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24 September 2014

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20th Century

V1. Picture: Australian War Memorial AC0249
A V1 Flying Bomb like the Newport bomb

The bomb that nearly destroyed Newport

By 1944 World War II was a far-off event for Shropshire. But as the year came to a close, the town of Newport had an incredibly lucky escape.

Doodlebug facts

The V1 was essentially a pilotless aeroplane with a simple jet engine mounted on top and 3,000 lbs of explosive packed into the nose.

The first ones landed in England a few days after the D-Day invasion and came as a complete surprise to the British. At first they were launched from ramps in the Pas de Calais aimed at London, but with a range of only 160 miles, the Allied armies had taken every launch site capable of hitting London by autumn 1944.

Air launched V1s were developed to counter this, along with the V2 rocket, which had a far greater range. But both were indiscriminate terror weapons that were wildly inaccurate, as witnessed by where the Christmas Eve bombs fell - from Scotland to Humberside to Shropshire.

In the early hours of Christmas Eve, 1944, a formation of German Heinkel bombers took off from a base in Holland or north Germany and headed out over the North Sea.

It was hardly a rare occurrence, but this mission was different. For under the wing of each of these bombers sat a deadly weapon - a V1 flying bomb, better-known to the British as a 'Doodlebug'.

The bombers flew on at low altitude to avoid radar detection until, approaching the Yorkshire/Linconshire coastline, they climbed to 20,000 feet and each pilot instructed his crew to start the engine of their deadly load.

One by one, they launched their weapons and set course for home, as their pilotless flying bombs lumbered away towards their targets.

The flying bombs had been aimed at Manchester, but reportedly came in all over the north of England and even in Scotland. Most missed Manchester altogether, but one came down on a row of terraced houses in nearby Oldham, killing 37 people.

And one crashed on the edge of the Shropshire town of Newport.

Christmas Eve, 1944 was a clear, frosty Sunday. Just before 6am the V1 dived into fields to the east of Newport and exploded with an enormous bang that was heard all around. A few more seconds in the air and it would have hit the town centre, causing death and massive damage.

As it was up to half the buildings in the town suffered some kind damage and the town's streets were awash with broken glass from blown-out windows. The people of Newport were shaken in their beds, and tumbled into the streets to find out where the mystery bomb had fallen.

Heinkel 111 (Australian War Memorial 129675)
Heinkel 111 similar to the V1 launcher

According to Malcolm Miles, who investigates the incident in his book Newport's War, the bomb created confusion for local police and air raid wardens, who rang round trying to find out where the flying bomb had landed.

Land Army girl Mary Dutton's experience was typical of a population that had not had to face enemy bombing, other than the odd one or two.

In Newport at War she said: "There was a noise that sounded like a boulder or tin can being dragged up the path and then there was such an almighty bang. I hid under the bedclothes.

"I went into my parents' bedroom and my father was sitting bolt upright in bed with his hair standing on end. And then he screamed: 'What the bloody 'ell was that?'."

It wasn't long before the source of the explosion was traced to a ploughed field about 300 yards from the Newport to Gnosall road, and by dawn a stream of sightseers had arrived at the spot to survey the deeply unimpressive remains.

There was a 'surprisingly small' crater occupied by some twisted metal remains but, according to the Newport Advertiser a few days later, the only casualties were a rabbit (which was soon eaten) and a frog (which presumably wasn't!).

"My father was sitting bolt upright in bed with his hair standing on end. And then he screamed: 'What the bloody 'ell was that?'."
Land Girl Mary Dutton remembers the Newport Doodlebug

The site was quickly cordoned off by Army and Home Guard, and by 10.30am the wreckage had been cleared. Pieces of it are still on display in the RAF Museum, Cosford.

But why was the crater so small? A standard V1 had a warhead of more than 2,000 lb - easily enough to flatten an entire street - yet homes only 300 yards from the impact crater only suffered superficial damage.

The answer could be found, quite literally, blowing in the wind. All around the bomb crater lay pieces of paper. On closer examination these turned out to be letters from British Prisoners of War being held in Germany.

Each was a a photocopy of a brief letter from a serviceman to their family, marked with a footnote from the prisoner's commandant, assuring relatives he was being well-looked after. Most were quickly picked up by the authorities, although many people claim they still have copies.

Apparently, this was quite a common event where V1 attacks had happened. The V1 was nothing new at least not in the south of England, where they had been wreaking havoc for six months.

Checks made since the war have proved that the prisoners who wrote the letters did exist, although their families did not receive the copied letters until several months later, and it has been suggested that the V1 carried a reduced explosive load to make up for the weight of the letters.

London bomb damage
London was worst-hit by the V1 attacks

This would explain the small size of the crater and small amounts of damage to homes near the impact. But we'll never know for sure, as some were adapted to carry a crate of letters and propaganda leaflets on the outside of the bomb.

Their purpose? The best anyone can do is an educated guess. It's possible the Germans might hope to gain information about where their flying bombs were falling if a well-meaning person had passed them on to the families they were addressed to, and the families had written back to the POWs.

In which case, the Germans would have been sorely disappointed. Their massed air-launched V1 attack of Christmas Eve 1944 had apparently been aimed at Manchester - yet the bombs had fallen in a wide arc.

In any case, the V1 threat was soon over in Britain. The last air-launched 'Doodlebug' fell in north-east London just three weeks later.

* This article is based around an incident detailed in the book Newport's War, A History of a Shropshire Market Town between 1939-1948 by Malcolm Miles, published in 2005, priced £9.

last updated: 23/11/05
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