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Whitstable at War - World War II

Bomb Strikes: The V1 Doodlebugs


Hitler's scientists eventually introduced a new and devastating weapon aimed at the civilian population. It was called the V1... but it was more commonly referred to as the "doodlebug" or "buzz bomb". Let's start with an overview and some technical information kindly provided by Brian Smith....


Background to the V1


The first attack on Britain by the V1 or ‘Buzz Bomb’ pilotless rocket bomb occurred about 4am on Tuesday June 13th 1944. The ‘V’ stood for ‘Vergeltung’ or ‘Revenge’.


Illustration Supplied by Brian Smith


Authorities had long expected such an attack since the British Naval Attache in Oslo received a report in November 1939 that the Germans were developing pilotless rocket aircraft.  Raids on launching sites since 1943 had delayed attacks by the V1. 

They travelled at 360 miles an hour (a mile in 10 seconds), a bit slower than the fighter of 1944 - typically reaching their target about 22-25 minutes later. 

Launched from the ground, theoretically the engines cut out eleven seconds before impact on the target.  Initially the most common route from France towards London was over Dungeness but, early in July, some were launched from Holland based bombers flying across Belgium and releasing their charge in the outer Channel/Thames estuary causing an extra line of anti aircraft guns to be set up from Whitstable to Blackwater (Hants or I.O.W?,) and around the Thames Estuary. 

There were 3 forms of defence against V1s - fighter aircraft, anti aircraft guns and balloons.... and not forgetting radar which provided an early warning.

Overall, the main onslaught by ‘flying bombs’ ended about 5½ months after that first ranging attack in June. This was at the beginning of December when the Allies overran most of the Pas de Calais launch sites. 

Of 9,017 ground launched from France, 2340 or a little over 25% reached London.  Of the balance that part of Kent outside London received 1378. However, Kent’s season finished with a final four hitting the county early in September. 

From September 16th the ‘Doodlebugs’ flew to London north of the Kent coastline courtesy of the German air launching squadron of 90 aircraft.

Fifty V1s were launched off the coast of Yorkshire - apparently, still mainly targeting London. The final "air launched" phase lasted until about mid January, although there were a few launchings through to March, by which time about 1200 flying bombs had been air launched since September 16th.

Brian Smith


It was a nasty weapon that saved on the cost of conventional aircraft and reduced losses of German pilots. Apart from the devastation and death that it caused, it's potential to create fear stemmed partly from the sequence of delivery. First, there was the drone of the engine.... followed by the silence when the engines cut out.... followed by the explosion. However, sound was not the only aspect to generate apprehension amongst the civilian population. In daytime, the low altitude flightpath and pulse jet engines created disturbing visual effects as Mollie Fallon recalls.... 


When the V1's first began to come over, I saw one from the bedroom window. It seemed so close to the roof and I thought it was a plane on fire but the truth soon became known in the papers.

Mollie Fallon
London - Formerly Whitstable


At night, the visual effects could become quite eerie. Brian Smith describes one such scene below..


The Visual Impact 

I used to watch the directly approaching ‘Doodle Bugs’ from my bedroom window in Mulberry House, Stanley Road.  

Popular convention was that, if, when the ‘engine’ stopped, the ‘Doodle Bug’ was heading to pass over you and your line of sight to it was about 45 degrees, you were in great trouble. 

My paternal grandparents had a fruit farm in Harbledown covering about half the hillside facing North.  On the evening of what I would later learn was recorded as the greatest ‘Doodle Bug’ raid along the estuary, I stood with my step grandfather on the hillside watching a continuing procession of the ‘Bugs’ heading towards London. No doubt many of them were passing over Whitstable. 

Being dark, we could only see the glow of the exhausts.  Occasionally, we saw ‘the light go out’ followed by a distant glow from the ground as though we were watching a new ‘instant’ sunrise.  That was sometimes followed by a low rumble of the explosion if it wasn’t too far away.

Brian Smith 


When describing the impact of doodlebugs, some commentators focus primarily on London. This is understandable because the densely populated city areas suffered the greatest casualties and material damage. However, it should not be overlooked that slightly more V1s fell short and landed within the boundaries of Kent..... 


V1 Strikes on Kent


The map below shows the distribution of the 2400 V1 Flying Bombs that were brought down or crashed in Kent.  That’s about 200 more than London received.  I have ‘ghosted’ a year 2000 map of Kent over those sites, shown by the red dots, and marked the temporary wartime county boundary with a light orange line.  I understand that boundary was reinstated as the formal Kent boundary during the redistribution of boundaries in 1969.  


Map kindly sent to us by Brian Smith


I have also highlighted major roads and reprinted some town names to orientate site clusters for readers.  (Note: please don’t count the red dot! I can’t guarantee there are 2400 as I have never tried to count them. I actually had to draw in the red dots in three stages – virtually 3 maps - and had little incentive to count them!

Several points struck me:

·         The sparsity of sites in North East Kent. 

·         The density of some clusters.

·         The number which appear to have straddled roads.

·         Despite the many stories of fighter pilots ‘tipping’ V1s into the sea there are only 12 shown, and they are close to the coast.

·         Many clusters form an arc. It would be interesting to be able to plot land based defences to see if they coincide with the centre of each arc radius.

