And We Were Young


Channel 4’s Blitz Street recently showed us the devastation that Hitler’s high explosive and incendiary bombs inflicted on a typical row of Edwardian houses. Remarkably, we saw how some whole buildings collapsed while chimneys, a pram and even a milk bottle stayed randomly intact. Below-stairs, people would be found seemingly unscathed but will have died as a result of blast shock waves. When the whoosh came, recalled survivors, you simply closed your eyes and waited for oblivion.

While the Luftwaffe was duelling with the Royal Air Force in 1940, Woolworths (“Nothing over sixpence”) handed over a war bond for £10,000 to Lord Beaverbrook to sponsor some Spitfires. The words ‘Nix Six’ duly appeared on two fuselages.

Perhaps 12 year-old James Snellgrove built Airfix kits and aspired to pilot Spitfires, just like Matt Jarvis, another young plane-mad lad did many decades later. On Saturday 25th November 1944, James was somewhere near New Cross Road, South London where a saucepan sale attracted mothers and children in the local Woolworths; Saturday part-timers swelled staff numbers and swimmers from the local baths were in drinking a warming Bovril. As they shopped and gossiped rocket number MW 19864 was mid-flight, launched by rail 300km away from the Peenemunde launch pad. At 12.26pm, some 28,000 lb of metal plus a warhead of TNT and ammonium nitrate (Amatol), fell directly on them at a subsonic 2,600 feet per second.

In the worst V-2 event that Britain suffered, 168 people lost their lives and 122 were injured in the blast. It took three days to clear the dead and debris. James lived a mile and a half away at 41 Sevenoaks Road, Brockley and died in St. Alfege’s Hospital 2 days later. He is remembered at his school with AE Houseman’s ‘A Shopshire Lad’:

.. Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose; But young men think it is, and we were young ..

A twelve year-old Prussian aristocrat, one Wernher Magnus Maximilian Freiherr toyed with fireworks in the street, his father once having to fetch him home from the local nick. But the young Wernher went fatefully on to experiment with far more deadly payloads. As a Sturmbahnführer in the SS he fathered his own inter-ballistic offspring. One of these was the Vergeltungswaffe 2 (the Retaliation/Vengeance weapon). The V-2.

20,000 inmates at the Mittelbau-Dora plant died while constructing Wernher von Braun’s 5,200 V-2s, more than those who perished – like James Snellgrove, the victim of the 251st launch – by it as a weapon. Von Braun’s 1934 paper entitled “Construction, Theoretical, and Experimental Solution to the Problem of the Liquid Propellant Rocket” was written in 1934 but only declassified in the 60s by which time, the man who had topped the US wanted list of Nazi scientists was rampantly fathering yet more ballistic missiles against the Commies, this time for his adoptive Land of the Free.

Spitfire pilot and later, Farnborough Airshow commentator Raymond Baxter claimed to have shot at a launching V2 but more effective were MI5’s efforts to convince the Germans, via double-agents, that the V-2s were over-shooting populated areas. This led vB to recalibrate their trajectories and they fell short on small-town Kent instead.

I went to Farnborough’s own launch yesterday and after seeing a demo of un-manned surveillance ‘copters, considered all that has passed over the skies of this Hampshire airfield since the end of war. I met an elderly gent who told me he worked in secret at de Havilland’s until overwork brought on a breakdown. He’s been to every Farnborough since the 40s and we watched a Spitfire arc over the skeletal frames of this year’s hospitality chalets. The Doppler effect of the Merlin’s pulsating growl filled our eyes with tears and a voice over our shoulder told us it was ‘the sound of freedom.’

“Give me space!” said a pink-hatted lady who took frantic pictures of Britain’s first aerobatic airline, the Blades. The team’s Extras were like skinny-looking juveniles, just 600kg of cheekiness that are licensed to fly at 30 feet above their home airfield, energising corporate clients and stag do grooms. Their high-g choreography are powered by squared-off props and wings that send downwards a loud Lycoming buzz as they perform – happily more like barnstormers. I know one of their flyers. Dave Slow is an ex-Red Arrow who had the short-term privilege of flying alongside his best friend, Flight Lieutenant Matt Jarvis RAF who really did fulfil his boyhood dream and fly a Spitfire – and Harriers – before succumbing to cancer at the age of 30.

Von Braun as we know, has another place in history. Without him, Neil Armstrong would never have reached the moon to fluff his crackly ‘Mankind’ lines in 1969. I wonder though how many survivors of the Woolworths V-2 tragedy sat and watched that miracle for humanity in ignorant bliss?

It was by then a different world that demanded new ideas. Better, safer lives.

(See also Dulwich as Narnia).


3 Responses to “And We Were Young”

  1. 1 DT

    Thanks for the blog, very interesting article. I was wondering where you got the information on James Snellgrove from and if you have any more information on him or any other victims.

  2. Thanks for your comments and interest!

    I found a list of those killed part-way down this page:

    and then this about James, his parents and their home address which you can see is not too far from the Woolworths site:

  1. 1 Dulwich as Narnia « England’s Pleasant Pastures

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