In the early years of the Second World War, bombing raids tended to use traditional bombs and incendiary devices. These were used to great effect in sustained attacks during the Blitz, for example. However, later in the war, the Germans developed new technologies and created the V1 and V2 rockets or flying bombs.
These were long-range artillery weapons that could be launched on Britain from Germany.
V1 and V2 Rocket Attacks in the East End
These rockets caused significant damage to London as a whole, and were greatly feared by Londoners. The V1, often nicknamed the “Doodlebug” or “Buzz Bomb”, had a design flaw that cut its engines before it hit its target. This meant that people could hear it coming and then know that it was about to strike close by when its engines went silent. Apparently, you had a few seconds of silence before the massive explosion. V2s were even more frightening in a way as they had no such design flaw with the result that nobody could tell when one was about to strike. V2s were also virtually impossible to defend against or to shoot down.
The first sets of V1s launched in June 1944; V2s were first used later that year. They caused significant damage all over the capital and across Britain.
Like most of London, the East End saw its fair share of V1 and V2 attacks. Stepney, Poplar and West Ham were particularly hard hit. West Ham had around 27 V2 attacks – this is a relatively high figure as these rockets were not used for long, and other areas of London did not get into double-digit figures with V2s. The East End had two hits of note. One of the first V1s launched on the city caused the first civilian casualties from a V1 in Bethnal Green. A damaging V2 strike on Stepney was one of the last V2 attacks of the war, causing considerable damage and many civilian deaths and casualties.
The V1 Rocket Attack at Bethnal Green
The Germans launched a range of V1s for the first time on June 13th, 1944. Only four of these actually reached Britain. The one with the worst impact on that day, and the only casualties, landed at Bethnal Green in the East End of London.
This V1 attack killed six people and seriously injured another 30 when it landed in Grove Road in Bethnal Green in the early hours of the morning. This was the first of only nine V1s that landed in the Bethnal Green area during the war. The rocket hit the railway bridge on the road and destroyed it. It also caused so much surrounding damage that it is thought that it left around 200 locals homeless.
If you are visiting Bethnal Green, you can see a blue plaque on a building in Grove Road that marks the spot where the V1 fell. This is officially the first site to have been hit by one of these rockets in London.
The V2 Rocket Attack in Stepney
Vallance Road in Stepney is thought to have been the scene of the second largest V2 tragedy in the Second World War. Sadly, the rocket that hit this road was one of the last V2s to be launched on London. It hit the area on the last day that V2s were used during the conflict and fell just seven weeks before the war officially ended.
The rocket made a direct hit on a set of three tenement blocks. Known as Hughes Mansions, these tenements housed hundreds of people in individual flats. The V2 killed 134 people immediately and seriously injured around another 50 people. It decimated the local Jewish community and killed many local families and children. The V2 fell at just after 7am, when many of the residents were still at home, and left a massive crater that measured 30ft by 10ft. Rescue efforts involved five cranes and various emergency personnel from all over the area.
Most people are thought to have died instantly as the rocket hit – it completely razed two of the three five-story blocks of flats that made up the building to the ground, reducing them to piles of rubble. Others are thought to have died more slowly from asphyxiation – when these rockets hit and exploded, they created an air vacuum, which left victims unable to breathe.
You can see a plaque in Vallance Road that marks the site of the Hughes Mansions’ bombing, although the buildings themselves were never replaced after the strike. You can locate the building by finding the children’s playground in the road — this was built on the site of the Mansions’ original courtyard. This road is also well known in East End history for other reasons. The infamous East End gangsters, the Kray twins, lived in Vallance Road with their parents.