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'We dived under our desks' -The pupils who hid from German bombardment

PUBLISHED: 15:24 13 October 2019 | UPDATED: 15:24 13 October 2019

Terror weapon:  The V2 rocket which brought destruction and fear to the people of Norfolk 75 years ago. Once launched, there was no defence against the destructive power of its explosive warhead. Picture Archant.

Terror weapon: The V2 rocket which brought destruction and fear to the people of Norfolk 75 years ago. Once launched, there was no defence against the destructive power of its explosive warhead. Picture Archant.

Archant

As the Nazis' V2 rocket campaign against Norwich intensified 75 years ago, schoolchildren found themselves in the firing line. In the second article charting the wayward course of the supersonic blitz, Steve Snelling tells how terror came to Norfolk classrooms.

In the firing line: Rockland St Mary School, pictured here seven decades on, was the scene of the worst episode of the V2 campaign against Norwich. More than 20 pupils and a teacher were injured when a rocket burst in a nearby field on October 4, 1944. Picture Archant.In the firing line: Rockland St Mary School, pictured here seven decades on, was the scene of the worst episode of the V2 campaign against Norwich. More than 20 pupils and a teacher were injured when a rocket burst in a nearby field on October 4, 1944. Picture Archant.

The confusion was over but the deadly threat posed by the world's first ballistic missile campaign had only just begun for the people of Norfolk.

It had taken three days and three rockets for Civil Defence officials to realise the terrifying truth: the county was being targeted by Nazi Germany's latest and most sophisticated terror weapon, the V2, forerunner of the rocket that would eventually propel American astronauts 
to the Moon.

Unable to continue their attacks on London due to Allied advances through southern Holland, the enemy had turned their attention to Norwich, the only city within range of their last-remaining rocket force on Dutch territory.

From their heavily camouflaged launch site in woodland at Rijs, close to the Zuider Zee, the men of Lehr und Versuchsbatterie 444 had opened their new campaign on September 25, 1944, firing a rocket that came down near Hoxne, over 20 miles from its intended target.

It was followed a day later by another that landed in Ranworth and then a third which fell in farmland at Horsford, which led, finally, to the discovery that the unexplained explosions were the result of a bombardment by V2s about which the Government was anxious to say nothing for fear of spreading alarm about a weapon against which there was no defence.

Quite how long they could maintain the 'secret' was unclear, particularly in the face of what seemed a rapid intensification of the rocket assault on East Anglia.

The Horsford V2 was the first of three to hit Norfolk on September 27. Some 5½ hours after the blast at Botany Bay farm, Whitlingham sewage plant was rocked by an explosion which injured two workers, brought down power cables and damaged four homes.

The blast, sounding like a crack of thunder, was heard in Norwich and was followed less than 90 minutes later by reports of a third rocket crashing to earth at Acle Hall Farm near Beighton bringing brief disruption to rail traffic between the city and Great Yarmouth.

If September 27 signalled a quickening of the assault, it also marked a racheting up of tension for the county's Civil Defence workers who were powerless to do anything but monitor the fall of rockets and clear up the destruction wrought. It was a wretched task that would keep them busy in the worrisome days to come.

Between September 28 and October 5, they logged no fewer than 17 rockets within the county boundaries, with five more reported as bursting in the sea within earshot of the coast and another two falling in Suffolk.

The assault peaked on October 3 when Batterie 444 marked the second anniversary of the first successful launch of an A-4 rocket from its Peenemunde base by directing no fewer than six V2s at Norwich.

One came down at Bedingham, injuring four members of the same family as it burst perilously close to an American air force hospital serving the nearby base at Hardwick, while another exploded at Hellesdon on the northern side of the Royal Norwich golf course.

The blast, recorded at 7.49pm, was the closest yet to the campaign's intended target and its shockwaves were powerful enough to damage 400 homes in and around the city.

Bert Thrower, whose home was in Hercules Road near to the point of impact, remembered "being blown across the room" as all the windows shattered and the ceilings collapsed in a cloud of dust and soot.

He was lucky to escape with his life. "The rocket came down in a hollow," he said. "If it had landed on higher ground it would have caused even more damage."

His good fortune was shared by many others as a scattering of farms and villages continued to bear the brunt of the supersonic barrage, most spectacularly and most terrifyingly in the course of three days in October when two schools felt the force of the V2's devastating power.

The first to suffer was Rockland St Mary School. A "rumbling in the sky", recorded at 1.41pm on October 4, was followed five seconds later by a blizzard of broken glass and pandemonium as children fled screaming.

Ken Wilson was among 21 pupils hurt, having been struck in the head by a piece of debris as he was walking between classrooms. "I hadn't got a clue what had happened," he later said. "All I remember is the glass cutting at you like shale and being led out by a teacher."

All told, 23 villagers were injured, one of them seriously, amid harrowing scenes that were repeated just two days later at the village of Shotesham All Saints where the local school was among a number of buildings caught in the blast of a V2 which fell in marshy, wooded ground at Joy's Loke at 9.25am.

Joy Leighton, recalled how their teacher was in the middle of reading The Wind in the Willows, when "all of a sudden there was an almighty crash and we all dived under our desks".

Another pupil, John Anderson, then aged six, called it the "most frightening bang" that left many showered with broken glass and others cowering in the corners of the classroom.

