Just north of the Thames as it curves towards Kew Bridge, Staveley Road has grass verges, cherry trees and shiny cars. The owners of the detached and semi-detached houses include engineers, architects, builders, doctors. Backing one side of the street is a cricket ground and a house where William Hogarth, the painter and engraver, lived; behind the other, a cemetery and allotments. The neighbourhood accommodates without rancour a German family and, beyond the cricket pitch, a business centre named Axis.
The street today is very much how it must have looked before the V2 plunged through the Chiswick drizzle at 6.34pm on Friday, 8 September, 1944. Blasted cherry trees were replaced. 'The thin ones indicate which part of the street took most damage,' said Donald Eustace, 84, last of the street's V2 survivors. Wrecked houses were rebuilt to their pre-war specifications: walls nine inches thick, wood floors, tiled roofs.
Before meeting Mr Eustace, I went to the Imperial War Museum to examine photographs taken within hours of the V2 hitting W4. One, taken by a Daily Sketch man, had a caption stamped by the censor, forbidding the picture's publication or mention of the location. It read:
'In West Area London 18 houses of which 6 are Destroyed and the others Severely Damaged by a Mystery Explosion. Mr (Herbert) Morrison, the Home Secretary rushed to the Scene of the Explosion accompanied by Admiral Edward Evans of the Civil Defence and Miss Ellen Wilkinson (Morrison's parliamentary secretary). Mystery Fragments of the Container of the Explosion were inspected by High Officers of the NFS who were unable to identify the form of the Explosive. To all Officers concerned the Explosion is a Total Mystery. A Crater was formed 40 feet in circumference and 30 feet deep.'
Three died and 19 were badly injured. A Mrs Harrison, 65, who had been sitting by the living-room fire with her husband, crawled out of her wrecked house and died in the arms of the local school caretaker. In another house, three-year-old Rosemary Clarke was killed in her cot. A young soldier, Frank Browning, on his way to see his girlfriend, was also killed outright. The toll might have been worse had not the area been partly evacuated to avoid V1s, the flying bombs nicknamed 'doodlebugs'. The V2 flattened 11, not six, houses; another 15 had to be extensively rebuilt.
The V2 caught Britain napping. Tons of Allied bombs had been dropped on suspected rocket positions, among them Peenemunde, the Baltic base where it was developed. Herbert Morrison's Rocket Consequences Committee rejoiced as late as 5 September: ' . . . the enemy is unlikely to be able to launch rockets or flying bombs against London on any appreciable scale . . . We have therefore directed that . . . plans . . . to meet the contingency of severe rocket attack should so far as possible be kept on a paper basis.'
The optimism was shortlived. Three days later, in the absence of any air alert, Staveley Road had its 'Mystery Explosion': three-quarters of a ton of high explosive in the nose of a supersonic rocket launched from Nazi-occupied Holland. The rocket's distinctive double thunderclap (as it broke the sound barrier and exploded a fraction of a second later on impact) was to be heard in the London area alone 517 times. V2s killed 2,754 people and seriously injured another 6,523.
'People are complaining,' George Orwell wrote in Tribune in December 1944, 'of the sudden wallop with which these things go off . . . There is even a tendency to talk nostalgically of the days of the V1.'
A different nostalgia imbued yesterday's celebration of the V2 at Peenemunde, formerly in East Germany, where German aerospace executives met to commemorate the 1944 'dawn of space technology'. Most of the site is overgrown. The engine assembly hall is rubble, as insubstantial as Hitler's famous V2 threat ('Our hour of revenge is nigh').
On the subject of Peenemunde, the Imperial War Museum's reading-room is rewarding. According to one journal, on 30 October 1944, seven weeks and three days after Staveley Road was hit, Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering arrived to witness his first V2 launch. He wore silver spurs over red, Moroccan- leather riding boots and a greatcoat of Australian opossum.
When the 46ft Vergeltungswaffe (retaliatory weapon) rose from its stand and vanished into cloud, the Reichsmarschall spun round to Walter Dornberger, head of rocket development, clapped him on the back and said: 'That's terrific] We must have it at the first party rally after the war]'
Yesterday's rally wasn't quite what he had in mind. Embarrassed by British denunciations ('uncivilised'; 'indelicate'; 'outrageous'), the German federal government dropped its support for the event, leaving aerospace executives to show old newsreels and make unofficial speeches.
The controversy is unusually interesting. The German celebration comes less than four months after Britain commemorated Sir Arthur 'Bomber' Harris, destroyer of Dresden, with a London statue that attracted German wrath. Death from the air remains a lingering provocation. 'When all is said and done,' Kurt Vonnegut told a Washington audience two years ago, 'we are simple-minded creatures, glad to believe on the basis of symbolism alone (up is better than down) that air superiority is moral superiority. (After all, look where God lives. He isn't in some ditch like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial).'
Then there is the question of consistency. Despite the disasters it wrought, the V2 excited the imaginations of small boys in Allied countries. Comics used it as a symbol of space adventure before this was a reality. Tintin rode what looked like a V2 to the moon.
Donald Eustace of 13 Staveley Road surprised me by unrolling a poster bought on a visit to the Science Museum in 1989. It was a photograph of their bombed street, overprinted with the words: 13 STAVELEY ROAD, CHISWICK W4. THE FIRST STEP ON THE JOURNEY TO THE MOON.
'This is a British poster celebrating the V2,' Mr Eustace said. 'They made a balls of it. It wasn't my house that got hit. It was No 7.'
He was on air-raid patrol in Westminster when the rocket hit. 'I got a phone call and rushed home. My doors and windows were blown in and tiles were off, but structurally the house was OK. The road surface must have been soft. The V2 went deep, so the sides of the crater took most of the blast.'
And the Peenemunde celebration? 'I can see the German point of view. After all, we put up a statue to our hero, Harris. I don't bear the Germans ill-will for commemorating the start of the space age, which is all it is really.'
John Armstrong at No 48 (totally rebuilt) was philosophical. 'I wasn't here then, but in any case the German celebration doesn't distress me particularly. We shouldn't have fought the last war - or the first one. We're all just cannon-fodder.' From No 36, Steve McKenzie pointed to where he believed the crater had been, near the old school recently replaced by Barratt. 'What the Germans did was quite horrible,' said Mr McKenzie, a Scottish builder. 'But this new anti-V2 thing has been sparked off by the recession.'
Impressed by such tolerance, I turned to a book, V2, by Walter Dornberger, published eight years after Goering clapped him on the back. The German rocket chief, who died in 1980, wrote: 'Ignoring the rocket as a weapon of war, its general potentialities are enormous . . . It must be left to the victors in this, let us hope, last great war of the peoples to see that our contribution is not lost.'
It was lost to Britain. In February 1945, a month before the last two V2s landed on England, their inventor Werner von Braun and his staff fled south from Peenemunde to escape the Russians. They hid 14 tons of documents about the rocket in a disused mineshaft north of the Harz mountains. But although this was in the zone later controlled by Britain, the Americans 'liberated' the booty and hired Von Braun for their space programme.
Von Braun, who died in 1977, once confided to his German colleagues that the rocket's only fault was that it landed 'on the wrong planet'. The non- xenophobic citizens in Staveley Road would go along with that.
(Photographs omitted)Reuse content