A Potent Joy

E.S. Turner

  • Hitler’s Rockets: The Story of the V-2s by Norman Longmate
    Hutchinson, 423 pp, £13.95, May 1985, ISBN 0 09 158820 0

In World War Two the science of antiaircraft gunnery rested on a single, shaky postulate, known as ‘the ack-ack assumption’: namely, that a raider would fly at constant speed, constant height and on a constant course. Only if this rule was obeyed could the gunners arrange for their salvos to rendezvous with the target, which would travel three or four miles during the half-minute or so it took the rounds to reach the required height. A lone raider could ‘jink’ to baffle the predictors, though a massed formation of bombers was most unlikely to do so.

For most of the war, we who served behind barbed wire in public parks and on lonely headlands, surrounded by jolly ATS girls, were well aware that the public thought very little of our marksmanship. Since every shoot depended on dozens of people doing the right thing at the right time, the capacity for error was enormous. Then came the unmanned V-1, or ‘doodlebug’, which faithfully obeyed the ack-ack assumption but flew in too low for the predictors of the day to do it justice. When that shortcoming was remedied, the rate of execution was gratifying and the sky over Southern England glowed with orange blobs as Hitler’s cut-price weapon met its comeuppance.

Anti-Aircraft Command seemed to have justified itself at last. The girls could now be taught mothercraft and all ranks instructed in the British Way and Purpose. Regrettably, in the last months of the war came the V-2 supersonic rocket, against which the anti-aircraft defences were seen to be starkly impotent. However, this reviewer, before being winkled out of his regiment for other duties, was made privy to a secret, tentative and truly boggling stratagem for engaging the Fuhrer’s last (and more expensive) novelty. The plan was thought to be the personal brainchild of General Sir Frederick Pile, Commander-in-Chief of Anti-Aircraft Command, and involved placing in the rocket’s presumed path a huge dense curtain of jagged hardware, an aerial minefield, which with luck would rip open the body of the missile.

General Pile’s plan is discussed by that alert and indefatigable chronicler of the Home Front, Norman Longmate, in Hitler’s Rockets, a sequel to The Doodlebugs. The General admitted that the difficulties were prodigious. For one thing, the rockets came in on erratic courses, with a target accuracy of plus or minus several miles. Existing radar sets were designed to detect raiders up to thirty thousand feet and the new target had to be spotted at 300,000 feet. The state of readiness required would have been extremely high; as General Pile said, ‘we had only two seconds in which to make our prediction, for the guns had to be fired when the rocket was still more than thirty miles from London.’

The General estimated the maximum likely rate of kills at only 3 to 10 per cent of targets engaged. Other experts were more pessimistic; Sir Robert Watson-Watt, the radar authority, rated the chances of interception at a thousand to one. Nevertheless, according to Long-mate, operational trials were conducted and began to look promising. By that time, fortunately, the launching-sites had been destroyed or over-run and the two evil geniuses of the V-2, General Walter Dornberger and Werner von Braun, were relaxing at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, cosseted and well-fed by the Americans, who lost no time in rushing them to the United States to further the science of rocketry. (If V-weapons had rained on New York and the British Army had caught the perpetrators, would this country have striven so zealously to advance their careers?)

Longmate’s account of the V-2 campaign is engrossing to a degree. He makes the point that the British Government not only suppressed any news of the rocket’s arrival for two months, which was sensible enough, but withheld information about the major incidents even after the war, which made no sense at all. With the aid of a long roster of eyewitnesses and recently-opened files at the Public Record Office, he describes in full and statistical detail what really happened in the unluckier parts of Southern England. At the most modest level, the book will settle all those arguments about what fell on where and provide many useful talking-points; this reviewer was happily reminded that the bomb-damaged house he bought in Orpington in 1946 owed its condition to the last V-2 of the war. However, since bomb stories tend to be repetitive, the major fascination of the book, for many, will lie in the personalities of the story, the intelligence war, the forecasts true and false, and the marshalling of counter-measures.

We have, for example, Herbert Morrison, the conscientious objector of the First World War who urged everyone to ‘go to it’ in the second, presiding over the curiously named Rocket Consequences Committee, which sometimes envisaged fearful onslaughts calling for the mass evacuation of London and at other times played down the risks, according to the information available. We even have the spectacle of Morrison urging heavy aerial attacks on launching areas in Holland, with such a prospect of civilian casualties that the Chiefs of Staff firmly objected. As it was, a misdirected raid by Second Tactical Air Force in March 1945 caused a Hamburg-style fire storm which killed 800 Dutch and wrecked hundreds of homes. The Germans apparently refused to allow fire brigades into the area on the grounds that ‘the stupid Dutch have to learn what it is like.’ In London the Government was warned that this raid had turned the Dutch civil population ‘violently anti-ally’.

The villain of the Home Front emerges, not unexpectedly, as Lord Cherwell, the Prime Minister’s curiously unlovable scientific adviser, who all along decried the rumours of a rocket attack as ‘a mare’s nest’ (thus giving David Irving the title for a book) and said of Sir Stafford Cripps, who took the threat seriously: ‘What can you expect from a lawyer who eats nothing but nuts?’ Even when it was indubitably clear what was on the way, Cherwell fell back to arguing that the rocket was an absurdly uneconomic method of delivering high explosive. It is an interesting, if deplorable thought that had the German-born Cherwell ( Lindemann) been at large in World War One he would have been identified as an agent of the ‘Hidden Hand’ and hounded out of office. His best service, perhaps, was to introduce into government research his brilliant pupil, Professor R.V. Jones, of Air Intelligence and ‘Ultra’ fame.