Among those children lined up in the school playground to be reunited with their anxious families was Robert Lane, an evacuee from London who, by an extraordinary mischance, had been sent to rural Norfolk to escape the rocket blitz.

He returned to his temporary home to find it "badly messed up" and later that evening found the crater "slowly filling with water" from the nearby beck. The orchard where, just days before, he had been gathering apples was a "sorry sight", reduced to ragged stumps. "The whole area smelt the same as after a raid during the Blitz," he wrote, "a smoky smell."

Incredibly no one at the school was seriously hurt. But it had been a close call. As John Anderson remarked: "Had it fallen a little nearer or come down on firmer ground or a road it would have blown half the village away."

As it was, though large pieces of rocket, some reportedly "half the size of a car", were spread across several fields, only one casualty was recorded with 42 houses and the church as well as the school suffering minor damage.

Sandwiched between the two blasts were more tales of extraordinary escapes.

One such was recorded by Tommy Dungar, who was cycling home from work around 5pm on October 4 when he spotted a Liberator bomber coming in to land at Rackheath amid a shower of flares indicating that some of its crew were wounded.

After pausing to watch its descent, he set off again only to feel a sudden "rush of air" which reminded him of a swoosh of starlings flying overhead. In that moment, and only for a fraction of a second, he saw a "purple greyish shape, like a huge dart… followed by a terrible explosion". Then another. "The next thing I knew I was in the drainage ditch beside the road with [my] bicycle on top of me."

He was not the only one who felt the blast of the V2 which exploded at Mud Corner, Crostwick. Ten-year-old Len Wilkinson recalled "a terrific flash" before being lifted out of the doorway of his house, along with his mother, sister and a fair portion of their furniture as windows shattered and ceilings collapsed around them.

It felt as though the air had been sucked out of them and he later remarked: "I well remember it being several seconds before we could breathe again."

Not far away, Kathleen Woods, a civilian worker at Rackheath's Aero Club, survived being thrown off her bike, but not without sustaining serious leg injuries.

As October went on, the rocket assault would continue its wayward pattern with Norwich largely escaping its impact while other places nearby endured what seemed more than their fair share of attention.

For example, the Crostwick V2 was one of four to fall in open country between the city and Coltishall while another four landed 
in the marshes around Acle. Worst-hit of all by the East Anglian rocket blitz were the villages clustered in a seven-mile corridor to the south and south-east of Norwich.

In the course of a sustained campaign spanning 15 fearful days, the inhabitants of Bramerton, Kirby Bedon, Rockland St Mary, Shotesham All Saints, Surlingham and Whitlingham suffered no 
fewer than seven attacks from errant V2s.

Indeed, Rockland St Mary was rocked by another explosion a week to the day after its school was damaged, the rocket crashing in a beet field some 500 yards from the church to wreak more damage to another 15 homes.

Though they did not know it, their ordeal was almost over. The rocket which fell on farmland near Ingworth on October 12, damaging 24 houses and a church, would be the last aimed at Norwich.

The following day as efforts continued to collect debris from around Manor Farm Batterie 444 received orders to switch targets away from East Anglia and on to the recently liberated and strategically important Belgian port of Antwerp.

Eight days later, the Rijs launch site having at last been identified by aerial reconnaissance, RAF Tempests from No 274 Squadron bombed and strafed the forest. But it was too late. Having completed their withdrawal an hour earlier, the rocket teams were already en route for The Hague with instructions to resume the bombardment of London.

The 19-day campaign against Norwich had been an unmitigated failure which exposed the folly of trying to strike smaller urban targets given the V2's unreliable guidance system.

Of the 44 V2s fired by Batterie 444 from Rijs - 43 of them at Norwich and 1 at Ipswich - none had found their target, although, conversely, the grouping among the 28 rockets that fell on Norfolk was better than achieved during the entire course of the assault on Greater London.

All told, the supersonic blitz on East Anglia - a terrifying portent of the Cold War threat to come - had inflicted damage on around 800 properties and resulted in 51 casualties, though thankfully none of them proved fatal.

The German launch teams were less fortunate. Hampered by technical shortcomings and 
the hazards of misfires, they suffered losses of their own, notably when a V2 malfunctioned shortly after lift-off and plunged back into the wood, killing and maiming as it laid waste to a temple ironically built to celebrate the peace that followed Napoleon's expulsion from Holland more than a century before.

Such was the secrecy surrounding the largely ineffectual offensive that many people in Norfolk remained blissfully ignorant of the terror campaign being waged against them until after it was over.

Not until November 10, almost a month after Batterie's 444 misdirected parting shot at Norwich, did the Government formally acknowledge that a number of new "long range rocket" had landed at "widely scattered points in this country".

However, Norfolk had not quite seen the last of the V2. Twice more before the war's end, stray rockets brought random damage and dislocation to their door as part of an increasingly forlorn and futile campaign.

Seventy-five years on, a scattering of water-filled craters and unnatural hollows together with a few fragments of rockets held in museums, are all that remain to remind us of an unimaginable menace that manifestly and mercifully misfired.

Thanks to Tracy Dungan and Ed Straten of the www.v2rocket.com website, Andy Wilkinson of the www.the467tharchive.org website, the Liberation Museum, Zeeland and East Anglian-based aviation historian Bob Collis for help with pictures and information.

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