In which communities in the north of England are subjected to a Christmas attack from Hitler’s dreaded ‘Vengeance Weapons’.
“Quiet, boys!” declared Sister Agnes. “No more talking. Off to sleep with you now!”
She felt a soft tug at her sleeve, and glanced down at the small earnest face peering up at her.
“Please, sister,” said the little boy in a timid voice. “I need the toilet.”
The sister’s stern face broke into a smile.
“Very well, Tommy,” she said kindly, “but you be quick now!”
“Yes, sister,” replied the boy meekly as he shuffled away down the line of beds towards the dormitory door.
Sister Agnes strolled over to the window, and stared out into the darkness towards the village of Tudhoe, County Durham. She noted no signs of light. All observing the black-out, she thought approvingly. Everything was quiet and peaceful. Her mind hearkened back to the nights three years ago when she could see the flashes of falling bombs in the distance as the Luftwaffe hit Middlesbrough, one of Nazi Germany’s prime targets because of its ironworks. They called that city ‘Ironopolis’, she recalled. Raids had long ceased however, and now the Allies had landed in Europe and were pushing into France and Holland. They were saying that the war would soon be over, perhaps in the New Year. How wonderful it would be to return to normal!
She turned to see Tommy, climbing into bed. She walked to the door.
“Don’t forget, boys,” she said firmly. “No more talking. Off to sleep! Pleasant dreams!”
One hundred and twenty four miles away on the other side of the country in a small row house on Chapel Street in Tottington, Lancashire, two couples sat sipping sherry by the fire.
“By next Christmas it’ll all be over, God willing,” said one of the men with a jovial grin. “I propose a toast. To our brave boys in uniform and to everlasting peace!”
His companions raised their glasses with murmurs of approval.
“Not that we’ve ever had any trouble in our quiet little town,” added the speaker, “but there’s been some hot nights down in the Manchester docklands and over in Liverpool!”
“Aye, that there has,” agreed the other man, taking a sip of his sherry, “but they say as our troops are well into France now, pushing the ‘jerries’ back where they came from. It’ll not last much longer! But let’s talk about summat more pleasant, eh?”
“Well, I’ll just be glad when I can get some proper nylons,” said his wife with a chuckle. “You miss these little luxuries in wartime. What I’d do for a nice slice o’ bacon and some rich creamy butter!”
“What’s t’ matter, Gladys?” teased her husband. “Bread and dripping’s not good enough for you?”
“Aw, get on with you!” scolded his wife. “You always were a proper tease, Fred!”
“I’ll just be glad to see all the fighting men home safe and sound,” said the other woman. “My sister’s boy’s serving in Monty’s army, and I pray every night that he’ll come back alive.”
“Don’t upset yourself, Lil!” said her husband soothingly. “He’s a good boy. He’ll not come to harm.”
The woman suppressed a sob, and turned to her neighbor.
“Eh, but that’s a proper nice tree, Glad,” she declared, pointing to the Christmas tree in the corner, laden with shiny baubles.
Gladys gave a sly smile.
“Oh, aye,” she confided. “My Bert went out one night last week, and come back wi’ it. I’m not sure where he got it, but I do know he had a little axe in his coat pocket, and there’s a clump o’ them trees up the hill on Jim Gladstone’s farm!”
Then the four friends collapsed into gales of laughter.
“More sherry, anyone?” asked Bert.
Hauptman Muller stared out of the barracks window in Den Helder, Holland. He could just make out the dark outlines of the Heinkel 111 aircraft sitting on the distant airfield. His stomach muscles tightened as he contemplated the coming raid. The conventional bombing raids over London back in ’41 had been dangerous enough, but what we’re doing now, he thought, is madness!
Muller was a veteran of numerous raids over enemy territory. He had started out as a bombardier in the blitzkriegs in Spain and Poland, but promotion had been rapid in face of casualties in the battles over the skies of Britain. Now he commanded his own crew of five, engaged in a desperate campaign to strike back against civilians in the country whose army was now pressing into France and Holland itself. Not too long before we will have to evacuate this base, he thought!
