The only reliable “Gen” came from one of our fire piquet members, a Cockney whose home was in Stepney in The East End.
We worked of a 72 hour roster, 24 hours on fire picket standby, with workshop duties as usual, but “on call” throughout the duty day; with 48 hours normal workshop duties and off-duty sleep and relaxation.
Our Cockney colleague was on “sleep-out” off-duty home pass, a special privilege for those with homes close to the Unit.
He had been on “sleep-out” at home in Stepney on Monday/Tuesday the night the first V1 flying bomb reached London proper.
When he arrived back at barracks the morning after the memorable dawns hours of Tuesday the thirteenth, he told of how the trains on the Liverpool Street to Ilford and Southend main line had stopped running because the line had been bombed at Bow Viaduct near the Mile End Road. But that he knew nothing else about it.
“Sparrow” (his “monicker” from the London “Me old Cockney Sparrow” nickname) was on the next duty day to our own, so on duty the Tuesday/Wednesday night after the mysterious “air raid”, but on arrival from “sleep-out” on Thursday he had such a tail to tell.
A relative lived in Bow, close to where the mysterious bomb that blew up on the main LNER Liverpool Street to Southend at Bow Viaduct, and had visited his wife saying:
“Yer know that Jerry bomber that crashed and blew up on the London North Eastern line at Grove Road, well, my Old Man who’s the air raid warden for Lichfield Road, wot had lots o’ ‘ouses blown up, y’know just off Grove Road beside the railway, well, he reckons ‘as ‘ow they canna find the remains o’ the Jerry airman what flew it!”
“She reckons ‘as ‘ow them women that lived in them houses that were bombed want to find his body to make saveloys out o’ his brains.”
“Any’ow the Coppers wouldna let ‘em get anywhere near the wreckage cos there were a Yank wiv some sort o’ gadget looking fer radio signals - or sommut. Any’ow my Old Man reckons as ‘ow this Yank was from America and ‘e’d was looking fer what my Old Man reckons he called radio activity - that’s it, radio activity - and My Old Man reckons its all ter do wiv splittin’ the atom - yer know, what Einstein were on about afore the war.”
“Well, me Old Man, ‘e ain’t nobodies fool, he went ter Poly Tech ter study television when that bloke Baird invented it and me Old Man worked fer the BBC at Alex’ Palace ‘nd ‘e knows all about wireless and asked this Yank if it were to do with the atom bomb but the Yank buggered ‘im off!”
All this meant nothing to us in 1944, but what “Sparrow” added was :
“They reckon now, the Boffins, that it was a pilot less bomb and there weren’t no pilot in it!”
The debate then revolved about the “pilot less bomb”, but we all took the talk of radioactivity as a bit of a joke, leg pulling by “The Yank”.
In fact, as secret document released since the “Thirty Year Embargo” on Official Secrets was lifted show, a member of the highly secret “Alsos” mission (to try to discover German nuclear progress as soon as the Allies reached into France, Belgium, Holland and Germany) has described in one of David Irving’s books ( possibly “The Virus House) or in Samuel Goldsmith’s “Alsos”, a member of the Alsos Mission did in fact examine the Bow Viaduct V1 with a Geiger Counter to satisfy Churchill and the War Cabinet that the flying bomb did not carry an atomic bomb.
On the evening of Thursday, June 16th. 1944, our next duty day after the sighting of the first V1 flying bomb to reach London proper, we went to bed wondering about what “Sparrow” had told us, but not unduly worried.
But, indeed, we should have been!
Now long after turning-in the sirens wailed.
This time we sped to the Fire Station-cum-air raid shelter.
No sooner had we readied the pump for starting than the first salvo of the initial flying bomb raids on London was overhead.
How many filled the night sky above us we would never know, only after the war were we to learn that Hitler had fired 244 V1s simultaneously from Cap Gris Nez, just over the English Channel near the French port of Calais.
How many sped over Woolwich, with many exploding within a few miles of us, we can not know, but of the 244 fired from France, less than 90 miles and a quarter hour flying time away, 73 got through to Greater London.
