Today (September 8) in London History – First V2 Attack

The first V2 attack hit London on September 8, 1944. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

To borrow Shakespeare’s line, I think you can probably describe it as the unkindest cut of all. Fortunately, it and its fellows didn’t prove fatal – unlike what Brutus and his co-conspirators did to Julius Caesar – but it was a terrible blow. And a very worrying one. Especially when you put it into context. It’s September 8th, 1944. The early evening of September 8th. The first V2 rocket to hit Britain hits Britain. Hits London. It comes down at Chiswick, on the western outskirts of London. It destroys eight houses. It damages 50 hours. I said it didn’t prove fatal. I meant that in a big picture sense. There in Chiswick, It killed two people. It injured 10.

Now let’s put that into context. It’s September 8th. More than three months after D-Day. D-Day was a success. Paris was liberated four weeks ago. The Allies are pushing forward. Pushing toward Germany. The outcome of the war’s no longer in the balance. Nazi Germany is going to be defeated. The allied advance means London is getting further and further from the front lines – getting close to being out of range. In fact, for several weeks now London’s been breathing easy. Thinking, we’ve made it, we’ve come through, we’re safe. The day before – September 7th – there’d been an item in the Telegraph headlined Air Toll on Fleeing Germans. The story spoke of American pilots attacking hundreds of German vehicles streaming towards Germany. 

Even more telling, there was a front-page story headlined, Flying Bomb Beaten. It was accompanied by a photograph showing a captured, damaged flying-bomb launch site. The Wehrmacht had partially destroyed it before their retreat. 

The Flying-Bomb was of course the V-1 rocket. 

And in Parliament on that same day – September 7th – Duncan Sandys, the chairman of the War Cabinet Committee told the House “the Battle of London is over.” He said we’ve triumphed over Germany’s robot V-1.

The MP had some really heartening statistics. The V-1 onslaught had gone on for 80 days. 8000 of the flying bombs had been launched. Some 2,300 got through to the London area. 92 per cent of all the casualties were London casualties. In the first week of the attack 33 per cent of the V1s were brought down. 

At the end 70 per cent of them were being shot down, only 9 per cent reaching London.

London went to bed and slept easy on September 7th. It didn’t sleep easy on September 8th. The MP had spoken too soon. 

It must have felt like out of the frying pan and into the fire. 

Unlike the V1 – the so-called flying bomb – the V2 was a weapon which gave no warning. Flashing from the sky at a speed faster than sound, the first indication it gave was an explosion, which, on a still night, could be heard ten miles away. 

Londoners – ever stoic, ever phlegmatic but tack sharp – soon learned that the long rumble which followed the sharp explosion was the delayed sound of the rocket’s passage through the air and that it held no further menace. The element of the unexpected was something by which the Germans hoped to terrorise the population – but the reverse happened. At the height of the offensive 17 rockets fell in one 24-hour period but Londoners just carried on, continued their work, continued their production. Historians now reckon that Hitler’s putting so many eggs in the basket of a weapon that killed and maimed civilians at a distance of 200 miles was a major tactical mistake and it hastened his defeat. It diverted an appreciable part of his manpower and material to a form of warfare which, tragic though it proved to thousands of people in London and southern England, made them set their teeth and concentrate on speeding victory. Here are the statistics. The V2 attacks would carry on for another six months. The last one fell at Orpington, in Kent on March 27th. It killed one person, seriously injured 23 others.

In all, 1050 V2s reached this country. They killed 2,754 people and seriously injured 6,523. The average result of the bombardment was that each of those 50-foot, ten-ton missiles killed 2.7 civilians and injured six. Some of the worst incidents: in New Cross in November a V2 hit a chain store during lunch-hour rush. It killed 160 people and seriously injured 108. In Stepney in March a rocket hit a block of flats, killing 134 and injuring 49. Smithfield Market was hit. Death toll 110. 123 seriously injured. Bloodhounds were used to find people trapped under debris. Speakers Corner was hit. But in the morning when few people were about. One death. Seven American soldiers were killed by a V2 which fell in Duke Street in the West End. The medical quarters at the Chelsea Royal Hospital were hit in January. Five deaths. Chelsea pensioner helped with the rescue effort. Four people changing books at Dalston Public Library were killed in a V2 attack. Two of the four victims were children. 35 hospitals and 45 churches and chapels were.

The attacks reached their peak in January and February, three months before VE day. 

And that’s all. Except to say, we’ve looked at this from the safe distance of nearly 80 years. 80 years is a long time – but no amount of time can gloss it over. What we’ve been looking at is barbarism. And as uncomfortable as it makes us to see it, that was a coin that had two sides. We – the Allies – were meting out the same to places like Dresden and Berlin and Tokyo and Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I’m not judging atrocities one against the other like a figure skating or high diving competition. I’m just saying. 

And a Today in London recommendation. No, let’s not go back to the Imperial War Museum. Let’s go to the Courtauld. There’s a major collection of Edvard Munch paintings being shown in the UK for the first time. And it doesn’t have long to go – The Morgan Stanley Exhibition: Edvard Munch. Masterpieces from Bergen ends on September 4th.

It must have felt out of the frying pan and into the fire. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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