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The Doodlebug Summer in Kent

The tide of war had changed dramatically as British, American and Canadian troops began to sweep across France following the D Day invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944.

With Germany now very much fighting a war on two fronts as the Russians made advances in the East, the Nazi regime decided to hit back.

Nicknamed doodlebug or buzz bomb by the British, the V1 missile was a pilotless aeroplane made of plywood and sheet steel, powered by a primitive jet engine and packed with about 1,000 lbs of high explosive.

Initially launched from sites in still-occupied France, they flew at around 2,000ft to 3,000ft, travelling at a speed approaching 400mph.

The missile carried enough fuel to drive it 300 miles, guided by sophisticated compasses and kept level by means of a gyroscope. London was the main target, but 2,400 fell short and hit Kent.

The official German name was Vergeltungswaffe 1 - "revenge weapon". Or, for short, the V1.

Together with the later, more sophisticated rocket bomb, or V2, it was Hitler’s last throw of the dice.

Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler

On June 13, 1944, the first fell near Swanscombe, while the final one hit Orpington on March 27, 1945.

In total, 6,725 were launched at Britain with 2,340 hitting London, causing 5,475 deaths, with 16,000 injured.

Frank Risbridger, who lived at Barham, near Canterbury, and who drove a Churchill tank during the Normandy invasion, recalled encountering a V1 on its launch ramp near L’Havre.

“We fired at it and it went up with a huge explosion,” he said. “I felt good about this because it meant the people back home had been saved from its devastating effects.”

West Malling Airfield,
West Malling Airfield,

The first to cross the English coastline did so at Dymchurch. It carried on over Pluckley and Lenham before diving harmlessly into a field near Swanscombe.

Villagers did not get off so lightly the following month. On July 30 another V1 fell on Taunton Road, Swanscombe. This time 13 people were killed and 22 were seriously injured. Eight houses were demolished and 100 were damaged rendering 150 people homeless.

Clearly tackling these weapons was a job for the RAF but the doodlebugs, which could top 370mph, outpaced all but the latest fighters such as the.

Eventually pilots learned they could fly alongside the missile and flip it over with their own wing tips. Or by nudging a wing just under that of the doodlebug, they could cause a turbulence which made it crash.

When on May 29, a V1 came down in Sutton Valence it had been machine gunned and “tipped” by a fighter, causing it to fall into an orchard behind some houses.

Several people were up ladders picking fruit. All but one reached the ground safely.

He was blown off his ladder and injured, though not seriously.

As 1944 progressed, the doodlebugs came across Kent in ever-increasing numbers.

Oak Lane railway bridge-August 16th 1944 after a doodlebug fell next to the bridge.
Oak Lane railway bridge-August 16th 1944 after a doodlebug fell next to the bridge.

On June 17 at 4.40am one fell on a house next to the sanitorium in Benenden killing three people while they slept. One of them, Charles Abrehart, had worked at the sanitorium for 26 years and his daughter Joan, who was also killed, for six. Although the sanitorium building was badly damaged, no-one in it was seriously hurt.

On August 3, a buzz bomb came down in the goods yard at Maidstone West Station killing five men.

Trucks of coal were set ablaze, railway lines torn up, goods waggons scattered like children’s toys and a signal box badly damaged.

The same day another buzz-bomb came flying so low over Maidstone that the noise shattered windows.

It came down in Oakwood Park and the explosion caused widespread damage in neighbouring streets.

Among the rescue workers desperately scrabbling in the wreckage of 5 Grafton Avenue, Rochester, was a small black mongrel called Mick.

The men kept chasing him away. Then someone blew a whistle for silence and a voice was heard, right under where Mick had been digging. It was his mistress.

“I was 10 when the doodlebug fell on Grafton Avenue,” said Dennis King.

“It was early evening November 8, 1944. There was a light in the sky. My father shouted, ‘get down!’.

Betty King and dog Mick (10358121)
Betty King and dog Mick (10358121)

“My brother and I flopped onto the lawn. Then everything went quiet. I saw my sister, Betty, blown off her feet and splattered against the fence.

The curtains were billowing out of our house, number 33, and the slates cascaded off the roof.”