A quarter hour later came the second salvo, again a score or so flew overhead towards the German “Bullseye” targeting “zero” - Tower Bridge.
After the racket of every anti-aircraft gun in south east London blazing hopelessly away at the V1s, flying faster than an Allied fighter we knew of - although the first jet engined fighters of the RAF and USAF were soon in combat against the simple impulse jet engined V1s, they were too few to have any impact on the thousands fired against London in the earliest attacks.
It soon became apparent that the many barracks, depots, Royal Arsenal and Dockyards of Woolwich, with the great “Royal” docks of North Woolwich, of Woolwich Garrison Town were a prime target - the shuddering building around us, crash of falling glass, hailing ack-ack shrapnel on the roof above and roadway outside, the deafening detonation of one tonne warheads too close by, and the sound of civilian fire engines bells hurrying to yet another “incident” was a cacophony of noise repeat regularly at quarter hour intervals.
The night dragged on towards dawn.
At first the “all-clear” siren wailed after each salvo headed towards London, only to be almost immediately followed by yet another warning when coastal radar spotted yet another salvo fired from just across the Channel, a mere twenty five miles from Folkestone.
But after the first few attacks the “all clear” was not sounded, nor for many, many days - until the Nazi launchers ran out of supplies to keep up regular barrages.
In the early hours, hours after the attack commenced, the anti-aircraft guns fell silent, gradually as each battery used up its supply of shell or when the gun barrels became to hot to fire safely.
Not far from the Repository, on Woolwich Common close to the Royal Artillery Barracks, was a barrage balloon manned by WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) girls. The balloon was aloft when the attack commenced but grounded next morning; whether on orders or not, it was just as well, had it “caught” a “Buzzbomb” an brought the V1 down, chances were that it could have crashed headlong into the crowded barracks.
Daylight came, the sky was leaden with low storm clouds, still the V1s kept coming, but at random intervals.
Instructions came that the normal daily routine was to continue.
At breakfast time our squad lined up “in order of march” to march the quarter mile alongside Woolwich Common to the Cookhouse at RA Barracks.
In true British Army fashion we set off three abreast from outside the billet hut towards the vast Artillery Barracks.
There was an eerie silence as we marched towards the Repository gate, past rows and rows of low corrugated iron sheds full to the roof with wooden cases of glass ether bottles, the Medical Corps reserve stocks for the invasion of Occupied Europe.
With sidelong glances at the lethal, highly inflammable stockpile of anaesthetic ether, thousands of cases of the stuff, hundreds of tons of it,
we dare not think what would happened to us if a V1 hit our camp and its depot.
We had barely reached the camp gate when the sound of yet another Buzzbomb heading directly towards us, out of sight above the scudding clouds.
It came rapidly closer until almost directly overhead, then the engine stopped.
By this time we all had learnt from the terrible experiences of the night, what to expect, but instead of doing the logical thing and dropping to the ground and making the best use of what cover there was, we just gapped open mouthed eyes transfixed on the clouds were the silence had come.
I suppose, like myself, we all wanted to see what this strange weapon we had seen apparently ablaze a few mornings before, looked like.
Our curiosity was soon salved, there about forty five degrees above the horizon came a small plane, about as big or smaller than the ubiquitous “Tiger Moth” training planes, but single winged like the German Messerschmit fighter, even to the German Luftwaffe cross on its wings and fuselage.
In an instant the “plumber’s blowlamp” sound I had been reminded of on hearing the V1 the first time, made sense.
There was not propeller, nor engine cowling at it from, just a bullet-pointed nose with a short pipe protruding from its apex.
But above the fuselage and over the tail fin was, to mind, the nozzle of a blowlamp, but flameless - obviously a simple rocket engine.
Whether out of sheer horror, or just curiosity, we stood rooted to the ground watching the missile spearing out of the clouds and diving diagonally towards the earth, across our line of sight - straight towards the huge frontage of the RA Barracks overlooking the vast Parade Ground - straight towards the Cookhouse just behind the Officer’s Quarters in the frontage.