Muller was a loyal and competent officer, but even he had serious doubts about the efficacy and the ethics of the campaign in which he was now engaged. This evening he was assigned to fly his converted Heinkel across the North Sea to the shores of England. He would be carrying a dangerous and unwieldy bomb, the Vergeltungswaffe or ‘vengeance weapon’, which he would aim and fire towards the sleeping city of Manchester. The missile, the Fieseler Fi 103, resembled a miniature aircraft. It was 27 feet long with a wingspan of 17 feet and a small jet engine with a range of 150 miles. It was designed to fly to a target, cut off its engine and drop from the skies, inflicting serious damage on the morale and property of British civilians. It had been devised by the Fuhrer’s scientists in retaliation for the devastating raids currently being carried out by the RAF and USAF on German cities. The capture of coastal missile launch sites by the Allies had forced the Germans to shift tactics and deliver the new V1 bomb by aircraft.
Muller continued to stare gloomily out into the night, turning over in his mind his fears concerning the safety of his aircraft and its crew during the upcoming raid. First they would have to fly low at almost wave level to avoid detection by the new sophisticated radar systems that British fighter planes now carried. With a heavy missile equipped with an 850kg warhead attached to their undercarriage below the portside wing, their aircraft was seriously imbalanced and because of the added weight could travel only at a reduced speed of two hundred knots. Flying at a minimal altitude there was a continual risk of hitting a high-rising wave or losing control of the aircraft. It would require all of Muller’s skill and experience to bring his plane safely across the North Sea. If they were fortunate enough to arrive at their launch point with the aircraft intact and the missile still attached, he then had to rise upwards to an altitude of one thousand five hundred feet to release the bomb which would then go speeding off into the night towards its target. The winged bomb, however, was notoriously inaccurate, and frequently landed randomly and harmlessly – in the ocean, in a ploughed field, or on moorland. In addition at the moment of release from his aircraft the V1’s flare would light up his plane like a spotlight for a full two minutes, making it a visible target for nearby enemy fighter planes and anti-aircraft placements.
In his heart of hearts Muller was deeply troubled by his mission. The war was lost, he believed, and the stubborn refusal of the nation’s leaders to contemplate a negotiated surrender bothered him. Civilians were dying in thousands in German cities, and whatever minimal damage these new missiles could inflict on the British population seemed to him futile and vindictive. However, he was a man of duty, and he was determined to carry out his mission as best he could.
With a sigh he turned away from the window.
With midnight approaching the wedding party in a home on Abbey Hills Road in Oldham, Lancashire, was still going strong. Behind the tightly-drawn black-out curtains the gramophone was playing some swing music, and the guests, who had shoved the living room furniture back to the wall, were dancing with considerable gusto in the confined space. Every so often two couples would collide in a flurry of laughter, but once they had regained their balance, would continue dancing undeterred. Two men stood in the hallway, glasses in hand, watching the gyrating couples, and in the back kitchen three women were cutting sandwiches for a late-night snack.
“Keep an eye out for the warden, Harry!” called one of the women. “Then we can turn down the music till he’s gone.”
“Will do!” replied one of the men in the corner, taking a quick peek out of the front door. “Worst case, we can ask him in for a glass o’ beer” he said to his companion. “He’ll not give us a hard time. We’ve got the blackout up, and besides we’ve not had an air-raid for three years.”
His friend nodded, and swallowed the last dregs of his beer.
Ossie Fairclough crept stealthily through the bushes. He was out looking for rabbits to put in a stew. He had traps laid all over the hillside out in the country near Tudhoe village. He moved carefully, fully aware that he’d be in trouble if he were spotted by the ARP warden or the local policeman. They didn’t take kindly to folk wandering about after dark!
He paused to look off into the distance towards the distant glow emanating from the tall pile of hot slag from the coke ovens. That glowing debris had been a constant headache for the residents of Tudhoe in the past. Back in 1940 a lone-wolf Luftwaffe pilot raiding over Teesside had spotted the slag heap and had mistaken it for the fire of an already-burning target. He had moved in for the kill, dropping incendiaries close to the village. Fortunately the bombs had fallen harmlessly away from any buildings, and thankfully nobody had been injured. During a second attack only three months ago bombs had destroyed the Tudhoe Colliery Coop store. With a wry smile Ossie remembered seeing people running away from the wrecked building with sides of bacon still smoldering from the heat of the explosions! He also remembered the many nights in recent weeks when the auxiliary firemen had driven out to spray gallons of water on the burning slag for fear it would yet again provide a marker for marauding enemy aircraft.
