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- Len Smith
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- 26 November 2004
When writing about a topic as extraordinary as life on the home front during World War 2, it is difficult to accurately reflect the conditions under which we lived and still maintain credibility with the reader. This is particularly true of the V-2 assault, more akin to science fiction than to reality.
It all began on Friday evening 8th September 1944 when a tremendous explosion occurred that could be heard all over London. The scene of the incident was Stavely Road, Chiswick. The explosion left a massive crater in the road and the blast demolished houses on either side. Initially, there was a clamp down on press reports and photographers were not allowed to record the scene. They were told it was a major gas main explosion. Shortly after the Chiswick incident further explosions began to occur in other parts of London, mainly in the east and south-east, and the Government finally had to admit that we were now under fire from long range rockets. The V-2 had arrived. With immediate effect, all air raid warning systems and air raid defence systems were rendered obsolete. There could obviously be no forewarning of the approach of a 12 ton projectile with a warhead consisting of 2000lbs of high explosive charge, travelling at nearly 6 times the speed of sound, descending from a height of 15 miles, and with a time span of less than five minutes from launch pad to target. The first thing one would be aware of would be a blinding flash followed by an earth shaking explosion, obliterating everything within a 50 yard radius The missile would leave a crater up to 45 feet in diameter and 20 feet deep, large enough to accommodate a double decker bus. Fired from mobile launchers in Holland, they travelled through a huge arc, entering space before finally descending silently on to their target on the other side of the North Sea.
Since no evasive action could be taken, the loss of life at any incident in a populated area was high. One of the worst single incidents occurred when a V-2 fell on a shopping centre in New Cross. One hundred and sixty-eight persons are known to have died. On one occasion I was travelling home on a trolleybus when the street shook with an explosion. The bus stopped, the overhead power lines had gone dead, and I had to get off and finish my journey on foot. As I walked along the road, I was passed by ambulances, rescue tenders and fire engines. Half a mile later I came upon the scene. The missile appeared to have landed in Barnby Street, its rows of little Victorian houses reduced to heaps of rubble from which dust and smoke was rising. It was a shocking sight; nearly all the houses had been reduced to debris, along with some more in an adjacent street. The main road was cordoned off and I had to make a detour to get home. The number of dead listed in this incident was 27 with many more seriously injured.
The Civil Defence workers and the Fire Brigade are, to me anyway, some of the bravest people of the war, faced with the grim task of recovering the victims from the debris, often when their own lives are in danger. No post traumatic counselling was available then. It’s hard not to sound as if I am exaggerating, but it was a simple fact in those days that every moment could be your last. Life had become a deadly game of chance and it is difficult to describe the tension under which we lived. Realisations could only come about through personal experience. For a total of 190 days and for 24 hours a day we were vulnerable, whether at home on the street or at work. Indeed, the only places which afforded any degree of safety were the deepest stations of the London underground. It was only the belief that the war was likely to end within months that enabled us to keep going. Morale in London was not high at the time, and these latest attacks were almost the last straw. We had already endured nearly 5 years of conventional aerial bombardment.
Ilford, with more than 40 V-2 incidents, suffered the most. My home district of West Ham received 33. Six of these missiles fell within half a mile radius of my former home. Each incident resulted in a heavy loss of life. It is indeed fortunate that the V-2 assault occurred before the introduction of high rise blocks of flats, although the last V-2 to fall on London did hit a block of flats in Vallance Road, Stepney, at 7am on Tuesday 27th March, 1945. One hundred and thirty-four people were killed. A memorial plaque was erected on the site in 1995 to mark the 50th anniversary of this last terrible incident just 6 weeks before the end of hostilities.
I was once asked if I ever get used to living in fear. My answer was no, you never get used to it no matter how familiar it becomes. In total, 1115 long range rockets landed on British soil of which 518 hit London, killing 2274 people and seriously injuring more than 6000.
I read later that Government ministers believed that only one or two experimental missiles would be launched before the allied armies over ran the sites. How wrong could they be!!
We were indeed fortunate that the V-2 was not available for use in 1940 or in quantities that would have permitted their ultimate target of 100 per day to be launched. We must be forever thankful that this did not happen. I believe the course of history would have changed dramatically if it had.
The designer of the V-2 was the German rocket scientist Werner von Braun, who would later play a leading role in the U.S. space projects.
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