The Spitfire and the hunt for the V2

CHURCHILL was not a man to worry unduly, but shortly before 6.45pm on September 8, 1944, his worst fears were confirmed.

On June 13, what looked like an aeroplane flew into the railway bridge at Bethnal Green and rendered 266 people homeless in an instant. This was what Himmler termed the Vergeltungswaffe, or vengeance weapon. Londoners under attack would come to know it as the doodlebug or buzz bomb, so called for the mechanical hum it made before dropping on its target. It was the first of thousands of V1s to hit the city.

Concealing information to avoid panic among the population was common in wartime Britain. In this case, it would have been futile. So great was the number of subsequent attacks that, on June 16, Herbert Morrison (grandfather of Peter Mandelson, and at the time minister for civil defence) was forced to make a statement to the House of Commons: London was under attack from a new kind of weapon, a plane that did not need a pilot. The Allies had nothing with which to counter this terrifying new technology, which flew too low and too fast for anti-aircraft guns. The nature of war had changed for ever. If the purpose was to instil as much terror into the civilian population as possible, it worked.

More than 2,000 V1s would eventually fall on London, killing 5,000 people. By early September 1944, however, the frequency of V1 attacks had declined. Not only had the anti-aircraft units found ways to shoot them down, but many of the launch sites in France had fallen to the Allied advance. London and the south-east could breathe a little easier. By September 7, Duncan Sandys, chairman of a war cabinet committee against the German flying bombs, and Churchill’s son-in-law, felt confident enough to tell a press conference that "except possibly for the last few shots, the battle of London is over".

Quite literally, nobody heard the first V2 coming before it smashed into Staveley Road in Chiswick the following day. In the unlikely event that anyone had been looking out for the missile, they would have had just four seconds to spot it between the time it came into view and the time it hit the ground. Weighing 13 tons and travelling at more than 3,000mph, it ploughed 30ft into the ground before exploding, creating a crater that measured 40ft by 10ft. Miraculously, that day only three people died, with 17 seriously injured. The first thing anyone heard was the blast. The noise of the explosion was so great it was audible in Westminster, 11 miles away.

Churchill and his government had known for some time that the Nazis were developing such a weapon. In August, the head of MI6, Sir Stewart Menzies, had been so alarmed at the prospect that he urged the prime minister to consider using the nuclear bomb against Germany. (The records do not state Churchill’s response to this, but the weapon was not yet ready to be deployed anyway.)

In an effort to prevent panic, the press was ordered to attribute all V2 attacks to gas explosions. Only on November 10, more than two months after the first strike, did Churchill publicly admit the existence of the world’s first ballistic missile. "You have to understand the context," says author and historian Craig Cabell. "The V1 and V2 rockets were probably the first terrorist attacks we had in Britain. The V2s in particular were blowing up whole streets, and the powers-that-be at first simply didn’t know how to deal with them."

How the air force - and in particular the Scottish 602 and 603 squadrons - eventually countered the threat is the subject of Operation Big Ben, a book written by Cabell and his co-author Graham A Thomas. Big Ben was a wartime code name for V2s. The story is one of individual bravery and technical ingenuity that should ring a bell with anyone who has ever watched The Dambusters.

Faced with the morale-sapping threat of these futuristic rockets, it was clear that the government had to act fast. What could be done, though, was less evident. "Bombing the rockets’ launch sites with Lancasters [heavy bombers] might have seemed a tempting solution," says Cabell. "The trouble was that most of them were being fired from built-up areas in Holland. You could launch these things from a street corner in the centre of town. The launchers moved too quickly, and the possibility of civilian casualties - especially civilians in a country unwillingly occupied by the Nazis - was too great." Even if it hadn’t been, the bulk of the Allies’ heavy bombers were still required nightly to pummel the Ruhr corridor, the powerhouse of Germany’s manufacturing industry.

The solution came in the form of the Spitfire. Without this remarkable fighter plane, the RAF could never have established air superiority in the Battle of Britain. By 1944, however, the Luftwaffe was a shadow of what it had once been and dogfights were few and far between. The Spitfire was, in short, a legend in search of a role - and the aerial hunt for the V2s gave it one. Instead of acting as a fighter, the plane would become - unlikely as it seemed - a dive-bomber. The wings of the mark XVI were clipped to make it more stable while diving, and a bubble canopy was added to aid visibility. The pilots would have to learn a new way of flying - coming in straight, then flipping the plane upside down, before sliding into a sharp dive.

Raymond Baxter was one of those pilots. "When I was asked to fly in that way, my response was absolute surprise," he says. "Any competent pilot can roll his plane on its back and put it into a dive at that angle, but getting good at it is the product of experience."