The poacher passed by the darkened orphanage. All was silent and still, the sisters having retired for the night. He skirted the cricket field and drew near the church and the vicarage. He knew that behind the black-out curtains the vicar’s wife would be sitting up with her mother who was seriously ill. Glancing up at the bedroom window, Ossie, not usually a religious man, uttered a silent prayer for the sick woman.
Arriving at the woods, he drew from his pocket a small flashlight, which he turned on and shaded with his hand as he prepared to check his traps.
“We’ve reached our launch area, Herr Hauptmann,” declared Leutnant Weber, navigator and bombardier of the Heinkel 111, as the plane reached a point approximately forty miles off the Yorkshire coast between Hornsea and Mablethorpe near the Humber estuary. It was 05.20, and other aircraft of the KG53 squadron were already in the launch zone. Muller and Weber could hear their engines rumbling around them in the darkness.
“Time to take her up, Weber,” said Muller tersely. “You and Feldwebel Becker prepare to launch the missile.”
“Jawohl, Herr Hauptman,” said Weber, sliding from his seat.
Muller moved the stick to begin his gradual ascent to launch height. He felt a wave of relief at having successfully negotiated the treacherous low-level crossing of the sea, and hoped the rocket launch would come off smoothly.
Down below him, half a mile to the north, a fishing boat was bobbing on the water. Its ever-vigilant crew had heard the rumble of approaching aircraft engines, and had cut their motors as a precaution until the aircraft had passed. The crew stood silent, huddled together on the darkened deck, straining their eyes upwards into the gloom.
All of a sudden there was a vivid flash of light followed by another and another. The sky was temporarily illuminated brightly, and they could pick out the shapes of several aircraft high in the sky. Darkened shapes, trailing bright flares of light were hurtling away from the aircraft towards the shore.
“What the blazes are those, skipper,” said one young man, his voice betraying a tremor of alarm.
“I’m not sure,” mused the captain, “but likely they’re the new flying bombs that the krauts have been firing on London. But I’d no idea they could launch them from aircraft! I thought they had to be launched from the land. Let’s hope our ack-ack boys are on their toes, and can shoot ‘em down before they cause any mischief!”
“I wonder what they’re aimed at,” said another man. “How far can they go, skipper?”
“No idea, lad,” said the captain. “There’s not much detail in’t papers. You know how they censor everything. But if you figure that it’s about a hundred mile from the coast o’ France to London, you know they can go at least that far. They could likely mekkit to Leeds or Sheffield, maybe even further, to Manchester or even to Liverpool.”
“The sooner we teach them Nazis a lesson the better!” declared the first crewman. “Them flyin’ bombs fair give you the willies!”
“Aye, tha’s reet,” agreed the captain. “But not to worry! Now we’ll just sit tight here, nice and quiet like till the fun’s over, boys. They’re very busy right now. They’ll not be interested in the likes of us as long as we don’t draw attention to ourselves.”
High up in the sky, Leutnant Weber fired the V1 rocket. The Heinkel shuddered and shook as the missile surged away into the night. Hauptman Muller clutched the stick more tightly as he called back:
“Good job, boys! Now let’s get out of this light, and get back to home base!”
Even as he spoke, he heard the rumble of approaching engines. His experienced ears picked out the sound of British Spitfires.
“Schnell, boys, schnell,” he called urgently as he banked the aircraft into a steep turn.
Moments later coastal defense installations around the Humber estuary spotted the V1 rockets passing overhead, but were unable to bring their anti-aircraft guns into action rapidly enough. However, radio messages were promptly transmitted to major cities and centers, warning of impending missile attack.
In Oldham the wedding party had petered out, and the guests were stretched out slumbering on beds and chairs around the house when the air raid siren sounded. One of the men raised his head to listen, and turned to his friend dozing in a nearby chair.
“Don’t make no sense,” he muttered. “Hasn’t been a raid in three years. Must be a false alarm.
His friend nodded in a dazed fashion, and slipped off to sleep again.
