Tag Archives: Poland

‘Britain’s Baby Blitz’ – the world’s first jet propelled missiles

It was 75 years ago today that the world awoke to a new age as the first V1 rocket fell on the city of London.

We are all used to the term ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’, and prior to the Second World War the only weapon which could have been called that was the gas used in the trenches during the First World War. The shells used to deliver the gas were of a conventional nature, but what the Germans later developed was something completely different so that when Hitler’s new weapons rained down on London for the first time in 1944 they were almost incomprehensible in their sophistication and power. What were they? And where did they come from?

In 1939 the Oslo Report alerted London to the development of new and very advanced weapons in Germany, but the report wasn’t taken seriously – if Britain couldn’t build such weapons then obviously Germany would be incapable of it too – and it was a number of years before the threat of missile weapons aimed at Britain from the continent was recognised by the Allied powers. It was on 29th September 1943 that Albert Speer publicly promised retribution against the mass bombing of German cities, saying that the Nazis now had a new ‘secret weapon’; Hitler intended to deploy thousands of these weapons, and if he had succeeded he would almost certainly have destroyed the city of London.

Wernher von Braun at Peenemunde Army Research Centre

Research and development of the ‘secret weapon’ was carried out in a purpose-built facility at Peenemunde on the Baltic coast, which was the biggest research centre in the world between 1936 and 1945 and the first ever missile test site. With brilliant scientists like Wernher von Braun Germany was way ahead of the Allies in missile technology, and by 1942 they were making good progress with the test launch of the first V1 missile. Then, on 3rd October 1942, the Germans launched the first V2 rocket into the stratosphere at supersonic speed, changing the face of warfare for ever. The ‘V’ in their name stood for Vergeltungswaffen meaning‚ ‘revenge weapon‘, and Hitler hoped that they would be in place in time to punish Britain for the destruction of German cites and turn the tide of the war in his favour.

V2 launch Peenemunde

Allied spy planes had already identified Peenemunde as a key site in Hitler’s weapons development programme, and on 17th and 18th August 1943 more than 500 bombers set off from Britain to destroy the facility. The raid was very successful, causing severe damage at the site and putting back the missile programme by 8-12 weeks, but more importantly from the Allied point of view some of the most important scientists involved in the project were killed during the raid, a loss which could not be replaced. As well as Peenemunde, the Allied spy planes had also identified a huge concrete bunker at St Pol in northern France, and an even bigger one in a quarry at Wizernes, 40km from the English Channel. They were not sure what these structures were for but knew that they must be vitally important to the Germans (they were actually intended launch sites for the V-weapons). These missile sites in northern France were bombed following the raid on Peenemunde, and although the huge thick concrete domes were effectively bomb proof the foundations were damaged by ‘near misses’ which made some of the sites inoperable. The only bomb that could touch the massive concrete structures was the 12,000lb ‘Tall Boy’ and the even bigger ‘Grand Slam’ bombs designed by Barnes Wallis, the mastermind behind the ‘Bouncing Bomb’.

Nordhaousen V2 faclity © IWM (OWIL 64335)

The Germans could not afford the losses caused by the Allied bombings and so the V-weapons programme was relocated to the forests of Blizna in Poland and the Hertz mountains of Germany. A mountainside just outside the small town of Nordhausen was turned into an underground factory to make V-weapons, the tunnels were so long and deep that it was hard for the allies to bomb them, and impossible for them to know what was happening inside. The SS were put in charge of the V-weapons programme at this critical stage and they conscripted 60,000 slave labourers to work there, housing them in the concentration camp at Dora. The tunnels stretched for 21km, and the conditions for the workers were terrible. Until the spring of 1944, prisoners were mostly kept underground in unstable tunnels, deprived of daylight and fresh air. The mortality rate was higher than at most other concentration camps with prisoners who were too weak or ill to work were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau or Mauthausen camps to be killed. In 1944, a compound to house forced laborers was finally built above ground level south of the main factory area, giving the workers some relief from the atrocious conditions underground. Once full production of the missiles began towards the end of 1944, the Dora-Mittelbau concentration/work camp had a prisoner population of at least 12,000.

As the final elements of the V-weapons were put together work went ahead to create launch sites in northern France with many hidden ramps being created in woods. These were V1 storerooms and launch sites aimed at Southampton, Portsmouth and London; the Germans planned to use these sites to launch up to 2,000 V1’s every day.

