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.Follow @telescoper