Chapter 25: The Long-Range Rocket (1944–1945)
WE LEFT the story of the long-range rocket at the point where the flying bomb emerged as a more immediate threat to the United Kingdom. At that stage the Air Ministry assumed responsibility for investigating first the flying bomb and later the rocket also.
We noted in Chapters 22 and 23 that the German officers most concerned had little reason to suppose, at the end of 1943 and in the early part of 1944, that the rocket could soon be put to active use. General Dornberger, though more hopeful than the others, knew too well that the problem of the premature burst must first be overcome; General Heinemann was apparently convinced by December 1943, that the date when operations might begin could not yet be foreseen; and General Metz, who had been chosen to command the launching units in the field, was so despondent that in the spring of 1944 he wished earnestly to be rid of his appointment. Nevertheless plans were made during the first half of that year for an offensive against London, Bristol, Southampton, Portsmouth, Winchester and Aldershot from two ‘bunkers’ and forty-five unprotected positions between Cap Gris Nez and the Cotentin. Rockets would be supplied through seven main storage depots, four field storage depots and six transit dumps. (See Map 30.) Liquid oxygen drawn from seven production-centres would reach launching-units through a storage site between Boulogne and Calais and a protected siding between Caen and Flers. Alcohol would be stored at two rear sites, respectively near Lille and in the northern outskirts of Paris, and at eight forward sites.1
Nominally this was the plan envisaged in the early summer of 1944. To the well-informed the chances of putting it into execution must have seemed remote. Originally Metz was to have commanded one Bunker Abteilung and three Mobile Abteilungen. At the end of March only one of the Mobile Abteilungen (Art. Abt. (mot) 836) was anything like complete, though a second (Art. Abt. (mot) 485) might be ready within the next six or seven weeks. A start had been made with the
Bunker Abteilung (Art. Abt. (t. mot) 953) and in addition an independent Batterie (S.S. Werfer Batterie 500) was being formed by the S.S.
As the sequel to a demonstration at Blizna in May, Metz agreed with Dornberger and others that there was a reasonable prospect of starting active operations about the beginning of September. After the Anglo-American landing in Normandy and the loss of the sites near Cherbourg, a special effort was made to complete those installations which lay north of the Somme, in readiness for an offensive from that area by Art. Abt. (mot) 836, assisted in a subordinate capacity by Art. Abt. (mot) 485. On 18th July the Führer conceded that the plan of launching from ‘bunkers’ need not be pursued, owing to their susceptibility to bombing, but insisted that high priority should be given to the preparation of at least three positions from which mobile units could work with their vehicles under bombproof cover. In the outcome Allied bombing allowed little scope even for this programme. In August a provisional plan was made for an offensive against London from Belgium, should the advance of the Allied armies render the remaining sites in northern France untenable.
We must now return to London, and to the attempts made there to establish the nature of the weapon and the scope of the enemy’s organisation and intentions.
In the latter respect the work of the Air Ministry and its coadjutors was not made easier by frequent changes in the German plan, or by the anomalies which these shifts forced upon the German planners. To British intelligence officers a system which made Metz the intermediary between a corps headquarters and a single Abteilung seemed as unreasonable as it did to Metz himself.2 Not surprisingly, great difficulty was experienced in determining the strength of the troops assigned to rocket-launching, their chain of command and the effort of which they might be capable. As for the nature of the weapon, amplification and correction of the picture sketched in 1943 proved so hard a task that the weight of the rocket, the size of the warhead and the method of launching all remained uncertain till the summer of 1944 was well advanced.
In the meantime perhaps the most important step was the discovery that trials of the rocket were going on at Blizna. We now know that launchings there began in the autumn of 1943; but not until the following March did reliable news of these activities reach London.3 Even then the precise nature of the work transferred from Peenemünde was in doubt. A splendid opportunity thus arose for our
Polish allies, who were masters of a powerful intelligence service in their homeland. Under the direction of local organisers, willing helpers kept watch for the descent of missiles near their homes, and agents were planted in the German camp itself. By the end of June the leaders of this devoted band were able to transmit to London information which made it almost certain that one, at least, of the weapons under trial in their midst was the A-4 rocket. On several occasions about that time, agents or sympathisers succeeded in retrieving fragments of fallen missiles almost under the noses of the Germans.
To crown these efforts, in July the head of the local organisation, laden with such fragments and documents as he could carry, cycled from the neighbourhood of Blizna to a secluded aerodrome where he was to be picked up, under cover of darkness, by an Allied aircraft. By day the place was used by the Germans as an occasional landing-ground for aircraft in transit or on training flights; at night it sometimes served a better purpose. After a hazardous ride of about two hundred miles, the emissary was embarked, with other clandestine travellers, in a Dakota whose crew were beginning to despair of his arrival. But his trials—and those of the crew and of his fellow-passengers—were not yet over. The aircraft became bogged, and left the ground only at the fifth attempt, after hurried adjustments to its undercarriage. Meanwhile the aerodrome was guarded by partisans determined to stand no nonsense from enemy patrols.
Reaching the United Kingdom on 28th July by way of Italy, the Polish leader very properly—though much to the disappointment of British officers who eagerly awaited his arrival—refused to divulge any information until he had reported to his superior in London. When disclosed, his news showed that many of the rockets launched at Blizna had burst prematurely, and hence that the weapon was as yet imperfect.
Meanwhile the capture of prisoners and documents in Normandy had at last thrown light on the method of launching, and had revealed the whereabouts of some rocket-installations in northern France. Attempts were then made to detect on air photographs launching-sites whose location was thus disclosed. The sites, each consisting of a group of three rectangular platforms let into the surface of a road, proved so inconspicuous that those who examined the photographs would probably have seen nothing if they had not known where to look. Even with that information, they might have failed if neighbouring trees had been in full leaf.
By a happy chance, on 13th June a rocket launched from Peenemünde landed near Malmö, in Sweden. It carried a quantity of special equipment, and to that extent was a misleading specimen. But the Führer was wrong if he concluded—as he is said to have
done—that examination of it would not enhance our knowledge of the weapon. Two British intelligence officers who inspected the remains in Sweden submitted a report embodying evidence which hinted that the oxidant might be liquid oxygen, not hydrogen peroxide as had been hitherto supposed. Arrangements were then made to carry the remains to England, where they could be examined in detail and where an attempt could be made to reconstruct the missile. The first batch arrived by air towards the middle of July, the last by sea about a fortnight later. The work of reconstruction began at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough on the last day of the month.
