The thunderous impact at Chiswick was heard all across London. Homes shook, followed by some rumbling vibrations. People were puzzled; there had been no sound of a V-1 sputtering across the sky or the hum of a German bomber overhead or any air-raid sirens. Those living near the strike reported hearing a double bang, which was later discovered to be the boom of the missile breaking the sound barrier. People near the area filtered into the streets, curious to know what had just happened. Eleven homes situated on Staveley Road were totally flattened, while two dozen more sustained substantial damage. Many people were surprised to find the blast radius was so broad; windows of houses almost two miles away had been blown out by the concussion. Rescue workers moved up the street giving aid to those who were bleeding from cuts caused by flying debris and glass. Military and Civil Defense officials soon arrived at the scene and began rummaging about, collecting scraps of metal found near the crater. A reporter who was fast on the scene asked one of the Civil Defense men if the explosion seemed to be a new type of German guided bomb and was told, “We can’t say what it was. It might have been a gas main explosion.” The deep crater fashioned by the missile actually did rupture water and gas mains; however, the military officials on hand knew exactly what had happened—Big Ben (the British code name for the German rocket) had arrived.
Immediately after firing the missiles, the soldiers of Battalion 485 had packed their equipment and driven away from the launching sites. Later that evening, the locals returned to their neighborhood. They found that both launching sites were in the middle of roadways passing through the wooded upper-class neighborhood. At each launching place, there was a circular patch from which the road had been melted or burned. The burned patch had a diameter of 20 to 25 feet, and in the center of each scorched area was an unburned area in a box form, suggesting that some sort of stand had been used. The beautiful large, mature trees near the edge of the roadway were very badly burned up to a height of about four feet and less badly burned near the treetops. There was also evidence of a violent low blast, because the grass and nearby gardens were flattened; all the leaves had strangely vanished from the ground below the trees. The thatched roof of a nearby small house had been lifted and blown off by the rocket exhaust. The following day, a report was sent to Kammler’s headquarters: “The rocket weapon was effective. Two rounds launched against London.”
On September 9, 1944, on a tip from the Dutch resistance, RAF fighter aircraft were able to locate the neighborhood from where the first two V-2s had been fired. The pilots knew they were close when a heavy barrage of antiaircraft fire met them over Wassenaar. The aircraft bombed and strafed the neighborhood streets, but the rocket troops were no longer there. The second battery of Battalion 485 had set up operations on the grounds of the Beukenhorst estate, a few miles to the southwest; firing only one missile that day, which fell into the sea. The air attacks prompted local government officials to order the evacuation of Wassenaar on September 10, with the exception of the area behind the Kerkdam. Within three days, the entire area between the viaduct on the Leidschenstraatweg and Kerkdam, including the Marlot Park, was evacuated. On September 10, the first battery of Battalion 485 was ready to join the second battery in firing operations from the area. The mobile batteries, each with three firing tables, were dispersed to new firing sites in the Wassenaar and The Hague. On September 12, the soldiers moved into the Marlot area adjacent to the Duindigt horse racing track. That day, between the hours of 6:00 AM and 9:40 PM, five more V-2s were launched. Londoners experienced more of the mysterious bangs, one of which landed on the Chrysler manufacturing plant at Kew Gardens, killing eight people and causing extensive damage.
The amount of damage inflicted by both the V-1 flying bomb and the V-2 rocket at the immediate impact area exhibited total destruction. However, the collateral damage was greater during a V-2 strike. The crater made by a V-2 was much deeper than that of the flying bomb. Instead of knocking down walls and ceilings, the V-2’s impact speed helped disintegrate the material into tiny pieces, throwing off some as lethal shards.
On September 14, two rockets launched from Wassenaar failed; each one crashed into the North Sea, just off the coastline north of Kijkduin. Another launched from the grounds of the Beukenhorst estate hit Walthamstow, England, digging a crater 25 feet deep and killing seven people.