V1 ready for launch

The V1 was a small pilotless winged bomb which carried 1 ton of high explosives and was powered by a jet engine which enabled it to travel at a maximum speed of 400 mph with a maximum reach of 200 miles (this distance decreased in poor weather conditions). A pre-set magnetic compass together with a gyroscopic auto-pilot helped it to find and maintain its course, while at the front of the flying bomb was a small propeller which measured the distance covered and shut the power to the engine when the pre-set distance had been reached, hopefully over its target. The first V1 landed on London on 13th June 1944, a week after the D Day landings. After 15th June around 100 V1’s were being launched against Britain every day, and the ‘Doodlebug’ or ‘Buzzbomb’ as they were called (named after the sinister sound they made) brought terror to the streets of London. When the sound of its engine stopped people ran for cover as the flying bomb fell from the sky. This new terror became known as ‘Britain’s Baby Blitz’.

Rescue after the first V1 13th June 1944 © IWM (HU 44273)
40mm Bofors anti-aircraft gun watching for V1 rockets © IWM (H 39407)

Thousands were killed in the V1 attacks and the British fought back with everything they could. There were massed anti-aircraft guns on the south-east coast of England, and RAF pilots would either shoot down or tip over the flying bombs to force them off course. V1’s flew straight and level so they were relatively easy to take out once sighted and many were shot down before they reached their target. Of the estimated 8,000 or 9,000 launched anti-aircraft guns shot down over 1,800, a similar number were brought down by the RAF, and 200 were destroyed by barrage balloons. The greatest single loss of life caused by a V1 killed 121 people when a flying bomb landed on the Guards Chapel at Wellington Barracks during a service.

D Day had started just days before the launch of the first V1, and as the Allies advanced through northern Europe they soon overran the V1 emplacements in northern France and Holland. The launch sites were steadily pushed further and further back until England was no longer within their reach and the last doodlebug fell on London 7th September 1944.

V2 labelled nach England, to England © IWM (BU 3238)

The Baby Blitz was not, however, over. The following day, 8th September 1944, the first V2 crashed into Chiswick in London with devastating effect. At 14m high it was a streamlined rocket as tall as a four-storey building. Its engine burned a mix of liquid oxygen and alcohol-water, and it was the first missile to reach the edge of space before falling at supersonic speed, ensuring that it came out of nowhere with no warning, delivering its payload of 1 ton of high explosive at a terminal speed of 2,386 mph. The first V2 took an estimated 5 minutes to fly the 200 miles from its launch site in the Hague to London, and there was no defence against it. As the V2 explosions came without warning, the government initially attempted to conceal their cause by blaming them on defective gas pipes which had been damaged by earlier bombing. But as more and more of the missiles landed on London the public were not fooled and soon began referring to the V-2s as “flying gas pipes”.

V2 damage 8th September 1944 © IWM (HU 88803)

By October the offensive was relentless. A particularly devastating strike was on 25 November 1944 when a V-2 exploded at the Woolworth’s store in New Cross Road, killing 168 people and seriously injuring 121 more. It was difficult for Military Intelligence and the RAF to take out these missiles at source as launch sites were not fixed. The Germans would pour an innocent looking concrete slab then, just before launch a truck would arrive with the rocket, set up, fuel it, launch it and drive off. The continued Allied advance through Europe allowed them to overrun these sites, and this is what saved London with the last V2 falling on the city on 27th March 1945. The final death toll of Hitler’s Vergeltungswaffen project was discovered when Dora camp was liberated and thousands of dead slave workers were found stacked outside the underground tunnels, the SS had not even bothered to bury them.

Liberation of Dora, a surviving prisoner lying amongst the corpses

Germany’s V-weapons caused over 30,000 casualties in England (9,000 deaths, the rest wounded) and left hundreds of thousands homeless. Yet despite this, the overall destruction they caused was less than the Blitz of 1940-1941. In fact, more slave labourers died making the V-weapons (an estimated 20,000) than civilians were killed during the offensive.

But the successful creation of the V-weapons had ushered in a new type of warfare. The Americans and Russians rushed to grab this new technology and the scientists who had created it with Werner von Braun eventually going on to be one of the lead scientists on the American Saturn 5 project which took man to the moon.

