Britain is scarred by a bloody past, says Richard

Monday 8 June 2015

I was driving to my son’s flat in Chiswick this week and road works diverted me down a street close by.

I noticed it was called Staveley Road. Staveley Road… the name communicated something significant and not in a good way. Definitely something bad, completely at odds with the outward appearance of this pleasant, quiet suburban street.

I noticed an odd gap between the pretty houses, like a missing tooth in a smile, and what looked like some kind of memorial tablet there but I didn’t have time to stop.

So when I got home I typed Staveley Road into my computer, pressed search and up it came. Of course.

My son is living just around the corner from the site of the first ballistic missile strike in history.

On the evening of Sunday September 8 1944, Staveley Road was hit by a German V2 rocket, the beginning of a terrifying new aerial bombardment.

The first V2 that arrowed down on innocent, leafy Chiswick that day came straight out of science fiction. The Nazis were way ahead of the Americans and the rest of the world in secret rocket development.

The massive 13-ton weapon arrived at around 3,000mph, four times the speed of sound. That meant there could be no warning of its approach, it had landed before anyone could possibly hear it coming.

Then followed an unearthly rushing, roaring noise of the rocket’s fiery motor – sound waves left lagging behind its actual passage through the air – and finally, in a kind of grotesque coup de theatre,

The V2’s signature double whump-whump of a sonic boom. All of this was clearly audible across the entire city. Londoners had never heard anything like it and were mystified. Only two government intelligence officers in Whitehall that evening understood the significance.

“It’s begun, then.” That gap I noticed this week was where No 5 Staveley Road once stood. The V2 landed directly on the road outside and the house was atomised in a microsecond, killing its three occupants.

Seventeen neighbours were terribly injured as their homes collapsed. The age of impersonal intercontinental ballistic missiles had arrived.

For three days Churchill’s government prevaricated, blaming the destruction on “gas mains explosions” but as more V2s arrived they had to come clean.

Not least because Londoners living on the city’s highest points with unobstructed views across to the eastern horizon began reporting a strange and troubling phenomenon soon after dark. Shooting stars that appeared to be rising into the sky, not falling.

These were V2s seen shortly after launch from occupied Holland. As the rockets went supersonic and emerged above the horizon line their blazing motors were visible a hundred miles away as points of brilliant light streaking vertically into the night sky. Not shooting stars. Death stars.

Records showed me that a V2 came down on a street close to where I live, detonating directly behind 114 Iverson Road, Kilburn, slap bang in the middle of a long row of Victorian terraces. I went there this week. There’s no 114 Iverson Road.

In fact there’s nothing left standing between 104-128, just a yawning gap now used as a playground. I’d bet most people living there today have no idea this park with its lawns and climbing frames and fruit trees was once the scene of utter carnage.

As I strolled around, the last of the spring blossom drifting down on to the newly mown grass, I felt strangely moved. Innocence and gentleness springing from such horror.

I turned to look at the surviving houses standing on the opposite side of the street, smiling in the May sunshine.

It took me a while to work out what those strange pockmarks on their brickwork were, a scattering of chips and holes about the size of 10p coins. Shrapnel.

Seventy years after he shot himself in the mouth Hitler’s bloody fingerprints are still clearly visible on our towns and cities. You just have to know where to look. And where to say a prayer for the innocents who died.

Read Richard and Judy's Express column in full here.
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