The fallout from Sept. 11, 2001 is not yet complete. In many ways we all continue to be victims of the events of 9/11, even if your own meter is simply the rising cost of insurance since then. But 9/11’s looming tenth anniversary has stirred memories in Robert Smith, who sees a parallel in the personal traumas wrought by that day, and the V1 bombings of England by Germany during World War Two.
In 1944 the war in Europe was drawing to its inevitable climax. No longer able to fly in British airspace, the Third Reich resorted to new, unmanned weapons of mass destruction—as we would now call them. Anticipating the Tomahawk cruise missile by a half-century, German scientists at Peenemunde in the occupied Netherlands developed a pilotless flying bomb designated V1 (Vergeltungswaffen-1, or vengeance weapon 1), but known in England as the “doodlebug.”
Powered by a simple ram-jet engine and guided by gyrocompasses, the doodlebugs quite literally rained terror on southern England. As a V-1 approached its predetermined range, a simple timer interrupted the fuel supply, stalling the engine. Unpowered, the flying bomb fell from the sky like a brick.
People on the ground would pray that the characteristic throb of the ram-jet would keep going until the deadly missile had passed overhead. For if the fuel-starved engine stopped, the next sound would be an eerie whistle punctuated by a doomsday blast from 1,000 kg of high explosive. From June 1943 onwards, up to 190 V1s a day were fired at England. These were no “surgical” strike weapons trained on tactical targets: their crude aiming and ranging systems turned them into indiscriminate instruments of pure retaliation.
Mum and Dad bought their house in 1938. A small semi-detached, it was built on what had been an orchard 10 miles west of London. A couple of miles down the road lay Hounslow Heath, notorious for highwayman Dick Turpin’s stagecoach stickups and home to the British Army’s Hounslow Barracks. Already designated for military use, the open heathland soon boasted three new concrete runways suitable for long-range bombers, and a new name: Heathrow. It was from Heathrow that US Army Air Force P-47 Thunderbolts flew on June 6, 1944 to support the D-Day landings in Normandy.
Whether the doodlebug that demolished the Church of St Mary at the end of our street and blew in our windows was aimed at Heathrow is impossible to say. By 1944, “turned” German spies were feeding false ranging information back to the V1 launch sites, and many of the doodlebugs overshot London. This one didn’t.
The physical toll taken by the V1 flying bombs (and their progeny, the even deadlier V2 rockets) was immense. Of the 8,000 V1s aimed at the city between June 13, 1944 and Mar. 29, 1945, only about 2,400 reached their target, the rest being either shot down or falling harmlessly away from the city. In spite of the poor “hit” rate, 8,600 Londoners lost their lives to the V-weapons.
Dad was in the RAF. In the Dirty Thirties, the only job he’d been able to secure was as a lighting technician at Elstree film studios, a 60-km round trip each day on his BSA 250. The job required him to overcome his fear of heights, working on lighting beams 15 metres above the studio floor. When conscripted in 1939, the drafting panel took one look at his resume and shipped him north where he spent the rest of the war installing and servicing long-wave radio antennae. A cushy number, perhaps—if one of your pleasures is scaling swaying radio masts in the icy gales of the Scottish coast.
Either way, it meant Mum spent most of the war years on her own, terrified by the daily drone of the doodlebugs. By 1945 she had succumbed to a nervous breakdown, the effects of which stayed with her for the rest of her life. She suffered, paradoxically, from both claustrophobia and agoraphobia, terrified of leaving the house yet frightened of being confined. She would always check that at least one door in the house remained unlocked. Though Dad had now acquired a 1934 Morris Minor, Mum always stayed home when we ventured on the occasional day trip to the coast. Growing up, we never had a family holiday away from home because Mum refused to stay away overnight. An enduring childhood memory, intensified by the fact that it was always sweetened by ice cream, is of going with Mum on her visits to the clinic for her “nerves.”
By now you’ll have worked out where my mind went on Tuesday, Sept. 11 10 years ago. The indiscriminate, remote-control carnage and its emotional impact took me back to my traumatized mother and the horror of the Second World War for those who lived through it. The kill-by-numbers mentality of the V1’s designers rings terribly true to modern terrorist techniques. The unease felt across the continent after 9/11 was as palpable as it must have been in London in those war years, made even more distressing here because the sentiment is so new.
I wasn’t born until five years after V-E day, but I still remember the ration books we needed to buy sugar, the scarcity of commodities we now take for granted and the commonplace regard we had for the ubiquitous bomb craters where buildings had once stood. The ration books lasted until 1955. St Mary’s was rebuilt somewhere around 1960. But my Mum took to her grave the terror of the day the windows blew in.