The advantage of the Spitfire bombers was that, because they dropped their loads from closer to the ground, they were far more accurate than the enormous flying battleships of Bomber Command. A new kind of bombing was employed to combat a new type of threat. Raids on liquid oxygen factories, supply lines and launch sites began in earnest as early as October 1944.

Among the squadrons that took part were 303 (the Poles), 453 (the Anzacs) and 603 (the City of Edinburgh). Central to the operation, according to Cabell, was 602 City of Glasgow, based at RAF Coltishall in Norfolk. The squadron already had a distinguished history. It was credited with shooting down the first enemy plane over Britain during the war, while defending the Rosyth naval base in 1939. More recently, in July 1944, a 602 pilot had strafed Rommel’s staff car in Normandy, seriously injuring the general. City of Glasgow squadron finished the war with the second-highest total of kills and the lowest pilot-loss rate. It was also the longest-serving squadron in the front line.

Baxter was one of 602’s two flight lieutenants during Operation Big Ben; the commanding officer was Max Sutherland, a man who seems single-handedly to have upheld all the eccentric, devil-may-care, gentleman-amateur traditions of the services. "He was the most dangerous man I have ever known," Baxter says. "And I loved him. Actually, we thought he was a lunatic - quite literally: he went barmy when the moon was full. And when I say barmy, I mean even more fearless than usual. He was a great leader. He was extremely aggressive. He was 27, and we thought it was amazing that an old guy of 27 could fly as well as him - seriously, because we were all in our early 20s. He was very imaginative, too. He put red pepper on his Guinness. He would see a bowl of tulips in a pub and eat them. So that was him."

It was standard practice that pilots would dive from 11,000ft to 3,000ft before releasing their bombs. "But he would go down to deck level," says Cabell, which means you have to go up to go over a fence. "It was almost as if he was obsessed."

Sutherland was, perhaps, not the only one. Baxter’s account of one of the squadron’s missions gives a small sense of the adrenaline that must have been flowing during such forays. "We attacked a target just north of the Hague on February 14, 1945. I must have been in a very aggressive mood, because after a dive attack of 6,000ft I ordered the boys to return to attack the anti-aircraft defence.

"After we dropped the bombs I saw to my surprise a V2 coming out of the forest that we had just bombed, rising into the air, very slowly. Right in front of us. It was an incredible sight and it was so unexpected that I couldn’t do anything about it. But my number three, a Scotsman called Cupid Love, responded very fast and shot at the V2. It must have been one of the most optimistic shots of the entire war.

"As far as I know, this was the only time in the history of the war that a dive-bomber attacked a rocket in the air. Fortunately, he didn’t hit the rocket. I say fortunately, because had he hit it the war would have ended for me quite abruptly." Was ever a man better named for a Valentine’s Day adventure than Cupid Love?

For Baxter, the most memorable raid came on March 18, 1945, towards the end of Operation Big Ben, when six of 602’s Spitfires attacked the Bataafsche petrol company building, a base for many of the V2 support staff. The level of skill displayed on this mission defies belief. Not surprisingly, Max Sutherland was its leader. Having dived from 2,000ft, the six spitfires approached in perilously close formation, keeping below the level of the target’s roof, before releasing their bombs from 50 yards and spraying the target with machine-gun fire. Baxter’s plane narrowly missed a church spire.

Sutherland was hit by flak, but the bombs - on an 11-second time delay - had found their target. Although its roof was still intact, the Bataafsche petrol company was ablaze.

One of the reasons that Operation Big Ben has been ignored for 60 years is that it is so hard to quantify its success. Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke thought at the time it was a disastrous failure ("Typical bloody soldier," Raymond Baxter retorts). Statistics don’t help much. Despite a formidable assault on the Hague in the last month of 1944, the number of rocket attacks soared in January and February. Between January 1 and February 16, 1945, 755 people were killed and 2,264 seriously injured, a casualty rate twice that of the previous December’s.

By March, a new policy of concerted bombing of selected sites appears to have paid dividends, since the frequency of attacks died down. But it was only after Field Marshal Montgomery’s troops reached the Rhine on the evening of March 23 that the V2 attacks finally stopped, and the units were ordered to retreat to Germany to avoid the enemy getting their hands on this revolutionary technology.

Asked why his actions and those of his colleagues during Operation Big Ben have been forgotten, Baxter replies a little mournfully. "We didn’t stop the V2s. We only made it very difficult for them, and hopefully stopped their accuracy."

Craig Cabell sees it differently. "It can obviously be argued that V2 rockets still murdered British civilians, but how many more would have been killed if Operation Big Ben had never taken place?" he says.

Operation Big Ben, by Craig Cabell and Graham A Thomas, is published by Spellmount Books (20)