Innocence Lost

Posted on Wednesday 18th January 2017


It is the early hours of Friday 30th June 1944 twenty four days after the Allied landings at Normandy on D-Day. Somewhere in German occupied Europe a V-1 Flying Bomb is being prepared for launching by its crew. Carefully the weapon is loaded onto its launching ramp, the pulsejet engine is started and within seconds the V-1 is catapulted off its launching ramp. The flame from the V-1’s engine grows faint as it disappears into the dark early morning sky heading for Southern England. In a time span of just minutes the V-1 will arrive its pulsejet engine will automatically shut off and it will fall to earth with its one ton high explosive warhead. Its victims will not be able to hear it nor see it coming. The V-1 Flying Bomb was the first of what Hitler called his Vengeance Weapons. It becomes known as the Doodlebug to the British. The V-1 crosses the waters of the English Channel.

Observers of the Royal Observer Corps hear the characteristic drone of its engine as it approaches the English coast. The observers plot the course of the V-1 and notify Anti-Aircraft Command of its altitude, speed and bearings. The Anti –Aircraft gunners run to their guns and will attempt to shoot the V-1 down before it reaches London or any populated area. Soon the gunners can also hear the V-1 as it comes in at 400mph. They can now see the dull yellow flame from its engine. The gunners open fire, high explosive shells detonate all around the V-1 filling the air with red hot steel splinters. One of the British shells finds its mark shell splinters tear into the thin sheet steel skin of the V-1. Suddenly its flight becomes very erratic it begins to oscillate trailing a long sheet of flame which eerily lights the sky around it. The V-1 has not exploded as the Anti- Aircraft gunners had hoped. The V-1 has been damaged is now out of control steadily plummeting earthwards.

Weald House at Crockham Hill in Sussex is quiet and in darkness. The thirty children aged from five and younger are all in bed asleep along with the adult staff of eleven. Weald House is serving as a refuge for young children evacuated from London. By all accounts they should have been safe here.

Weald House Copy

At 3.37am there is a huge explosion which is heard for miles. The explosion shakes nearby homes startling awake local residents who venture out to find the source of the disturbance. In the direction of Weald House the sky above glows like hot coals. The V-1 shot down by the Anti-Aircraft gunners has crashed directly onto Weald House. Emergency services rush to the scene but are appalled at what they find. Even hardened rescue workers are in shock and tears as they begin to remove the rubble of the destroyed building in a desperate search for survivors. Of the thirty young children in the house only eight survived to be rescued along with three of the eleven staff. An auxiliary fireman who attended the scene was too traumatized to talk about what he had seen for many years afterwards but later recalled

“I had seen many horrors during WW2 but that incident was the worst thing I had ever seen and is still the worst thing I have ever seen in my life. Pulling the tiny bodies out of the rubble of that building they looked just like rag-dolls. I’d never had nightmares about anything but I did after that. I recall parents of the dead children who had travelled up from London in the days afterwards to begin helping the authorities to identify the dead. Totally devastated people broken by grief. One young woman arrived to identify her baby daughter and began screaming “why, why my baby I want my baby, I want my baby”? The lady was clutching one of her child’s toy dolls. She was so overcome with grief she collapsed having to be carried away. It was very hard to come to terms with and is one thing which has stayed firmly in my memory for over seventy years.”

The memorial to the children and staff at Weald House at Crockham Hill

During research for this article I made contact with Cyril Banks. Cyril also known as “Squirrel” to his school friends was eleven years of age at the time of the Weald House tragedy. At the time he lived a short distance away from Crockham Hill. Cyril recalled ‘Whenever anything went down like a German plane or bomb or anything me and my chums would go and have a look. I don’t think we were being horrible or morbid or anything it was just boyhood curiosity I suppose. Of course we knew what happened on Crockham Hill that night and we went up there I think about a month later. We went through the woods that surrounded the house. Through a clearing in the trees we could see the partially demolished building. It was eerily quiet there even the birds seemed absent in the trees above us. We were aware that the local Policeman was frequently visiting the site. He was a tough old boy that vowed to make sure no one pilfered anything from the house.

We stayed in the woods around the house just skirting around the site really. It was while I was scratching around that I spotted a piece of green painted metal with what looked like a shrapnel hole in it. I picked it up and knew straight away what it was it was a piece of the V-1. It was around the size of a man’s palm green on one side and plain silver metal the other. The green part was the outer skinning section of the V-1 the plain metal the inner surface. I knew all about shrapnel all the various kinds. There wasn’t any more shrapnel there and at a guess I reckon one of the recovery workers had thrown it there during the search. My chums were pretty envious of me finding that. At the time not many kids had managed to get a piece of a V-1. We only went there that once we never went back there again. The piece of V-1 was a prized souvenir for a few years afterwards. I don’t know why but after the war it ended up in a tin in my dad’s garden shed with other odds and bobs. I guess the significance of it never really hit home until I got a bit older.

The piece of V-1 Flying Bomb found by Cyril. Note the green paintwork and shrapnel hole.

My dad often came across the shrapnel when in his shed. He used to say things like “you should throw it out” and “why have you still got that thing?" Cyril then went out into his small workshop returning with an old biscuit tin. Removing its lid he took out the fragment of V-1 which he had picked up at Weald House. He passed the fragment of metal to me and it felt strange holding it knowing its gruesome history. I could see the distinctive hole in the piece of skinning where it had been pierced by a fragment of Anti- Aircraft shell. Cyril explained ‘the V-1 rockets were different from conventional bombs. Normal High Explosive bombs exploded producing large, heavy and thick fragments of metal. Some of which weighed several pounds in weight. The V-1’s had only a very thin sheet steel skinning. They were primarily designed to cause a massive blast effect. So the shrapnel from these was easy to tell from other munitions’. He took the fragment of skinning and returned to his workshop returning a few minutes later. During WW2 shrapnel from bombs, artillery shells or rockets became a valued form of currency in its own right amongst young boys. Shrapnel could be traded for all manner of things including sweets and comics. Generally the bigger the shrapnel was the greater the value it held. I had spent the best part of the morning with Cyril at his home in Westerham, Kent where he now lives.

During the course of that morning he recited many fascinating wartime stories. When the time came to leave to catch my train back to London I was puzzled when on leaving he handed me a brown padded envelope. I asked him what it was to which Cyril smiled then replied “well it’s yours now, you take it and let people know about that awful tragedy. Besides if I kick the bucket it will only get thrown in the bin.” Looking inside the envelope I was amazed to see the piece of the V-1 Cyril had found that day! It was a most unexpected parting gift and I thanked him and his wife for their hospitality.

The long journey back to Evesham was somewhat thoughtful as a result. The V-1 was a guided missile insofar that its gyrocompass based auto piloting kept it on the trajectory on which it was launched. Unlike modern guided or cruise missile weapons of which the V-1 was the forerunner it could not be guided onto any specific target therefore a totally indiscriminate weapon of terror. On the question of the morality of its use, in war morality becomes just one of the many victims. What of the brilliant minds who design these machines? Do they rest easily in their beds knowing of the civilisations they have helped destroy or the horrors they have helped perpetrate? Men of science and intellect have often created things which they have later lived to regret.

One wonders if Robert Lusser the designer of the V-1 Flying Bomb wrestled with the same pangs of conscience for his contribution to the deaths of thousands of innocent souls.

Robert Lusser

Article written by Tim Heath, author and historian.

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