David Ryan, King's College London, Classics, 1964
I was standing by the memorial stone that commemorates the eight people killed and 117 injured where a V2 rocket exploded in Kingston upon Thames, on 22 January 1945. In addition to the human costs, 33 houses were destroyed and 2,000 were damaged.
A woman was gazing intently at me from her front door across the road; for some reason I went across to ask if she knew about the explosion. It was as though she was looking at a ghost, so intent was her gaze.
‘Oh yes, I remember it, I was 16, our roof was blown off, the Americans arrived very quickly.’ (General Eisenhower had his headquarters on Kingston Hill. Did I remind her of one of the million Americans who arrived on these shores and swept the British girls off their feet?).
I had always had this very visceral memory of the swirling noise, blast and pandemonium of that day, as though the world was coming to an end, and of my mother diving on top of me.
Years later, a neighbour said in my hearing: ‘It must have affected him’.
Later still, doing some supply teaching on return from being abroad, one of the teachers started talking about the sheer power of the shock waves from a bomb going off.
No one talked much about what really happened in the war when we were growing up playing on the bomb sites, but its presence was there. It came up in oblique forms in conversation: 'He died in that blast up Park Road.' Hushed silence at the recollection for a moment.
But even as a young child I remember the murderous looks on some faces passing the pig bins that gathered anything edible. There had been a lot of killing going on.
I discovered in the local museum’s files that the Surrey Comet had written up the incident in Kingston.
The report quoted some of the survivors saying: 'Get us out of here,' in a very direct Kingstonian way when they were buried under the rubble. The paper said the blast happened somewhere in southern England.
The authorities did not want to let the V2 engineers know how accurate their targeting was. Indeed, the German spy network had been penetrated and the reports they were fed to send back claimed the rockets were landing north of London. As a result the missiles were recalibrated, which is why the last of V2 attacks on 27 March 1945, exploded in Kent, some way short of the crowded capital.
Years later, I was up in northern Germany near Peenemunde. There, the atmosphere of dark secrets and vengeance weapons still persists. Some 9,000 slave workers were worked to death in the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp. Some sabotaged the production lines, while 200 others were executed very slowly by hanging with piano wire. This was in the same manner as Count von Stauffenberg after his Secret Germany organisation's attempt on Hitler's life at the Wolf's Lair in Prussia.
A plaque for heroes at the Bomber Command memorial?
Perhaps there should be a plaque at the recently completed Bomber Command memorial to commemorate the 200 slave workers' heroism and the horror of working in mile long tunnels underground near Nordhausen. Here, 5200 rockets were produced in a more costly exercise than even the Manhattan nuclear project.
Bomber Harris, now commemorated in the Strand, had a simple rationale for the air war. ‘Do you want to live as a Nazi slave?’
Even in 1945 the Germans were hoping for a miracle weapon, which the V2 was planned to be.
To this day we still do not know much, if anything, about the rumoured 'heavy water' experiments going on in Norway; again it is swirling eddies of memory at the edges of consciousness. Also, the 100 British scientists transported to America for a project
shrouded in secrecy that was revealed in all its power in August 1945.
The visceral memories of that day of the V2 attack, when I was just 15 months old, persists (researchers now say that post-traumatic stress is associated with the body physically remembering the blast waves) and shows up in odd and strange ways.
At Cape Canaveral I have marvelled at the sheer size of the Saturn moon rocket, developed by Wernher von Braun and his team of 700 German scientists. They worked on its development in association with Americans. This rocket was a direct descendant of the V2 designs.
The V2 was the first guided missiles that went into the upper atmosphere, before returning to earth at 1790 miles per hour for impact. It would have been visible for perhaps two seconds as it streaked towards me and my mother that January day, out of the East from the base in The Hague where it was launched.
Did I notice that black and white chequer board flash in the sky before the world erupted around me?
My friend Muz Murray, while in India, died for a brief moment when he was the subject of some advanced yoga techniques. The yogis quickly brought him back from the dead and he said he remembered the fabled journey back through his life that many 'near death experience' survivors talk about. ‘What I remember most clearly of this sudden journey back through time were the war planes above Coventry during the bombing raids,’ he said. ‘The whole war atmosphere was vividly imprinted on me even though I was about three. I was very aware of being alive in wartime.’
The Saturn V rocket was no more than a huge guided missile, but with a payload on its tip. This was Eagle, the moon landing vehicle, rather than a warhead.
My mother's friend Emily, who came from an aristocratic line, told me: ‘We always thought we would win the war,’ but she refused to believe that the Americans had reached the moon.
I do. You have to experience the sheer power of those rockets first-hand before you really believe in the coming Space Age.
Around my third birthday, in 1946, the first photographs of the Earth from space were taken by the Americans using a captured V2 rocket. A new consciousness was born.