The Fly Bombs

The first Pilotless Aircraft arrived at Bethnal Green on the night of Tuesday, 13th June, 1944, without any prior advice or effective preparation of the public and, even when it arrived, it was reported in the Press as a " crashed aircraft." This, however, gave the enemy the range, and one can imagine him rubbing his hands and saying, " Thanks very much. That let's me know the range - now I can go ahead." And he did!

A swarm of Pilotless Aircraft were let loose on this country on the night of Thursday, 15th June, and thereafter, day and night, rain or fine, sunlight or moonlight, in cloud or in starlight, the bombs came through, sometimes in volleys, sometimes singly, for three months, after which, (the United Nations having largely cleared up the French coastal area), the attack dwindled. In the meantime, some 8,000 had been launched and some 2,300 had got through.

The public were magnificent, particularly having regard to the comparative lull which preceded the use of this new weapon, and after a few days - possibly a fortnight - they settled down to conditions similar to those of the 1940/1 blitz. Sometimes as many as ten explosions might be heard in half that number of minutes, for the sound could be heard over a wide area, but the public slept in shelters at night, they kept one ear cocked all the time, if they heard the engine they prepared to dive to cover and if the engine " cut out" the public dived without waiting to see whether the bomb would come down at once or glide on.

For reporting purposes the Wardens were advised that the new weapons were to be reported as " Pilot-less Aircraft," and that the abbreviation " P.A.C." should be used.

It was only a matter of a few days before the public decided that the title " Pilotless Aircraft " was far too long, and various puckish alternatives were adopted in the usual British style of sardonic humour when dealing with something unpleasant but unavoidable - " Buzz-bomb " and " Doodle-bug " being the general favourites. This presumably seemed too flippant for " higher authority" and a special Cabinet decision was announced that in future the new weapon would be called the " Flying Bomb," abbreviated in messages to " Fly."

The public, however, adhered to its own terms.

The Flying Bomb seemed to me to be the cleverest of the German endeavours to break the nerve of London and thus to bring pressure on the British Government to contemplate a negotiated peace. The engine of the bomb created a tremendous vibration in the air and, if low enough, could strip tiles from roofs and shatter windows in its train. It was heard over a tremendous area - several miles on either side of the line of flight - bringing anxiety and nerve strain to many times more people than any ordinary bomb dropping almost vertically. Usually (but not always) the engine cut out and the plane glided silently before the actual explosion took place on contact, and the breathless pause waiting for the explosion meant moments of acute apprehension for tens of thousands of people each time.

The waiting period varied from two or three seconds to as much as two minutes, during which the Fly might travel up to ten miles. So far as we could judge, the period of the long glide was probably due to air currents bearing up the wings despite the stoppage of the engine. While there was a family resemblance among the results of the different Fly Bombs (which made it easy to decide that the damage was due to a Fly as distinct from other missiles), there were also variations due to the surroundings in which the bomb exploded.

Our Fly Bombs

This is not the place to tell of the fight made by the Air Force and guns on the South-East Coast, nor of my visit to Rye, where I saw 16 brought down out of 16 which tried to get through, nor of what was suffered by Kent, Sussex and Surrey in the shooting down of bombs on their way to London. Nor is this a record of how heavily South London suffered as compared with the Boroughs north of the Thames.

Suffice to say that we in Walthamstow had over 15 Fly Bombs before the end of August, 1944, together with the troubles attendant on the explosion of that number of separate tons of High Explosive, and also had to share the results of some six others which exploded in adjacent Boroughs but near to our boundaries.

Our Fly Bombs were well spread over the Borough except that the Highams Park and Woodford Side area within the Borough had only one Fly Bomb in Oak Hill, and this was in the second period of these missiles. (There were, however, some in Woodford which caused blast damage within the Walthamstow boundary.)

Our first " Fly " arrived (or perhaps one should say " alighted ") early in the morning of 16th June, and exploded on the Gun Site at Low Hall Farm, causing one death and a number of other casualties. Considerable damage was done to the hutments and to houses at a distance, and We were surprised at the shallowness of the crater. We soon found, by experience, that this shallowness was the special mark of Fly Bombs for they exploded immediately on contact with buildings or the ground and allowed the blast to take full effect over a wide area instead of wasting it downward as with an ordinary H.E. bomb.

With the exception of those which fell in the " wide open spaces " of Low Hall Farm, we reckoned on an average of 1,200-1,400 houses damaged each time a Fly Bomb fell, and only those who were concerned either as residents or in helping with emergency repairs to houses knew what that meant in terms of misery and discomfort.

The carelessness of householders in not properly covering their Anderson shelters speedily became evident, for in several cases persons were killed in badly covered Andersons, while neighbours in better protected shelters were uninjured. We issued a special leaflet on the subject and drew attention to the need for doing the job properly.

The force of the explosion of Fly Bombs was terrific, old houses being literally collapsed to rubbish heaps or blown out from their party walls which were left standing with nothing save rubbish between them. Even the bricks were reduced to powder in some cases, and I saw one man using his helmet as a scoop in his endeavours to remove the brick-dust when shifting debris at the Carlton Road Incident. Longfellow Road Incident was very similar to that at Carlton Road, large numbers of houses being crumbled to brick-dust in both cases.

