Doodlebugs: when silence meant catastrophe

Even before they arrived on British shores, Hitler’s ‘Vengeance Weapons’ had built up quite a reputation. First, a rumour started that strange ski-jump like cement launch ramps had been spotted in France (nobody knew if the French resistance had telegraphed the information first or if they had been seen by aerial air reconnaissance, but their intended use was a mystery). On 17/18 August 1943 a massive bombing raid, codenamed ‘Operation Crossbow’ and making use of 600 aircraft, took place over a research facility at Peenemünde on the Baltic coast. None of the pilots knew why they were there, but judging from the fact that so many resources were being thrown at the mission and the ground defences were fierce enough to claim 40 lives that night, whatever the Germans were working on must be big. Next, Winston Churchill sent tongues wagging with a speech on 9th November 1943, warning that “We cannot exclude the possibility of new forms of attack on this island”. Then, at 4.08am on 13th June 1944, a strange object was observed by part-time lookouts moving through London’s skies, before a railway bridge in Bow suddenly blew up, killing 6 people, seriously injuring 30 and leaving 200 more homeless. Several more similar attacks took place in the next month, sending people streaming out of the city to safer destinations, yet still nobody in government said anything. The citizens of Britain literally had no idea what had hit them.

Finally on 6 July 1944, having been warned by Home Secretary Herbert Morrison that public morale had been severely lowered by the secrecy surrounding the new bomb more than by its actual effects, Churchill stood up in Parliament to explain what the V1 flying bomb was and what damage had already been done. ‘British Home Defences 1940-45’ by Bernard Lowry describes the V1 as a mechanically guided, pilotless rocket, launched from a metal ramp using a catapult slingshot and then powered by an Argus pulse jet engine. It was difficult to combat, as it flew at 3,000 feet at speeds up to 400mph, which meant ground defences stood little chance of targeting it effectively, and even fighter planes had a job to first launch in time to square up to the rocket, then keep pace with it. If that wasn’t enough the 8.3 x 5.3 metre V1 was significantly smaller than the combat aircraft and bombers pilots had been trained to intercept. The fighters either had to close in to use their cannons at point blank range, or risk their lives by flying alongside and attempting to flip it over, thereby upsetting the guidance gyroscope and causing it to crash. The problem was, nobody knew when they would explode, as each rocket travelled a set distance pre-programmed into an air log in its nose. When it reached the target, it suddenly stopped and dropped.

It was precisely this feature that made the “Doodlebug” or “Buzz Bomb” such a menacing threat. The people would see the fire of the rocket crossing the sky, then its distinctive sound would reach their ears; in the Reader’s Digest book ‘Life on the Home Front’ it is described as a “spluttering like an ancient Ford driving uphill”. At the pre-programmed location, the engine cut out, then the people knew that in exactly 15 seconds 2000lb of explosives would go off with a whopping bang. The lucky ones had time to run for cover, but if there was none to be had, people died. After all that dreadful rattling, the silence made the hair stand up on the back of one’s neck. It was the worst sound of all.

By the time Churchill made his speech, according to ‘The 1940s House’ by Juliet Gardiner, 2,754 flying bombs had been launched at Britain and claimed 2,752 lives, or effectively one per bomb. A further 8,000 people had been hospitalised. Apparently the main target the Germans were aiming at was London Bridge, and one bomb did hit that target right on the money; however, the Germans never knew it. By now the Double-Cross system of espionage was well underway, and had helped to achieve one of the big intelligence coups of the war, convincing Germany that the D-Day Landings would take place at Pas de Calais rather than Normandy. Although the Germans believed they had a large and thriving network of spies on British soil, in fact virtually all of them had been either turned or captured. The double-agents set to work feeding their German handlers false information where the rockets were landing and what damage they were doing, as part of ‘a policy trying to push the bombardment south’ – to Croydon.

This was a policy that gave the few government figures who knew about it, including Herbert Morrison, a lot of unease. It achieved the desired effect of moving the barrage away from the densely populated areas of Central London, saving many lives, but put others in harm’s way in their stead. ‘The 1940s House’ quotes the Home Secretary as saying at the time, “Who are we to act as God?” Still, he was overruled. As a result, 141 V1s fell on Croydon in just 80 days, destroying 1,500 homes and damaging 54,000, and over 200 people were killed.

Of course, deception wasn’t the only tactic used to defend Britain. ‘British Home Defences 1940-45’ attests that the Commander-in-Chief of Anti Aircraft Command was given permission to move the bulk of his defences, including guns, Nissen Huts, troops and equipment to the South Coast, so that as many Doodlebugs as possible could be headed off before they had a chance to get anywhere near London. With the help of the US SCR 584 Ground Controlled Interception radar and the proximity fuse, developed by a British and US collaboration, their hit rate leaped to 75%. It certainly helped, too, that the Allies were now making good progress into France. As more French territory was taken over, less potential launch sites remained for the Germans to fire from, although they then tried launching from Holland or from aircraft over the sea.

The worst of the V1 attacks had ceased by September 1944, but it was not until 29 March 1945 that the last rocket hit Suffolk. In all, the horrifying weapon had ended over 6,000 lives, inflicted 18,000 injuries. The V1 was followed by the even more powerful V2 rocket, which was larger, hit without any warning, and was impossible to stop. However, the more deadly V2 never managed to inflict the same level of psychological misery as the Doodlebug or achieve the same notoriety. To this day, anyone who ever heard the high-pitched wail of the Doodlebug remembers the awful jolt of fear that went through them, like an electric shock, when the noise stopped.


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