Nevertheless, the start of the V-2 bombardment shook the confidence of the British citizens. They knew their government was covering up or least obscuring the facts about the loud explosions. There was no official news released at first, and officials in London refused to acknowledge the mysterious blasts. Government officials did not create the rumor of the “gasometers” or “exploding gas mains,” but did not deny them either. Yet, 16 gas main explosions in ten days was quite a lot; most people felt it had to be some sort of new nasty German surprise. Some people remembered earlier news columns reporting a second type of German robot bomb and quickly associated the new explosions with the previously mentioned V-2; mockingly referring to the new attacks as the “flying gas mains.” Even though the V-2 was not completely unknown to Winston Churchill’s War Cabinet, the opening of the rocket offensive had come as a shock to its members. It had been hoped that the raids on Peenemünde and the intensive bombardment of the Crossbow sites, along with the capture of the prepared firing sites in the Pas de Calais, would prevent the German missile attacks. But now, much to the dismay of the War Cabinet, the topic of conversation all over the city was focused on this new horror, with wild stories and rumors running rampant.
Just a few days earlier, the British populace, like the Dutch across the channel, had been expecting the war to be over soon. After all, hadn’t the Allied armies driven ten miles inside of Germany already? Over a million people had been evacuated from London during the flying bomb offensive, and many were already making their way back into the city following the exuberant news of recent Allied victories in France and Belgium. Newspapers had announced the end of the V-1 threat, proclaiming “The Battle of London is over.” What the public didn’t know was that the supply situation was about to slow the advance for a much longer period than even Allied generals expected. Moreover, the retreating German armies had completely destroyed the French and Belgian railway systems, which meant most of the supplies were still being transported by truck, and in much smaller quantities than were needed. The natural barriers of the terrain, along with man-made obstacles such as the Siegfried Line, were also inhibiting the advance. It would take weeks before enough food, ammunition, and other vital supplies could be accumulated on the front lines. But by that time, summer weather would be over; inclement weather could also cause many problems for the Allies.
Along the coast of England, British radar stations attempted to track the flight of incoming V-2s in order to find out just where the rockets were coming from. It was thought that radar might disclose the launching points. Just after liftoff, the rockets could be seen as a momentary blip on radar screens. Sound-ranging and flash-spotting equipment were also employed in Belgium, but in the end, these efforts produced too little information to discern the firing locations. But on many occasions, the Dutch resistance was able to get maps and messages to the British detailing the locations and operations of the German rocket troops. Rising with a tail of flame and a deafening roar, a V-2 could be seen and heard by Dutch civilians for miles around. With the help of these reports, some fighter-bomber attacks were mounted, but these met with little success during the early part of the rocket campaign. At first Allied commanders were unaware of the rocket’s mobility and continued to envision some type of fixed launching complex. It took British Intelligence quite a long time to discover just how extremely mobile the rocket was. Not only was the rocket impossible to stop after firing—it was also going to be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to stop on the ground.
Following disagreements with General Metz, Kammler assumed total control of the rocket batteries as divisional commander. On September 9, acting on orders from Himmler, General Kammler ordered Battery 444 to cease firing on Paris and transferred them to Group North. They were ordered to travel to the Dutch coast and set up operations on the Walcheren peninsula near the Scheldt estuary across from the Belgian border. German military commanders were keeping a close watch on the situation at the front lines. American, British, and Canadian troops had already moved into Belgium and were at the German frontier. Battery commanders were advised to be ready to pull out of their operational areas on short notice. General Kammler was fearful that the rocket troops might be overrun, and the last thing he wanted was for his new weapon to be neutralized before the rocket campaign could get rolling. In The Hague, Battalion 485 received orders to continue firing at London, but because of the Allied advance, they were on alert for a possible withdrawal to the east.
Kammler’s staff, which was thrown together at the last minute, was unable to cope with all questions arising after the start of the rocket offensive. Because of his military command inexperience, he made many elementary mistakes. For example, after the start of the offensive, Kammler could not get in touch with his troops. He knew nothing of their whereabouts, particularly Battalion 485 in Holland. Some of the most essential equipment and spare parts had been left behind. On September 5, the day designated for the offensive to begin, the troops discovered that no warheads had been shipped to the operational areas, which postponed the opening of the offensive for several days. The battalions went into action with specialized tankers, trailers, and trucks to carry the rocket fuels, but the motorized columns had no tankers along to carry regular gasoline for their vehicles. When told of the problem, Kammler suggested the troops should just fill up the emptied alcohol tankers with gasoline. Immediately, the coating inside of the tanks—specially made for the storage of alcohol—was completely ruined. The alcohol tankers, which were in short supply and needed at the front, had to be sent back to Germany for repairs.
