Flying bombs target East End of London
On Sunday 10 April, 2005, a service in Bethnal Green* will commemorate one of the final, and most brutal, of the World War II bombing attacks on London. On 27 March, 1945 a V2 bomb fell on Hughes Mansions in Vallance Road, Bethnal Green killing 133 people.
Londoners had become hardened to aerial attacks during the Blitz of course. From September 1940 until May 1941, the capital had suffered nightly bombardment. Around 42,000 civilians were killed, 50,000 injured and 130,000 homes destroyed. But after that, bombing became much more sporadic, if an ever-present threat. There were heavy hit-and run raids during 1943 and February 1944 saw a series of attacks — the so-called mini-Blitz.
Air raids on East End of London
With D-Day, 6 June 1944 there was renewed optimism: Londoners dared to dream that the war would soon be over. For some time there had been rumours of ‘Hitler’s secret weapon’, but largely these were taken as a joke, even the source of ribald humour as to what shape the Fuehrer’s secret weapon might take.
British Intelligence knew differently. For a year Bomber Command had been hitting the launch sites in Northern France, the emplacement for a terrifying new ‘Vengeance’ weapon; this campaign was codenamed Diver. They succeeded in delaying the first launch by six months, but the Luftwaffe had carefully spread the sites around the forests of northern France, and taking them all out was impossible.
First doodlebugs hit East End of London
On the night of 13 June 1944, East Enders heard a strange new sound in the sky. The sound was variously described as ‘like a motorbike without a silencer’ or ‘a badly maintained steam train going uphill’. People saw what they assumed was a burning enemy aircraft crossing the sky with flame coming from its tail. The reality was far worse.
The rocket had a variety of names. Officially it was the Vergeltungswaffe 1 Fi 103 / FZG-76: Vergeltungswaffe means ‘vengeance weapon’. It was known for short as the V1, the Flying bomb, Buzz bomb or Doodlebug. It was also the first modern guided missile used in war, and the first ‘cruise’ missile. The FZG in the name was a bit of German intelligence disinformation, being an abbreviation of Flak Ziel Gerät (‘anti-aircraft aiming device’), designed to throw British Intelligence off the scent.
V1 hits Grove Road, Mile End
The first V1 dived to the ground and exploded in Grove Road, Mile End, on the morning of 13 June 1944. Go to the railway bridge which carries the Liverpool Street line and you’ll see a blue plaque marking the spot. A number of houses were damaged and six people were killed; the railway bridge and the track were also badly damaged.
Now began a deadly game of intelligence between the two sides. The problem with the Flying bombs, of course, was that they were near-impossible to aim accurately, and the Germans had no practical experience of range-finding. The attack on Grove Road was probably a sighting exercise and everything went quiet for a few days. Meanwhile, the British engaged in feeding back false information.
Luftwaffe target East End of London
Double agents in Germany reported fictitious eye-witness accounts of the bombs overflying their targets. In fact the German scientists had got it about right with their ranges; they had placed radio transmitters within the V1s to confirm their final landing place; and the Luftwaffe were providing aerial reconnaissance photos. Yet the High Command preferred the eye-witness reports.
This was a mixed blessing. British Intelligence succeeded in sparing Westminster from bombs, and possibly saved the Docks and East End from even worse damage and loss of life, but inevitably a resighting of bombs three miles further east or south led to heavy casualties in other parts of London. Dulwich, Peckham and Lewisham were just three areas that suffered horrific damage as a result.
V2s begin to strike London
Yet the very uncertainty of where the bombs would drop made them a perversely effective weapon … psychologically unsettling to those living below. Londoners lived in terror of the moment when the buzzing of the bomb cut out. With its engine dead, the V1 would now plummet to earth.
Next week: the V1 campaign gathers intensity; the V2s and the Hughes Mansion tragedy. And how the Nazis used Jewish slave labour to build its final flying bomb.
Victims of Grove Road bomb, 13 June 1944
Dora Cohen, 55
Connie Day, 32
Willie Rogers, 50
Lennie Sherman, 12
Ellen Woodcraft 19
Tom Woodcraft, 8 months