A Sort of Inverse Square Law

Liam Shaw · The First Flying Bomb

Photo © Quentin Shaw

Seventy-five years ago, on 13 June 1944, a pilotless aircraft flew over the south of England in the early hours of the morning. Its engine buzzed loudly, giving off flames in the moonless night, until it cut out somewhere over the East End of London at 4.25 a.m., and crashed in Mile End along with nearly a tonne of explosive. The blast destroyed a railway bridge, killed six people, injured 42 and made two hundred homeless.

The early responders who filed the London Civil Defence Region situation report at 6 a.m. attributed the damage to a bomb dropped from a plane. In fact, as a blue plaque on the bridge in Grove Road now says, it was ‘the first flying bomb on London’.

The flying bomb, or V1 (the V stood for Vergeltungswaffe, or ‘vengeance weapon’), was an autopiloted small aircraft loaded with a warhead. First launched a week after D-Day in pure retaliation, they had no military importance – notoriously inaccurate, they fell at random over London – but were intended to provoke terror among civilians. They were fired from launch ramps in northern France and flew at 400 mph over the Channel. If they managed to avoid the barrage balloons, anti-aircraft guns, intercept fighters and mechanical failure, their engines would cut out at a range calculated to correspond roughly to Tower Bridge, and they fell to earth, exploding just above ground and causing tremendous damage. More than 2300 made it to London.

The Greater London Council put a steel memorial plaque on the rebuilt railway bridge in Grove Road in 1985, after a proposal from Joseph Waters, whose brother had been injured by the bomb. The plaque was stolen in 1987. English Heritage, which took over the scheme after the GLC was abolished in 1986, replaced it with a ceramic one in 1988. The blue plaque in Grove Road seems to be the only one in London that doesn’t mention any individuals, groups or institutions. It also bends the rules about plaques not being placed on ‘buildings that have since been radically altered’.

The plaque is one of the few explicit reminders in London of Second World War bomb damage. The city has no comparable memorial to the spire of St-Nikolai-Kirche in Hamburg, for instance, standing tall above its ruined walls. In London, the signs are more subtle: small city parks, new office buildings next to older neighbours, gaps in rows of terraced houses.

On Sunday, 18 June 1944, a V1 fell on the Guards’ Chapel at Wellington Barracks during the morning Eucharist. R.V. Jones, the head of Air Ministry Scientific Intelligence, ran out of his office in Whitehall after hearing the blast. He was interviewed for the 1977 documentary series The Secret War:

The whole of Birdcage Walk was just one sea of plane tree leaves … all the leaves had been stripped off the trees, and of course they were nicely freshly green. It was one complete green sea.

The death toll was 121, soldiers and civilians, with many more seriously injured. Its falling so close to Whitehall ‘undoubtedly accelerated’ the government’s demand for countermeasures, Jones said:

That particular bomb I think had quite a lot of effect. More than it ought to have done really, because after all the bomb that happens to be near you shouldn’t affect you all that much, but there’s a sort of inverse square law in all this, of course. The ones that get near you really bring it home.

The flying bomb I will always wonder about is the one that passed overhead when my grandfather – then a schoolboy – was on a train waiting to leave St Pancras. As they heard its engine cut out, everyone in the carriage dropped to the floor and lay there for a few tense seconds, before hearing it explode somewhere to the northeast. He still doesn’t know where it landed.


  • 13 June 2019 at 4:17pm
    Jeremy Bernstein says:
    I do not know how precisely Liam Shaw wants to be when he says the V1 landed at random-also the V2. Indeed an actuary at the time named R.D.Clarke divided London into squares and showed that the landings followed a Poisson distribution demonstrating they were random. His paper on this is a classic and it so impressed Thomas Pynchon that it became a major theme in Gravity's Rainbow.

    • 14 June 2019 at 10:11am
      The above link didn't work for me, but this one did -
      It's a neat one page paper and excellent material for edcuational purposes.

    • 14 June 2019 at 10:11am

    • 17 June 2019 at 12:01pm
      Thank you for the Liam Shaw story which raises two questions.

      1. Why did Clarke throw away all the information about time and look only at the distribution of V1 impacts in space? If there had been a clustering of impacts, that would have been much more likely to be visible as clusters in space-time rather than just in space. The time of each impact could easily have been included in the analysis.

