Sunday, 12 June 2011

Doodlebugs, Buzz Bombs and Robots

13th June 1944: The Allies had been ashore in Normandy for six days; the invasion of Europe was under way and the Germans were being inexorably pushed back yard by yard out of the territory they had invaded some four years previously and although the Allies were not to know it at the time, the European war had less than a year to run its course.

London at this time was a city licking its wounds. The great raids of 1940/41 were now but a memory but large swathes of the capital were still in ruins and would remain in this state for many years to come – in some cases until the 1960s and 70s and although the raids of the ‘Baby Blitz’ had been nowhere near as intense, they too had rendered large areas of the city uninhabitable. So the news of the invasion had been greeted with cautious optimism by Londoners, perhaps the end was in sight and perhaps there would be no more bombs.

It was not to be; at 04:25 the Grove Road railway bridge at Bow, in London’s East End was struck by a large explosion. The bridge and the railway track were badly damaged, several houses were badly damaged and six people were killed. Moments before the explosion, eyewitnesses had heard what vaguely sounded like a crashing aircraft and had found remnants of what looked like a small aeroplane amongst the wreckage but could find no trace of a pilot. There was no pilot, for what had caused the explosion had been the first of Hitler’s Vergeltungswaffe or Vengeance Weapons. Officially known as the Fieseler Fi103, these weapons were effectively the first form of cruise missile and were launched from fixed ramp sites in the Pas de Calais area of France and had been developed by the Luftwaffe at the Peenemunde site where the second of the Vengeance Weapons, the terrifying V-2 rocket was also under development. Thanks to the bravery of agents on the ground and also the actions of the RAF’s reconnaissance pilots, the site had been bombed by the RAF and the programme set back by six months or so but the bomb that fell on Grove Road was amongst five launched that night; in fact the first one had landed in Kent shortly before the one that fell in Bow but after this first wave of attacks, nothing happened for two more days, as if these first bombs were finding the range.

The Civil Defence records for these first incidents describe them as ‘PAC’ or Pilotless Aircraft, soon afterwards the description changes to ‘FLY’ for Fly-Bomb and this is what the majority of Londoners called them – Flying Bomb, although the media soon christened them ‘Buzz Bombs’ or ‘Doodlebugs’, whilst some ruder citizens called them Farting Furies due to the distinctive rasping sound made by the pulse jet engine.

The V-1 was a sophisticated piece of engineering, which was powered by a pulse jet engine capable of giving a speed of 400 mph and was guided by a gyrocompass autopilot system and designed to ensure that the engine would cut out when it reached its target – usually London – by an odometer which was powered by a small anemometer in the nose. Londoners would soon learn to rush for cover when the engine cut out and the brief eerie silence which followed was the only chance people on the ground had to avoid death at the hands of the 850 kg Amatol warhead in the ‘Robots’, which was another popular name in the media for the new weapons.

Despite what in 1944, was the futuristic nature of the V-1, they could be defended against. The capital’s anti-aircraft guns were quickly redeployed from the parks and open spaces in and around London to the south coast of England and the Thames Estuary, so as to intercept them as they crossed the coast. The new proximity shells and the radar guidance of the guns were extremely effective in bringing down the robots – on average, one shell in every hundred fired brought down a buzz bomb. The defences were arranged in layers; for any V-1s that evaded the guns, the next layer was the balloon barrage, which had also been moved from London. These large balloons were tethered with thick steel cables which could tear the wings from a low flying aircraft but in the case of the V-1s were largely ineffective; the leading edges of the wings of the doodlebugs had been fitted with cable cutters and fewer than three hundred were thought to have been brought down this way. The next line of defence was the aircraft of RAF Fighter Command. The later marks of Spitfire, the new Hawker Tempest and the even newer Gloster Meteor jet fighters were more than capable of keeping up with the V-1s, although it took considerable nerve to fly behind a flying bomb with a near one tonne warhead and then to pump cannon shells into it for the resulting explosion could quite easily take the attacker with it as well. Some pilots preferred to fly alongside the V-1 and disrupt the air flow beneath the wings by placing the wing of the fighter beneath the wing of the robot without touching it, thus throwing the gyro stabilizer into confusion and causing the weapon to pancake into the ground. This manoeuvre also required considerable skill and courage but the ‘anti-diver’ patrols, combined with the anti-aircraft guns and balloons, as well as the false information about the fall of the missiles fed to Germany by double agents, most notably Juan Pujol, aka Garbo, all managed to ensure that about 7,500 of the almost 10,000 launched at London never reached their target.

