On 25 November 1944 at 12.26 pm on a busy shopping Saturday, a German V2 rocket bomb made a direct hit on a crowded Woolworths store in London’s New Cross.
The aftermath resembled battlefield carnage.
The colossal blast threw people in the air, overturned lorries, and caused vehicles to burst into flames.
Streets were ankle-deep in glass and blood-stained survivors lay on the pavements or staggered around in a daze or hysterics.
Neighbouring shops and houses were reduced to rubble while choking dust and smoke filled the air.
168 people were killed outright: some of them in the neighbouring Co-op and some at their desks in nearby offices. Of the victims, 33 were children, including babies in prams. Meanwhile, 123 passers-by were injured, many seriously.
It was one of the worst losses of civilian life on British soil during the Second World War.
The history behind the V1 Flying Bomb
Germany had been developing rocket technology at Peenemünde Army Research Centre since the 1930s. The British had received intelligence reports about secret weapons but had largely dismissed them as German disinformation.
In fact, the threat was very real. First came the V1 flying bomb, known in Germany as vergeltungswaffe, meaning ‘vengeance weapon’, and in Britain as the ‘doodlebug’ or ‘buzz bomb’.
The V1 was a terror weapon. When it reached a target using auto-pilot the clattering, buzzing engine would cut out. What followed was an eerie hush that was psychologically terrifying.
Members of the public in Britain knew that after this silence, the bombs would then dive to earth and explode. They quickly learned to run for cover when they heard the noise of the engine dying.
The first V1 strike on London was on 13 June, a week after D-Day (6 June 1944), the Allies’ mammoth and successful amphibious assault to liberate Nazi-occupied north-west Europe.
Germany was losing the war and was seriously weakened by fighting on different fronts, including a brutal campaign against Britain’s ally the Soviet Union.
In retaliation and in a last-ditch attempt to win the war, Adolf Hitler ordered the ‘long-range bombardment of England’.
Dozens of towns and villages in the southeast, East Anglia and the northwest were hit. There were over 9,000 V1 attacks on London alone over the following months, fired from coastal sites in Occupied Europe.
Around a quarter of V1s crashed before reaching their targets, and over half of the rest were shot down by fighter aircraft and anti-aircraft guns or brought down by massed barrage balloons.
Despite these successes, thousands of citizens were killed or injured.
The death and destruction caused by the V1s and public disquiet forced Prime Minister Winston Churchill to make a statement to Parliament, on 6 July 1944:
“…Up to 6 am today 2,752 people have been killed by flying bombs and up to 8,000 have been injured…The number of flying bombs launched up to 6 am today was 2,754…A very high proportion of the casualties have fallen upon London…London will never be conquered and we will never fail.“
V2 Rocket: a world-first missile
From 8 September 1944, Germany also started deploying the much more advanced V2 rockets, the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile.
Hitler signed an order on 22 December 1942 for the mass production of V2 rockets, which had been developed in parallel with the V1 flying bomb.
Allied air raids had seriously damaged Peenemünde, so the main production was moved to a huge underground factory at Mittelwerk, close to the town of Nordhausen in northern Germany.
Over 5,000 V2 rockets were produced there under harsh conditions using slave labour from the nearby, brutally-run Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp.
The V2 offensive began with an attack on Paris on 7 September 1944. The next day, the first V2 to strike Britain hit Chiswick in west London.
Over the next few months around 3,000 rockets were fired at Allied targets from mobile launch sites in Occupied Europe, with nearly half attacking Germany’s prime target, London.
Weighing 23 tons and travelling at 3,000 miles per hour, the V2 delivered death from the skies without warning. It flew too high and too fast to be tracked by radar, or attacked by anti-aircraft guns or aircraft.
The British government initially blamed the V2 rocket explosions on ruptured gas mains, even though the public had found unexplained long shards of metal post-explosion.
On 10 November 1944, Winston Churchill publicly admitted that the country had been under rocket attack.
The V2 attacks continued until the Allied advances that were pushing German forces back through Europe meant launch sites had to be moved. They then became too far away for the rockets to reach Britain.
The last V2 strike on London was on the morning on 27 March 1945. It destroyed Hughes Mansions on Vallance Road, in Whitechapel, killing 134 people.
In total, the V2s killed nearly 3,000 members of the British public during the campaign, including in Norwich and Ipswich. Around 6,500 others were injured.
V2 technology after the war
The principal designer behind Germany’s development of rocket technology was the scientist Wernher von Braun.
At the end of the war the Americans, Russians and British were in a race to get their hands on as much V2 technology and expertise as possible.
Von Braun and his scientific colleagues opted to surrender to the Americans, rather than to the Russians, on 2 May 1945.
About 500 of his team were secretly offered contracts to move to America. Von Braun took up American citizenship and became one of the pioneering figures in the development of the United States’ space programme.
Two memorial plaques bear witness to the human cost of rocket warfare. Both are located today on the redeveloped site of the tragedy, to the left of the entrance to the Iceland store in New Cross, southeast London.
Written by Nicky Hughes.
Header: View of the total destruction of Woolworths and neighbouring shops and houses in New Cross following the V2 bombing, 25 November 1944 © The Woolworths Museum
- Remembering New Cross, Woolworths Museum
- Operation Diver
- Doodlebugs and Rockets Bob Ogley. 1992.