Throughout the early part of 1944 Dr. Jones and his collaborators had been able to carry on their task of investigation in a climate relatively free of the alarms that had led in the previous year to some unlucky estimates of the weight of the rocket and its warhead. Not unnaturally, the launching of the flying-bomb offensive in June caused various highly-placed authorities to take a closer interest in the rocket, and brought back something of the earlier atmosphere of urgency. In the second week of July Dr. Jones was therefore called upon for an account of progress. None knew better than he that the time was not yet ripe for a definitive report: he had still much to learn from the Swedish rocket and from the leader of the Polish network. Perhaps foreseeing that in these circumstances the effect of anything he might say would be to encourage further speculation, he undertook the task with some reluctance.
His report was circulated to members of the War Cabinet CROSSBOW Committee on 16th July.4 It emphasised the gaps in our knowledge, pointing out that much had yet to be discovered about methods of launching and control, arrangements for production and supply, and the organisation which would handle the weapon in the field. On the question of weight, Dr. Jones said only that craters seen in Germany and Poland suggested that the warhead might weigh from three to seven tons. He made it clear that the missile, though apparently still imperfect, was in production and might soon be used against us.
At the next meeting of the War Cabinet CROSSBOW Committee two days later, the Prime Minister made one of his rare appearances, and expressed some doubt whether due care had been taken to advise all concerned of developments as they occurred. He directed that his Scientific Adviser, Lord Cherwell, should be kept ‘fully informed of all aspects of intelligence on the long-range rocket’.5
A week later Mr. Churchill was still more critical. On 24th July Mr. Sandys, who had set up a sub-committee under Professor Ellis to make an independent study of the evidence, circulated a report in
which he committed himself to the opinion that, since the launching-platform was now known to be nothing more than an inconspicuous slab of concrete, and since the Germans were believed to have made about a thousand rockets, it would be unwise to assume that a rocket-offensive was not imminent.6 When the committee met on the following day both the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary expressed surprise that a threat apparently so grave had developed with so little warning.7 Dr. Jones—supported by Sir Archibald Sinclair and Sir Charles Portal—responded by pointing out that much of the information on which Mr. Sandys relied had only just become available, and that whether attack was imminent was still an open question. In his opinion, which was also that of his colleagues, the westward movement of launching-troops which must precede an offensive from northern France could not have taken place without their knowledge. We now know that in fact the move had not occurred, and that, even in the more favourable circumstances which prevailed before the Allied landing, the Germans did not expect to begin their offensive until September.
Within the next few weeks the arrival of the Polish leader, examination of further documents captured in Normandy, and above all a review of the evidence in the light of the hypothesis that the oxidant was liquid oxygen, cleared up most of the misconceptions which had beset the path of the investigators since the early part of 1943. On 10th August Dr. Jones was able to report that the total weight of the rocket was about twelve tons, and that of the warhead about one ton. Although disputed by those whose estimates had been based on less objective data, these figures were soon corroborated by reconstruction of the Swedish rocket. Finally, on 27th August Dr. Jones embodied the results of many months of patient investigation in a comprehensive paper which was sent to every department and formation likely to be concerned in countering the rocket if it came.8
We have seen in earlier chapters that, after the bombing of Peenemünde in August 1943, counter-offensive measures to the rocket were virtually confined for the best part of a year to attacks on ‘large sites’ in northern France. In the summer of 1944 attacks were made on hydrogen-peroxide plants at Peenemünde and elsewhere, but these were directed quite as much at the flying bomb as at the rocket. Blizna was not attacked, as it would have made an awkward target, and in any case seemed likely to fall soon into Russian hands. With the concurrence of Marshal Stalin, arrangements were made for British experts to inspect the place when the time was ripe. The
mission reached Teheran on 31st July and, after spending some time there and in Moscow, was allowed to go to Blizna early in September.
We have also seen that in August 1944, renewed fears that the rocket might soon be used against us, coupled with the arrival of fresh intelligence about the weapon, led the Joint CROSSBOW Priorities Committee to give some prominence in their target lists to objectives associated with it. As a result, on the 24th of that month Fortresses of the United States 8th Air Force aimed the best part of 300 tons of bombs at a factory near Weimar which was suspected of making parts for rockets, and also possibly for flying bombs. During the next week attacks were made on five liquid-oxygen plants and two radio-beam stations; and on 31st August and 1st September Bomber Command aimed nearly 3,000 tons of bombs at nine ‘forward storage depots’ in northern France. We now know that by the end of August Metz and his associates had abandoned the hope of conducting an offensive from that area, and were on their way to safer quarters.
Wisdom after the event should not, however, lead us to slight a scheme of counter-measures drawn up while an offensive from northern France was still a risk that could not be discounted.9 The scheme took into account the probable effects of a general programme of attacks on rail communications between France and Germany, but provided also for the bombing of storage depots, liquid-oxygen plants, beam-stations and (in certain circumstances) production centres, and for a system of armed reconnaissance designed to make the most of any opportunities that might arise of hampering units concerned specifically with the transport, servicing or launching of the missile. As early as the summer of 1943 steps had been taken to detect the launching of rockets by means which included radar stations with specially modified equipment and also flash-spotting and sound-ranging formations of the Royal Artillery. Data so obtained—and especially that provided by the radar stations—would, it was hoped, define the positions of launching sites with sufficient accuracy to serve as a guide for armed reconnaissance. The same means might enable the air defences to give the public a few minutes’ warning that a rocket was on its way. In addition, photographic reconnaissance aircraft would be sent to all points indicated by the radar evidence as launching-sites, and attempts would be made to jam any radio transmissions which might be used to control the missile.
We shall see later to what extent this scheme proved appropriate when the attack developed from another quarter.
During the last week in August the Allied advance to the Seine disposed of the German hope of a rocket offensive from any of the launching-positions shown on Map 30. On the 29th the Führer approved plans for an offensive against London and Paris from an area between Tournai and Ghent, in Belgium; but next day that area was held to be too near the advancing armies, and the neighbourhood of Antwerp and Malines was substituted for it. At the same time LXV Armee Korps relinquished its responsibility for the higher control of long-range rocket operations. Nominally this task then devolved on Metz, but effective control soon passed to the S.S. General Kammler, who on 6th August had been appointed Special Commissioner for A-4 Matters by the notorious Heinrich Himmler. As we have seen in Chapter XXIV, Kammler later acquired control of the flying-bomb offensive also.