Despite all these counter measure, bombs still got through and the worst incident was to occur on the first weekend of the attacks. It was Sunday June 18th and the regular service in the Guards Chapel in Birdcage Walk was under way and at 11:20 Colonel Edward Hay was reading the lesson at the lectern when at that instant, the chapel was obliterated in a massive explosion. A V-1 had struck with a direct hit and Hay, along with 121 others was killed instantly. The Guards Chapel was in ruins; in places the rubble was ten feet thick and it took two days to dig out all of the victims; 141 others were seriously injured but miraculously, the Bishop of Maidstone who had been conducting the service was totally unhurt. The portico of the ruined chapel which had sheltered the bishop and which was the only part of the building to survive, forms part of today’s rebuilt Guards Chapel which contains a Book of Remembrance for those lost in the disaster. Another shocking incident in Central London came a few days later on the 30th June, when Adastral House, home of the Air Ministry in the Aldwych suffered a V-1 strike; 48 people were killed, mainly office workers and the photograph of the immediate aftermath, shown above, shows an ominous mushroom cloud rising above Fleet Street as Londoners hurry about their business.

Incident after incident followed with depressing regularity and it became imperative for the invading armies in France to overrun the Pas de Calais in order to bring the attacks to an end. By the end of September 1944, this had been achieved and the last of the regular V-1 attacks was over. Over 6,000 civilians had been killed in London alone with a further 17,000 injured. Although the fixed launch sites had been overrun, V-1s were still launched from converted Heinkel 111 bombers, mainly at Antwerp, which was hit by a further 2,448 missiles between October 1944 and March 1945. The V-1s had finished with London but worse, much worse was to come in the form of the V-2 rockets, the first of which was to fall in Chiswick on 8th September 1944.

Although these rockets were to fall on England until late March 1945, the final enemy activity of the Second World War on British soil occurred from an air launched V-1, which fell harmlessly in open countryside in Datchworth, Hertfordshire on 29th March 1945, barely six weeks before the end of the war in Europe.

Published Sources:

The Doodlebugs - Norman Longmate, Hutchinson 1981

War Diaries 1939-45 Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke - ed Alex Danchev & Daniel Todman, Wiedenfeld & Nicolson 2001

Westminster in War - William Sansom, Faber & Faber 1957

Friday, 3 June 2011

For God & Country

This week we have a guest blogger in the shape of Dave O’Malley from Vintage Wings of Canada, which is an aviation museum and charitable organisation based at Gatineau Ottawa Airport, Quebec dedicated to the preservation, restoration and maintenance of classic aircraft from the early history of powered flight. Dave also produces an excellent blog called 'Vintage News' at and when in Canada, a visit to this wonderful museum is a must.

No one has ever accused me of being a religious man. Not in the last four decades anyway. Perhaps it was all those years as an altar boy trudging to church through ice pellets and snow squalls at 5 a.m. during a black-as-night Canadian winter morning, my heavy boots squeaking on the hard snow. Perhaps it was the hundreds of masses I served in an overheated church where I knelt, rang hand bells, yawned and teetered on the edge of sleep while Monsignor Costello droned on in Latin for the benefit of one lonely lady and the Organ Master.

On two occasions in those days, I was stopped in the frozen, black, suburban void of Elmvale Acres two hours before sun-up by the single cherry-red light of a prowling police cruiser. What, in God's name, I was asked, was a freckle faced 12-year old kid in duffel coat, ear muffs and Second World War flight boots doing in a world that belonged to sidewalk sanders, milkmen and officers of the law?

