Friday, 13 September 2013

The Time of the Rockets

V-2 at Peenemunde (AElfwine)
Much has been written about the V-2 rockets, both on this blog (in June 2011)  and in February of this year, as well as extensively by far more accomplished writers than here. Sixty nine years ago this month, the first of these technologically brilliant but morally doubtful weapons fell in Staveley Road, Chiswick, thus ushering in a new and far more sinister period of warfare, one that remains with us to this day, where death and destruction could arrive without warning. Ironically, this first missile was the only one to trouble this particular borough, although it's place in history was now assured, perhaps for all the wrong reasons.
 
Athough these rockets were aimed at London, or other specific targets such as Antwerp, the actual point of impact could not be predicted, hence the wide spread of strikes across the whole of London. The brilliant scientific intelligence expert, Dr RV Jones, had already predicted the likely aiming point as being just down river from Tower Bridge, in the Wapping area. Jones had worked this out by analysing in great detail the fall of shot of the missiles, which showed to him an error in velocity of 'about 0.8 percent', which basically meant that the rockets were not travelling quite as fast as the Germans had predicted. This proved to be a tremendous piece of deduction, as the Germans actual aiming point was about 1000 yards to the east of Waterloo Bridge, ironically almost exactly on the spot of the London Fire Brigade headquarters on Lambeth Embankment!

This slight error in the aim meant that comparatively few of the missiles fell in central London as had been planned but many more of them fell on the eastern side of the city. With the V-1 Flying Bombs, their launching sites in the Pas de Calais region had meant that south and south east London had suffered the worst of these weapons but because of the V-2's launching points being largely in the Netherlands, most of these 'shorts' fell in the boroughs immediately east of central London. So it was that the two boroughs struck by the V-2s were Ilford and Woolwich, with 35 and 33 respectively. West Ham on 27 and Greenwich with 22, were the next in this dubious league table of devastation.

Being a south London boy born and bred, it is natural that this author should concentrate on the boroughs of Greenwich and Woolwich, both for reasons of parochial pride and the fact that he is in possession of the incident logs for these boroughs as well as several interesting personal accounts!

The first V-2 to impact upon Woolwich struck early in the campaign on September 14th 1944 when numbers 130-136 Dairsie Road, Eltham were obliterated in seconds. Six people were killed in this incident including a 5 year old boy, Keith Bungay. The list of incidents in Woolwich reflects the unpredictable nature of the V-2s, including a premature 'airburst' explosion on 28th October over Shrapnel Barracks in Woolwich in which nobody was injured. That already much-struck target, the Woolwich Arsenal, attracted the attention of the rockets on no fewer than eight separate occasions, the worst being on 27th November when the mysteriously titled 'Area D78', in reality the Heavy Gun Shop was struck, with six fatal casualties and over fifty injured. There is also one amusing V-2 related incident that pertains to the Woolwich Arsenal, when on 3rd February 1945 another rocket was reported as having struck the site, only for the incident to be cancelled a matter of moments later when it was realised that the explosion had been caused by the Arsenal's own materials being tested!
 
The most heartbreaking incident in the borough as far as this writer is concerned came on 20th February 1945, when numbers 64-70 Moordown, in the Shooter's Hill area were destroyed by a direct hit. The casualty list makes appalling reading - almost an entire family was wiped out, with Mrs Farrell and her three children aged between 3 and 6 years all being killed amongst an overall death toll of eight. The worst incident in Woolwich came on the morning of 17th March 1945 when an entire area around Jackson Street and Millward Street on Woolwich Common, adjacent to the Barracks was devastated - 14 people were killed and 144 were injured to various degrees of seriousness. This incident is the subject of a surviving incident report which rests in the archives of the excellent Greenwich Heritage Centre. Apart from the melancholy reading of the casualty lists, there is a quiet, understated description of heroism amongst the rescuers. The District Warden writing the report mentions the driver and mate of the Rescue Squad's crane who worked "continuously for 20 hours with only half an hour break for meals", such was the dedicated nature of the rescue teams who worked tirelessly to extract the victims, both living and dead. The report also highlights tensions in the hierarchy of the Civil Defence teams when the District Warden pointed out that "certain policemen will not act on Incident Officer's requests and consider that they are in charge of the incident." The report closed by praising a seemingly mundane but vitally important facet of the Civil Defence teams by reporting that the LCC Meal Service served upto 265 meals for those rendered homeless and closed by stating that "No praise is too high for the efficiency of Mrs Bull and her WVS colleagues."