On the German side the villains were many and various. It is well-known that Hitler for long opposed rocket development, his prejudices being reinforced by a dream. Had the rocket been introduced earlier it could have subjected London to a long-term test of morale not unlike that borne by the defenders of Leningrad. Eventually Hitler became enthusiastic about V-2 and expressed regrets to Dornberger for his earlier coolness.

Dornberger, supposedly one of the only two people to whom Hitler apologised, had been working on rockets before the war. It is perhaps a pity no adventurous yachtmen, in the tradition of Erskine Childers’s The Riddle of the Sands, ever stumbled on his experimental establishment on the Pomeranian sand dunes. Longmate draws freely on Dornberger’s book V-2, which will be only too well remembered by anyone who read it. From its pages Dornberger emerges as a combination of soldier, scientist, visionary, poet and clown. Perhaps his book was ghosted, or enriched in translation, but it is a very odd product. Here is his account (reproduced by Longmate) of ‘the big assembly hall of the pre-production works’ at Peenemunde:

The view ... of the central aisle, over six hundred feet long, hemmed in on each side by 16 strong, square and gleaming concrete pillars, foreshortened from this point, and the rear wall fading into blue mists, once again held me spellbound. I lingered a long time. Potent joy swept over me. This hall must be thronged with happy, contented workers. I must hear in it the roaring, pounding, whirling, whistling, humming, ringing, infinitely varied sounds of work in progress. I was more than ever certain that we should pull it off!

Even when Royal Air Force bombs shattered this vision, Dornberger was alert to the poetic aspects, seeing the wreckage through ‘rosy curtains of gauze’ and ‘fragile cottony clouds’: ‘The buildings of the administrative wing, so far as I could distinguish them through the veiling mists, the drawing-offices, the development works and the canteen, appeared and disappeared at intervals through the rose-red fog like menacing shadows. Overhead was the star-strewn night sky with the beams of the searchlights whisking to and fro.’ Dornberger professed not to be interested in rocketry for its own sake; the V-2 was chiefly a war-winning weapon. When the supply departments overcame their bureaucratic stinginess, his offices at Peenemunde were gay with curtains, rugs, flowers and pictures. In the great underground factory at Nordhausen, even slave workers assigned to V-2 assembly enjoyed many privileges, including cinema, swimming-pool and a brothel.

The first V-2s to be fired in anger were not directed at Britain. Two of them were aimed at liberated Paris, possibly just for the hell of it, possibly because the French capital was a traditional target of German artillerists (the Kaiser’s Paris Gun had shelled the city from 80 miles), possibly so that the stupid French could learn what it was like. Both missiles aborted, but a third came down in a Paris suburb. On the same day, 8 September 1944, the first V-2 rocket was fired at London and fell on Chiswick.

It was ‘the weapon you never saw coming’, but in fact some observers on the East coast occasionally saw the vapour trails of V-2s rising from the launching sites in Holland (an experience akin to that of hearing the Ypres guns in the earlier war). Those Londoners who endured the rockets well remember how the impact preceded the sound of travel, which was like the rumble of a train going into a tunnel. The acoustical effects could be odd. Sometimes a great hole would appear in the street with a sudden ‘plop’, the hard sound of the explosion being heard at a distance. Like millions of others stationed or living in London, Longmate says he had no notion of how many rockets were straddling the city or how severely certain boroughs, like Ilford, Woolwich and Barking, were suffering. Of the counties, Essex was by far the unluckiest, with 378 rockets as against Buckinghamshire’s two and Berkshire’s one. The censorship was admirably thorough; the Germans had to be denied knowledge of where their missiles were falling, or whether, having regard to their high failure rate, they were getting through at all. Their inaccuracy made them suitable only for attacking large built-up areas. An attempt to rain V-2s on Norwich was a fiasco, since the target was too small. In Ilford 12 rockets fell within a half-mile span.

In London the first V-2 explosions were popularly attributed to gas main accidents or arsenals blowing up, but as they multiplied there were jokes about ‘flying gas mains’. Many thought the V-2 to be unsporting compared with the ‘good old doodlebug’, which gave everyone a chance to bolt for cover when the engine cut out. George Orwell in Tribune said that what depressed him about V-2s was ‘the way they set people talking about the next war’, when no doubt rockets would be fired across the Atlantic. It was odd that no rocket dropped on the ‘square mile’ of the City of London and hardly any in the West End. Indeed a belief was prevalent in the stricken East End that if a few rockets had fallen on the seats of the privileged more vigorous counter-measures would have been attempted. In the world north of Watford Gap the V-2s were never a subject of much interest.

There are few aspects of the onslaught on which this book does not touch. We are told the grisly tale of how the authorities in Hackney coped with identifying random bits of flesh. Occasionally it was possible ‘to set up portions of the remains suitable for viewing by relatives ... primed as to the nature of the unpleasant task to be performed’. A mother entered the mortuary to see a shoulder and neck arranged to resemble a body lying face downwards, with the head concealed in bandages and sunk in a pillow. The mother collapsed, crying: ‘My Georgie!’ At the end the death-toll was 2754, not an excessive total from 1403 launches. The V-2 was not particularly cost-effective, as Lord Cherwell complained (imagine trying to work out the cost-effectiveness of Anti-Aircraft Command). In the general balance-sheet of war the weapon could even be judged a flop, but as Orwell’s man in the street quickly recognised, it clearly signposted the way to the wars of the future.