The first ballistic missile attacks – V2 rockets

German photograph of a V2 rocket in the initial stage of its flight
German photograph of a V2 rocket in the initial stage of its flight

On 8th September the British newspapers were full of reports of the rapid Allied advance through France and Belgium. A further victory was also apparent.The British had conquered the German V1 rocket attacks and there was widespread reporting of a statement made by War Cabinet member Duncan Sandys who had claimed that “except possibly for the last few shots, the battle of London is over”.

He had praised the assistance of United States officials who:

had thrown themselves into the job of beating the bomb as if New York or Washington had been the victim of the attack…

The latest American equipment for use with British heavy guns was ordered earlier in the year when flying bomb attacks began to look imminent. The necessary priority was accorded by the President as a result of a personal request by the Prime Minister.

Intelligence, agents, air reconnaissance and photo-interpretation units warned us in the first place what Hitler was preparing for us, and since then we have directed our bomber forcesm with remarkable precision onto the weak links and bottlenecks in the enemy’s organisation. The visitation which London has so bravely borne has been painful enough.

Had it not been for the vigilance of the intelligence services and the unrelenting efforts of the British and American air forces, her ordeal might have been many times more severe.

A highly concentrated barrage of anti aircraft guns on the south coast had proved to be very effective in knocking the V1 rockets out of the sky. Those that got through the barrage were often intercepted by pursuing aircraft, either Typhoon or the latest Spitfires, which just had the speed to catch them. On 28th August 90 out of 97 V1 rockets fired at London had been brought down by the guns, and only four missiles got through to hit London. Soon the Allied advances on the continent would put them completely out of range.

Gunners at a mixed anti-aircraft battery on the South Coast mark their names on a shell case after shooting down a V1 flying bomb with only one round, 6 August 1944.
Gunners at a mixed anti-aircraft battery on the South Coast mark their names on a shell case after shooting down a V1 flying bomb with only one round, 6 August 1944.
Workmen carry out temporary 'First Aid' repairs to houses in a London street following the explosion of a V1 Flying Bomb.
Workmen carry out temporary ‘First Aid’ repairs to houses in a London street following the explosion of a V1 Flying Bomb.

However the Minister had been evasive when questioned about whether there was a “V2” rocket:

I think we’ve got enough to deal with if we stick to the V1 we do know quite a lot about it … but in a very few days’ time I feel the press will be walking over these places in France and they will know a great deal more about it than we do now. It would be very dangerous for anyone to make a statement now.

Allied intelligence knew about the V2 but had little information on how close the Germans were to making them operational.

In fact the Germans had been struggling with the problem of the V2 rockets exploding in mid air. On 30th August they had introduced modifications which seemed to have solved the problem. Just before noon on the 8th a German rocket battery in occupied Belgium had pumped eight tons of alcohol and liquid oxygen into their rocket and fired it at Paris. Six people were killed and thirty-six injured.

The damage in Staveley Road, Chiswick after the first V2 rocket hit London.
The damage in Staveley Road, Chiswick after the first V2 rocket hit London.

At 6.43pm that day Chiswick, west London was rocked by a massive explosion, closely followed by another boom that was heard across London. The first explosion had been real enough – caused by 760 kilos of Amatol. The explosion that was heard just after it was the supersonic missile breaking the sound barrier as it re-entered the atmosphere. It had been just minutes since the missile had left the Hague in Holland.

Three people had been killed in Staveley Road, Chiswick, although casualties were light given the thirty feet wide, eight foot deep crater.

The Brentford and Chiswick Air Raid Precautions centre reported Incident 636 of the war:

Eleven houses demolished, 15 seriously damaged and evacuated. Blast damage to 516 houses. St Thomas rest centre opened to house sixteen. The WVS [Women’s Voluntary Service] incident inquiry point opened to the 10th. 14 families re-housed, three billeted.

Attempts by the Press to report the ‘Mystery Explosion’, the site of which had been visited by several unusually senior military figures and politicians, were blocked by the censor. Locally the reason given was ‘a Gas Main explosion’. Over the following weeks Londoners were to become familiar with this phrase.

See Christy Campbell: Target London: Under attack from the V-weapons during WWII

Cutaway drawing of a German V2 rocket.
Cutaway drawing of a German V2 rocket.

8 thoughts on “The first ballistic missile attacks – V2 rockets”

  1. I suspect Duncan Sandys was referring to US radar proximity fuses for AA shells. These markedly improved UK AA effectiveness.

  2. Amazing how many V1s were shot down by the guns. Even allowing for knowing the general height, direction and speed of the approach to bring down one with one round must surely be down to the use of the top secret radar directed and detonated proximity fuse.

    This would explain the prominence given to the RAF at the time and since in their efforts to catch and shoot down or tip the missiles into the ground. As with the Carrots for night vision stories, to bluff the existence of AI radar.

    I am currently researching the shooting down of three out of a flight of four RAF Wellington bombers returning from France at about this time, in a tragic friendly fire incident. All by a small, little engaged battery of guns in a to this day still sleepy Dorset town. Again this action at night I believe shows the “success” of the proximity fuse and the real fear of that the technology if one round could have fallen into German hands on the continent.

    The consequences for the allied Airforces could have been truly devastating and a change to the direction of the war.

    As ever a fantastic website, it would make a truly brilliant set of hard copy books in contrast to many out there, including terrible trivial rehashed IWM coffee table efforts.

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