Charged by Himmler with the supervision of preparations for a series of attacks which the Germans hoped to launch within a week, Kammler established himself at Kleve at the end of August, but left soon afterwards for Berg en Del, near Nijmegen. (See Map 31.) Within the next few days some six thousand officers and men concerned with launching and supply, with nearly sixteen hundred vehicles, were ordered to leave their training areas and concentrate in two groups in Western Germany and Holland. Gruppe Nord, comprising the first and second Batterien of Art. Abt. (mot) 485, under a Colonel Hohmann, advanced across Germany to the neighbourhood of Kleve. Gruppe Slid, comprising the second and third Batterien of Art. Abt. (mot) 836, under a Major Weber, moved from the Rhineland to the neighbourhood of Venlo, and thence southwards to the vicinity of Euskirchen.
Meanwhile Allied troops had entered Belgium and liberated Brussels. On 5th September Kammler, overriding such authority as still remained in theory with General Metz, ordered Gruppe Nord to take up a position near The Hague, and to hold itself in readiness to open an attack on London within the next few days. At the same time he ordered Gruppe Slid to prepare for attacks on targets in northern France and Belgium. An experimental and demonstration unit, Lehr und Versuchs Batterie 444, was placed under the orders of the Gruppe for the purpose of opening an attack on Paris.
The first unit to go into action was Lehr und Versuchs Batterie 444. After two abortive attempts on 6th September, the Batterie succeeded, about half-past eight on the morning of the 8th, in launching a rocket which fell within the built-up area of the French capital, but was then forced by the Allied advance to withdraw from its
forward position and was soon afterwards allotted other targets. Meanwhile Gruppe Nord was making ready for its attack on London.
At the time virtually nothing was known of all this in the United Kingdom. As late as 26th August the opinion of the Air Staff was that attacks on London might be expected to begin during the first half of September,10 but soon afterwards the rapid progress of the Allied armies brought a different outlook. On 2nd September the Director of Intelligence (Research) told the Joint CROSSBOW Priorities Committee that the threat from the rocket ‘would disappear when the area in Northern France and Belgium 200 miles from London was “neutralized” by the proximity of our land forces and the operations of our Tactical Air Forces’.11 Four days later the Vice-Chiefs of Staff committed themselves to the opinion that rocket attacks on London need no longer be expected.12
Should the rocket be used against the British capital or any other part of the United Kingdom, immediate responsibility for such defensive measures as might be possible would fall mainly on Air Defence of Great Britain. The chances of attack were therefore keenly studied at Hill’s headquarters. As soon as the opinion of the Vice-Chiefs of Staff became known there, the intelligence officer immediately concerned pointed out that it was not consistent with current knowledge of the rocket.13 According to the best authorities, the range of the weapon was such that it could still be launched at London from western Holland, even if the Allied armies reached the Rhine. That no launching-sites had been identified there proved nothing, since the sites were inconspicuous, and in any case could be constructed very quickly. The Chief Intelligence Officer of the command, Group Captain Vorley Harris, thereupon informed Air Marshal Hill that notwithstanding what the Vice-Chiefs of Staff had said, the evidence did not exclude.14 This view was proved sound a few days later, when Gruppe Nord opened fire at London from the outskirts of The Hague.
At 6.40 p.m. on 8th September the first long-range rocket to strike the United Kingdom fell at Chiswick, killing three people and seriously injuring another ten.15 Sixteen seconds later a second came to earth near Epping, but caused no casualties. During the next ten days a further twenty-five rockets fell on or near the United Kingdom, bringing the number counted since the 8th to twenty-seven. Of that total, sixteen fell in the London Civil Defence Region,
six in Essex, two in Sussex, one on a mud-flat near All Hallows, Kent, and two in the sea off Shoeburyness and Clacton. It is estimated that six to eight others despatched during that period failed to arrive.16 The majority of the launchings were made by the first and second Batterien of Art. Abt. (mot) 485 from the suburb of Wassenaar, north-east of The Hague; a few by Lehr und Versuchs Batterie 444 from the island of Walcheren, to which place that unit had moved on Kammler’s orders after its initial effort against Paris. The aiming-point for both formations was about a thousand yards east of Waterloo Station; the nearest rocket to that point fell at Lambeth. Casualties were nowhere very heavy, many rockets falling in open country and doing little damage.
At the outset the primary task of the defences was to find out where the missiles were coming from. Without that knowledge, nothing useful could be done to check the rate of fire, either by armed reconnaissance of launching-sites or by attacking communications or supplies. For the identification of launching-sites the plan drawn up by the Air Ministry in August relied largely on photographic reconnaissance of places indicated as likely points of origin by radar, sound-ranging and flash-spotting data. In practice the method proved ineffective, partly because the radar stations and sound-ranging and flash-spotting units had been deployed in expectation of attack from northern France, partly because their equipment was inherently too inaccurate to fix, points of origin with anything like certainty at such long ranges,17 and partly because the launching-sites were in any case virtually undetectable by high-altitude photography. On the other hand the launching of a rocket, with its accompanying noise and clouds of smoke or flame, was not a matter which could be concealed from observers on or near the spot. Consequently local adherents to the Allied cause were able to keep tally of almost every missile launched; and means were found to transmit their observations to this country almost as soon as they were made.18 Other sources of information included reports from Allied aircrew, who sometimes saw the trail made by an ascending rocket.
As Hill’s headquarters were already a clearing-house for the information furnished by radar-stations and the like, and as prompt identification of launching-sites was a most important requirement for armed reconnaissance, arrangements were made for the rapid passing of the gist of relevant messages from Holland to one of his intelligence officers, who thereupon collated this information with the rest of the evidence. Within a few days it was clear that all or most of the rockets hitherto launched had come from suburbs of The Hague. There was some evidence of launching from other places, including Walcheren, but it was considered weak; and indeed we now know that operations from Walcheren did not begin until the
14th. Attention was drawn by agents to suspected storage-sites on three estates known as Ter Horst, Eikenhorst and Raaphorst.
