Friday, June 14, 2013

The Poet Betty Smith: Stay Up Doodle In The Sky

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

The Germans developed the  V-1 flying bomb (Vergeltungswaffe 1), aka Doodlebug or buzz bomb, an early cruise missile, towards the end of the war. The first was launched on London on June 14, 1944, prompted by the D-Day invasion. The V-1 was later superseded by the new improved V-2. At the peak of their last-gasp terror campaign, the Nazis fired more than 100 rockets a day at southeast England, 9,521 in total, until the launch sites were eventually overrun by the Allied advance. 

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 unduly
And we beg to remain, yours very truly.


  1. I stumbled on your blog while doing a search for a few lines of a poem. Was this Doodlebug poem written by one of your family members?

    Just wondering because I just purchased a copy of it on ebay:

  2. How very intriguing. As indicated in the blog post, the doodlebug poem is among several typed poems left by my mother. I had assumed all were written by her. Now I realize I have no reason for believing that, other than that they were in her possession. She was in the Royal Canadian Air Force Women's Division, stationed in London during the V1/2 rocket attacks in 1944. The typescript you purchased looks very similar to the one in my possession. I have messaged your eBay seller. Perhaps he can shed some light.

  3. That is fascinating. I haven't been able to find the text of the poem anywhere else online except your website - so perhaps your mother was the author. From the information on ebay this came from the personal collection of an American named Virginia Shewalter who was stationed in England at this time. If the seller has more information I'd be interested to hear about it as well.

    I'm working on a film about my grandfather - who was a prisoner at the Dora concentration camp. He was forced to build components for both the V1 and V2 rockets. Here is some information about him: