The accounts of Tony Simpson and Victor Moore, Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 12, 2003
Chiswick has gone down in the history books as the place where the first V2 rocket exploded in World War II. It happened in Staveley Road at 18:44 on the evening of 8 September 1944, leaving a crater over 20ft deep. The Air Raids Incidents Book reports that three people died and 22 were injured; 11 houses had to be demolished and more than 550 were damaged. In an attempt to mislead the Germans, news of the V2’s arrival was suppressed and people were told that a gas main had exploded. It was to be two months before they were told the truth. Here, two Chiswick residents remember that dreadful day. Tony Simpson was an eye witness who narrowly missed serious injury or death due to a sudden shower of rain. Victor Moore knew from the outset the real reason for the explosion.
Tony Simpson’s story
Chesterfield Road, where I lived, led directly to the Park Road entrance to Chiswick House grounds and it was my custom to cycle through the park to the Burlington Lane exit opposite my school for a swim at the Baths in Edensor Road. Cycling in the park was, of course, illegal and park-keepers seemed to be hidden behind every bush and tree just waiting to pounce on us. On the evening of 8 September I set off as usual for my swimming session. Approaching the little bridge over the lake it became clear that my path was blocked, not by one, but by two park keepers and a third emerged from the bushes behind me. What would Caesar have done? Quickly diverting right I headed for the Staveley Road exit, intending to continue by turning left towards the Baths. Without warning a short and sudden deluge descended from the heavens; rain drops the size of pennies. Abandoning my swimming plan I came out of the park and turned right, instead of left, a route back home via Park Road to Chesterfield.
A few moments after leaving the park exit there was the biggest explosion that I had ever heard. I turned to see a column of black smoke rising rapidly into the sky, rolling and twisting as it ascended to perhaps several hundred feet. Then came what is now called the ‘aftershock’. It sounded as though every thunderstorm in England had gathered and released its energy over Chiswick. My first thoughts were that the alleged ammunition dump on or near Barnes Common had exploded (there were strong rumours that such a dump existed). However, I very soon realised that the explosion was much nearer since bricks, tiles and other debris began to fall through the dust in front of me. Following the explosion and aftershock there was such a silence, the only thing I could hear was the roaring in my ears.
It was not long before the occupants of surviving properties joined me at the terrible scene of devastation. The hole created by the rocket extended across the road, the adjoining verges and pavements, and the fronts of many houses on both sides of the road had been demolished; many more were damaged. Sadly, one of the three casualties was the baby daughter of Mr E J H Clarke, an accountant and friend of my father. Rumours spread like wildfire – a gas main had developed a fault. Yet there were no signs of broken gas pipes, and why should the Gas Board have buried pipes twenty feet down, for that was the size of the crater?
Victor Moore takes up the tale
There were, however, a number of members of the general public who quickly knew that this was no gas explosion. I was one of them. My elder sister was working as a shorthand typist at the Air Ministry in Whitehall. On her return from work the day after the V2 had landed my parents and I learnt not only of the explosions in Chiswick and Epping (where a V2 came down a few seconds later) but that they had been caused by a new German secret weapon – a rocket against which there was no defence. Furthermore, my sister told us that the Government was uncertain as to whether any information should be given to the public about this turn of events, and, if so, what?
I visited Staveley Road on the day after my sister’s disclosure and while observing the scene was joined by a local inhabitant. In reply to my question as to what had caused the damage, he replied without hesitation that it was a gas main. Fearful of my sister’s obligations under the Official Secrets Act, I said nothing to disabuse him. Roy Jenkins refers to the V2s falling on Chiswick and Epping in his biography of Winston Churchill: ‘The Government curiously decided to try to envelop these attacks in a pall of secrecy – a gas main was alleged to have exploded in Chiswick. Whether Winston Churchill was a party to (or even the instigator of) this dissimulation is not clear. He was on his way to the second Quebec conference at the time. The New York Times ‘blew’ the story on 12 September, but, as with the foreign press on King Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson, this august organ did not inform most people in Britain. The pretence of mystery was maintained for several weeks.’
Indeed it was not until 10 November that the public was informed of the new weapon. What is clear is that the Government had had an advance warning of possible rocket attacks. On 13 June the Germans fired a V2 rocket from their experimental rocket centre at Peenemunde. In operating the rocket’s guidance system the operator had made a mistake, with the result that it flew out of control and came down in Sweden. After negotiations with the Swedish Government the remains were brought to Farnborough, where an expert investigation yielded much information. Churchill recalls in his History of the Second World War that on 18 July, a Government Committee had been informed that ‘there might well be a thousand rockets already in existence’.
On 24 July a report to the Cabinet stated: ‘Although we have as yet no reliable information about the movements of projectiles westwards from Germany, it would be unwise to assume from this negative evidence that a rocket is not imminent.’ According to Churchill, the situation was discussed by the Cabinet on 27 July and the Cabinet considered proposals put by Herbert Morrison ‘which would have involved evacuating about a million people from London’.
So why did the Government prevaricate over releasing the news about the V2 to the public? Was it to avoid embarrassment to Herbert Morrison, who two days before the V2s dropped on Chiswick and Epping had declared ‘The Battle of London is won’? Was there a wish that no brake be put on the growing public relief and euphoria that came with news of every Allied success on the continent of Europe? With the Allied Armies in control of land from Normandy to Antwerp, the threat to London from V1s had now been eradicated, and it may have been hoped that the same fate would soon happen to the V2s.
Thankfully, no more V2s landed in Chiswick but a total of 517 fell in the London area, killing over 2,000 civilians.