Life Under Air Strikes: Children Under Fire Will Never Forget — or Forgive

Seventy years ago, a little girl was buried alive by a German missile. Her story couldn’t be more relevant today.

Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis

Sadly, these are times to reflect anew on the suffering of children in war. If they survive, children living under missile bombardment get a very early education in how historical memory works. For the rest of their lives they have a deeply personal and usually unforgiving perspective on the people who dropped the explosives on them. This I know from a long-living witness.

Seventy years ago, on August 1, 1944, a young schoolgirl followed the rest of her family, her mother, brother and sister, as well as two neighbors, out of her house in south London and into the yard, where there was an air raid shelter. This had become a nightly routine.

The shelter had been built in 1939, on the outbreak of World War II. A large rectangular hole, six feet deep, had been dug out of what was a garden. The design was government-prescribed (3 million were built). The dugout was covered with semi-circular sheets of corrugated iron, forming a vaulted roof. Three feet of tightly packed earth was then added on top of the roof.

At around 11pm the family, in their pyjamas, went down steps into the shelter. It was a warm, clear night. The girl’s brother had rigged the shelter with an electrical line from their house to provide lighting. They closed the door. The six people slept on bedding over a wooden floor. Outside, a few feet from the door, between the house and the shelter, there was a five-foot high blast wall formed of sandbags.

In the early hours of August 2, somewhere on the coast of northern France at a point where only 30 miles of the English Channel separated France from England, a unit of about 50 men of the German Luftwaffe, part of a specialized force called Abteilungen, were positioning a missile on a launch ramp. The German name for the missile was Fi-103 but across the Channel it was called the Doodlebug.

The launch ramp was pointed not simply at England but at London. Even though a vast Allied force had landed in Normandy on June 6 it had not yet broken out from Normandy and Brittany. While it was obvious that the Nazi counter-attacks would not contain the Allies for much longer, Hitler insisted that the missile sites in northern France should stay in place and build up a devastating bombardment on London: he wanted at least 1,000 missiles raining down on the capital every day.

The Doodlebug was the world’s first cruise missile. It was a simple weapon, cheap to build, and carried a half-ton explosive warhead. It did not have pin-point accuracy though. The Germans could determine roughly where it would fall according to its range and direction, but it was basically a weapon of random targeting on a vast urban population, designed to kill and spread terror.

It also made a signature noise on its approach. It was powered by a crude jet engine that sounded like a Harley without a muffler—leaving a rasping percussive din as it cruised at between 3,000 and 4,500 feet. But it wasn’t the din that Londoners feared, it was the silence that followed when the engine cut out—because at that moment the Fi-103 became a bomb and fell vertically to earth.

The family in the London shelter were sleeping soundly well after the summer dawn. The city’s air defenses had been busy all night. It was clear that Hitler was stepping up the bombardment. In mid-July the British anti-aircraft guns had been reinforced and enhanced by a new American radar system. Before this arrived they had managed to knock-out a third of the missiles before they reached London. By the end of July they were knocking out half of them, and the rate was improving by the hour.

The missile that had been readied on the launch ramp in France made it through the defenses. Around 6:28 a.m. the motor cut out and at precisely 6:31 a.m. the warhead found its target—the house at 6 Troutbeck Road where the family were in their shelter. It was a massive explosion. Four houses were totally destroyed and 80 more were seriously damaged.

The shelter’s blast wall absorbed some of the impact but debris—a combination of bricks, sand, earth, and tree limbs—shattered the door and penetrated the interior. At the same time parts of the corrugated iron roof collapsed. The occupants, unconscious, were buried alive and in total darkness.

Some time later—she is not sure how long—the young schoolgirl recovered consciousness to find part of a window frame around her neck. Other family members and the two neighbors were also beginning to realize what had happened. Rescue teams were clearing rubble from above, but one of them could be heard from inside the shelter saying, “Nobody alive in there, love, not a bloody chance.”

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Not accepting this, a family friend who had turned up at the site insisted that they search the rubble and, with her own hands, began to tear away at it. The trapped occupants began yelling that they were alive but nobody heard them.

It took two hours for the rescuers to get to the six survivors. One by one they were lifted out. Each of them was coated in something resembling a gray, sticky batter. The rescuers stared at them and they stared back. And then they hugged each other. Four people in adjoining houses had died, the only fatalities.

Amid the ruins of the house some things had escaped any harm: a Waterford crystal glass fruit bowl and the telephone. As the family hunted for anything personal that could be retrieved, they were startled when the phone began to ring. It was an American GI who had been a guest of the family (spending some nights in their shelter), checking to see if they were okay.

The following day, August 3, 316 missiles were launched, 200 of which reached London. This turned out to be highest one day total of the attacks. By the end of August the defenses were intercepting 83 percent of the Doodlebugs. Nonetheless, even as the Allies took Paris and advanced toward Germany, the attacks, now launched from the Netherlands, continued sporadically until the end of March 1945, when the Allies reached the sites. By then, in England, the missiles had killed around 5,500 people and wounded 16,000.

To the despair of his generals, Hitler had diverted precious resources to the missile campaign, even as the Russians closed in on Berlin from the east and the Allies crossed the Rhine into Germany from the west. He was obsessed. London had to be destroyed.

