Remembering the V-2 rocket that struck West Hampstead 70 years ago
- Credit: PA Archive/Press Association Images
In the final months of the Second World War, a desperate Nazi regime had transformed an affluent Dutch town on the coast of the North Sea into a launching pad for what became one of Hitler’s last throws of the dice.
Lying a short distance from The Hague, Wassenaar saw streams of V-2 rockets – the most advanced weaponry the war had seen at the time – arrive on its doorstep and fire across its skies.
The first ever long-range ballistic missile, and the first man-made object to enter the fringes of space, more than 3,000 of these supersonic “vengeance rockets” were launched at Allied targets in 1944/5.
While September last year marked the 70th anniversary since the first V-2 hit London (landing in Chiswick and killing three), Thursday last week marked 70 years from when the old borough of Hampstead had its own experience of this “silent killer”.
Just after 4pm on a cold January 8, 1945, a German V-2 rocket, launched by a unit in Wassenaar, landed behind 114 Iverson Road, West Hampstead.
Hitting the rail embankment, the blast destroyed 14 houses, badly damaged 152 and caused some minor damage to about 1,600.
In the subsequent edition of the Ham&High (January 12), a front page report of the attack gave an account of the rescue operation.
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Running under the headline “V-Bomb rescuers toiled in glare of searchlight”, it told of rescuers working through the night, with one woman found alive after eight hours trapped in the rubble.
The paper also told of a member of the light rescue service’s own frantic search for his 21-year-old daughter and another man known to be with her at the time in the debris of his own home.
Later found dead, these were to be the only two people reportedly killed in the attack (although some reports say a third was also killed). More than a hundred others suffered injuries.
While wartime censorship meant the location of where the V-2 landed was only given as “southern England”, the dramatic impact the attack had on the surrounding West Hampstead neighbourhood was given in detail.
“One [house] had its roof blown off,” the paper reported, “[while] others had their chimney stacks blown into the roadway [and] in others, windows were blown and ceilings came down.”
Witnesses gave further accounts. Mr F. Harding described just coming into his home when “I was flung across the room and the windows blew in”.
Mrs Stock, meanwhile, said the cup of tea she was holding at the time was “blown out of her hand” and she was “thrown off her feet”.
Speaking to the Ham&High 70 years after surviving the blast, Liz Davies, now a library assistant at UCL, described her own lucky escape as a four-month-old baby.
Retelling the account told to her by her late mother, she said: “I was being looked after by my blind grandmother at my home in Gladys Road [in West Hampstead].
“A few minutes before the rocket hit, I apparently started crying in my cot, which was in a first floor room in the bay window at the front of the house.
“So my grandmother picked me up to cradle me. As she did, the rocket hit and my cot was covered in shards of glass from the broken windows. It was a lucky escape.
“My mother, who was working at the food office in Finchley Road at the time, had heard the rocket land and ran home.
“I remember her saying the nearer she got to our house, the worse the damage was.
“She found me sitting on my grandmother’s knee with us both completely covered in soot and the room covered in smashed glass.”
An eyewitness account in the book London 1945: Life in the Debris of War paints another picture of the scene left in the rocket’s wake.
Visiting the day after it had hit, a Mrs Gwladys Cox described “rows and rows of small houses [that] had been blasted from back to front; doors, windows, ceilings all gone”.
She added: “Whole families were out in the street standing beside the remains of their possessions, piled on the pavements waiting for the removal vans; heaps of rubble everywhere, pathetically showing bits of holly and Christmas decorations.”
The descriptions of what happened that day add to other accounts of London’s experiences as the second most targeted city (after Antwerp).
Vacuums created on the impact of the more than 1,300 V-2 rockets to be fired at the capital were said to suck the soot out of the chimneys of entire streets “all at once”, while the blast would also cause glass to “quiver like flowing water” and create clouds of plaster dust or turn feathers from mattresses into “curious blooms”.
A few even reported seeing the supersonic rockets before they hit, describing something similar to a lightning bolt with a bright flash followed by a loud boom.
The attack on West Hampstead brought out a familiar war-time spirit in the neighbourhood, with free meals handed out and those made homeless aided by the authorities in seeking shelter.
In March 1945 Hampstead was victim twice more to Hitler’s last roll of the dice, with V-2 rockets striking near to the Borough Central Library and in Primrose Hill.
While estimates suggest some 2,750 were killed by V-2s landing in London, less well known were the 12,000 forced labourers killed making the rockets, many from concentration camps.
As British chess player and Enigma codebreaker Sir Stuart Milner-Barry noted of the V-2s: “In their obsession with this new type of war, the Germans lost their sense of reality.
“In reaching out after the future, they sacrificed the present.”