On 2 January, our first speaker meeting of 2020, we were pleased to welcome Dave Hooker together with his wife Pam, to talk to us about his family experiences in East London during the bombing raids of WW2. In particular, the devastating effect of the V2 rockets that fell on London between 8 September 1944 and the day that Dave was born 27 March 1945.
In 1939 Adolf Hitler had boasted that he could soon be using unknown weapons for which there would be no retaliation. These ‘unknown weapons’ were the V1 flying bomb and V2 rocket. Hitler called them his terror weapons. In terms of destruction they were small when compared with the bombing of Dresden or the atomic bombs on Japan in 1945. It is a fact, that when the V2 rockets fell more people turned against Hitler.
The devastating V2 rocket was fourteen metres high, had a one ton warhead and an impact speed of over two thousand mph. Dave felt it was important for him, that his family and others who had a direct connection to the V2 rocket and experienced Hitler’s terror weapons, should have their story told together with the telling of the genius that had developed the first ballistic missile to fly into space; the same technology that took men to the moon in 1969.
When Dave was eleven years old his mother told him in a matter of fact sort of way, about a bombing on Monday 6 November 1944. She was coming down the stairs of their semi-detached house when the ceiling came down on top of her; the front door was blown in and ended up in the kitchen. The door must have passed her as she fell, semi-conscious onto the staircase. This was just one incident of many that his family, his neighbours and others had endured in the four years of bombings since the start of the war.
Turning the clock back to the early 1930s, Dave gave us his account of how the concept and manufacture of the V2 rocket came about,
The German engineer Walter Dornberger, son of a pharmacist with interests in rockets and space flight, was appointed to the German army weapons department. He later met with Wernher von Braun, a member of the Nazi party and a leading figure in rocket technology in Germany and later the pioneer of rocket and space technology in the USA. They, together with German engineer Walter Riedel, worked on ballistic rocket development at Kummersdorf, south of Berlin, and later at Peenemunde on the Baltic coast.
Following a period of development work and several launch failures, the first successful test of the V2 was carried out in October 1942 and witnessed by Hitler himself. It was around this time that RAF reconnaissance aircraft had spotted strange domed buildings being built across Nazi occupied Europe. These buildings were eventually identified as V2 rocket launch sites. Soon after, in November 1943, operation Crossbow began and the V2 rocket launch sites, close to the coast in northern France, were being bombed heavily by the allies together with sustained bombing of the manufacturing facility at Peenemunde. Following these attacks, rocket development and production was moved to a location inside a mountain at Blizna in South Eastern Poland, where the Nazis employed up to sixty thousand Jewish slave workers who were forced to work on building the V2’s in terrible conditions.
At home, Dave’s family had to endure continual bombings. During this time his father continued to work in a reserved occupation as a toolmaker engaged in the manufacture of parts for the Spitfire while his brothers and brothers’ in-law were all serving in the forces.
When Dave was about twenty he was talking to his Father about the war and he told him about a house nearby that had taken a direct hit. A child’s hand was sticking out of the wreckage. Dave asked his Father if he had pulled the child out of the wreckage? His Father replied no, just the hand. His Father never mentioned this again and spoke very little about the war but when he did it was tinged with humour, Dave felt that this was his Dad’s way of dealing with it.
Going back to the manufacture of ballistic weapons, it was clear that during the 1930’s and 1940’s Britain had no idea how to build a ballistic missile. The use of high energy liquid fuel for rocket propulsion was not conceived by anyone in Great Britain despite growing military requirements.
In September 1939 a young government scientist, twenty eight year old Dr R. V. Jones was appointed to search files of the secret intelligence service for clues about Hitler’s boast of an unknown weapon. He had an unerring instinct for the truth irrespective of how ludicrous it appeared to his bosses and the entrenched establishment led by Lord Cherwell the chief scientific advisor to Winston Churchill.
Lord Cherwell took the stance that no rocket could possibly fly into the stratosphere and reach England, a weapon of fantasy, we can’t do it so they can’t do it, was his attitude.
In Germany V2 rocket production had been stepped up. The bully-boy management methods and use of slave labour merely resulted in production of parts that didn’t work properly no matter what terrible reprisals were threatened to the workforce. Those threats were made and carried out mercilessly. It was suggested that V2 production was delayed by Nazi ignorance and very bad judgement. This poor Nazi management led to wild and exaggerated claims to Hitler about the speed and volume of production they had instigated. Exaggerations increased as each new manager took control; they were only interested in volume at all cost to impress the Fuhrer. This is borne out by the fact that approx half of the V2’s that were fired on London never reached their target but, Dave said, half was more than enough. This Nazi mis-management of the V2 rocket programme by self-seeking and ignorance must have contributed to the allies winning the Second World War earlier and saved the lives of millions of Londoners.
Dornberger, who was leader at the beginning and throughout the creative stages, had said that it was better to have five V2s that worked than a hundred that don’t, and that right up until the last one was fired the V2 was only a prototype. If the bully-boy managers had left Dornberger and Von Braun alone, they would have got there quicker by using a relatively small part of the state wealth the corrupt Nazis had available, thereby financing good engineering practice with decent management of theV2 project.
By the end of 1944 fixed launch sites were being heavily bombed so the Nazis took to launching V2s from Meillerwagens, the trailers used for rocket transport. RAF pilot Raymond Baxter, later a BBC commentator, was flying his spitfire over a town in northern France and watched aghast as a V2 rose up from between houses in a normal street. He attacked it to no avail and watched it disappear above him.
Things could have been very much worse. If the Nazis had used the Meillerwagen from the start, together with efficient V2 production inside the mountain at Blizna and employed good engineers in reasonable working conditions, instead of slave labour, they could have made V2s unstoppable, wrecking most of London.
There was no defence then, as now, against a V2 rocket. If one were fired today, just as it was then, and with the V2 travelling at over two thousand miles an hour. It would be almost impossible to stop, even using all our modern technology.
After D day and the Germans were at last driven back, the allies were able to destroy all the V2 sites. The V2 rocket was, as Hitler had predicted in 1939, an unknown weapon for which there was no retaliation.
The spoils of war allowed the Russians and Americans to split V2 technology between them in 1945. Ever since then the intercontinental ballistic missile remains unstoppable, thus the expression has grown that major war has been averted by the sure knowledge of mutually assured destruction, ‘destroy me and I will destroy you without fail’.
In total 13,058 V2s fell on London alone. The last two fell on 27 March 1945, one on Whitechapel and one on Orpington where one lady died, the last British civilian casualty of WW2.