In Tottington all the houses on Chapel Street were dark and silent. Most of the inhabitants were asleep, dreaming of turkey and Christmas pudding.
In Middlesbrough, two observers manning their post, looked up in surprise as they heard the unfamiliar sound of an Argus pulse-jet engine pass overhead.
“Sounds like a motor-bike!” said one in a puzzled voice.
“Look!” replied his partner pointing up at the bright flare passing overhead. “I do believe it’s one o’ them ‘doodlebugs’ what’s been causin’ havoc down in London!”
“But what’s it doin’ all the way up here?” queried his startled companion. “Surely they don’t have that kind of range!”
“That’s heading for my place!” exclaimed the other. “I’m from Durham! I do believe it’s headed for somewhere in Durham!”
Minutes later the V1 passed over the observation post in nearby Sedgefield, causing similar surprise and consternation.
“Wonder where she’s coming down!” declared one observer.
“We’d better hope there’s nibody underneath the bleeder,” said the other. “I heard they carry three hundred pounds of explosive. That’s enough to flatten a whole street!”
Moments later the first rocket landed in Brindle, Lancashire, fortunately causing minimal damage and no casualties. Another fell on deserted moorland on Howton Moor, Derbyshire. Yet another landed in a field in Oswaldwhistle, Lancashire, killing a single sheep. The one missile that penetrated the civil defense area of Manchester exploded harmlessly in a field of Brussel sprouts in Didsbury.
It was almost 5:50 in the morning, and Horace Enderby was walking his dog on the outskirts of Oldham. He had spent an uneasy night, tossing and turning in his bed, and had finally decided to leave his long-suffering wife in peace and seek some solace in an early morning stroll.
It was deathly quiet and still right up to the moment when he paused to light a cigarette. All of a sudden he heard a droning sound in the distance that resembled an approaching motor-cycle, and then he picked out a faint object in the early morning sky. It seemed to be a small aircraft the like of which he had never seen before. A bright orange flare was visible burning out behind. It was approaching from the direction of Huddersfield, curving in flight towards Oldham. He watched spell-bound as it flew over the nearby Strinesdale reservoir. Suddenly the motor cut out and the object glided out of sight behind the hill towards the town. There was an eerie silence that lasted several seconds.
A tremendous explosion rent the air, and Horace tumbled over backwards in surprise as he shielded his eyes from a bright orange glow which showed above the hill.
“My God!” he said aloud as he climbed to his feet. “What the hell was that?”
His dog was whining piteously and cowering away. He picked her up, stroking her gently and soothingly.
“There, there, lass,” he whispered, trying desperately to recover his composure.
In the house on Abbey Hills Road one of the guests, named George, stirred on the sofa. In his drowsy state he was half-aware of an approaching engine sound akin to a motor bike. As he lay there struggling to clear his thoughts, the sound ceased abruptly, and all was quiet. He laid his head back down on the cushion.
Seconds later there was a tremendous explosion and a bright orange flash that momentarily blinded him, and then he was hurled off the sofa and sent skidding beneath the nearby table. He threw his arms around his head instinctively as the whole universe around him dissolved into a cloud of swirling dust and splintering glass. An enormous chunk of ceiling plaster crashed onto the table top above his head sending sharp splinters of wood across his cheek and into his hair. He lay completely dazed and in deep shock.
Everything seemed to freeze around him. Screams and moans sounded in his ears but barely audible as if from a distance. Cautiously he attempted to move his limbs, both arms and then his legs one by one. He felt no pain, and he was able to move them. He wiggled his fingers and toes, and then turned his head seeking some kind of escape from the chaos of dust and rubble that surrounded him.
At first he could see nothing. Then slowly a gap appeared in the all-enveloping darkness. A light appeared moving and probing the gloom. He heard a voice call out: “Anybody there?” He tried to answer, but could only croak hoarsely. He moved his body with a tremendous effort toward the light. An immense weariness came over him, but he pushed on, crawling towards the gap. Suddenly he felt arms reach in and pull him clear of the rubble. He was out in the street!
He lay motionless in the road. Three anxious faces leaned over him. He could just make out the letters on their helmets. One wore ‘W’ for warden and the other two sported ‘FAP’ for first aid party.