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Cavalry, tanks, and a German propaganda coup

The cavalry charge at Krojanty on the first day of the Second World War is widely described as the last cavalry charge in modern warfare. The story goes that the Poles came across advancing German tanks and bravely charged them, pennants flying, sun shining on their swords and lances; an out of date and backward country taking on the mechanical might of a modern army. In The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich William L Shirer even described the charge as ‘Horses against tanks! The cavalryman’s long lance against the tank’s long canon! Brave and valiant and foolhardy though they were, the Poles were simply overwhelmed by the German onslaught’; it is an evocative image of the Polish upper class, a well-educated fighting elite, sacrificing themselves in the defence of their homeland against Nazi Germany to the west and the Soviet Union to the east. But is it really true?

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The Italian Savoia Cavalleria at Isbuscenskij, August, 24, 1942, one of the last cavalry charges of WW2

Many may be surprised to know that horses, which had always played an important role in warfare, continued to do so during the Second World War. The German Army still had around 500,000 in 1939, and almost 2.7 million in service by the end of the war; in two months during the winter of 1941-2 179,000 horses died of exhaustion and cold on the Eastern Front. The majority of these horses were used for logistical purposes, but cavalry had not disappeared altogether. Some cavalry units still used lances and sabres, but most were now mounted infantry able to get quickly from one place to another where they would dismount to use more modern weapons such as machine guns, anti-tank rifles, and mortars. There were cavalry units attached to a number of armies – the French, British (particularly the Sikh sowars who led the last British sabre charge of the war on the Burma Frontier), Americans, Hungarians, Russians, Rumanians, and Italians, as well as the Germans and Poles.

In 1939 Poland had 11 cavalry brigades which made up 10% of the army and were intended to be used as mobile reserves, and far from Krojanty being the last cavalry charge there were at least 14 such engagements by the Poles during the first month of the war,* most of them successful. So why is the Krojanty charge so famous and so misrepresented?

Polish Uhlan with anti-tank rifle 1938
Polish Uhlan with anti-tank rifle 1938
Eugeniusz_Swiesciak
Eugeniusz Swiesciak

The action, which was part of the wider Battle of Tuchola Forest, took place near the village of Krojanty on the evening of 1st September 1939. A group of German infantry were resting in the forest and Colonel Kazimierz Mastalerz (who had fought in the cavalry during the First World War and knew from experience that the element of surprise would be vital in any attack) ordered Commander Eugeniusz Świeściak of the Pomeranian Uhlans to initiate a charge in one of the very first engagements of the Second World War. The Germans were unprepared and taken completely by surprise, quickly retreating before the Polish cavalry. But the attacker’s upper-hand was short lived as German armoured reconnaissance vehicles deployed from the forest road and opened fire; as the horsemen retreated Świeściak and a third of his 250 men were killed, Colonel Mastalerz was killed trying to save them. The charge had been successful though in that it slowed the German advance and allowed other units of the Polish army to make an orderly retreat in front of the advancing Germans.

Hitler youth magazine
Hitler Youth magazine perpetuating the story

The following day a number of German and Italian reporters visited the battlefield where tanks had now arrived and were deployed near the dead Polish cavalrymen and their mounts. An Italian Journalist named Indro Montanelli jumped to conclusions and sent a report saying that the Poles had been cut down whilst attacking the German tanks. It would have been easy enough for the Germans to deny this, but they quickly saw the propaganda value of the story and ran an article in Die Wehrmacht, a propaganda magazine in Germany, implying that the charge demonstrated how strong and sophisticated the new German army was and how weak and ill-prepared were her enemies. At the end of the war the story was reinforced by the Soviets to show how the poor Polish peasants had been failed by a decadent aristocratic class. As Germany and Italy had the only reporters to visit the site this propaganda myth continued to be perpetuated even up to the 1990’s.

There seems to have been only one instance of the Polish cavalry charging German tanks, and this happened entirely by accident at Mokra. In the middle of the confusion and smoke of battle Captain Hollak suddenly found himself and his unit riding directly at the flank of a German column, with little choice and before the enemy had time to react he led his men at the gallop through the German tanks and seized the high ground. Two days later Mokra was lost to the advancing Germans.

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The monument to the Wołyńska Cavalry Brigade at Mokra

There were a number of other small cavalry charges in different theatres of the war during World War 2 whilst Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) and Mozambique used cavalry into the 1970’s; the Americans used horses in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001, and the 61st Cavalry unit is still a part of the Indian Army today.** So the importance of the horse during warfare continues, and the Charge of Krojanty rather than showing a last brave cavalry charge as the past gave way to modern warfare should probably be seen more as an enduring testimony to the power of propaganda.