And later in 1944 he deployed the weapon he thought could still win the war: the V2 rocket, the world’s first ballistic missile, against which there were no defenses. On Saturday, November 25, at around noon, a V2 hit a crowded Woolworths store not far from Troutbeck Road. It was the deadliest single bomb on London of the war—161 people died. Among them was the neighbor who had insisted that the air raid shelter be searched for survivors.

The reason why I am able to tell this story in such detail is that 14 years after that young schoolgirl was buried alive she became my wife. I had no equal experience; living on a farm some 30 miles from London I had watched a few stray Doodlebugs burping across the sky and then falling harmlessly into fields. I collected bits of them, but my blitz was safely vicarious.

This weekend these war memories now flow into another historical calamity, the outbreak of World War I, 100 years ago. And Germany seems to be at the center of all reflection.

World War I mechanized war on a scale never before possible—a whole array of new weapons was developed. In 1908, only five years after the Wright Brothers first flew, H.G. Wells had foretold the newest terror weapon in War In The Air, and Germany was quick to embrace the concept.

In January 1915 gigantic German Zeppelin airships appeared in the night over London and dropped bombs at random. The strategic bombing of cities had begun. German raids using a combination of airships and airplanes killed only 1,392 people during that war, but they had a far larger psychological effect. Wells’s apocalyptic vision became military orthodoxy in the phrase “the bomber will always get through.”

Art had presaged the horror and now art was to memorialize it.

Late in the afternoon of April 26, 1937 waves of bombers obliterated the ancient capital of Basque Spain, Guernica. A combination of shrapnel-spraying splinter bombs and incendiary bombs did the first round of demolition and killing and machine-gunning from the air of fleeing people completed it. In just three hours 1,645 people were killed and 889 injured. The atrocity was carried out by bombers of the Luftwaffe supplemented by others from fascist Italy, in support of the fascist forces of Generalissimo Francisco Franco, who would go on to win the Spanish Civil War. Guernica was Europe’s first taste of saturation bombing.

A few months later in Paris, after weeks of struggling with its composition, Pablo Picasso completed his massive painting, Guernica. The canvas was almost audible in its expression of grief and pain, a screaming woman with a dead child in her arms, a horse’s head howling, other writhing figures staring upward beyond the frame of the canvas to the unseen reapers, aloof from the consequences of their actions. It was the equivalent in paint of a requiem Mass. The method of killing was new, and Picasso had found a medium appropriate to the scale and innovation of the crime.

Guernica was first exhibited at the Paris International Expo of 1937, and then traveled to other European cities and, eventually, to the Whitechapel Gallery in London in 1939 where, for the first time, its power was understood not simply as a contemporary document but as a warning of the total war to come. Indeed, the London blitz was but 18 months away.

In that first phase of the blitz, from September 7 1940 to May 21 1941, more than 41,000 Londoners were killed. On one night alone 430 died and 1,600 were injured. Around 250,000 people were made homeless. But the blitz failed to break the people of London.

As the British and U.S. air forces built huge fleets of bombers the tables turned. In July 1943 the full horror of total war was visited on the German city of Hamburg. New methods of saturation bombing were used and produced an effect that had not been planned: a firestorm that consumed virtually the whole city. The heat was so intense that residents were trapped in a self-sustaining incinerator that sucked all the oxygen out of the air—more than 42,000 people were practically cremated, many of them trapped in buildings and cellars.

Officially the Hamburg targets were armaments factories. In reality the bombing was indiscriminate and, following the pattern previewed at Guernica and established in the London blitz, it was the civilian population that became fodderfor the war machine. Nobody then spoke of “proportionate” response. Londoners, for sure, were not interested in arguments of moral equivalence, and my wife thereafter viewed all Germans of her own generation as complicit in the Nazi war crimes.

In that sense, the child will always be the instructor of the adult. When my wife wrote about her experience for a British newspaper some years ago, she said: “You grow up fast in wartime. Your life gets compressed concertina style. An eight or nine-year-old is going on 25, more or less overnight. You live on the edge, without realizing that’s what it is, picking your way gingerly, catlike, ready for flight at all times, antennae up even during sleep.”

She will allow that over the years her initially phobic view of Germans has moderated. But only so far. Her generation’s idea of moderation is exquisitely caught in a classic John Cleese performance as he plays the grossly incompetent hotel manager of Fawlty Towers.

In the sixth episode of the BBC comedy series, Basil Fawlty is desperately trying to serve dinner to a party of German guests. But all his innate reflexes are impossible to control, although he tries to control them by repeating to himself “don’t mention the war”—a phrase that has since become embedded in the lexicon of English humor.

Finally, Cleese goose-steps out of the dining room as the hapless Germans cringe and sob. Culturally, it is astonishing in its effects: a short sketch that nails a phenomenon that an academic might need a thick volume to analyze, fruitlessly.

Forgetting is impossible. Forgiving is a lifelong struggle to manage memory in a way that retains the details of a personal trauma while allowing remembrance to mellow into a more considered, rational and conciliatory emotion. Often that, too, proves to be impossible.