This is the first full account of the V2 and V1 weapons that fell in Kilburn and West Hampstead during the Second World War.
Londoners had survived the Blitz which lasted from 7 September 1940 to 21 May 1941. The RAF had defeated the Luftwaffe and had won the battle for air supremacy over London. Then after several years of relative quiet, on 13 June 1944 the first of Hitler’s new weapons arrived. This was the V1 or flying bomb, which was soon nicknamed the ‘Doodlebug’ although Eastenders gave it the more colourful name of the Farting Fury.
People had no idea such a weapon existed, let alone what it looked like. Crowds stood and looked up at the sky in wonder as they watched the flying bombs spitting red flames from their tail. One father even called to his wife;
Quick, get the children up and come and see this lot. The bloody Huns are sending over planes on fire!
Residents in Croydon even cheered when they saw a V1, thinking it was a German aircraft on fire. This one exploded in Bethnal Green killing six people and injuring another 28.
Londoners quickly realised that they were only safe as long as they could hear the spluttering noise, like an old Ford Model T car going up hill; once the engine cut out they had just seconds to dive for cover.
Humorously, a newspaper cartoon showed a man scolding his cat; Purr if you must, but please don’t cut out so suddenly!
People were shocked that the attacks happened so soon after the Allies had landed in Normandy on D-Day the 6 June, and they thought the War would soon be over. The flying bombs arrived day after day and night after night. Soon about 50 a day were landing and it became the ‘Second Battle of Britain’.
The V1s were launched from catapult ramps in the Pas de Calais and took about 25 minutes to reach London. They had an 850 kg warhead and flew at 400 mph, powered by a pulse jet. They were not guided missiles like today’s weapons but simply controlled by a compass and an autopilot. The ‘windmill’ device on the nose of the bomb was connected to the autopilot and after a number of preset revolutions the gyroscope tipped them towards earth where they exploded on impact.
The radar stations picked up the missiles as they flew over the coast and directed fighters and AA batteries to attack them. On 23 June 1944 an Australian Spitfire pilot called Ken Collier, fired at a V1 with no effect until he had run out of ammunition. With amazing skill, he flew alongside the bomb at 330 mph and managed to tip it over with his wing, sending it down over the countryside.
There are several film clips on British Pathe, including this one:
In one of the worst attacks, on the 30 June, a V1 landed on the Aldwych near the Air Ministry and the BBC’s Bush House. In the Air Ministry building some WAAFs were watching when the explosion sucked them out of the open window. Their astonishment was shown on the faces of their bodies lying on the pavement. A total of 198 people were killed.
During July The Times and Telegraph printed obituaries that gave the addresses of the dead. British Intelligence soon realised this gave the Germans important information about the accuracy of the weapons and stopped it. They used double agents to feed back false information indicating the V1s were landing short of London and the Germans increased the range which send some bombs north of the capital.
On the 15 June Mrs Gwladys Cox who lived in 59 Cholmley Gardens with her husband Ralph, wrote in her diary that they were in the middle of an air raid which started with a lot of gunfire behind their flat just before midnight.
We waited a long time for the All Clear. The raid went on all night and into the pre-dawn hours. We realised this was not a normal bombing raid. I watched the Doodlebugs sailing along from our bedroom window, like will o’ the wisps in the night. That night she counted 18 between midnight and 2am.
Later she heard a German propaganda message saying ‘England is trembling’. She wrote, ‘England is chiefly sleepy and tired from the broken nights and alarms’.
Mrs Cox’s wartime diary is now in the Imperial War Museum.
By the end of June 1944 800 flying bombs had hit London. In a radio broadcast, the Nazi propaganda minister, Josef Goebbels called it the V1 (Vergeltungswaffe 1), the first vengeance or reprisal weapon, signalling there were more to come.
There were nine V1s and one V2 which exploded in Kilburn and West Hampstead. Here we give the details of where and when each one landed.