**(I believe this is the only non-ceremonial cavalry unit in a modern army but would be interested if anyone can tell me otherwise).

*Polish cavalry charges during the first month of the Second World War:

  • 1st September 1939 – the battle of Krojanty
  • 1st September 1939 – against a small group of the 4th Panzer Division in Mokra
  • 1st September 1939 – Polish and German cavalry met at Janów
  • 2nd September 1939 – Polish and German cavalry met at Borowa Góra
  • 11th September 1939 – Polish cavalry attacked German infantry at Osuchowo
  • 11th – 12th September 1939 – Polish cavalry recaptured the village of Kaluszyn
  • 13th September 1939 – Polish cavalry were repelled at Mińsk Mazwiecki
  • 13th September 1939 – A second charge retook Mińsk Mazwiecki
  • 15th September 1939 – A polish charge at Brochów
  • 19th September 1939 – Polish cavalry cleared the way for the army to retreat from Wólka Weglowa
  • 21st September 1939 – A Polish charge halted a German assault at Łomianki
  • 23rd September 1939 – Polish cavalry retook Krasnobród (German cavalry was also involved)
  • 24th September 1939 – A Polish cavalry charge initially halted a soviet advance at Husynne before being stopped by tanks
  • 26th September 1939 – 2 Polish charges forced the Germans to withdraw from Morańce

Clare Hollingworth, 10th October 1911 – 10th January 2017

clare-hollingworth

Today I would like to pay tribute to one of the women who has inspired my writing and who died today, aged 105.

Clare Hollingworth was one of the most respected war correspondents of the 20th century. Born in Knighton in Leicestershire on 10th October 1911, Clare’s father worked in the shoe trade. Clare had a fairly ordinary life as a youngster, and by 1939 she had married and was living in Poland with her husband. She was horrified by what she saw of the Nazi treatment of many groups of people and decided to help, rescuing around 3,000 refugees from Sudetenland (part of Czechoslovakia which had been annexed by Hitler). For some reason the British government was not happy with what she was doing and MI6 persuaded her employer to ‘let her go’. Clare returned to England and decided that she wanted to be a journalist, partly due to stories told to her by her friend Trilby Ewer. Trilby wrote for the Daily Telegraph and arranged an interview there for Clare. She was hired on the spot as a ‘stringer’ (a freelance journalist) working with Hugh Carleton Greene, who was the Telegraph’s correspondent in Berlin.

With her nose for a story Clare headed for Katowice where she borrowed a car from the British consul-general and drove towards the Polish border. The road was full of motorcycle despatch riders who seemed to be incredibly busy, and as she drove Clare passed a long hessian screen which had been put up to stop people looking down into the valley below. With the luck which seemed to follow Clare at times a random gust of wind caught the screen and pulled it back, revealing hundreds of German tanks and other vehicles lined up and ready to invade Poland. 29th August 1939 was only Clare’s third day as a journalist, but she already had her first headline in a national newspaper when the Telegraph printed her story as the Page One lead.

On 1st September Clare was woken by anti-aircraft guns as German planes crossed the border into Poland. She immediately telephoned Greene who notified the Polish foreign minister – who didn’t believe him. Clare then phoned officials in the British embassy in Warsaw, who also didn’t believe that war had broken out as Germany and Poland were still negotiating. To prove her point Clare held the phone out of the window so that the embassy official could hear the guns himself!

Clare Hollingworth went on to report throughout the Second World War and other conflicts of the last century including Palestine, China, Algeria and Vietnam. She also broke the story that the British intelligence officer Kim Philby was spying for the Russians. Clare Hollingworth was awarded the OBE in 1982 and as the 1980’s progressed she decided to semi-retire, but retirement never stopped her from following up a story. In 1989, approaching her 80’s, Clare was in Tiananmen Square where she wrote about the Chinese government crack-down on protesters – watching the unfolding story from a lamppost which she had climbed to get a better view!

Clare Hollingworth was a trail blazer for female war correspondents, a woman of drive and ambition whose life is the inspiration for the main character featured in my new series of books. Today is a day to remember a remarkable woman who lived life to the full and will be long remembered.