I said in an earlier post that I thought my non-combatant parents, both working at office jobs in London from 1944 to 1946, had a high old time during the war, and I think in many ways they did. As did many others.
But this is not to diminish the hardship they experienced, the rationing, the lack of adequate heat, the drudgery of office work, the homesickness and worry about loved ones in peril. And even though both my parents arrived in London after the Blitz that Ralph Yull so vividly evoked in his letter home – see last post – they were there for the later flying bomb attacks.
|V-1 Rocket in flight over London|
When we were kids, both our parents spoke of the terror the Doodlebugs inspired. People on the ground could hear the drone of their motors as the rockets flew towards their targets. The engines cut out just before they exploded. So if the droning was at its loudest to your ears just before the sound stopped, you took cover. Or if you were a cool fatalist, you carried on regardless.
If you want to hear what a V1 sounded like, accompanied by air raid sirens, click on the Play button below to hear a recording from the BBC.
My father had a couple of Doodlebug stories. One was of walking down a crowded street when a rocket engine cut out somewhere nearby. He knew he should have the sang froid to ignore it, as chances were slim he was in real danger, but he couldn’t stop himself from starting to go down. One knee almost touched the ground, he said, as he broke stride. Then he caught himself and walked on as others around him did.
The other story, never embellished, was more chilling, about the day he happened on the scene of a direct Doodlebug hit on a city bus. The gutters, he said, were running with blood.
|The poet Betty Smith, 1944|
Just recently, while sifting through documents left by my mother, I came across a slender sheaf of mostly comic poems, typed on thin browning paper, composed, apparently, during Betty’s time in London. Among them is this one, untitled:
Every night I lie in bed,
And hear strange noises overhead.
It’s not the angels in the sky,
But doodle-bugs a passing by.
My heart into my mouth near sails,
Will it? Won’t it? Pass me by.
Stay up doodle in the sky.
With apprehension I await,
The cut out of its hymn of hate,
The throbbing stops the light goes out,
Enough to give the cat the gout,
Excitement tense on every face,
As under tables we all race,
Our shins we skin, our heads we bump
And then we hear that awful crump,
So out we crawl like nervous wrecks,
And strain our ears to hear the next,
Repeat the process jerk by jerk,
Then comes daylight, off to work.
The lightness of tone belies the seriousness of the rocket attacks. They were at least as effective as the conventional bombing of the Blitz, damaging or destroying 1,127,000 structures in less than three months (compared to 1,150,000 in a year of the Blitz) and causing 22,892 casualties (compared to 92,566 in the Blitz).
Most poignant, I think, is the notion that residents might be terrorized all night, then have to go into the office the next day as if nothing had happened. In some of the pictures of my mother from this period, witness the one above, she does look haggard. And the mundane office work must have seemed particularly surreal after a night of terror, which is perhaps what inspired this last piece of nonsense, titled “Horrible Examples”:
We beg to advise you and wish to state
That yours has arrived of recent date.
We have it before us, its contents noted;
Herewith enclosed are the costs we quoted.
Attached you will find, as per your request
The forms you wanted, and we would suggest,
Regarding the matter and due to the fact
That up to this moment your decisioin we’ve lacked
We hope that you will not delay it undulyAnd we beg to remain, yours very truly.