Brian Smith


All this leaves me with one overriding question.... Why so many hits on rural Kent? Brian's remark about military installations may eventually lead to some answers. However, many of those red dots mark country locations with little or no military significance.

One obvious suggestion is that, whilst V1 technology provided accuracy that was quite advanced for its day, it did not afford the pinpoint precision of modern weaponry. Simply put.... things went wrong on a regular basis! Brian and  I have also exchanged emails that discuss other ideas and suggestions. One fascinating explanation came from a History Channel TV programme which suggested that British security services fed false information to the German High Command regarding the location of V1 hits - by reporting explosions west of London but not those in the city itself. As a result, the Germans may have shortened the range of the weapons causing the explosives to fall short of the capital. If true, it certainly improved the reputation of MI5.... whilst highlighting some alarming gaps in German intelligence operations. 

In truth, it is probably wrong to look for a single explanation. Brian explains the wider picture below.... 


The V1 Shortfall

You referred to an M15 report of misinformation being released causing the Germans to shorten the range of the V1s so that they would drop short of London.  That may well have been so - most likely I would think. However, there were many other factors causing the ‘monsters’ to drop into Kent. 

Although clever for its time, the V1 engine was not truly a ‘rocket’ but a crude form of jet – a pulse jet which gave the ‘Doodle Bug’ its peculiar vibrating exhaust note.  Fuel quantity and the actual fuel metering played a major part in determining the actual impact point of the weapon.  Air temperature, humidity etc would have had an influence, although quite small, on the weapon’s range.  

More importantly the fuel quantity could only be calculated against a projected flight time to target with predicted wind direction and windspeed.  Of course those could be reported back by aircraft overflying the route to target but such factors may change by launch time or during the flight.  Actual flight time was the most critical factor determining the impact point.  The above factors alone would have resulted in the quite scattered impact points experienced across South East England.

The guidance system of the V1 used the Earth’s magnetic North for its prime bearing.  Although clever in its time it was a very crude means of striking a target compared with today’s sophisticated electronic systems which can still miss the target.  Although a course correction would automatically be made to counter any wind shift or brief wind gust the missile, again running true to its ‘compass setting’ relative to magnetic North, would be heading for a different ‘spot’ on the earth’s surface.  

In a similar manner, height was maintained by altimeter control using barometric pressure.  Up or down drafts would bring an altitude or height correction into play.  That would only bring about a minor flight time delay but added to the many other factors determining point of impact could have made a difference between your house or the neighbours.

One of the main reasons so many V1s dropped into Kent was the effort to bring them down before reaching their target!  Once they had crossed the Kent coast successful defence ensured the county would suffer, residents would be killed in most cases.  Even some of those that later flew up the Thames Estuary were ‘diverted’ on to Kent soil,  either when shot down by fighters or during the brief period when fighters ‘tipped’ them off course to Kent or to the North.  

Some say the fighters never did that.  Some believe the fighters used their wing tips under the V1’s wing to physically tip them off course.  The British fighter pilots were smarter than that.  By placing their wing tips ahead of the V1s wing they could use the airflow from their wing to divert the missile without actually touching it.

Brian Smith 


Now let's get back to our specific "neck of the woods. Unlike the western channel formed by the Weald of Kent, the North East sector of the county received very few V1s. Thus, Whitstable mercifully escaped the main onslaught. However, many doodlebugs passed over the town en route to targets further west. The first sightings caused a mixed reaction that gave rise to curiosity, apprehension and uninformed theory.....


In the 1950s, I recall my mother describing our family's first experience of a V1. Apparently, the curious drone of the doodlebug engines drew them into the garden where they watched one of the devices pass by. The small size and curious shape did not fit the normal view of a German plane and it drew the following comment from my grandfather....

"There's no man in that bugger!"

Dave Taylor


Granddad had got it spot on. In technical terms, there was indeed "no man in that bugger". Fortunately, it (like most V1s") passed overhead..

As familiarity grew, the local population provided its own way of diverting the weapons westward....


Waving Them Through

 The doodlebugs caused some anxious but humorous moments amongst my family. When the drone approached, they would occasionally step into the garden and urge the doodlebug westward by waving their arms and shouting. It was all intended to encourage the engines to operate a bit longer and dump the explosives elsewhere.

Dave Taylor


Nevertheless, the V1 did have some direct impact on the town. Bill Dancer picks up the story with a couple of examples..... 


V1 at South Street

Bells ran a greenhouse operation on the west side of South Street just about opposite Virginia Road. Their tomatoes were some of the best I've ever eaten. Unfortunately, a V1 decided to put down there which did not do much for the operation

Bill Dancer
British Columbia


V1 at Denstroude

The Denstroude Cottage incident was definitely a V1. Our gang witnessed the explosion and set off in search of souvenirs. On arrival, we found the cottage was more or less in tact but, in the yard, bits and pieces were everywhere - including corrugated iron pieces blown onto the roof of the cottage. 

I was standing by a window when a policeman or warden opened it and a sheet slid down coming to a halt some small fraction of an inch from my chest. This was the closest I came to being a war casualty and, as a result, we were ordered off the site with no souvenirs.  

Bill Dancer
British Columbia


Could life get worse? Well the answer was probably "yes".... because Hitler's next weapon would be more sophisticated, less vulnerable and a whole lot more difficult to counter than the V1. So it's time to move on to another of our pages.... devoted to the V2 rocket.


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