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