One day about 40 years ago, much to the silent displeasure of my father, I stopped going to church alltogether, and I have never entered a church since that day with the intention of praying or finding solace and contemplation. I have never since that day felt a spirit dwelling in any church that I have visited for weddings or funerals. Perhaps there was a spirit, but I have not been able to feel it.

That all changed last fall when visiting London on Vintage Wings of Canada business. One of the places I was hoping to visit on my down time was a small (by Westminster standards) church buried deep in one of the most historic sectors of London. The Church of St Clement Danes first came to my attention while watching a video on the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight. During that documentary, the Flight was honoured with their unit crest being carved in slate and embedded in the floor of this unique and beautiful church. I had never before heard of this practice, this place of worship, this glorious tradition. I made it an imperative to visit while in London.

The site of St. Clement Danes on the Strand has been a place of worship for more than 1,200 years and the church structure that stands on it now has been here for 330 years. The main structure was designed by none other than Christopher Wren, the best known and highest acclaimed architect in British history. After the Great London Fire of 1666, Wren was tasked with the rebuilding no less than 51 razed churches in the City of London alone. One was St. Clement Danes, while one was his the crowning masterpiece of his life's work - St. Paul's Cathedral. Having a university degree in architecture, I was doubly excited to behold one of his buildings for the first time.

While a religious edifice of some kind has endured here since 600 years before Columbus discovered the New World, in all that time none of the buildings found here were ever draped in the glory, honour, sadness and history now found contained within its present four walls. But to get to that glory, first St. Clement Danes had to face its own trial by Satan's fire and a scourging by the whips of blasted metal from the angels of darkness.

On the night of the 10th of May, 1941 and into the morning of the 11th, the St. Clement Danes on the Strand was ravaged by direct hits from incendiary bombs and viciously lashed by huge chunks of shrapnel from near misses of high explosive aerial bombs. Satan's dark angels in the form of Hitler's Heinkels dropped load after load on central London in what was to be for all intents and purposes the last night of the Blitz.

On this night, which was to be the last major attack on London, the Luftwaffe amassed 550 bombers. When the sun came up on the 11th of May, St. Clement Danes was a smoking shell and many other important buildings were destroyed or seriously damaged including The Houses of Parliament, the British Museum and St. James Palace. The death toll that night was 1,364 Londoners killed and 1,616 seriously injured. After the "All Clear", the steady and determined British set to work to clear the rubble, bury their dead and get back to the business of defeating the Evil Empire.

After the war, the ruin that was Wren's beautiful and elegant work was left until its future could be secured. Because the church was burned but still standing as a result of the German attacks, it came to symbolize, along with the pilots of the Battle of Britain, the strength of the British resolve in the face of dire circumstance. And because it was damaged as the result of a to-the-death aerial war that was eventually won by the Royal Air Force, the church was handed over to them in 1953. Following an appeal for funding that secured £ 250,000 and reached around the world to the airmen and air forces of the Commonwealth, the church was restored to its original Christopher Wren beauty.

In 1958, St. Clement Danes was consecrated as the Central Church of the Royal Air Force and opened by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Today the church stands as a living and growing spiritual tribute to the sacrifices of the airmen of the Commonwealth during the Second World War and to the continuing sacrifices of the RAF to this very day.

Every inch of the walls, floor and ceiling is a memorial of some kind to airmen. Above the balcony hang a number of stood down unit colour standards. Below each lower window is a glass case above which stands an eagle and in which sits a book of remembrance - one airman to a page. The 8th and 9th US Air Forces stationed in the United Kingdom during the war years are included with a shrine. The whole ground floor is a sweeping plain of white stone patterned by a seeming endless galaxy of 1,000 insets of Welsh slate in the shape of RAF unit badges. A special stone and brass mosaic at the entrance has the crest of the RAF surrounded by eight crests of the Commonwealth air forces (some of which no longer exist), while another in the left aisle has the Polish eagle surrounded by the armorial symbols of the sixteen Polish squadrons of the RAF during the Second World War.

