Doodlebug Summer

Yesterday’s post reminded me of another aspect of World War 2 that is worth mentioning. There’s a general impression that the defeat of Nazi Germany was more-or-less inevitable after the Normandy invasion of June 1944. However, as I mentioned yesterday, the Allied advance was much slower than expected and it was not until mid-August that the British, Canadian and American divisions really broke through. Morale back home wasn’t helped by this slow progress, but the most significant factor for the civilian population, especially in London, for the period June to August 1944 was the arrival of a new form of weapon; for many, the summer 1944 was “Doodlebug Summer”.

First came the V1 “Flying Bomb” (or “doodlebug”). The first of these to fall on London hit the railway bridge at Grove Road in Bow, East London, on 13th June 1944. This is just a few hundred yards North of Mile End tube station, and close to where I used to work at Queen Mary College, University of London. I don’t think people realize the scale of the threat these terror weapons posed. For a start they were launched in considerable numbers, usually over a hundred a day and over 8000 in total during the course of the summer. These weapons caused 22,892 (mainly civilian) casualties and causing widespread damage to the city’s infrastructure. Looking through the War Office minutes for the week corresponding to this one, seventy years ago, yields a typical statistic: 768 Flying Bombs were launched, 158 landed over London, 462 were destroyed.

These numbers however, convey only part of the picture. The doodlebug was primarily a terror weapon; it struck fear into the hearts of the population though the distinctive sound of its primitive jet engine – fear would immediately transform into alarm when the engine cut out, for that was when the device would fall to Earth and detonate. On the one hand, this did at least give some warning to those in its path but, on the other, it made it impossible for the authorities to disguise the nature of the threat. The V1 was relatively slow (640 km/h, i.e. about 400 mph) and flew at quite a low altitude, which meant that many were downed by ground-based anti-aircraft guns or fighter aircraft fast enough to intercept them, but sufficient numbers still got through to cause considerable panic. The onslaught was only halted in September 1944 when the advancing Allies overran the launch sites in France. Although attacks resumed in due course from other launch sites, the scale of the threat was greatly diminished.

Later on, from September 1944 onwards, the V2 rocket was introduced; this travelled on a ballistic trajectory and gave no warning whatsoever; no gun or aircraft could possibly shoot it down. To begin with the authorities attempted to explain the succession of mysterious explosions as being due to fault gas mains, etc. There never was an effective defence against the V2, but fortunately they were rather unreliable and the number of casualties they caused, though considerable, was not on the same scale as the V1.

Another interesting aspect of the doodlebug attacks was the deception campaign run by British Intelligence, which involved a famous double-agent code-named Garbo. This was the agent behind the audacious deception plan that led the Nazi High Command to believe that the Normandy landings were a decoy to draw attention away from the main landings which would happen in the Pas de Calais. As part of this ruse, Garbo (whom the Germans believed was working for them) actually sent news of the Normandy landings to his handlers by radio. This staggeringly risky gambit could have ended in disaster, but the Germans swallowed the bait: an entire division was kept away from Normandy, waiting for the expected assault in Pas de Calais, which of course never came.

In mid-June 1944 Garbo was asked by his handlers to report on the locations of V1 impacts. The guidance system on the doodlebug was very crude and the Germans had no real idea whether they were systematically overshooting or falling short of London. Could some form of deception plan be concocted that could work in this case? The obvious strategy would be to report that V1s falling on London were falling too far North; if the Germans believed this then they would adjust the settings so they fell further South, and would then miss London. However, some doodlebugs hit high-profile targets so there was little point lying about them – Garbo would immediately be exposed. Moreover, some V1s were fitted with radio transmitters and the Germans knew exactly where they were landing. In the end it was decided that Garbo would simply report (accurately) only those V1 impacts that happened to the North West of London, hoping that the selection bias in these reports would be misinterpreted as a systematic error in the aiming of the V1s. From Ultra decrypts from the code-breakers at Bletchley Park, the Allies knew what was believed by the Germans and what was not and adjusted the flow of information accordingly.

If 1944 seems sufficiently remote for this all just to be a fascinating piece of history, it is worth remembering that the V1 “Terror Weapon” was the forerunner of the modern US combat drones that have killed many hundreds of civilians in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia in covert attacks as part of the so-called “War on Terror”. Think about the irony of that for a moment.


8 Responses to “Doodlebug Summer”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    The reason that the V2 gave no warning was that it was supersonic; the noise of its engine came AFTER it had struck.

    As I recall, Churchill seriously considered evacuating London once the V2 menace grew, but thankfully the launch sites were soon overrun.

    “There’s a general impression that the defeat of Nazi Germany was more-or-less inevitable after the Normandy invasion of June 1944.”

    It was, but mainly because Germany was fighting on two fronts thereafter. Too few Brits (I don’t mean you, Peter) and Americans are aware that about 3/4 of the Wehrmacht went down on the eastern front to the Soviets. As Wikipedia puts it:

    “The battles on the Eastern Front constituted the largest military confrontation in history. They were characterized by unprecedented ferocity, wholesale destruction, mass deportations, and immense loss of life variously due to combat, starvation, exposure, disease, and massacres.”

    • telescoper Says:

      Yes, I meant to say that victory on the Western Front (ie a successful Allied invasion and conquest of Germany) was inevitable. The slow progress in France, and later setback in Operation Market Garden, meant that it remained a possibility that the Red Army might have taken almost all of Germany before the Allies got there. And then what would have happened?

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        The Red Army might have got less of Germany had Churchill’s arguments for a second front in the Mediterranean prevailed.

        BTW, the whole of that paragraph from which I took the opening two sentences above is one of the most deeply sobering things I have ever read.

      • telescoper Says:

        Indeed. Grim though the Western Front undoubtedly was for those who took part, it pales in comparison to the horrors of the East.

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        There was a Mediterranean front – in Italy – but progress was very slow due to the terrain and fierce resistance by German troops. It succeeded in provoking the overthrow of Mussolini and Italy switching from being one of the Axis powers to being partly liberated by the democratic allies and partly occupied by the Nazis. The front failed to provide an effective route into Germany.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        The idea was not to invade Germany directly from Italy – the Alps were in the way – but to commence operations in the Balkans, specifically by using the Allied troops that invaded the south of France two months after D-day, then those made available after fascist Italy had collapsed, to instead land on the Istrian peninsula in the NE Adriatic and strike through the Ljublana gap into the Hungarian plain and toward the upper Danube, the strategic heart of Europe (as Hitler was well aware). Churchill believed that that would have been more efective in causing Hitler to drag troops out of France than anything else, and it would have put a US/UK presence far to the east of where we eventually got, giving the US and UK a far stronger hand against Stalin in the postwar settlement. Roosevelt nixed it for three reasons: first, he wanted Stalin to join in vs Japan in the Pacific and did not want to antagonise him; second, he did not want Britain to have a say in the eastern Mediterranean postwar; third, he thought that Stalin was basically a nice guy who only wanted security for Russia rather than the rapacious Empire-builder that Churchill correctly understood him to be.

  2. Bryn Jones Says:

    Coincidentally I went last week to an exhibition of First World War photographs in the arts pavillion in Mile End Park about 50 metres from where the first V1 bomb fell on London in the Second World War.

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    And I believe the first V2 fell on Turnham Green.

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