Both these Incidents, however, occurred before people had retired, and while we had six persons killed in the ruins at Carlton Road (plus one who died later) and one killed at Longfellow Road, there were no deaths in similar property at Coleridge Road where almost all the people had gone to bed in their own shelters or in public shelters. These three Incidents caused in all 130 casualties.

In Greenleaf Road the bomb fell near a public surface shelter and demolished the Parsonage, from which the Vicar, his wife and child were safely extricated, they having slept in their Morrison shelter. Unfortunately, an N.F.S. static water tank stood by the side of the public shelter, and this was lifted by the bomb and flung against the wall of the shelter. As the water weighed some 20 tons it was reckoned by the experts that at the moment of hitting the shelter the tank was exercising the force of a 60-ton battering ram.

The shelter was a good shelter - soundly built and properly reinforced - but something had to give way, and part of the wall was broken in, one person being killed within the shelter by the fall of part of the wall. The shock of the impact was also transmitted to the side walls and caused cracks near the roof, but the results of the explosion as such were so negligible as to leave no doubt that had the tank not been there the shelter would have been unharmed. The blast area on this occasion affected Hoe Street almost from Forest Road to beyond High Street.

The Hoe Street Fly Bomb

Hoe Street's real trouble came later with the bomb which fell in daylight outside Hitchman's distributing Centre in Hoe Street near Church Hill.

The approach of the bomb was heard and people shopping in the vicinity took such shelter as was available; some dived into shops and doorways, others into an archway between two shops which led to a motor coach garage at the rear. By the worst of bad luck the bomb burst practically opposite to this archway collapsing the two floors above and burying people in the debris. The Incident was complicated by the fact that the bomb dropped just before 10 a.m. when shopping was in full swing, and it was not until after midnight that we were able to say just how many people were reported to be missing.

The Rescue Service worked throughout the day and night and by 7 o'clock the next morning the last body had been recovered from the archway, the wall of one side of which was threatening all the time to collapse and bury the rescuers. On the other side of this same wall a lad of 15 was trapped by debris to the waist, and at the risk of their lives the Rescue men, a doctor and the Casualty Staff Officer worked for some four hours before the lad was rescued at about 2.45 p.m. uninjured, but suffering from shock. The last body (that of an office cleaner) was recovered from the iron staircase buried under the debris at the back of some office buildings at the bottom of Church.

The casualty list at this Incident was our worst for Fly Bombs, there being 19 dead bodies recovered in addition to three other deaths which occurred in hospital subsequent to rescue. The total of casualties recorded for this one Fly was 144.

We had, however, our lucky times. Several of our Fly Bombs either burst in the air or fell at Low Hall Farm or on the Marshes nearby, and caused only one fatal casualty.

We also had no fatal casualties from those in Banbury Reservoir, on Salisbury Hall School Playing Fields, at Forest School, Snaresbrook, and in Shernhall Street opposite Evelyn Road. Other Fly Bombs fell at Asea Electric, Ltd., Fulbourne Road (three killed and forty injured), at Grosvenor Park Road (three killed, one died later and 13 others were injured), at Douglas Avenue (one killed and 41 injured), and at Greenway Avenue with two killed and 43 injured (of whom two died later). Another fell in Shernhall Street (near Evelyn Road without fatal casualties) while a concert was in progress in the Assembly Hall. Others fell during the Rocket period and are referred to later in that Section.

Fatuous Optimism

At the end of August, after the first period of Fly Bombs, Mr. Duncan Sandys, the Secretary of Stale for War, fatuously and prematurely announced " the Battle of London is over," and the arrangements which had been almost completed to provide " immediate danger" warnings for the public were hurriedly cancelled.

But although the Pas de Calais had been cleared the enemy continued, after a few days' pause, to send Fly Bombs even though not on the same scale as before - but they still caused some " casualties and some damage." The next Government pronouncement was to the effect that the second Battle of London was " won but not over." What exactly this meant in English was difficult to decide, but as the speaker was Mr. Willink, the Minister of Health - responsible for evacuation - it had the to-be-expected but lamentable result of causing thousands of evacuees to come back to London.

It also unfortunately inclined people to abandon the habit of sleeping in shelters.

June 44Low Hall Farm, Gun SiteFly
Fulbourne Rd. (Asea Electric)Fly
Banbury ReservoirFly
Grosvenor Pk. Rd.Fly
Canton Rd.Fly
July, 44Douglas AvenueFly
Walthamstow Ave., Salisbury Hall Playing FieldsFly
Longfellow Rd.Fly
Greenleaf Rd.Fly
Aug., 44Coleridge Rd.Fly
Hoe St. (nr. High St.)Fly
Snaresbrook Rd., Forest SchoolFly
Greenway Ave. and Dean's Gdns.Fly
Shernhall St. (opp. Evelyn Rd..)Fly

Part I - General

Part IIa - The Services

Part IIb - The Services

Part III - The Story of the Raids

Part IV - Flying Bombs & Rockets

Part V - To the Unknown Citizen