The first V1 landed behind No.42 West End Lane in the early hours of the 20 June 1944. The huge explosion destroyed three houses and caused tremendous damage to the other four houses between Acol and Woodchurch Roads. 18 people were killed and more than 100 were wounded. The deaths of five of the young people who were living in the hostel for refugees at No.40 are commemorated on a single stone at the East London Jewish Cemetery which says, their dreams of going to Israel were unfulfilled. The bomb site was left until Sidney Boyd Court was built here in 1953.
|View across West End Lane to Gascony Avenue, showing the damage in June 1944|
The second bomb dropped on 85 Broadhurst Gardens (not No.98 as stated in Hampstead At War), on the morning of 28 June 1944. Amazingly, only one person was killed.
Three hours later a third V1 hit No.13 Ardwick Road, killing two people and sending 12 injured to hospital. Four houses were destroyed and six were damaged.
The fourth bomb landed in the back garden of a large house in Mortimer Crescent. It arrived at 7.50am on the 29 June 1944.
A flying bomb came in from the east and when over the Kilburn area made a left turn, completed a circle, then proceeded south to drop in the garden at the back of North Hall, Mortimer Crescent. North Hall, used by the Council for storing furniture belonging to people whose homes had been destroyed, was badly damaged.
The 14 injured were taken to hospital and another 20 were treated in first aid posts.
George Orwell (Eric Blair), was living opposite, in a flat at 10a Mortimer Crescent and the house was damaged by the blast. He struggled with a wheelbarrow and a shovel through the rubble to find the only copy of his manuscript for ‘Animal Farm’. He wrote to T.S. Eliot to say the MS had been damaged. The book was eventually published in August 1945. In September 2012 a Kilburn History Green Plaque was unveiled there by his adopted son Richard Blair.
Sixteen people were killed in South Kilburn when the fifth V1 exploded between Canterbury Terrace and Denmark Road on 24 July 1944. In the overcrowded streets whole families were affected: four members of the Morris family and three members of Boulting family died, as well as several husbands and their wives.
At the end of July the sixth flying bomb landed between Cholmley Gardens and the flats in Fortune Green Road. Luckily there were no deaths, but 10 people went to hospital, 12 to first aid posts and 81 to rest centres. A couple, who had just got married the previous day, were trapped between the floor and the collapsed ceiling. Men of the Heavy and Light Rescue Party worked tirelessly through the night to rescue them.
A serious explosion occurred on Shoot-Up Hill close to Kilburn Underground Station when the seventh V1 exploded on 15 August. Thirteen people were killed including five members of the Brooks family and three of the Melachrino family.
Ben Sachs who was aged 14 at the time said;
The most horrendous incident that I can remember was on the night of 15 August 1944. There were many casualties and dead and injured people had to be dug out of the wreckage. I was given the job of being a runner to Mick Rogers, the Head of Willesden’s Civil Defence Rescue Service, who was in charge of directing rescue operations (he later received a George Medal for his work). Thirteen people died that night and it was my first ever sight of dead bodies - something I shall never forget.
The eighth bomb fell on 23 August in back gardens off Finchley Road, 25 yards from previous one in Ardwick Road. Fortunately, there were no deaths.
The last V1 attack in our area occurred on 24 August 1944, landing between Compayne Gardens and Broadhurst Gardens, and killing one person.
|Damage between Compayne Gardens and Broadhurst Gardens, August 1944|
Gwladys Cox said that she and her husband heard an Alert and looked out at the sky to be startled by a V1 heading straight for them.
Suddenly, it stopped, dipped, and slowly and steadily dived nose down. We were so spellbound that we actually watched it for a few seconds before we dashed back into our hall for shelter. Some twenty houses have been blasted to mere shells; front door, furniture, personal belongings blown out into the gardens.
The British government decided it must destroy the St-leu-d’Essenet Caves in Northern France where hundreds of V1s were stored. The Dambusters Squadron 617, using six-ton ‘Tallboy’ bombs, attacked them on the nights of 4 and 7 July. The damage slowed down the number of V1s being launched. As the Allies advanced through France, the German launch crews left the Pas de Calais and moved the V1 catapults first to Antwerp and then into Holland.
