On This Day: 75th anniversary of the V1 attack on the Guards’ Chapel

Today on the Pen and Sword blog we have a guest post from Jan Gore, author of Send More Shrouds: the V1 attack on the Guards’ Chapel 1944.

For many of us, 6 June 1944 is primarily remembered as the date of D-Day. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Normandy landings. What is perhaps less well-known is the “Doodlebug Summer” that followed soon afterwards and brought the war, yet again, to the Home Front.

Barely a week after D-Day, what were known as “pilotless planes” began to appear over London and the South East. They were a precursor of the cruise missile, a new type of bomb. The V1 rocket (or “doodlebug”) could be launched across the Channel from a mobile site in Europe. They were sent on a pre-set course and programmed to explode (with greater or lesser accuracy) in London. The advantage to the Germans was that the new weapons were unmanned and so could be launched day or night; when they ran out of fuel the engine would stop and they would dive to the ground and explode. The engine had a distinctive sound, like a motorbike. When the engine stopped, there was silence, followed within about 15 seconds by an explosion. With conventional air raids, people usually had perhaps 5-10 minutes to seek shelter after the alert. With a V1, you had literally seconds to take cover, and there was no alert; they were a remarkably unpleasant weapon.

On Sunday 18 June, the V1s began to reach Westminster. There was a special service at the Guards’ Chapel that Sunday in honour of Waterloo Day and many Guardsmen and their families were there. However, it was also an unofficial thanksgiving for the recent success of the Normandy landings. The tide of war was turning; mothers, wives and daughters had all come to the Chapel to pray for their loved ones fighting overseas. The music at the Chapel was well-renowned and that day the Coldstream Guards’ Band were playing. There were about 300 people, military and civilian, in the congregation. They included an American Colonel, an Australian padre, Stanley Baldwin’s son-in-law and the sister of the painter Edward Le Bas, as well as a large number of Guardsmen.

The service began at 11 am. Outside, the Scots Guards were drilling on the Square. Lord Edward Hay began to read the first lesson. As he continued, a distant buzzing could be heard. He did not falter, even when it became a roar overhead. He had just finished the lesson and was walking back to his seat when the engine cut out. Keith Lewis, a Guardsman from the choir, described what happened next:

“A large area at the top half of the South wall collapsed; there was an intensive blue flash; I saw Lord Hay still standing but at a 45 degree angle…already dead at this moment; there was a very loud explosion; then some giant was hammering me all over my back.”

The building collapsed on the congregation, trapping them under up to twelve feet of rubble. Many were killed by blast; others were trapped under falling masonry. It was only the third V1 to hit Westminster. The incident was made worse because the roof of the Chapel had been reinforced with concrete earlier in the war.

The guardsmen outside were swift to help; fortunately none of them had been injured in the attack. The rescue services were on site in a matter of minutes, desperately trying to remove the rubble and extricate the casualties. The rescue effort continued until the following Wednesday; 124 people died, including 50 Guardsmen, and over 141 were injured.

The Coldstream Guards’ Band were playing that day; their Director of Music and five of his musicians were killed outright, while a further twelve musicians were badly injured. All of the instruments were damaged beyond repair.

Those who died were a microcosm of society, and my book gives their biographies in full. They included a pioneering pharmacist, Olive Crooke, who had run a pharmacy in a military hospital in France in World War One; she had gone on to support her doctor brother in New Zealand and had returned to England just two months before because she wanted to help with the war effort. One of the Coldstream Guardsmen, Tony Titcombe, had hoped to spend the day with his family; it was his wedding anniversary and his son’s birthday. He had been taken captive at Tobruk in 1942 and had been sent to Italy as a PoW; he managed to escape later and walked to freedom, arriving home for Christmas 1943.

This book describes the attack on the Guards’ Chapel and gives detailed accounts of the victims; it also covers the rescue effort and the aftermath of the attack, and goes on to cover the rebuilding of the Chapel and the 70th anniversary service in 2014.The wealth of biographical information helps to provide a picture of society at the time. The historical background to the development of the V1 rocket helps to explain how and why the campaign evolved; it also describes other key V1 incidents that summer and draws on first-hand accounts, including that of my mother. Her statement: “My friends went to the Guards’ Chapel and they never came back” is what prompted me to write this book.

The Guards’ Chapel after the bombing

Photographs of the Chapel after the bombing, taken by David Gurney, a young officer present at the scene.

This shows how a V1 rocket works (from Flickr)

German V1 Rocket - World War II

Send More Shrouds: the V1 attack on the Guards’ Chapel is available to order from Pen & Sword now.

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *