Brian Foot's account of the V1 wartime bomb in 1944

Extracted from 'Engineering News' 24th August 1994

Building 8 starts to succumb

For those of you who have not visited New Southgate in the last few weeks you may be interested to know that nearly half of Building 8 is now a rather large pile of rubble. The following is a piece sent in by Brian Foot who seems to remember when Building 8 looked like this before - practically 50 years ago to the day.

Everything made at New Southgate was important to the war effort: Bailey bridges, teleprinters, tank and fighter radios, transceivers for RAF air-sea rescue launches and dinghies, blind-landing gear - known by the code-name 'Beechnuts', and radio-operated predictors and automatic fusing devices for AA guns. Although employees could, if they wished, take shelter when the siren sounded, most waited for the imminent danger signal, a continuous 15-second buzz, and the peremptory cry 'Lie down!' over the loudspeakers.

STC Ltd. had been described by the Minister then responsible for Civil Defence as 'the most prepared' company in London, but the site so far had been hit only by a few incendiaries and one small HE bomb. The company, part of the great international concern ITT, was in the words of one employee, 'not only a factory, but a family'. Son followed father through the factory gate, and, during the war, wife joined husband.

The morning of Wednesday, 23rd August 1944, was grey and gloomy. By 7am there had already been two alerts and at 7:10 one of the factory look-outs, Reg Smith, was peacefully shaving while waiting to hand over to his relief at 8am, when a third 'yellow' warning was received. 'I went quickly to the control tower and started plotting two V bombs,' Mr Smith remembers, 'one that had been located over Beachy Head and the other in the vicinity of Brighton.'

Soon afterwards his chief joined him, and Mr Smith explained that 'the one that had come across Brighton .... if it was to proceed without blowing up or coming down, would go over the Watford area; the one that had come in via Beachy Head, if it was to keep a direct line, should go between our two chimney stacks... on the west side of Building 8.'

This latter remark was, of course, a joke, but 'The bomb proceeding from Beachy Head gradually came closer..... and at 7:50 am we were flashed ...a red alert' which meant the sirens were sounded. 'Visibility,' the official log recorded, 'was now about 400 yards with very low cloud,' and Mr Smith, peering south through the murk, was horrified to 'see and hear through the slot of the control tower the V bomb just short of our main gate on the corner of Brunswick Park Road' about 300 yards away. He still remembers that moment and his response. 'I shouted over the factory speakers "Lie down! For God's sake, lie down."'The official log records what followed:

'A few seconds later the flying bomb broke through the cloud SSE and descended on Building 7 at 45°, cutting out half way.' The time was 7:59 am.

That final frantic shout must have saved many lives. 'The spotter literally screamed down his mike and we knew he meant it,' remembers one woman. 'I dived under my bench.' Her husband, 'putting his glue-pot on' in the Woodshop, on the other side of the same road, 'said to the chap next to him,' she later learned, '"He means it! Get under that bench!" ... and then the building collapsed on them.'

The bomb had landed at the very heart of the factory, between Building 8, a strong three-storey building of reinforced concrete, used for the assembly of airborne radio and radar equipment, and Building 6, a single storey steel-framed and brick construction which contained 'The Woodwork Shop' where Bailey bridge parts were being built, and the paint spraying and building maintenance departments for the whole factory. The staircase serving Building 8 was a projecting rectangle and it was this which caught the wing of the V-1 as it dropped, causing it to spin to earth.

The explosion blew out a crater four feet deep and twelve feet wide in the road, but the buildings on either side took the main force of the blast. Most of the wood-working shop, according to the official Ministry of Home Security report compiled a week later, was demolished and the contents blown into a vast pile at the far end of the building, though the steel framework remained as a skeleton, stripped of roof and walls. Block 8 'was not seriously damaged structurally .... but the internal machinery and fixtures were destroyed and blasted in all directions.' It was in this, the stronger building, that many of the casualties occurred, 'for the building was draped .... in camouflage rope netting which went up in flames. A number of workers who had taken refuge on a stairway were killed by the flames, for which the stairway acted as a chimney.'