The mental image of that sight still haunts me - the terrible realization that many of my REME pals, still quartered at the REME block at the Barracks, would be lined up or at breakfast in the Mess Hall the missile was seemingly about to blow to smithereens.
Seconds later the flying bomb was lost to our sight behind he barrack frontage, then the flash of its explosion and the sighting of ornamental masonry caught in the blast and shooting skywards, then the boom of the explosion split the silence of the early morning.
Not much more than a schoolboy, in spite of a years Army training, the horror of the sight took away all the discipline and training and I just panicked.
I still hear myself screaming, yes, screaming. “Poor bastards, my mates! Quick we must hurry to rescue them!”
But the other men in the platoon were older and wiser, someone called “Come back, Alec, its too late, there’s nothing we can do!” has a started to run away towards the “incident” scene. He could have added - “We all could have been in that if it happened a few minutes latter.” - but that was unsaid but in all our minds.
Has it turned out that V1 missed the RA Barracks by only a few hundred yards, instead it hit the Royal Engineers main drafting offices, Cambridge Barracks - which fortunately, because of the early hour, no one was working in the building and the casualties were relatively light.
Over the next two months, until posted out of Woolwich when I reached nineteen and thus eligible for overseas theatre posting, escaped the threat and traumas of being in a prime V1 pilot less flying bomb target area after too often being too close to exploding ones, once so close I was caught up in its blast - but that is another story.
I cannot forgive Winston Churchill, written in his memoirs, for saying the V1 was just a random terror weapon, an inaccurate missile tossed randomly at London without much regard for its accuracy.
Had Churchill spent the wearily weeks of the V1 offensive, that lasted, those ground ramp launched from Cap Gris Nez, from June 13, 1944 until the end of September, 1944, when the American Fifteenth Army finally swept up the French Channel coast and occupied the Boulogne - Cap Gris Nez - Calais salient, the last stronghold of Hitler’s vaunted “Atlantic Wall”, long after the German Front was driven back from the River Somme in late August, he would have seen too well that vital targets, like Woolwich and the railway junctions in South London, were well and truly targeted from certain Cap Gris Nez launching sites.
Most V1s that survived the launch, achieved the English coast, broke through the semicircle of anti-aircraft guns, barrage balloons, RAF and American fighter interceptions, strung in an arc from the Thames Estuary, through Kent and Suffolk to intercept missiles headed for London.
Although the Cabinet knew that “45,000 pilot less flying bombs could be expect to be launched against London” from military intelligence sources, as early as March 1944, the antiaircraft defences still clung to battle of Britain philosophy until the uselessness of ack-ack in London proper was useless - even if an unlikely hit was achieved, the crashing V1 would have simply landed in London anyway - not only that, the casualties from “friendly” shrapnel was higher than injuries from Buzzbomb incidents.
After almost a week of futile firing and failing to hit the fast, low flying V1s with 3.7 inch antiaircraft guns intended for slow, high flying bombers and lighter Bofors guns with too limited range to each the Buzzbomb unless it was head straight towards the Bofors battery, it finally resolved the War Office that only by intercepting the flying bombs before they reached London, there was no point in even trying to hit the speeding missile once over the suburbs.
No, Mister Churchill was wrong on that count - a “good” ( i.e. well made, correctly fuelled and accurately instrumented, albeit so simply - compared to today’s cruise missiles - constructed and powered) Buzzbomb was as accurate as the average Army soldier hitting a targets “outer” at one hundred yards range, if it fell within a quarter mile of its target, as so many did, too often right on it, like the Guards’ Chapel on the first Sunday of the V1 offensive, within a stones throw of Number Ten Downing Street and killing or mortally wounding 200 hundred Whitehall civil servants and high ranking Army officers assembled in the chapel in thanksgiving for the successful D-Day landings.
Or the V1 that plunged into the grounds of Buckingham Palace, with little damage.
Or the one so close to hitting the V1s “Bullseye” aiming point, London’s Tower Bridge that it sank the lift bridges attendant tug along side the bridge commanders control tower.
Oddly, amongst Churchill’s favourite saying was “Truth war’s first victim!”
Fifty years later his quip is truer than ever!
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