London: The Baby Blitz and V-Weapons, 1941–1945
The two and a half years between the end of the Blitz in the summer of 1941 and the early spring of 1944 are known as 'The Lull'. There were occasional raids carried out by small numbers of aircraft but nothing on the scale of earlier bombing. This changed in January 1944.
In retaliation for the increasing number of raids on German cities by the Allied Air Forces, the Luftwaffe was once more ordered to attack cities in Britain in force.
From January to May 1944, around 500 German aircraft took part in ‘Operation Steinbock’ (Capricorn). There were 14 raids on London and more on Bristol, Hull and Cardiff.
Londoners came to call these attacks the ‘Little Blitz’, or ‘Baby Blitz’. Altogether over 1,500 people were killed and around 3,000 seriously injured.
Attacks on London by Hitler’s vengeance weapons the V-1 flying bombs and V-2 rockets began shortly after the D-Day landings (6 June 1944) and only ended when the advancing Allied armies overran their launch sites. The V-weapons damaged or destroyed over 1.5 million homes (TNA, HO 198/243).
The Palace of Westminster
Part of the Palace of Westminster had previously been saved during the earlier Blitz.
Westminster’s 350-foot-tall Victoria Tower was covered with scaffolding due to renovation work when incendiaries were caught in it in May 1941. Police-Sergeant Alec Forbes took action while bombs were still falling:
[He] threw a sandbag over his shoulder and climbed up the scaffolding to the top, a strenuous feat in daylight, a magnificent achievement in the dark and danger of the night.
Westminster was targeted, and saved, seven more times during the Baby Blitz in early 1944.
The first raid of the Baby Blitz hit the Palace of Westminster on the night of 21-22 January. Large numbers of incendiary bombs fell all around the parliament buildings and several lodged in the roof of Westminster Hall. The bombs were removed and the fires in the wooden panelled ceilings were extinguished.
According to newspaper reports, Members of the Palace of Westminster’s Home Guard, including two Members of Parliament, helped the National Fire Service tackle the fire. Most damage to the building and its offices was caused by the water used to put out the flames ('Liverpool Daily Post', 19 February 1944).
A wartime wedding
As the raids continued, people fought to save property all across the city.
The 'Manchester Evening News' reported that a Pilot Officer’s wedding went ahead in a "smoke blackened" and water damaged London church the morning after a raid in March 1944.
Together with the verger and several fire watchers, the rector dealt with incendiaries which "came down in cascades." Firemen who saved the dome of the church stayed for the ceremony ('Manchester Evening News', 25 March 1944).
V-1 flying bombs were also known as buzz bombs or doodlebugs. The first landed at Mile End on 13 June 1944 killing eight people.
Almost 10,000 V-1s were launched towards England between June and August 1944, sometimes at a rate of nearly 100 a day.
Little could be done to save the buildings they fell on once their motors cut out. Betty Hedges remembered:
The doodlebugs was awful. You saw them come over and you looked into the sky and you prayed that it wouldn’t stop. That it would go over. But then suddenly it would stop and then it would drop ... You had to pray that it wasn’t coming near you.
With 1,000 kilograms of explosives, on average, each single V-1 damaged around 400 houses (Gardiner, 285).
Anti-aircraft guns, fighter aircraft and barrage balloons gave increasing protection against them. By August more than three quarters were shot down before they reached their targets.
Major John Pilkington Hudson and his team of bomb disposal experts took several days to defuse the first V-1 to land intact. He was awarded a bar to the George Medal he had already received for defusing a bomb in Battersea in 1943 (Ransted, 2013).
V-2 rockets began to fall on London shortly after the last V-1s. Although they carried slightly less weight of explosives, they were more destructive than the buzz bombs; each one could damage over 600 houses (Gardiner, 2010).
Over 1,400 V-2s were launched towards London and Norwich between 8 September 1944 and 27 March 1945. They killed almost 3,000 people and injured over 6,500.
There was no defence against V-2s. They could not be heard approaching. The first people knew of them was the explosion.
And then after the doodlebugs we had the V-2 bombs which were massive. And one Saturday afternoon … in Lewisham a V-2 bomb came down and killed everybody in Woolworths.
Bomb sites and regeneration
At the end of the war, buildings which were only lightly damaged were repaired. Very badly damaged buildings were pulled down and became weed-covered bomb sites.
Bomb sites provided space for regeneration and rebuilding in the decades following the war. Working as a city planner after the war, Reg Woolgar attended a public enquiry about a compulsory purchase order for some buildings near the Barbican. Another planning officer was asked why it was necessary to demolish a group of buildings. He replied: "Well you see the bombs didn’t always drop in the right places" (Ellin).