“He’s probably still in shock,” said one, wrapping a blanket around George. He and his fellow first aid attendant lifted George gently onto a stretcher.
“Better get him off to the chapel in Nether Hey Street,” said the warden. “That’s where they’re setting up a post for the injured.”
The men nodded, and lifting George up carefully, they set off down the street.
The warden felt a tug on his sleeve, and turned to see one of the rescue workers standing with an expression of disgust on his face.
“We pulled a dead woman out of the rubble not five minutes ago,” he began. “She was wearing a wedding ring and an engagement ring. We set her down over there for a moment, and when we came back, both rings were gone. What’s the world coming too? Folks robbing corpses? Have they no sense of decency? No respect for the dead?”
The warden sighed.
“Aye,” he said wearily. “There’s plenty of nosy parkers hangin’ around here already, and when a crowd gathers, there’s bound to be looters and petty thieves amongst ‘em! Opportunism, that’s what it is!”
His eyes swept the devastation at Abbey Hills Road and Warren Lane,
“What a mess!” he exclaimed ruefully. “Must’ve been one of them new bombs they’ve been firin’ at London. How the blazes they got one to come down all the way over here, God only knows! We sounded the air raid siren an hour ago, but I suppose people thought it was a false alarm with there not being any raids for so long. Probably thought it were a false alarm. They paid a high price for not taking shelter.”
A police officer approached out of the dark, holding a flashlight.
“Many dead?” he asked laconically.
“Three, so far, constable,” said the warden, “One of them a six month old baby. But there’ll be more under the rubble. I’m from Orme Street. I know the folks what live in this street. There’s plenty still missin’. We’ve had a case of looting already, officer. Perhaps you could get a report from this gentleman.”
He pointed to the rescue worker.
The constable took out his notebook.
Down the street a stray dog, a fox terrier, suddenly emerged from the rubble, trembling but apparently unharmed.
Chapel Street, Tottington, had received a direct hit just before six o’clock. The row of terraced houses had been badly damaged, numbers 21 and 23 completely destroyed. The V1 had left a thirty foot deep impact crater. Although rescue workers had only just begun to arrive, PC Williams, the local bobby, had been first to arrive. The degree of devastation had shocked him to the core. He had known many of the residents on this street, and was able to greatly assist the rescue team in identifying victims as the rubble was cleared and the bodies were gradually recovered.
Six people, two men and four women, had been killed instantly when the bomb exploded. One more was to die later in hospital. Fourteen others were injured.
For the rescuers it was a grim task. As they uncovered the ruins of the victims’ homes, amidst the shattered glass and pulverized bricks they came upon fragments of children’s toys and shattered Christmas decorations, a sad reminder of the season in which this terrible weapon had struck.
Around the North Country the missiles continued to land: in Stockport, Maltby, Chester, and as far south as Woodford in Northamptonshire. The last to fall would be in Hyde at 6:25 am, killing two more people.
Meanwhile, Ossie Fairclough, the poacher, was wending his way home, three rabbits slung over his back when he heard the sound of an approaching engine. Looking up he could barely make out what appeared to be a small aircraft with a bright orange tail flare passing overhead in the direction of Tudhoe.
He scratched his head in surprise. Much too small for a Messerschmidt, he thought. Seconds later the engine noise stopped, and there was silence, followed ten seconds later by a loud bang and a bright light in the sky over toward the cricket club. The poacher felt the earth shake, and he stumbled and almost fell.
“Crikey!” he breathed.
In the dormitory of the orphanage a hail of shattering glass from the windows rained across the beds of the children who had been abruptly awakened from their slumbers by the explosion of the bomb at the tennis courts at the corner of the nearby cricket team. One of the sisters came dashing into the room intent on calming the boys and avoiding any outbreak of panic. She was relieved to see that most of the children were sitting up in bed, rubbing their eyes, apparently unscathed. A few of the younger ones were crying, but the older boys were already soothing them with words of comfort.
“Is anyone hurt?” said the sister anxiously.
Her question was greeted with a shaking of heads and a chorus of “No, Sister!”
Relieved she instructed them to remain in bed for the moment.
“What happened, Sister?” said one boy curiously. “Was it a bomb? Are the Germans attacking?”