Even though the rocket attacks had begun, the concerns of the launching crews were far from over. In the first ten days of the V-2 campaign, only two dozen rockets had been launched toward London. Fuel and supplies, especially the highly explosive liquid oxygen, were being brought in from Germany in frustratingly small amounts. The rockets were another problem. By the time they reached their launching sites, more than half were not fit for firing. Of those that were launched, only about 60 percent found their way to London. The familiar airburst problem, along with in-flight mechanical problems, caused many rockets to fall in the North Sea or in sparsely populated areas. Daily technical reports coming to headquarters reported a variety of problems such as oil in the liquid oxygen. This occurred when the liquid oxygen had been stored too long in the transport bowser. The oil residue caused explosions upon ignition of the combustion unit. A thorough cleaning of the bowsers cleared up this problem and stopped the explosions, but damage to materials and to the launch sites caused further delays. Long storage was also causing problems with the inner workings of many rockets. The delicate servo mechanisms were especially vulnerable to the effects of rain and humidity. At this time, the rockets were shipped by train from the Mittelwerk factory at Nordhausen to the area of Koblenz, where they were stockpiled in depots along the northwest German border. Once at the border, LXV Corps transported them to the main storage facility where the 511 Field Workshop Company unloaded and stored the rockets until they were required. There they remained for weeks at a time. When they were finally brought over to the launching crews, many of the V-2s were in poor condition, with vital components and electrical systems corroded. As a result of these conditions, the rate of fire was well below Hitler’s imagined onslaught.
After being transferred to Group North, Battery 444 began its move from Belgium to Walcheren on September 10, arriving late in the evening on September 15. Along the way, as the rockets passed through the town of Serooskerke, a young Dutch girl, peeking through the drawn window curtains of her home, secretly snapped three rolls of film showing the tarpaulin-covered missiles resting on their long Meillerwagen trailers. The film rolls were later passed on to London, giving British officials their first up-close look at the V-2. At Walcheren, the Battery 444 firing crews quickly set up operations on the scenic grounds of the Vrederust estate, known today as Welgelegen. On the days of September 16–18, 1944, they launched six rockets at England, but only three reached their target.
On September 9, 1944, the staff at British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s headquarters received an urgent message from the Vice Chief of the Imperial General Staff: “Two rockets, so called V-2, landed in England yesterday. Please report most urgently by what approximate date you consider you can rope off the coastal area contained by Antwerp-Utrecht-Rotterdam. When this area is in our hands the threat from this weapon will probably have dispersed.”
On September 10, 1944, Supreme Allied Commander General Eisenhower flew to Brussels for a meeting with Field Marshal Montgomery. It was a trip he was not looking forward to. He did not think highly of the egotistic British field marshal who had been openly critical of Eisenhower’s “broad front” strategy. Even while the Allied advance was grinding to a halt, Montgomery had been proposing what he called his “single thrust plan,” an idea for a powerful thrust into Holland that would trap German forces in the Ruhr and allow the Allies to drive straight to Berlin, ending the war before Christmas. Eisenhower had heard this proposal before; he had rejected it several times already. Eisenhower believed the best way to get the Allied advance underway again was to open the Belgian port of Antwerp. If the estuary could be cleared, and the remaining resistance eliminated, the deep-water harbor would allow the necessary supplies to quickly reach the front lines. Eisenhower believed enormous stockpiles would need to be built up prior to the commencement of a long drive across the German heartland.
