The memories of Bernard Bergonzi
1944 I was a schoolboy of 15. I had not been in London during the Blitz
of 1940-41, but I returned to the family home in South London in 1942
and went to school there. It has to be remembered that for nearly three
years, from 1941 to 1944, there was almost no bombing at all. Then in
February 1944 Germany launched what became known as the 'little Blitz'.
This went on for a few days, but was on nothing like the scale of the
bombing of 1940-41, still less the massive Anglo-American air raids then
being directed at Germany.
In June 1944 the first flying bombs fell on London; they
were usually called 'buzz-bombs' or 'doodle-bugs'. It was
not clear what they were at first, as they were obviously not dropped
from a plane. Then it was understood that they were in effect
self-propelled pilotless aircraft, which when they reached their maximum
range would crash with their explosive load. At first only one or two
fell, but soon it became obvious that a regular bombardment was under
The most noticeable aspect of the doodlebugs was their
sound, which was quite unlike any ordinary plane; it had a strange
tearing and rasping sound, more like a two-stroke motor-cycle. It soon
acquired a sinister and disturbing quality, and prompted ignoble
reactions. If the motor cut out when the weapon was approaching, then it
was likely to drop nearby and one tried to take shelter; if it continued
its flight, one could feel relieved: someone else would be the victim.
South London was on their regular flight path, and many of them fell
nearby, causing damage and loss of life. Our house suffered broken glass
and a ceiling down but no serious damage.
There was a particularly bad incident on (as I have since
discovered) 28th July 1944 when a flying bomb fell in the main shopping
centre of Lewisham; it penetrated an air raid shelter, causing 51 deaths
and many casualties. At about that time I was in a street about a
quarter of a mile away, conscious of all the nearby disturbance; what I
remember most clearly was seeing bloodstains on the pavement. Looking
back, I am struck by the very matter of fact way in which at that age I
responded to all this.
In August 1944 I went to stay with an uncle who lived in
a village near Canterbury in Kent. This was out of the way of the flying
bombs in one sense, as they were directed at London; but they often
passed overhead as the village was situated in what was called Doodlebug
Alley. Sometimes they would fall in the nearby fields, either because
they had fallen short, or were shot down by fighters. The RAF brought
the first jet fighters into operation to try to catch them as they were
much faster than piston-engined fighters. They would fly alongside them
and flip their wing to spill them harmlessly into the open fields below.
I remember sitting on the North Downs with my cousin and
his girl-friend, and seeing a fighter chasing a doodlebug. It crashed
somewhere in the distance, which was an exciting spectacle, either shot
down or tipped off course by the pursuing plane. Some of them failed to
explode and one was put on display at a store in Canterbury.
There is no doubt that these things did a great deal of
damage in London within the space of a few weeks. The allied armies were
advancing on the launching sites in Northern France and Belgium, and
there was concern that they would not get there in time to prevent more
damage and loss of life.
Soon, however, they were replaced by the far more
frightening V2 weapons. These were rockets proper, much larger and more
destructive which gave no notice at all of their arrival, and they
continued to fall on London at intervals during the last winter of the