ROBERT HARRIS: The obituary columns will remind you that the wartime generation went through far harder trials than anything we are experiencing and lived to see a better world.
WAAF officer Eileen Younghusband is pictured above
Should you want to cheer yourself up in these grim times, my advice would be to read the obituary columns.
They will remind you that the wartime generation went through far harder trials than anything we are experiencing and lived to see a better world.
Human mortality being what it is, the senior figures of 1939-45 — the commanders, war heroes and politicians — have long since passed into history.
For some years we have been left to read the lives of people recognisably like our parents and grandparents, who are also now a dwindling band, fading into memory: ordinary men and women, only in their 20s when the war ended, who did not have the time to achieve high rank, but who nevertheless faced challenges that put our own current travails in proper perspective.
I have been hooked on such obituaries for years. One, which appeared in The Times on Monday, September 5, 2016, has inspired me to spend four years writing and researching an entire novel.
Its subject was a former officer in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (the WAAF) named Eileen Younghusband, who had died at the age of 95.
Eileen’s job was tracking enemy air activity in the famous Filter Room of RAF Fighter Command in Stanmore, Middlesex, where women are shown working like croupiers in a casino, moving tokens representing aircraft across a huge map of southern England.
Shortly after dawn on September 12, 1944, near the end of Eileen’s shift, an object flashed across the radar screens heading towards London, travelling at ten times the speed of an ordinary German fighter.
‘I realised its importance and that it was up to me to give the signal,’ she wrote in her memoirs.
‘I jumped up on a chair and shouted: “Big Ben, Big Ben, Big Ben!” The effect was instantaneous. The Controller pressed a warning bell, notifying all who were on his list that we had received the signal. The balcony sprang to life, people leaning over to watch the table below, phones ringing.’
One minute later, a V2 ballistic missile, 46ft long, carrying a one-ton warhead and descending at three times the speed of sound, slammed on to the Chrysler vehicle works in Mortlake Road, Kew.
There was no warning of its approach. The only sounds came afterwards — the sonic boom as it broke the sound barrier, the thud of the explosion and finally the onrushing noise of the rocket arriving like an express train.
Devastation: The crater after a V2 strike on Chiswick, West London
The sounds echoed all across London. It killed eight people, wounded 14 and caused enormous damage to the surrounding buildings. Eileen, who was aware that the Germans were developing a missile, was one of the few who knew what had happened.
‘After going off watch that morning we did not feel much like sleeping. We were too surprised and upset at the turn of events.’
Over the next two days, seven more V2s hit the capital, including one in the centre of Walthamstow at 4.55am that left a crater 50ft across and killed six people.
Because the rockets travelled so fast they were invisible to anyone on the ground. A nervous British government, fearful of the effect on morale, decided to put out a cover story that the explosions were caused by faulty gas mains.
Cynical Londoners were not fooled and it became a grim joke: ‘Have you heard about Hitler’s latest secret weapon, the flying gas main?’ The V2s were unstoppable — a science-fiction nightmare from some futuristic H. G. Wells novel.
Hidden in woods around The Hague on the coast of Holland, the rockets were towed along narrow forest lanes to heavy steel launching platforms not much larger than a circular coffee table, impossible to locate from the air.
It took a couple of hours to erect and fire them. They rose to an altitude of 60 miles — the edge of space — reached a maximum speed of 3,300mph and hit London within five minutes. As soon as they had taken off, the firing platoons dismantled the launch sites — a procedure that took about 40 minutes — and melted back into the woods.
In the fifth year of the war, when the Germans were supposed to be all but beaten, Londoners suddenly found themselves on the receiving end of a weapon purposely designed to spread terror and which threatened to destroy the historic heart of the capital. (The Houses of Parliament had a lucky escape when a V2 blew up directly above it in mid-air. The blast was witnessed by commuters at Victoria Station.)
There was a lull in attacks during October, when the German units were obliged to withdraw from The Hague because of the fighting around Arnhem.
But when the Allied airborne assault, Operation Market Garden, failed, the Germans returned in force and greatly increased the volume of launches. During the third week of November 1944 alone, 40 V2s hit Greater London.
At 12.25pm on Saturday, November 25, the Woolworths store on New Cross Road in Deptford was packed with housewives who had heard of a rare delivery of saucepans; many had brought their children, who were buying sweets. The V2 scored a direct hit, killing 168 — either in the store itself, which was reduced to a crater, or in the Co-Op next door, or on the No 53 bus outside, where the dead passengers remained upright in their seats.
‘If they had gone on much longer, I would have been taken to the madhouse,’ one man recalled after the war, ‘because they were really getting me down and I was nearly reaching the state of surrendering, Churchill or no Churchill.’
It was soon after the Woolworths rocket that newly married, 23-year-old Londoner Eileen Younghusband found herself transferred from the Filter Room and on the front line in the British counter-offensive against the V2s.
She had worked for an insurance company before the war and had a talent for mathematics. Along with seven other WAAF officers and eight women sergeants, at the end of November she was flown from RAF Northolt to a grass runway in recently liberated Belgium and driven through the war-ravaged countryside to the ancient market town of Mechelen.
Here, the women were installed in a bank vault and issued with slide-rules, paper and pencils. Their mission is not mentioned in any of…
By Robert Harris For The Daily Mail
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