      2. Why did he not use a Hollerith card-punch machine to analyze the data? In those days we did not have electronic computers to do our arithmetic, but we had Hollerith machines which were highly efficient for handling big data. He only needed to punch one card for each impact, giving information about place and time, and then the machine would read through the whole deck of cards in a few minutes and answer any questions about the statistics. At Bomber Command we used these machines all the time to keep track of operations.

      One more comment. I was in London at the time the V1 and V2 were arriving, while the invasion of France and Germany was in progress. We were delighted that Hitler was wasting his resources on these militarily useless weapons, instead of producing the airplanes which he desperately needed to fight the real war in Europe. We were saying that the V1 and V2 were Hitler's version of unilateral disarmament.

    • 20 June 2019 at 6:52pm
      Thank you for the information from R.V. Jones. In fact the
      V1 would have been militarily useless even if the scatter had been reduced from twenty miles to one mile. To make a real
      difference to the war, Hitler should have had an underwater V1 launched like a torpedo against ships approaching the coast of France, ready to launch in big numbers on D-day. Of course, if such a torpedo defense had been in place, R.V. Jones would have known about it, and we would have been taking appropriate counter-measures long before D-day.

      I do not remember anything about bomber command attacks on V1 launch sites. During the weeks after D-day, bomber command was mainly engaged in daylight operations over France with fighter support, so the accuracy of bombing was much higher than it was for night operations over Germany. Quite likely we did some damage to V1 launch sites. But the effective defense against V1 was a line of anti-aircraft guns along the British coast, which shot down about 70 percent of the V1 over the sea. The guns had proximity fuses which arrived just in time from America, developed by our friends at the MIT radiation lab. Since the V1 was a small target for a direct hit, the proximity fuse increased the kill rate by a factor of about 100.

      I remember a Bomber command attack on Peenemunde in 1943 which was unusually accurate. Peenemunde was one of the easiest targets for night attack because it is on the Baltic coast, and the contrast between land and sea is clearly visible. That attack caused the V2 production to move underground and delayed the whole program by a year.

      A final remark about the V1 and V2 casualties. The total casualties were only about a tenth of the civilian casualties of the manned bombing of Britain in 1940-1941, and only about a hundredth of the total British casualties of WW2. So it was obvious to everyone that the V1 and V2 were a net loss for Hitler and a net win for us. Our primary concern in those weeks was the boys who were fighting and dying in France.

  • 14 June 2019 at 9:57am
    Janet Vaux says:
    Not just small parks. Burgess Park in Southwark stretches from the Walworth Road to the Old Kent Road and was built on an area severely damaged by bombing in the Second World War. When I first moved here, thirty years ago, there were still local residents who remembered the bombs falling. Next to my house is an area destroyed by bombs and almost diagonally opposite me is the site of a V2 rocket that fell on Valentine’s Day 1945. I don’t think there are any memorials to the Second World War (apart from the park itself), but there is an art installation memorialising a zeppelin that fell on streets that are now part of the park during the First World War, killing ten people. Artist Sally Hogarth has erected a series of little clay houses for each of the dead.
    I also lay claim to my own memory of flying bombs. I was born in Kent in the Spring of 1943 under the flight path first of bombers then of doodlebugs. My memory is of following my uncle and brothers down the garden to look up at what I understood to be flying boots. I can still conjure an image of a small formation of black wellington boots, flying through the air with the feet at the back and pointing upwards. I think the memory persisted because I was soon old enough to know that boots don’t fly, but the question ‘What were those flying boots really?’ didn’t get you a straight answer. Or not in my family. I later settled on flying boats. But many years later I described the memory to my mother and she replied, without missing a beat, ‘Those would have been flying bombs, and he should have been taking you indoors not out into the garden.’

  • 14 June 2019 at 3:35pm
    AndrewL says:
    It should not escape attention that the first V-1 landed in London literally one week after D-Day, while the Allies were still lodged in a relatively small area of Normandy north of Caen and Saint-Lo.

    Does Clarke's statistical work take account of the disinformation passed back to the Germans by double-agents in Britain, which made the Germans believe they were aiming too long, and so reset the V-1 autopilots such that many actually fell short?

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