Eisenhower’s meeting with Montgomery started off just as he had expected; the Field Marshal began lambasting the current Allied strategy and came up with all the same criticisms and optimistic proposals. Montgomery insisted if he received all the men and equipment he requested, he could capture a bridge over the Rhine and be in Berlin in less than three months. However, this time the British field marshal offered a different argument. Montgomery pointed out that the German rocket campaign had begun and that British Intelligence knew the rockets were being launched from somewhere on the Dutch coast. If the plan worked, not only would it be a catalyst into Germany but it would also counteract the V-2 threat. Holland had been under German occupation for four years, and the British commander believed that the German forces there were weak. If airborne units could land and hold key bridges, he could send a heavy armored force racing through Holland all the way to the IJsselmeer. This time Eisenhower agreed to the plan. Even though he was doubtful as to whether the operation would swiftly facilitate a passageway into Germany, the prospect of capturing a bridge over the Rhine, while at the same time reducing the rocket threat, must have appealed to him.
Code-named Operation Market Garden, it would be the largest airborne drop in military history. Three Allied divisions would be involved. In the “Market” portion of the plan, the U.S. 101st Airborne Division Airborne would drop near Eindhoven and secure the canal crossings at Veghel. The U.S. 82nd Airborne Division would capture the bridges over the Maas River at Grave and the Waal River at Nijmegen. Sixty miles behind German lines, the British First Airborne, then later the Polish First Airborne Brigade, would be dropped on the bridge over the Rhine River at Arnhem. In the “Garden” phase, British XXX Corps would dash up these Allied-held river crossings to relieve the First Airborne at Arnhem.
Montgomery’s original plan called for the capture of a bridge across the Rhine at Wesel, a move that might have cut off Division z.V. headquarters near Nijmegen and allowed for the capture of SS General Kammler himself. But following the communiqué from London concerning the first V-2 attacks, Montgomery altered his plan in an attempt to cut off the V-2 supply routes to the Dutch coast. Subsequent to their retreat from France and Belgium, German forces in the west were beginning to stabilize. German paratroopers and SS Panzer units had moved into Arnhem, and while British intelligence was aware of them, for some reason, their presence was deemed insignificant by British planners.
Just after noon on September 17, 1944, 12 Spitfires of No. 229 Squadron RAF took off from their base at Coltishall. Their mission was to scan a stretch of the Dutch coast looking for evidence of rocket activity. While patrolling at 12,000 feet over North Holland, they witnessed a V-2 rising in the distance at terrific speed. The rocket impacted several minutes later in greater London at Coulsdon. The Spitfires were too far away to discern the exact location from which the rocket had been fired. They could only report the general location, which was near the coast, possibly The Hague. Battery 444 launched a rocket from Walcheren that came down at Adelaide Road, Brockley, Lewisham, killing 14 people and injuring another 41. Later that evening, more fighter bombers, acting on a tip from the Dutch underground, attacked the surrounding area near Beukenhorst between Raaphorstlaan and Eikenhorstlaan. These heavily wooded areas southeast of Wassenaar were suspected as firing locations but in fact were not.
On the morning of September 17, 1944, the airborne landings began. The Dutch population, convinced they were about to be liberated, watched the armada of aircraft from their rooftops. Even the German troops were in awe of the force that was descending upon them. But as XXX Corps began to advance up a single road, the assault was stalled almost as soon as it began. German defenders immediately poured fire down on the tanks and vehicles. The airborne forces were able to accomplish their goals, except for the 82nd Airborne, which had to scramble to build a temporary bridge for XXX Corps. The British First Airborne had dropped five miles from their target and could only take the north side of the bridge at Arnhem. Worse, they had dropped in the middle of a Panzer division and were facing German attacks on their flank and continuing armored assaults from the south side of the bridge. They were cut off, and because of inadequate radio transmitters, the division commander was out of touch with his men for 36 critical hours.
First Airborne held on to their position with the hope that XXX Corps would eventually show up, but after nine days, no relief had arrived. Casualties were mounting, and it became clear that XXX Corps would never make it to Arnhem. On September 26, Montgomery ordered the First Airborne to break out of Arnhem and rejoin the Allied lines to the south. Out of 10,000 men dropped into Arnhem, only 2,300 came out; 1,400 were dead, and over 6,000 were prisoners of war. Operation Market Garden had failed. Montgomery’s planning had not take into account any of the lessons learned in Allied operations of the recent past. For such a large operation, very little time was given to actual planning. Bad weather, bad intelligence, and stiff German resistance all contributed to the failure.