On 14th September Bomber Command attacked Raaphorst, dropping 190 tons of bombs. On the 17th a similar attack was made on Eikenhorst. Fighters of Air Defence of Great Britain flew frequent sorties over suspected areas, occasionally opening fire on vehicles and troops which might or might not belong to the organisation concerned with long-range rockets. According to a German source, these interventions had no great effect during the phase in question here.
Other counter-measures made provision for the detection and jamming of radio-transmissions associated with the flight of rockets. It was, however, soon suspected that radio-control was not an essential feature of the German system. In fact the Leitstrahl method of controlling direction was not used in the early stages, and was never generally adopted; while the Radio-Brenschluss method of controlling range was never as commonly employed as that which depended on the I-Gerät. For the detection of rockets as they rose into the air, Hill deployed additional radar equipment near the East Coast; and the 11th Survey Regiment, Royal Artillery, which undertook sound-ranging and flash-spotting, brought into use a number of balloons to supplement its existing facilities. Arrangements were also made to deploy radar, sound-ranging and flash-spotting units (the last two comprising the 10th Survey Regiment, Royal Artillery) in Belgium, and for them to report to a special formation called No. 105 Mobile Air Reporting Unit, with headquarters at Malines, near Brussels. This extension of Air Defence of Great Britain to the Continent called for special communications between Malines and Stanmore, and between the 10th Survey Regiment and its counterpart at Canterbury.
On 17th September the Western Allies began their attempt to get a footing across the Rhine by means of an airborne landing near Arnhem. The imminence of this operation was one of the factors which had led to a too-sanguine appreciation of the outlook earlier in the month. Among its immediate effects was the withdrawal of Art. Abt. (mot) 485 from The Hague to the neighbourhood of Burgsteinfurt (north-west of Münster) and of Lehr und Versuchs Batterie 444 from Walcheren to Zwolle. At the same time Kammler withdrew in haste from his headquarters near Nijmegen, also to the neighbourhood of Münster. The offensive against the United Kingdom was thus brought to an abrupt, though temporary, standstill some ten days after its commencement.
Meanwhile the British Government had decided that, for the present, no public announcement about the rocket offensive should be made. It followed that no effect could yet be given to the provisional plan which had been made to warn Londoners, by means of maroons remotely fired from the Filter Room at Stanmore, that a rocket was thought to be on its way. In any case technical imperfections made it unlikely that the system would yield satisfactory results, at any rate until No. 105 Mobile Air Reporting Unit and its ancillaries were properly installed in Belgium.
On 25th September the Chiefs of Staff gave fresh consideration to the matter, in the light of a report prepared by the Deputy Chief of the Air Staff in consultation with Mr. Sandys.19 In the meantime no rockets had reached the United Kingdom since 18th September; on the other hand, the airborne force at Arnhem had been checked, and the rocket-launching area near The Hague seemed likely to remain in German hands. Air Marshal Bottomley and Mr. Sandys believed, however, that even so the Germans would be prevented by general disorganisation and the insecurity of their communications from aiming many more rockets at London. The Chiefs of Staff concluded that it would be best to delay any public announcement about rockets for at least another week. As for the question of specific warning that a rocket had been launched, they pointed out that hitherto the performance of the radar, sound-ranging and flash-spotting units had been such that, if warnings had been based on it, several rockets would have arrived unheralded, while conversely a high proportion of warnings would have proved vain.
Meanwhile Kammler had ordered Lehr und Versuchs Batterie 444 to keep the campaign alive by opening fire on Norwich and Ipswich. For that purpose the unit moved to the neighbourhood of Staveren in Friesland. Operations from that quarter began on 25th September. At ten minutes past seven that evening a rocket fell at Hoxne, in Suffolk; and next day a second fell at Ranworth, eight miles northeast of Norwich. Between 25th September and 12th October Lehr und Versuchs Batterie 444 aimed 44 rockets at the two places.* Thirty-two came down on land in the United Kingdom and five were seen to fall into the sea. The nearest rocket to either target fell in the outskirts of Norwich on 3rd October, harming no-one; and casualties everywhere were very light.
At first such evidence of the origin of the missiles as reached this country was inconclusive, pointing to the neighbourhood of Apeldoorn and (more doubtfully) to the islands of Vlieland and Terschelling, as well as to the true locality of the launching-sites in Friesland. Later information strengthened the case for Friesland,
* According to a German source only one of these was aimed at Ipswich.
establishing with fair accuracy the whereabouts of several launching-sites and suggesting that they were supplied from a neighbouring railhead at Sneek. As all places suspected as sources of the missiles aimed at Norwich and Ipswich were too remote to be adequately covered by fighters from the United Kingdom, Hill agreed that the Second Tactical Air Force should undertake the task from its more convenient bases on the Continent. His intelligence officers continued their study of the evidence, and passed their conclusions at frequent intervals to Coningham’s headquarters.
Early in October two intelligence officers from Stanmore visited Belgium to discuss their problems with representatives of the Second Tactical Air Force, No. 105 Mobile Air Reporting Unit and the 10th Survey Regiment. On returning to England they reported that in recent weeks at least fifty rockets had apparently been aimed at Continental cities and that hitherto only belated and incomplete reports of such occurrences had reached this country. They recommended, therefore, that an organisation should be established on the Continent to keep track of the situation.
Meanwhile the Arnhem operation had so clearly failed to achieve its purpose that, on 30th September, Kammler judged conditions safe for the return of part, at any rate, of Gruppe Nord to south-west Holland. Accordingly the second Batterie of Art. Abt. (mot) 485 moved back to that area and prepared to resume the offensive against London. News of the move was received in London and at Stanmore on 3rd October, so that the arrival of a rocket at Leytonstone soon after 11 o’clock that evening came as no surprise. Thereafter until 12th October, when Lehr und Versuchs Batterie 444 ceased operations from Friesland, both London and East Anglia were under fire. On that date Hitler ordered that in future London and Antwerp should be the sole targets for long-range rockets; accordingly, on 20th October Lehr und Versuchs Batterie 444 joined the second Batterie of Art. Abt. (mot) 485, which was simultaneously reinforced by part of the third Batterie, whose training had now been completed. Later moves reduced the strength of the units at The Hague to one-and-a-third Batterien for a brief period in December, and afterwards maintained it at two Batterien.