Hitler’s second and much more powerful vengeance weapon was the V2 rocket. This flew at 3,600 mph, or more than four times the speed of sound, so people never heard it until the 1,000 kg warhead exploded.
The V2s were made in Peenemunde on the Baltic Sea. There were over 6,000 people working in the factory, including 200 prisoners from Buchenwald who arrived on 17 June 1943 to begin production. There were several technical problems perfecting the rocket, but it was ready by the beginning of September 1944.
On 8 September 1944 the first V2 was launched from Wassenaar, just north of The Hague. Five minutes later it landed in Staveley Road Chiswick killing three people and injuring another six. The explosion made a crater 30 feet wide and 8 feet deep, and destroyed 11 houses and damaged another 516.
People heard a double crack like thunder as the V2 broke the sound barrier when it re-entered the lower atmosphere. The government codenamed the rocket ‘Big Ben’ and gagged the press for several weeks.
George Orwell in an essay in Tribune on 1 December 1944 talked about the V2 rocket which exploded without any warning:
There is even a tendency to talk nostalgically of the days of the V1. The good old doodlebug did at least give you time to get under the table.
British Pathe has two films about the V2 rocket:
The only V2 which hit our area landed on the railway embankment near 114 Iverson Road on 8 January 1945. There were three deaths and 64 injured people. The blast destroyed 14 houses, badly damaged 152 and caused minor damage to about 1,600. Rescuers worked through the night and found one woman alive after being trapped for eight hours in the rubble.
Gwladys Cox wrote about the effects of the rocket explosion:
After lunch, it stopped snowing, and as the air was invigorating we walked, or slithered in the slush, down to Iverson Road. Here, rows and rows of small houses had been blasted from back to front; doors, windows, ceilings all one. Whole families were out in the street standing beside the remains of their possessions, piled on the pavements waiting for the removal vans; heaps of rubble everywhere, pathetically showing bits of holly and Christmas decorations.
Seventy years later journalist Paul Wright wrote an article in the Ham and High to mark the anniversary. He said the paper printed on 12 January 1945 told of a member of the Light Rescue Service’s frantic search for his 21-year-old daughter and another man known to be with her at the time in the debris of his own home. Sadly, they were later found dead.
Liz Davies, who was a baby in 1945, had a lucky escape. In 2015 she told the story given to her by her late mother:
I was being looked after by my blind grandmother at my home in Gladys Road in West Hampstead. A few minutes before the rocket hit, I apparently started crying in my cot, which was in a first floor room in the bay window at the front of the house. So my grandmother picked me up to cradle me. As she did, the rocket hit and my cot was covered in shards of glass from the broken windows. It was a lucky escape. My mother, who was working at the food office in Finchley Road at the time, had heard the rocket land and ran home. I remember her saying the nearer she got to our house, the worse the damage was. She found me sitting on my grandmother’s knee with us both completely covered in soot and the room covered in smashed glass.
The Ham and High article is available here:
From 13 June 1944 until 29 March 1945, 2,368 V1s fell on London and killed 5,126 people and injured another 17,981; this exceeded casualty numbers in the Blitz.
From a total of 9,251 V1s that were launched; 4,261 were destroyed by AA guns, the RAF and balloons.
The last V2 landed in Stepney on 27 March and the last V1 arrived in Chislehurst on the following day. On 26 April 1945 Churchill told the House of Commons that the attacks had ceased. Between 1944 and March 1945, 517 V2 rockets killed a total of 2,511 Londoners and injured another 6,523.
Walter Dornberger who was in charge of the V weapons programme and his assistant Werner Von Braun, surrendered to the Americans on 2 May 1945. They were seen as valuable assets and went to live in America after the War. Von Braun played a major role in the US development of the space rocket and in 1958 he published his biography called, I Aim at Stars.
The American comedian Mort Sahl quipped that, I Aim at the Stars but sometimes I hit London, was a much better title.
When Von Braun died in 1977 NASA said, He was without doubt, the greatest rocket scientist in history.