Doodlebug

It was, in many ways, the ultimate terror weapon. It had the building up of tension and threat, the release and then the repetition. Hitler’s first Reprisal Weapon, the V1, was a brilliant piece of engineering. It was the first guided missile, with a primitive but effective control system. The pulse-jet engine, an ingenious innovation, had the additional merit for its purpose that it had a particularly threatening sound, followed by an even more threatening silence as it came to earth.

I was about seven on the night of the buzz bombs. They were by now a familiar occurrence. My father had actually once taken me out on the back step to see the red trails from their engines as they probed the London sky, but this night they came relentlessly one after another, with scarcely an interval. Time after time there was the growing, menacing roar, then the ominous silence, followed by the brain-numbing explosion.

You take things for granted when you are a child. It was perfectly natural always to have your gas mask with you when you went to school; quite normal to have lessons underground when the siren went; unexceptional when school friends disappeared overnight forever. There had always been bombs and there always would be bombs.

I know now that was the night my mother changed for ever, though it is a memory that I have suppressed. My later siblings must remember her as a lovable but scatty woman of uncertain temperament, scarcely able to cope with the vicissitudes of life. Then, I worshipped her. You see things differently when the images of a child’s eyes are filtered through an old man’s experience. She was petite, beautiful, vivacious, yet cool, calm and collected. She was house-proud and a disciplinarian, making me wear a pinafore indoors to preserve my clothes, an embarrassment when I later discovered that it was not the norm. She had been the star of the tennis club and the winner of the economics prize at Tottenham Polytechnic.

Being under bombardment was not a new experience. My earliest memory was having to shelter under the table at the age of three during the blitz of 1940, when we lived in Woodlands Park Road Tottenham. Now in Clarence Road, Tottenham, we had a Morrison shelter, which served as a table during the day and a family bed refuge during the night. My grandmother in the house opposite had an outdoor Anderson Shelter, which was a scene of great merriment when the uncles were home on leave. I still remember the words of the songs (There’s a hole in my bucket etc.).

That night we were a family of three. When the fearful up and down wail of the air raid siren began I was accustomed to being taken down to the communal bed under the shelter. This was to be the night that changed our lives.

About ten thousand V1s were sent to England in total, but that must have been the night of the highest intensity. It seemed that as soon as one had exploded the distant grumble of another was heard.

One of the things you regret in later life is the arrogance of the teen years with which you dismiss your father as a nonentity. You never quite got round to apologising. That night my father was a man. My mother had reached breaking point. As every new ominous murmur began she would cry “This is ours! This is ours!” My father simply and gently said “Hush Marge, we will come through.”

This time the roar of the engine was deafening. You always hoped that it would continue and pass over, let it be someone else not us, but suddenly it stopped. Even worse than the customary silence, there was the swish of wings as the missile headed earthwards.

It landed on the pub, the Dagmar Arms, two streets away. It destroyed the northern half of Cornwall Road. Blast is a strange thing, some houses in between were untouched, but we just lost the front windows of our house, though it seemed like the end of the world. The windows came into the room like a giant bubble, the fragments bursting through the blackout material. Then there was the silence. I had no concept of the notion of deafness, but I knew that I could no longer hear. I must have screamed, for I remember my mother trying to comfort me. The deafness seemed to last for hours, but it was probably only a matter of minutes. For a time afterwards our windows were “glazed” with plywood.

Our V2 was later and landed on the Ever Ready battery factory, about the same distance the other way. It was a bigger bang, but did not have the same terrible build up.

The truly frightening thing about terror is the awful randomness. I was in hospital for a mastoidectomy (we had no antibiotics then) when I had the good fortune to contract dysentery in the hospital, so was wafted off to an isolation hospital called World’s End. The ward I had come from was totally destroyed the next week. I was in hospital for so long that I had to learn to walk again, and I never quite mastered joined up writing, which my schoolfellows had been learning. Nevertheless I was alive.

Even terror can have a strange aftermath. Subsequently, Cornwall Road was known to us children as The Dump. It was the most magical playground a child could imagine. In the summer it was swathed with flowers – Rose Bay Willow Herb, Purple Loosestrife and many others I could not name. There were hundreds of brilliantly coloured butterflies and the air was full of the songs of thrushes and blackbirds. The gaping and exposed basements become unofficial ponds, populated by frogs, toads and great crested newts. Now it has all returned to bleak high-density housing.

It is a strange thing that you can suppress a traumatic memory for decades and then it comes back in the form of nightmares, triggered by scenes of some new terrorist outrage. It is also disturbing as to how pointless it all was from the historical perspective. At least the suffering in the Blitz had some function. It was Hitler’s first real mistake, one of a train that led to his downfall. He had lost the Battle of Britain and left the RAF and much of industry still extant. The V weapons, however, were just the spiteful retaliation of a defeated monster. Like most acts of terror, they achieved nothing.

John Brignell

July 2005

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