In practice the volume of fire would seem, however, to have been governed not so much by the number of launching-units available, as by the rate at which rockets and fuel could reach them. The flight from France had nullified the planned system of supply, compelling Kammler and his subordinates to improvise new measures in face of difficulties arising from the vast programme of attacks on communications undertaken by the Allies as part of their main strategic plan. In September and October missiles on their way to launching-units were deposited in transit dumps ill-equipped for maintenance and
servicing. As many had already lain for some time in store before despatch, the consequence was that a high proportion reached their ultimate destinations in poor conditions, their delicate mechanical and electrical equipment having deteriorated through corrosion. Later a different procedure (known as the Warme Semmel or ‘Hot Cakes’ system) was adopted, whereby rockets were taken by rail direct from the production plant to an unloading point close to the appropriate launching area, thence by road to an assembly- and testing-point where they were serviced without delay, and finally by road again to the launching-sites. By this means, which incidentally entailed the scrapping of some 500 missiles already accumulated at storage depots in Germany, a rocket could be launched within three or four days of leaving the production plant. It seems fair, however, to assume—as Hill and other commentators on the problem of defence have done—that this procedure would not have served to nourish more than a comparatively small scale of attack. A weightier offensive would probably have called for well-equipped forward storage depots, like those envisaged in the earlier plan for attacks from France, and these would doubtless have proved as vulnerable to bombing as did the flying-bomb storage depots at Saint-Leu and Nucourt.
The resumption of attacks on London, coupled with the probability that attacks would continue to be made on Continental cities, raised a difficult issue for the air defences. On 2nd October the Chief of the Imperial General Staff had suggested to his colleagues that Brussels and Antwerp, rather than any part of the United Kingdom, might well become the enemy’s main targets.20 The threat to the Anglo-American forces in Europe which might arise from long-range bombardment of their bases and centres of supply was likewise plain to the Supreme Commander and his staff, who had received intelligence of German preparations to bombard Continental targets with flying bombs as well as rockets. In consequence Hill was unable to resist the transfer to the Supreme Commander’s control of No. 105 Mobile Air Reporting Unit and its subordinate radar and signals units. At a time when attacks on the United Kingdom were quite light, he would not have felt justified in objecting to the change, especially as provision was made for continued contact between Malines and Stanmore. As a corollary, the 11th Survey Regiment moved to Belgium to replace the 10th, which could no longer be spared for CROSSBOW duties; and it, too, passed out of Hill’s control. The loss was acceptable, since the performance of the radar stations had improved. In the common interest Hill also willingly assented to the posting of some members of his staff to a new CROSSBOW organisation at Supreme Headquarters. The problem that now confronted him arose less from these reforms, which
indeed he considered fully justified, than from the recent transfer of responsibility for armed reconnaissance to the Second Tactical Air Force. While that arrangement held good, it was too much to expect that The Hague would be as closely reconnoitred as places occupied by units suspected of bombarding Continental cities, or would receive the attention which his own squadrons were capable of giving to it.
As part of the new system, he therefore agreed with Coningham on a division of responsibility. Henceforth Fighter Command—as Hill’s command had now become—would undertake armed reconnaissance of The Hague and its neighbourhood, Coningham’s forces of places further east which seemed to be occupied by units bombarding Continental cities. On days when English aerodromes were weather-bound and Continental bases usable, the Second Tactical Air Force would do its best to cover The Hague on Hill’s behalf. Its attacks on the enemy’s communications would also make an important contribution.
During the third week in October home-based squadrons therefore resumed the duties which they had undertaken at the beginning of the German offensive. Originally performed by No. 11 Group, the work had been entrusted after a few days to No. 12 Group, whose aerodromes were better placed for sorties over Holland, and who now took up the task again. The Germans were rightly thought to be using launching-areas further south and nearer to the centre of The Hague than those used in September; and accordingly attention was directed chiefly to a number of suspected sites in the city and its southern outskirts. In the course of the next five weeks about 600 fighter sorties were flown for the purpose from United Kingdom bases. Ter Horst and Eikenhorst were believed to be no longer in use as storage sites; but a number of other places were suspected of sheltering rockets, vehicles and stores, or launching-troops. There was also reason to believe that two railway stations at Leiden played some part in the system of supply. At the urgent request of Hill’s intelligence officers, target material relating to these places was quickly prepared by the Air Ministry for distribution to formations which might be asked to bomb them. Between 16th and 18th October Bomber Command were in fact invited to attack two contiguous properties in the southern outskirts of The Hague, and the Mosquito bombers of the Second Tactical Air Force to tackle a third site there in addition to the two stations at Leiden. Raaphorst remained under suspicion for some time after its bombing in September, but during the third week in October was withdrawn from the target-list for lack of evidence that it was still in use.
In early October rockets aimed at London were arriving at the
rate of some two or three a day. Rumours of the reinforcement of the launching-units at The Hague reached this country; and by 24th October Hill had reason to fear that a heavier scale of attack might be expected in the future. On that day he wrote to the Deputy Chief of the Air Staff, expressing his concern that so little was being done to tackle aerodromes used by German aircraft which launched flying bombs;* and he took the opportunity of pointing out that the rocket-targets recently suggested to Bomber Command might also be thought worthy of attention.21 But the bomber forces had much else to do, and his arguments were unavailing. In the outcome neither the targets proffered to Bomber Command, nor those recommended as objectives for Coningham’s Mosquito bombers, were attacked within the next three weeks.
Towards the end of October the number of rockets reaching the United Kingdom rose markedly in consequence of the reinforcement which in fact occurred at the end of the third week in that month. At the same time the German attack became more accurate, presumably as a result of growing experience. Between 26th October and 4th November, forty-four missiles reached the country. Thirty-three of them came down in the London Civil Defence Region and another seven within twenty-five miles of Charing Cross. The mean point of impact of these forty rockets was in Poplar. Casualties grew heavier, though they remained considerably fighter than the Germans seem to have supposed.22 On 1st November a rocket which fell in Camberwell killed or seriously injured forty people, and another in Deptford more than eighty. Altogether, more than 1,400 people were killed or wounded by rockets during the month which followed Hill’s remonstrance, as compared with about a sixth of that number in the preceding seven weeks.