“Of course not, stupid!” scoffed one of his neighbors. Our boys have got the jerries on the run! Haven’t they, Sister?”
“It’s probably one of those doodlebugs, those flying bombs,” said another.
“Boys! Boys!” said the sister in exasperation. “Tommy, George and Arthur. Get up, and put your slippers on, and go fetch some brooms and dustpans. You know where they are. In the closet in the hallway. We might as well get all this glass cleaned up!”
“Can we get dressed, and go see if there’s a bomb crater outside?” asked another boy in an excited voice.
“We’ll see. We’ll see,” replied the Sister, beginning to look a little harassed. “But first we’ll need to tidy up, and check the building for damage.”
In the row of houses adjoining the cricket field, the residents were emerging from shelter. They had heard a siren sound moments before the blast, and most had sought shelter under the stairs. Windows and doors had been blown in by the blast. One woman realized that she had left her baby sleeping in a bedroom during the explosion, and filled with dread, rushed upstairs fearing the worst. To her relief she found the baby unharmed but covered in soot. A large piece of fallen ceiling lay nearby. She shuddered at the thought of how it might have injured her baby. She snatched him up in her arms, and scuttled downstairs. The house next door had lost slates from the roof, and atop another a chimney leaned dangerously askew. In another house all the windows and doors had been blown out, yet the Christmas tree with its numerous fragile baubles hanging from its branches stood in the parlor untouched. Several people who had slept through the air raid siren had been thrown from their beds by the blast.
Over at the vicarage, a substantial stone building, windows and doors were damaged by the explosion. The vicar, who had run into the bedroom occupied by his mother-in-law and his wife, was thrown to the ground by the blast. He received a sharp blow to the head as he fell, and his four year old son, whom he was carrying at the time, sustained a small cut on his arm. The two women were unhurt, but considerably shaken by the experience. A handyman, residing with the vicar’s family, was treated for a cut arm after a piece of the ceiling had fallen on his bed.
The headmaster of the local grammar school, who was dressing in his bedroom on Charles Street when the V1 struck, was hit in the face by flying glass, and required first aid.
Later that morning many of the local children, including some of the orphans, made their way over to the tennis court to gawp at the remains of the V1 nose cone lying in the crater which it had created on landing.
“The hole ain’t very big!” exclaimed one boy in disappointment. “It’s only a couple o’ feet deep. I expected a massive crater!”
“It did a lot of damage though,” declared another. “My Dad’s one of the wardens, and he says there’ hundreds of doors and windows been blown out, as well as roofs cavin’ in and such like.”
“Wot I don’t get,” said another, “is how no-one was killed. If the bomb was that powerful, it should have killed somebody!”
“Anybody’d think you wanted people to get killed!” remarked another sarcastically. “It didn’t kill nobody ‘cos it landed right here in the middle of the field. If it’d landed on someone’s house, there’d have been some dead folks for sure!”
A hundred miles away one of the rescued residents of Abbey Hills Road, Oldham, was telling his story to a neighbor as they sat wrapped in blankets, drinking cups of tea.
“I were fast asleep,” he was saying. “Then there were this tremendous crash, and part of the floor gave way under my bed. It didn’t collapse completely, and I were left ‘anging on a slant like, with bed all tilted. Little by little my bed started to slide down the slope. It were weird. I didn’t know whether to jump or stay put.”
He paused theatrically.
“So what did you do?” asked his companion.
“I stayed in the bed,” said the first man. “As it slid sideways, the rest of the ceiling gave way and I ended up in a pile of plaster in’t front parlor downstairs! I felt like a proper twit!”
“Well, you were lucky alright,” remarked his friend, taking a swallow of his tea. “They’re still pulling people out of the rubble!”
“How many dead?” the other asked.
“They’re sayin’ that it’s more’n twenty now,” replied his companion.
“What a terrible tragedy!” said the survivor, shaking his head. “The sooner this war’s all over the better!”
“Tha’s right!” the other agreed.
The following day as people in Tudhoe sat down to enjoy their Christmas dinner, they experienced an uncomfortable and disturbing reminder of their ordeal as they discovered numerous sharp fragments of window glass in their plates of roast turkey.