Target London, by Christy Campbell, tells the story of the second London blitz of 1944 by unmanned flying bombs and supersonic rockets. The story is told in detail – great detail. In fact, the first half of the 400 pages, before the first V-1/buzzbomb/doodlebug hits England, is at the same time extraordinarily tedious and gripping, narrating as it does the years of intelligence work that preceded the first attacks. We have a front seat on the bureaucratic infighting, brilliant and difficult personalities, blunders and intellectual coups transpiring as the British sifted through mountains of intercepted messages, once they had cracked the Enigma codes, of course.
All of this was done before the digital age had dawned, although they did have the essential help of the earliest of computers, which they called “bombes.” All very, very, Ultra secret. Only a select few were allowed to be “in the picture.“
Part of the British intelligence game was not letting the Germans know how much they knew about what the Germans were doing. Giving that game away would prompt the Germans to change methods, tighten up security, adopt different covers, which would then have to be blown again. There was a lot of deception, misinformation, cover stories, hoaxes, some of which seems to have amused the directors greatly.
When the Germans finally got their V-1 (V for victory and revenge, revenge for the British terror bombings of civilian urban centers) buzzbombs flying into London, the engineers needed accurate information on where they struck. This was essential for evaluating and improving their performance. Juan Pujol, a London-based Spanish double-agent under British control was tapped by the Germans to report. They wanted information on bomb strikes plotted on a London map, ruled into squares, a grid. As Campbell relates:
Juan Pujol, agent Garbo, still had to get the right map on which to plot where the Maikäfer [Maybugs – the German nickname for the V-1] were falling. It was proving a problem. Garbo radioed his control, and bought the Baedeker guide to London from a second-hand bookshop. But Control insisted on the Pharus version. Garbo’s research took him to the British Museum Library, where he found “the only copy in existence. I learn that the German map was edited in 1907 and therefore is very antique indeed. It seems to me very strange that the war plans are worked out in Berlin on such antique maps.”
But now, at least, everyone was working from the same grid.
Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow, made the idea of gridded London famous. In the first part of the story, exactly that type of map – it probably was not a Pharus! – is tacked to the wall of the flat where Teddy Bloat, Tyrone Slothrop, and other servicemen are living during the V-2 assault. The map shows a strange convergence of data: Slothrop’s female conquests and the rocket strikes seem oddly congruent.
Ah, yes, if you are not all using the same set of coordinates, your data will be meaningless. I know about that personally. Here is the map that the German rocket masters wanted to use – German, of course – and very nice indeed.
Well, it’s not just German commanders who have some problems with maps:
HOTSPUR: Lord Mortimer, and cousin Glendower, Will you sit down? And uncle Worcester: a plague upon it!
I have forgot the map.
GLENDOWER: No, here it is.
William Shakespeare Henry IV (Part 1)
The British were able to defend against the V-1 to some extent. Fighters and anti-aircraft guns could shoot some of them down, and their noise and relatively low-speed provided warning to civilians. The V-2 was a different story. Here is another peek at a stamp issued late in 1944, I think, that celebrates the launching of the ultimate revenge weapon, the V-2 rocket, against which there was no defense possible. The image is pure propaganda: rockets ascended vertically and were never launched in such salvos. Just as British intelligence confused and conflated the flying bomb and the true rocket for a long time, this stamp combines the powerful launch of the V-2 with the slanting trajectory of the V-1, which was shot from a ramp.
Here is a reconstructed V-1 on a launch ramp. As you can see, the ramp is light, and easily transported. The Germans developed portable pre-fab ramps after the Allies started bombing their hardened launch sites.
The bombing wasn’t all that effective, but it did disrupt testing and perfecting the V-1. Precision bombing isn’t all that it was cracked up to be in those days, or today.
The work of building the flying bombs and rockets was moved to a fantastic underground system of factories excavated and manned by slave labor overseen by civilian engineers and managers. Wernher von Braun, later the leader of the American rocket development effort for war and peace, was as undisturbed by these facts as are the suited civilians in second photo below. These incredible color photos were taken by Walter Frentz, a colleague of Leni Riefenstahl, apparently as part of propaganda/selling job for the project. Notice how nicely groomed the slaves are. Of course, those needed for skilled technical labor stood the best chance of surviving. More photos and history at this excellent site.
“Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?
That’s not my department,” says Wernher von Braun.