On 8th November the Germans announced publicly that the V -2 offensive against London had begun. Two days afterwards Mr. Churchill told the British public that long-range rockets had indeed been launched at the United Kingdom, but did not mention that London was the target, lest the enemy should draw conclusions about the accuracy of his fire. As attempts to give specific warning would still have led to many false alarms, the system designed for that purpose was not put into force.
A few days later Hill returned to the issue which he had raised on 24th October. Writing formally to the Air Ministry on 17th November, he pointed out that, owing to inherent limitations which would grow more stringent with the approach of winter, armed reconnaissance could not do much to keep down the German effort unless supported by other forms of offensive action.23 So far the bomber
* See pp. 393-394.
forces proper had done little directly to assist him. He himself had made some use of Spitfires equipped as fighter-bombers; but their pilots were forbidden to drop bombs where civilians might be killed or injured. He asked on the one hand that Bomber Command should be invited to give more earnest consideration to the flying-bomb and rocket objectives which he had suggested to them, on the other that more scope should be allowed to his fighter-bombers, especially as civilians were said to have been removed from those parts of The Hague which they were likely to attack. The second point, he thought, might well be discussed with our Dutch Allies.
The whole matter was considered four days later at a conference under the chairmanship of the Deputy Supreme Commander.24 In support of his plea for greater liberty of action for his fighter-bombers, Hill urged that the risk of injury to life and property in Holland must be weighed against the certainty of injury to life and property in London. Representatives of the Dutch Government thereupon agreed that, if bombing attacks on launching-points and storage sites were necessary and seemed likely to prove effective, they would raise no immediate objection. Hill was therefore given authority to make such attacks, even on targets near built-up areas, as long as he considered them ‘reasonably discriminating’. On the other hand the Deputy Supreme Commander could not promise much assistance from the bomber forces proper, apart from that provided by the general Allied air offensive against communications, which included a programme of attacks on certain bridges carrying traffic to The Hague. On that programme the Second Tactical Air Force were currently engaged. Bomber Command were unlikely to tackle CROSSBOW targets unless conditions happened to be unfavourable for more important tasks.
During the last three days of November Spitfires of Fighter Command made 111 sorties over The Hague and dropped ten tons of bombs. Unfavourable weather limited their effort in December, which amounted even so to 359 sorties and the dropping of 44 tons of bombs. On Christmas Eve 33 Spitfires, each carrying one 500-pound bomb besides the usual pair of 250-pound bombs, attacked a block of flats where German troops were housed, and damaged it severely. According to a German report, one man was killed and two were wounded.25
Meanwhile Hill’s arguments for stronger counter-measures were reinforced by a similar request from the Home Secretary.26 To reduce the risk that penetration of the tunnels which carried the underground railway system under the Thames might cause heavy casualties among the many Londoners who habitually took refuge at night in tube-stations, consideration was given to the transmission of special warnings to the London Passenger Transport Board to ensure
timely closing of the floodgates.* But Mr. Morrison asked, too, for heavier attacks on The Hague. His plea for the direct participation of the heavy bomber force was not endorsed by the Chiefs of Staff, who argued that a major diversion of effort, coupled with much probable injury to Dutch life and property, was too big a price to pay for a temporary interruption of rocket-launchings.27 Their policy was still to rely largely on interruption of communications by the general air offensive; and about this time much thought was devoted to the best means of ensuring that that part of the Allied programme which aimed at interference with road and rail traffic between Germany and western Holland should make an acceptable contribution to CROSSBOW counter-measures. The bombing of liquid-oxygen plants, or of the underground factory at Niedersachswerfen, was also considered; but these projects were so beset with difficulties and uncertainties that little came of them. Eventually a liquid-oxygen plant at Alblasserdam was bombed by the Second Tactical Air Force, and another at Loosduinen was attacked on three occasions by fighter-bombers of Fighter Command. But no permanent benefit could be expected from these ventures, since the Germans had many other sources of supply.
For the most part, therefore, Fighter Command remained dependent on its own resources, though some valuable contributions continued to be made by the Second Tactical Air Force, particularly in the form of attacks on the enemy’s communications. Hitherto Hill had used three squadrons of fighter-bombers—No. 229 Squadron and Nos. 453 (Royal Australian Air Force) and 602 (City of Glasgow) Squadrons, all working under No. 12 Group, chiefly from the Coltishall sector. A fourth squadron, No. 303, made occasional contributions to the bombing, but flew chiefly without bombs. In response to a suggestion from the Air Staff that he should increase his effort, coupled with a promise that the Second Tactical Air Force would be asked to take special pains to second it he added in January Nos. 124 and 451 Squadrons, making six in all.28 Fighters which did not carry bombs continued to do armed reconnaissance; but both fighters and fighter-bombers were limited to the daylight hours. Night ‘intruder’ squadrons, which might have made a useful contribution, were committed to operations in support of the Allied bomber offensive.
In January the weather was once more unfavourable. Fighter-bombers of Fighter Command made 210 sorties against rocket-targets,
* The system was introduced on 8th January 1945. Between that date and the end of the rocket-offensive 228 warnings were given to the London Passenger Transport Board. Only eight were classed as ‘false’ when all data had been examined, and only three rockets fell in London without warning; but the high proportion of genuine missiles which failed to reach the capital was one of several factors which made the system unacceptable as a basis for warnings to the general public.