“I was 16 at the time,” said Betty Shaban (formerly King). “My mother had gone down to number five, where her close friend, Alice Smith, lived. She had two little boys but lost her husband when HMS Devonshire went down.

“We heard the flying bomb. Then the engine stopped. My father thought my mother would be alright as Mrs Smith had a shelter. We were half way across the lawn heading for our shelter when there was this almighty crash and dust everywhere.

“My father ran off to find my mother. Of course, we ran after him. Half the road was rubble.

The damaged engine, Sir Galleron after the Oak Lane train crash August 16th 1944. A doodlebug landed close to the track, eight people were killed.
The damaged engine, Sir Galleron after the Oak Lane train crash August 16th 1944. A doodlebug landed close to the track, eight people were killed.

“When the air-raid siren sounded, my mother had said to Mrs Smith: ‘You go down the shelter, I am going home.”

“She opened the front door,” said Dennis, “and bang – she found herself blown back into the cupboard under the stairs. She had a few minor injuries and was in hospital for a while”.

“I had a friend who lived opposite Mrs Smith at number six,” said Elizabeth.

“She was out when the doodlebug exploded, but her mother, father and sister had just returned from the cinema. The bomb landed on their house. They all died.”

The Grafton Avenue doodlebug killed eight people, and seriously injured 17. It demolished 14 houses and damaged 575. It was one of thousands that fell on Kent.

There was a lucky escape for Major and Mrs Hills after a doodlebug crashed at Lamberhurst on July 20. They had been in the habit of not bothering to use the air raid shelter at night, but acting on a premonition a neighbour, Mrs Griggs, insisted that they should. It was as well they complied. Early the following morning a doodlebug crashed onto their house, utterly destroying it.

A V2 Rocket on its way to death and destruction.
A V2 Rocket on its way to death and destruction.

Later in the day a person walking a dog a mile and a half away found furniture which belonged to the house.

It was August 5, 1944 when Narcissa Gladdish, aged nine, of Holborough Road, Snodland, left the doctor’s surgery in Malling Road clutching her bottle of medicine.

A doodlebug landed on houses opposite, and the little girl was desperately injured by the blast. She died later that day.

Seven other people were killed by the bomb, 18 were seriously injured and many more had lesser injuries.

Four houses were demolished and many others badly damaged.

Within the surgery, two doctors remained at their posts despite being injured by the blast. They now had many wounded patients to take care of.

One of them, Major Tudhope of the Royal Army Medical Corps, took the full force of the blast.

His legs were injured but he continued to work. The second doctor, a Czech refugee named Merory, also continued to treat patients until his own injuries prevented it.

Patients in the waiting room survived. One of them, a Salvation Army lady called Peggy Wadge, remembered: “There was a terrible explosion and everything went black.”

Her shoes and bonnet were blown off but she crawled from the wreckage to her home which was badly damaged.

William Jenner, who was buried in the wreckage of his house, managed to scrabble free after 20 minutes, only to find his daughter was still inside. He had to fight his way back in to rescue her.

A doodlebug.
A doodlebug.

Perhaps the most spectacular of the doodlebug explosions, was that which demolished the Oak Lane railway bridge at Upchurch on August 17, 1944.

It had been flipped over by a fighter plane and hit the bridge just as the 3.35 from Victoria was approaching.

The engine and tender leaped the gap and overturned, but the front coaches telescoped into one another.

Seven passengers died, together with a railway employee who was working on the bridge.

Fireman David Humphreys and driver Charles Barnett were buried in coal from the tender. Humphreys pulled himself free then helped his driver out. His next worry was the 3.15 from Ramsgate whose driver might be unaware of what had happened.

Dazed and bleeding he headed towards Newington to tell the signalman there to stop the train.

The aircraft that flipped the doodlebug was a Hawker Tempest flown by a Canadian pilot, Flight Lieutenant John Malloy.

His report states: “I closed in and tipped it over with my wing tip. It crashed on the railway line near Rainham.”

Malloy was killed in action in January 1945. Ironically he was engaged in destroying enemy trains and went into a dive from which he never pulled out.

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