A Sort of Inverse Square Law
Liam Shaw · The First Flying Bomb
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.