Doodlebug December - a look back to Yorkshire in wartime at Christmas
PUBLISHED: 11:01 18 December 2017
Richard Darn winds back the clock to a wartime Christmas when Yorkshire became ‘bomb alley’
Yorkshire is full of relics from the last war if you know where to look for them.
Tank traps, pillboxes, overgrown airfields, moor top decoys and of course scores of aircraft wreck sites. Each has a story to tell of Britain’s heroic struggle to survive against the Nazi foe.
One intriguing site is near the public car park at Flamborough Head - the concrete remains of a once powerful gun emplacement. Easily overlooked today, the tale behind its creation is one of the most extraordinary and least known episodes from Yorkshire’s war-time experience.
Let’s wind back the clock. It’s early morning on Christmas Eve in 1944 and farmer John Carter and his wife are snug in their bed near Sowerby, West Yorkshire, perhaps dreaming about the end of the war. But the peace is about to be shattered by a desperate act of defiance from the German Luftwaffe.
Later an eye-witness told police that he had seen a soft glow in the sky heading from Holmfirth in the direction of the farm. Then it disappeared behind a hill. After a few seconds a massive explosion left one end of the farmhouse badly damaged and blew the couple out of their bed. They had just fallen victim to a V1 – the legendary Doodlebug.
Elsewhere, these primitive jet powered cruise missiles were falling from the sky for the first and only time in northern England. In some places they caused mayhem and destruction, in others they merely frightened sheep and cows. The surprise attack cost the lives of 42 people - a further 109 were injured.
At Sowerby the impact crater was littered with Nazi propaganda leaflets, ejected from the V1 before it exploded. The Carters were in no mood to read them, nor was the local vicar, whose church 800 yards away had also been damaged. Mr Carter survived the experience, but sadly a few months later his wife died, possibly due to the shock.
Most of the county’s major urban areas were heavily bombed in the war, particularly during its early stages. Hull was the UK’s most raided city, having endured the very first and last Luftwaffe sorties before Germany’s defeat (95% of its housing was damaged). The wrecked cinema on Beverley Road – bombed as the audience was watching the Charlie Chaplin spoof on Hitler called The Great Dictator – is now a protected monument. Nor should we forget that two nights of intense bombing in Sheffield killed nearly 700 people in 1941.
But with Germany otherwise engaged against Russia and on the back foot after the Americans joined the allied cause, attacks became more sporadic, if occasionally still deadly.
So the Christmas Doodlebug offensive came out of the blue. In fact no one quite knew how it was possible. With its limited range Yorkshire was thought to be immune from the 400mph weapon and in any case many of the V1s’ European launch-sites had been overrun. The answer to the riddle was that 50 missiles had been air launched from Heinkel bombers flying off the Lincolnshire coast. They were targeting Manchester, but with an unreliable navigation system most never reached their destination and came down across a wide area. Hull, Pocklington, Market Weighton, Huddersfield, Sheffield and Doncaster all shared the horror of errant missiles blowing up.
A shaken Government speedily ordered the line of anti-aircraft guns protecting south east England to be extended all the way up to Yorkshire. It was called the ‘Diver’ line – taken from the observer corps codename for the V1. Eventually there were 27 gun batteries in the Humber and Bridlington sections alone, making it heavily defended. Most of these sites have fallen victim to coastal erosion, especially along the Holderness coast, but the one at Flamborough remains. Originally comprising two batteries of four guns, it was aimed using the latest computerised ‘predictor’ system. Both women and men were stationed here and billeted in local houses, ready to repel the pilot-less menace. Fortunately the Germans were soon incapable of launching even airborne V1s and the battery was stood down in March 1945.
In another twist to this grim Christmas tale German intelligence were desperate to confirm the accuracy or otherwise of their bombs. So in a cunning ploy they put Yuletide mail from allied POWs from the Manchester area in some of the V1s. Their reasoning was that at least a few letters would find their way to loved ones living nearby and by replying they would signal that the bomb had hit its mark. Realising the ruse police tried to scoop up the letters, however, some did indeed get into the hands of mums, dads and sweethearts. They duly responded, telling the Germans that at least a few V1s had landed on the right spot.
Those POWs would soon be reunited with loved ones and peace restored to Christmas after six years of war. Today the ruins of the Flamborough guns still look out over the North Sea, standing as a unique reminder of darker times.