Gift tributes found throughout the church include: the altar from the Netherlands, the lectern from the Royal Australian Air Force, a chair from Douglas Bader to the memory of his first wife - Thelma who died in 1971, a chair honouring surgeon Sir Archibald McIndoe and The Guinea Pig Club, and a processional cross from the Air Training Corps. The organ on the balcony at the rear was a gift from the US Air Force. The basement crypt has been made into a quiet and secluded chapel, with an altar from the Netherlands Air Force, a baptismal font from the Norwegians, and a candelabrum from the Belgian Air Force

The carillon bells were hung in 1957 with a big bass bell nick-named “Boom” in commemoration of Marshal of the Royal Air Force Hugh Trenchard, GCB OM GCVO DSO who organised the RAF from its inception. “Boom” Trenchard had just died the year before the bells were hung.

I suppose that part of my problem with the spirituality of churches stems from inside myself. If unable to open a door inwards I could hardly expect to access whatever lay behind the doors of these buildings. There was of course this one very powerful exception. Walking down the Strand from Trafalgar, the knowledge of where I was and of what happened there 70 years ago was like a crowbar to the jamb of that inner door. The closer I got to the church, the more that door was forced open and as I walked through the doors of St. Clement Danes, some huge wind of release threw that heavy gate solidly back. This church was clearly different and so was my openness.

Somewhat soiled and grey on the outside and pockmarked by shrapnel, the interior is a sunlit sanctuary that begs for silence, encourages contemplation and awards the visitor with spiritual warmth. There is a spirit of triumph and yet there is a lesson on human failure here too - how they blend so well is a mystery. Gold leaf, carvings, military colours, holy names and an ocean of squadron crests speak to glory, history and accomplishment, while the totality of the sacrifice of airmen and women during the wars of the 20th century hangs like smoke in the air. The place is a strange mixture of uplifting, soaring euphoria and heavy, crushing sadness. These equal and opposite emotional effects serve to keep the visitor solidly and powerfully centred within the walls and vaulted ceilings of St. Clement Danes

When we left the sanctuary and silence of that beautiful church, we came out to a sunny day and a bustling, lively city. London is a proud and in my opinion, a very happy city. She has endured much over the centuries, and suffered most during Second World War. But she is as alive today as she has ever been, thanks in part to the Royal Air Force. It is fitting then that a church so wounded in the conflagration would rise from the ashes of one of London's worst, yet defining, moments and become the vessel into which much of the sadness was poured. I have seen and heard how people who suffer great personal loss need closure - a part of that lost person, a memorial, a place to grieve, to come to terms with the reality of the loss so that life may resume and the sun can shine. St Clement Danes represents closure for a city, a nation, a commonwealth and its alliances and for those who visit an individual. The rebirth of St. Clement Danes represents a moment of spectacular creativity by the Royal Air Force, one for which I offer thanks from Vintage Wings of Canada.

I'm not going back to church on a regular basis anytime soon to be perfectly honest, but I thank the RAF of all people, for a glimpse at what faith must be like. Me... I will put my faith in the strength of our heroes, armed forces, first responders, hard workers, volunteers, givers, team players and history makers - so many of whom hold faith in a God I have yet to find.

As a footnote to Dave's excellent and thought provoking article, perhaps we should mention the Reverend William Pennington-Beckford, who was appointed as Rector of the church in 1910. It is fair to say that Beckford loved this church and amongst his many duties, he oversaw the annual ceremony of the presentation of oranges and lemons to local schoolchildren, for St Clement Danes is the 'Oranges and Lemons' church of the famous nursery rhyme. In the photograph below, he can be seen in the centre background watching the ceremony.

On the night of 10th/11th May 1941,
Beckford, by now an elderly man but still the rector of St Clement Danes, stood watching in tears as his beloved church was bombed and burnt to the ground. Within a month, he was dead; some said he died from a broken heart.

"Oranges and Lemons" say the Bells of St Clement's
"You owe me five farthings" say the Bells of St Martin's
"When will you pay me?" say the Bells of Old Bailey

"When I grow rich" say the Bells of Shoreditch

"When will that be?" say the Bells of Stepney

"I do not know" say the Great Bells of Bow

"Here comes a candle to light you to Bed
Here comes a chopper to chop off your head

Chip chop chip chop - the Last Man's Dead."