Very interesting article.
Very interesting but I don’t think they had specific targets – just crashed when the fuel ran out. From our garden in Kent , I once watched as two Meteor jets used their wingtips to turn a Doodlebug round and send it back out to sea.
Very informative. Excellent photos.
Remember walking up Le May Avenue, Grove Park in 1944/5 with sister and neighbour, I was 8. Heard a doodlebug, engine stopped, neighbour told us to lay down on the pavement. Looked up and saw the doodlebug miss the houses, it looked enormous, went over the houses at top of road and exploded behind them. Remember the leaves fell on us from the trees.
When I joined the RAF at Cosford in 1963, there was a captured V1(doodlebug) in our training hangar. I examinded it very closely and was surprised how small it seemed and how simple it looked. the wings were made of wood and covered in canvas. Seemed more like a large model aircraft. In the 70’s I met a woman who was deaf. She was a baby in a pram when a V1 exploded not far from her and her mother. The noise deafened here for life.
i remember my mom telling me how she would run for a shelter with me in her arms when she heard the rockets start to sputter when they were running out of fuel and i would cheer here up because i would be giggling like i was on an amusement ride.
My Grandfather was injured by the V2 that fell on Woolworth’s, New Cross, 25th November 1944 killing 168 mainly women and children. He suffered blast injuries and died 18 months later in 1946 before i was born in Jan 1948.
Many people still seem to be confused over the differences between the V1 which was a flying bomb, and a V2 which was a true rocket. Unfortunately, the results on impact were mostly very similar.
My aunt lived in Musgrove Road New Crosstand arrived at the station from Surrey docks where she used to play the piano for the keep fit class just after the rocket had hit, and she said they were not allowed out of the station for some time, but when they were the sights she saw were horrible,
Apparently Woolworths had received a delivery of saucepans and that’s why the store was extra busy that day
She also had kept a nose ring from a V! that had dropped at the back of their road
She was a very game lady and used to travel to the REDRIFFE Road during the Blitz if the train was running, no matter what was coming down to play the piano and the organ in the church on Sundays until that was destroyed by bombing
On 25th November, 1944, my Mum and I were in Woolworths shopping for Thorpit to clean a stain from my overcoat. Having made the purchase Mum and I were just walking round the store. We were by the door to the street and Mum saw a Brockley tram (I think is was either a 35 or 66) queuing up outside and as it was lunchtime we ran out and jumped on. The tram conti ued its climb up the slight hill to the official stop at The. Marquis of Granby. At which point there was a massive explosion. We did not think too much about it until later when we heard on. the news that Woolworths had been hit by a V2 rocket. We had been out of the store only about
Five minutes when it was hit. It was by good fortune and the Grace of God our tram being outside we survived. It was something my Mum considered a miracle and never forgot. We were just one of very many thousands of families who survived the war by a massive element of luck.
My mother often told us the story of this disaster. She and her mother were due to go shopping in the store, however my mother wanted something to eat first and made such a fuss that her mother agreed. Had they not delayed their shopping trip they would have been in the store when the V2 hit. My mother’s maiden name was Iveson and she was 9 years old at the time.
My father, Reginald Richardson, was in the first fire-engine to arrive at the site on the day. He was from Fire Station 40 – later became B29. Left him with nightmares for years. So many horror stories of floors collapsing during rescues.
Doris Nichols, my mother was in woolworths and was buried in the debris. My fathers sister saw her being brought out and ran back to railway grove to tell my father.Mum survived but with terrible damage to her leg. They wanted to amputate but dad fought hard for her and they managed to save it although she suffered for the rest of her life.
I moved to New Cross In 1975 but the effects of this bomb and others were still plain to see. I heard some of the horror stories. That was 30 years after the event but looking back now I realise it was only a fleeting time after. Lewisham has changed beyond recognition but if you look hard you can still see the echoes of the bombing.
18 October 2021
I was born on 11 May 1940 but I vividly remember many wartime incidents including the New Cross V2. We lived at 84, Cranbrook Road, on the corner of Clandon Street. If you know the area you will realise that this is quite a way from New Cross.
My mother and I were in the scullery/kitchen and Mum was at the gas stove cooking as it was nearly time for dinner and Dad, who worked for the Water Board, was due home as it was Saturday and his half day..
I was sitting on top of a cabinet next to the cooker when we heard the back gate rattle and we knew Dad had arrived. As he opened the back door there was huge thump and everything shook and rattled. Dad seemed to duck and half turn in the doorway. I could see over the gardens of Cranbrook Road, and over the roofs of Strickland Street, a column of smoke rising vertically in what in later years would be called a mushroom cloud. Dad just said, “That’s New Cross!” and swung his bike round and was gone. I did not see him till the following day.
He never ever spoke of what he had done or seen until talking to a teen aged grandson who was doing a WW2 project for school. He had been working with emergency crews, mainly the fire brigade at first, but the thing that affected him most was seeing people unmarked other than being covered in dust and fine debris but dead and still sitting in a cafe and on a bus.
The sirens were sounding , my neighbour as a young girl “Irene Crawte” stepped off the bus with her mother and said “quick mum let’s take shelter in Woolworths,”. “No” said her mother “we’ll make a dash for it to get home with the others .” Just as well they did as the rest is history.