74 years ago today: The history of the V-2 Rocket

by Helen Moon

Many have heard the story of the V-2 Rocket that hit the grounds of Charlton House during WW2, but not many people, apart from those who may have experienced or witnessed first-hand these frightening ‘V for vengeance weapons’, know much about them.

74 years ago to the day, on the 25th January 1945, a V-2 dropped on the grounds adjacent to the north wing of the house, so we thought we’d share some insight and a bit of fascinating history with you.

The V-2 was the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile. The missiles, powered by a liquid propellent rocket engine were developed in the second world war in Germany as a vengeance weapon, assigned to attack Allied cities in retaliation for bombings against German cities.

The damage sustained to Charlton House included the North Wing having to be reconstructed and the ceiling of the Long Gallery rebuilt, luckily from the original mouldings that were found in the basement.  The rocket also caused considerable damaged to the roof and east elevation of the Summerhouse. The blast impact blew out many of the windows to the house, causing significant additional damage to brick and glass work resulting in substantial and complicated repairs and reconstruction being carried out after the war.

 

Italian POWs are reputed to have rebuilt the west stain glass windows of the Long Gallery, although this has never confirmed nor is there any documentation that we are aware of confirming this fact.

The speed of a V-2 made it practically invisible to anti-aircraft guns and fights, and they would stop and drop from an altitude of 100-110km at speeds of up to three times the speed of sound (3550km/h). Code named ‘Big Ben’ the threat of the V-2 was great enough for the allies to seek countermeasures.

A scientific reconstruction carried out in 2010 demonstrated that a V-2 could create a crater 20 metres wide and 8 metres deep, ejecting approximately 3,000 tons of material into the air, so it is not surprising that so much damage was sustained by the house and surrounding buildings, and after snow fall you can still see evidence of the crater left 74 years ago.

Nearby V-2 hits to Charlton House include 73-123 Kinveachy Gardens on the 14th November 1944, resulting in 1 death and Shooters Hill Road on 11th November 1944, resulting in 29 deaths. You can view even more on this map showing additional sites across the borough.

Estimates suggest that several thousand people were killed by the missiles, 2,724 in Britain alone. However, a far grimmer side to the story is that of the people who constructed them, as at least 20,000 died. Something normally glossed over, the Nazis used slave labour to manufacture the rockets, many prisoners were pulled from concentration camps for their technical and welding skills. Work was round the clock in an underground factory near to the camp at Buchenwald in central Germany with no daylight, little sleep, food or proper sanitation, and many were executed for attempting sabotage.

Interestingly, the V-2 rocket also became the first man made object to travel into space by crossing the Karman Line (suggested boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space) with a vertical launch on the 20th June 1944. This resulted in a race at the end of WW2 by the Americans, British and Russians, all keen to get their hands on the rocket’s technology.

Creator and German engineer Wernher Von Braun surrendered to the Americans and their first astronaut, Alan Shepard, was launched in 1961 on a version of a Redstone missile that was a direct derivative of a V-2. The legacy of the rocket actually lives on in today’s space technology, and Von Braun has come to be feted as a hero of the space age.

Do you have any facts that you would like to share, maybe yourself, a family member, relative or friend that would have lived in Royal Greenwich around the time of the blast or indeed recollect stories from other areas of London? We would love for you to share those experiences with us in the comments below.

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References:

Article: “V-2 Rocket” from Wikipedia

Article & Photography: “Death from above without warning” from Daily Mail 

Article: “The Nazi Rocket that launched the space age” from BBC

Photography: “A Conservation Study of its principal chimneypieces and ceilings” by Alan Baxter & Associates for London Borough of Greenwich, January 2003

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