dropping 24 tons of bombs. The Second Tactical Air Force continued the help afforded by their general programme of attacks on the enemy’s communications, and made (on 22nd January) the attack on Alblasserdam which we have already noted. According to a German report, the effects on the rocket organisation of various attacks in January included damage to one missile and destruction of one warhead; five men were killed and nine wounded, railway lines were cut in several places and several vehicles suffered damage of one kind or another.29
Meanwhile a sharp increase in the number of rockets reaching the United Kingdom both justified Hill’s insistence that more must be done to keep the enemy in check, and gave occasion for the Air Staff’s ruling that Hill must himself do more in that direction. After rising at the end of October, the toll of ‘incidents’ had indeed declined towards the end of 1944; but the total for January was not far short of twice the average for the previous three months. For some weeks after the opening of the fighter-bomber offensive in late November, the accuracy of the enemy’s fire—as measured by the proportion of observed rockets which fell within the London Civil Defence Region—had fallen off, and the majority of launchings had been made in darkness. Both tendencies were welcomed by the British, for casualties were generally lower at night than in the daytime; but unfortunately they were not maintained. In January half the rockets which reached the country fell in Greater London, as compared with a third in December, while the proportion of incidents occurring in daylight rose, again from a third, to between one half and two-thirds of the total. Thus the most that could be claimed for the fighter-bomber force at the end of January was that, while it did seem capable of discomfiting the enemy when conditions were favourable, in recent weeks the weather had not provided such conditions. There was no likelihood that the launching of rockets could be altogether prevented by such means; and experience had shown that even an occasional missile might do much damage. Norwich and Ipswich had been lucky; London, too, had been lucky for the first few weeks, no incident entailing heavy casualties occurring until the beginning of November.* Incidents comparable with those which then occurred in Camberwell and Deptford were recorded during the next few weeks in Islington, Stepney, Greenwich, Wandsworth, Bromley, Bethnal Green and Poplar; and, outside London, at Luton, Colliers Row and Chelmsford. Much worse followed on 25th November, when a rocket struck a crowded building in the New Cross Road, killing 160 people and seriously injuring 108. Between that date and the end of January no further disaster of quite that
* See p. 413.
magnitude was suffered, though on three occasions (at Islington, Hackney and Southward) more than a hundred people were killed or injured by a single rocket, and on fifteen others more than twenty.
Perhaps because its approach was unseen and unheard, the rocket nevertheless aroused less apprehension among most sections of the public than that provoked at the beginning of the previous summer by the flying bomb. Before the end of Wachtel’s offensive from northern France, Londoners who had sought sanctuary outside the capital were beginning to return to their former habitations. Despite the menace of the rival weapon, the trend continued during the autumn and early winter, so that by January the population of London was reckoned only some five per cent, smaller than in early June, and was rising at the rate of 10,000 a week.
Even so, a growing casualty list gave ample justification for the anxiety felt by those concerned with defence, whether military or civil; and the time was ripe for consideration of any practicable measure which promised to reduce the danger. General Pile and his staff had long been interested in the possibility of prematurely exploding long-range rockets by means of anti-aircraft fire; but early estimates of the chances of success had been unimpressive. In December the project was revived in a new form which, in Pile’s opinion, held sufficient promise to warrant a practical trial.30 After a preliminary discussion at Hill’s headquarters, Pile’s staff produced a paper which envisaged the interposition of a curtain of shell-fragments at a given point on the predicted course of an approaching missile. The number of rounds fired at each missile engaged would be of the order of 150, and the chance of success was estimated at one in fifty. On 20th December Hill commended the proposal to the Air Ministry as one containing ‘the germ of successful counter-measures to the rocket-attack’ and therefore not to be dismissed without a trial.31 The War Cabinet CROSSBOW Committee discussed the matter on 15th January, when Professor Ellis put the chance of a successful engagement at one in a hundred.32 Sir Robert Watson-Watt put it at one in a thousand. In the light of these figures a favourable decision was not to be expected, but the Committee asked that further work should be done on the project, and promised to consider the matter again in two months’ time. In the outcome a panel of scientists reported on 26th March that, if the number of rounds fired at a given rocket were increased to 400, the chance of securing a hit might be as high as one in thirty; but a few days later the Chiefs of Staff decided against a trial, feeling that the prospects of success were still too slight to outweigh the risk of an adverse effect on the public temper.33 In any case, by that time the chance of seeing what the guns could do had passed with the descent of the last rocket on British soil.
Until the end of the campaign active counter-measures thus continued to be limited to a moderate amount of armed reconnaissance and bombing, backed by the general offensive against the enemy’s war-potential and communications. In February better weather helped Hill’s expanded fighter-bomber force to make 933 sorties—more than four times as many as in January—and to drop 192 tons of bombs, as against a total of 78 tons in the preceding ten weeks. About the middle of the month a new plan was adopted. For some days in succession attacks were concentrated on one or two localities where launching and storage were suspected, rather than spread over many. Thus on the 21st and 22nd 38 attacks were made on a wooded area called the Haagsche Bosch. The German record, though it gives no detailed account of the results, leaves little doubt that these attacks were the cause of a lull in the German offensive which lasted from dusk on the 23rd until the morning of the 26th. During that period only one rocket reached the country, on the morning of the 24th. On most other days the enemy was quite as active as in January, so that in the whole of February the number of recorded incidents was much the same as in the first month of the year. On ten occasions a single rocket killed or seriously injured more than twenty people—the numbers in fact ranging from 35 to 85—but casualties were nowhere quite as heavy as those sustained earlier at Southwark, Hackney and Islington and in the New Cross Road.
On 3rd March the Second Tactical Air Force made one of their rare attacks on an objective directly associated with the rocket organisation at The Hague. The objective chosen was the Haagsche Bosch, part of which still figured on the target-list, although there was much to suggest that recent attacks by fighter-bombers had led the Germans to move at least part of their gear outside its bounds.* Fifty-six Mitchell and Boston bombers were employed, and dropped 69 tons of bombs, unfortunately with results which were anything but happy. Air Marshal Coningham’s crews were justly proud of their ability to bomb a chosen target without harming neighbouring buildings; but on this occasion their skill was nullified by an incorrect allowance for wind. Much of the bomb-load fell a mile away in an area densely populated by Dutch civilians, and none of it within 500 yards of the selected aiming-points. Afterwards Coningham ordered that no more attacks should be made by his medium bombers on targets at The Hague.
The fighter-bomber force continued during the first three days of
* Photographic reconnaissance of the Haagsche Bosch on 24th February had shown no rockets there, whereas some twenty to thirty had been seen on previous occasions. On the other hand, up to six were seen in an adjacent open space called Duindigt. In view of this and other evidence, priority was allotted on 1st March to an objective which comprised part of Duindigt and that part of the Haagsche Bosch which lay next to it. The rest of Duindigt came next on the list.
March to devote much of its attention to parts of the Haagsche Bosch; thereafter the emphasis shifted for some time to the adjacent Duindigt, though a number of other targets were attacked as well. By the middle of the month Duindigt was heavily pitted with craters, and the Germans were said to have abandoned it. On 7th March—though this was not known in the United Kingdom at the time—the German rocket-organisation in Holland reported its casualties since air attacks began as 51 dead, 117 wounded, and 58 lorries and cars, 11 oxygen-trucks and 48 missiles damaged.