Aftermath at St Nicholas's Hospital (Greenwich HC)
As well as striking 'military' targets such as Woolwich Arsenal, V-2 rockets had no respect for hospitals either as was proved on 6th February 1945 when St Nicholas's Hospital in Plumstead was near missed by a rocket which fell in the nearby churchyard but which shattered windows in the hospital and showered the area with debris. Nobody was killed in this incident but the seventeen injured were at least handily placed for hospital treatment.

Moving across the borough boundaries into Greenwich, the story of the rockets makes familiar, if depressing reading with their first incident, actually proving to be the worst in the borough. On Saturday 11th November 1944 at just after 6.30pm, the drinkers in the Brook Hotel on Shooters Hill Road, would have been settling down for a relaxing evening's drinking, when suddenly everything familiar was obliterated. The adjacent Brook Hospital was damaged and apart from the casualties in the pub, a passing 89 bus was also destroyed, thus adding to the death toll. When the rescuers had finished their work, it was found that 29 people had perished, with a further 22 taken next door to the Brook Hospital for treatment. A further 21 of these missiles fell on Greenwich and whilst the casualty lists steadily grew, none of these incidents proved worse than the first one at the Brook Hotel.

The very last V-2 of the war in Greenwich and Woolwich occurred on 19th March 1945, barely six weeks before the end of the war in Europe, when a rocket struck the end of the Iron Pier at Woolwich Arsenal, putting the pier out of action and causing damage to property within the Arsenal proper but mercifully without incurring further loss of life.

By this time, the missile launching sites around The Hague, were in danger of being surrounded and cut off by the advancing Allies and were withdrawn into Germany, with a view to continuing the struggle from there. Some abortive attempts were made in early April to re-start operations from the Hannover area but these test firings fortunately did not lead to a resurgence of operations and the missile firing units were gradually swallowed up in futile attempts to provide infantry to defend the ever shrinking Reich.
Devastation from a V-2: Troughton Road, Charlton (GHC)

Although 1,358 rockets were fired at London, a higher number were fired at Antwerp, with 1,610 being launched at the by now Allied-occupied port. The excellent website V2ROCKET.COM gives a full listing of each rocket ever launched, as well as a breakdown of the launching units responsible.

Apart from this writer's obvious interest in the subject, the V-2s made a lasting impact on the family home, when on 25th January 1945, a rocket fell in the grounds of Charlton House, partially destroying the Jacobean manor house as well as causing widespread blast damage to houses in the surrounding area, including mine! The legacy can still be seen with replacement ceilings still apparent in the upstairs rooms of the house. Fortunately, Charlton House itself was rebuilt after the war, although the repairs were made using different coloured bricks, making the repairs easy to spot even sixty nine years after the event.
 
Footprints of the Blitz indeed.
 
Published Sources:
 
Hitler's Rockets: The Story of the V-2s - Norman Longmate, Frontline Books 2009
 
Unpublished Sources 

Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich Incident Log - Greenwich Heritage Centre
Metropolitan Borough of Woolwich Incident Log - Greenwich Heritage Centre
Jackson Street District Warden's Report - Greenwich Heritage Centre
 


2 comments:

  1. The first V-2 to impact upon Woolwich on September 14th 1944 which killed 5 year old boy, Keith Bungay - he would have been my uncle - my nan's only son. She died three years ago and never really recovered from her loss.

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  2. Hi Theresa. This indeed was the first V-2 to hit Woolwich, I'm sure you know this but nos. 130-136 Dairsie Road were totally demolished. Apart from 5 year old Keith, there were six other fatalities - Mrs O Denyer, Mr & Mrs Goodchild, Mr RF Jones, Mrs AB Wheeler and Miss O Wheeler. Apart from the fatal casualties, there were 32 people seriously injured and taken to hospital. This is recorded as 'R1' (Rocket 1) in the Woolwich Incident Log and it struck at 07:20 on the morning of September 14th. Thanks for your interest in the blog - Steve

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