Hitler has sustained his faithful Nazi followers with promises of secret wonder weapons that would transform the war situation. Also known as ‘Vengeance’ weapons, the first ‘V’ weapon appeared – and dropped – over London on the 13th June. It was little more than a bomb with a pair of wings powered by a pulse jet – a crude navigation system turned it into a basic cruise missile – but an innovation for its time. When the jet engine fuel ran out the bomb simply fell from the sky, exploding on impact.
By the 16th June the Nazis were prepared with several hundred V1 rockets ready, and they launched their most intense attack on an unsuspecting London. The very existence of the V1 had not yet been officially acknowledged nor had the bombs acquired their popular nicknames – the ‘doodlebug’ or the ‘buzzbomb’. Within days a huge re-organisation of London’s air defences would be underway, with many more spotters and anti-aircraft guns covering the area between the south coast and London. For the moment the defences were largely unprepared for the new threat.
This anonymous account was by a young man serving with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, based at the Royal Military Depository, Woolwich, in central London:
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 Messerschmitt 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.
Read the whole account on BBC People’s War