In mid-March the situation as it presented itself at Hill’s headquarters was that the Germans had apparently been driven out of their important launching and storage areas at the Haagsche Bosch and Duindigt, and also out of a wood at Ravelijn (about a mile from Duindigt), where rockets had been photographed earlier in the month. Fluctuations in the German scale of attack, coupled with a renewed tendency for most launching to take place at night, suggested that the recent strengthening of the fighter-bomber offensive had not been without effect. Less satisfactory was a scarcity of further targets of known value which could be tackled without undue risk to Dutch civilians. Thereafter Fighter Command was driven in consequence to devote most of its effort to railways along which supplies were known or thought to pass. A few more attacks were, however, made on Duindigt and Ravelijn as an insurance against the return of the rocket-units; the latter in particular was closely covered by armed reconnaissance after the receipt of evidence that launchings (but not storage) had been resumed there. In addition, attacks were made on a large building suspected of providing living accommodation and administrative quarters for the rocket-organisation, and on a garage said to house the special vehicles used for carrying missiles to the launching-sites. Favoured by improving weather, and often refuelling in Belgium, as they had done occasionally in earlier months, the fighter-bombers flew more sorties in March than in the previous four months put together, and dropped more than three times the weight of bombs delivered in February. The effects could not, and cannot, be easily distinguished from those of the Allied air offensive as a whole; but various signs were thought to testify to difficulties experienced by the enemy in bringing up supplies.
Despite a rather lower total of rockets launched, the number that reached London in March was only two fewer than in February. Casualties were swollen by a number of unlucky hits. On the 8th a missile which struck Smithfield Market in the middle of the morning killed no people and seriously injured 123; on the 21st and 25th two others at Heston and Enfield each accounted for more than a hundred dead or seriously wounded; at West Ham, Deptford, Poplar and Leyton there were incidents entailing respectively 39, 84,
64 and 41 serious casualties. Finally, at 7.21 a.m. on the 27th a rocket fell on a block of flats in Stepney, killing 134 people and seriously injuring another 49. Just under nine-and-a-half hours later the last rocket of the campaign—and the one thousand, one hundred and fifteenth to fall in the United Kingdom or close offshore—descended at Orpington, in Kent. In the whole course of the campaign about 2,700 people had been killed and 6,500 seriously injured by rockets, approximately nine-tenths of them in London and its outskirts.*
After launching their last rocket on 27th March, the rocket-units at The Hague were withdrawn, with the rest of Gruppe Nord, to Germany, where the greater part of them, with most of Gruppe Süd, surrendered on 9th May to the United States 9th Army. The decision to withdraw the units was based on a number of grounds, of which perhaps the most important was fear of capture. On 3rd April Hill discontinued fighter-bomber attacks on western Holland and substituted armed reconnaissance patrols, which were continued as a precautionary measure until the 25th. Meanwhile, as we have seen in Chapter XXIV, the flying-bomb offensive from ramps near Rotterdam, The Hague and Delft had also come to an end. On 13th April radar stations ceased their watch for rockets; a week later the special rules which had restricted the movement of aircraft over areas where guns were deployed against flying bombs were cancelled. Finally, after receiving a report from their Joint Intelligence Sub-Committee to the effect that there was no further risk of attack with flying bombs, and only a very slight chance of attack with rockets, the Chiefs of Staff agreed on 2nd May to the discontinuance of all counter-measures.
Operations against the United Kingdom by piloted aircraft had ceased some time before, after a brief revival during the late winter. At an earlier stage of the war the Germans had had some success with what were called on the British side ‘intruder’ patrols.† After a long intermission, apparently due to Hitler’s poor opinion of such ventures, plans for an elaborate series of attacks on returning British bombers and their bases were laid in February 1945. Until the third week of the month, no piloted German aircraft had been reported over the United Kingdom since August 1944, and only one or two since June. On the night of the 21st a single German aircraft was tracked over the country; and on that of 3rd March about 140 set off to visit British aerodromes from Northumberland to Oxfordshire. Some eighty to a hundred crossed the East Coast, bombed fourteen
* For more precise figures see Appendix L, which also gives the numbers of casualties inflicted throughout the war by orthodox bombing, by flying bombs and by cross-Channel guns.
† See pp. 274-275 and 317-318.
aerodromes and attacked others with machine-guns and cannon fire, and shot down about a score of British bombers near their bases. Similar raids were launched, on a much smaller scale, on the next night and on those of the 17th and 20th. About twenty German aircraft succumbed to the defences on the four nights. Thereafter no more of these raids were made, largely, it would seem, because the Führer grudged the effort spent on attempts to shoot down British aircraft in places where his compatriots could not be heartened by witnessing their fall. When the descent of the last flying bomb on British soil followed the launching of the last rocket, the United Kingdom thus had nothing more to fear from either piloted aircraft or long-range missiles.
The risk of invasion or of raids by seaborne or airborne forces, long admitted to be slight, had meanwhile grown still slighter as the Anglo-American armies advanced to the gates of Germany and consolidated the positions they had won. By the early part of 1945 no threat was held to remain except, perhaps, to the south-east coast and to the country’s principal naval bases, which might conceivably become objectives for some venture launched as a final desperate gamble. At that time, therefore, certain reductions, over and above those approved in the spring of 1944 and extended later in the year, were put in hand, and some coast defence formations, now mostly composed of older men, were reorganised as Garrison Regiments and sent abroad. With the final collapse of Germany and the end of the fear that intransigent elements might seek to carry on the war by guerrilla methods, even that risk disappeared. The war in the Far East was not yet over, but Japan was even now within sight of defeat. In any case, no direct assault need be feared from a quarter so remote. Accordingly, in June the last of the remaining coast defence batteries was relegated to ‘care and maintenance’. Thereafter such formations concerned with home defence, at sea, on land or in the air, as still remained in being turned to unfamiliar tasks of retrenchment and reorganisation. The freedom from tension seemed strange after more than seven years of imminent or present danger; and doubly strange to many who, while never doubting that peace with victory must come at last, had hitherto looked upon it as an almost unattainable deliverance.