For a moment after the explosion everyone was stunned. A then chargehand in the woodwork shop, who had 'dived under the marking- out table' just in time, recalls a confused impression of 'glass, wood, debris of all kinds and dust and dust and dust. Very difficult to get your breath and everything whirling.' When he could speak, he shouted to his brother, who had taken shelter with him, 'You OK?' to receive an unprintable response, for 'a surface plate had been blown off its position on to his rump.' Unharmed except for 'a few bruises and cuts' the two set off, as trained first-aiders, for the first aid post.

Also close to the point of impact was a young engineering apprentice, now a senior manager, who had just clocked on for work in the service and maintenance department of Building 6. 'I remember it suddenly going dark, due to dust, with a rushing noise .... then clearing with hissing noise of steam and compressed air escaping and raining particles on the roof and floor. It cleared enough to see the exit, which I made for. My first sight being a poor chap with his jaw hanging down, walking about in a daze. I felt sick and helpless. Another man steered him to the surgery in Building 8.'

To eyes unfamiliar with the power of high explosive, the destruction seemed almost unbelievable. 'Pallets of angle iron and sheet metal were blown through the air like playing cards,' noticed a chargehand in the radio assembly shop on the first floor of Building 8. On the ground floor the sight was much worse. 'About halfway along, where the bomb dropped in the roadway, the side of the building was smashed in. A rectangular supporting
pillar 2 feet by 3 feet was stripped of concrete, leaving only the reinforcing rods and allowing the first floor to sag'. To another eye-witness the ground floor 'looked like some vast scrap heap, with machinery and benches piled in indescribable confusion. Some of the huge concrete rooflight slabs had been blown right out, others were teetering on the edge ready to fall down at any moment.'

By good fortune the draughtsmen and planning engineers who normally occupied the ground floor were not due in until 8:20 and the rubble from above deluged down onto empty benches. The reinforced shelter in the basement below also withstood the sudden impact laid upon its roof, while in buildings further from the explosion the 'heavy cotton mesh coated with thick varnish' glued to the windows prevented them flying into lethal fragments. All the effort which STC Ltd. had invested in preparing for just such an emergency now paid off and from all over the factory area trained teams of helpers converged on their report centres. The factory Home Guard unit, for example, was within minutes, 'putting an armed guard round the area to keep off any unauthorised people.'

A feature of industrial incidents was that they were often followed by a fire and at New Southgate several small outbreaks occurred in the Woodshop, and a major one in the radio building, where there were many naked flames. The missile itself probably carried some incendiary bombs, for several suspicious-looking fins were picked up near the point of impact.

An inspector tester, working on the ground floor of Building 8, observed how the fire started, just after the explosion. 'There was a rush of air (no sound), then the departmental partition crashed over the bench ... I saw a small light like a match, then fire from floor to ceiling in the Component Test Section.' Whatever the cause, the fires added a new dimension of fear and terror to an already grim situation. One woman remembers seeing as she crawled from the debris another with 'part of her clothing on fire ... ringed round by a number of filing cabinets, full of drawings, so heavy it would have taken a couple of men to have moved one a couple of feet. By some miracle she was given the strength to move several and so got away from the fire and collapsed in my arms.'

Thanks to the highly efficient works fire-brigade the fire in Building 8 was 'quickly under control and did not spread to the wood-working shop across the road.' Meanwhile work was proceeding on rescuing those who had been trapped. One Home Guard who returned to his workplace, the woodshop, to be greeted by a 'heavy pall of smoke and red sawdust', remembers with particular satisfaction dragging out a man being 'drowned' by the water from a fractured main flowing into his face. He also rescued another workman with 'a two-inch sprinkler pipe embedded in the lower portion of his anatomy', which he was able to extract.

The young apprentice, quoted earlier, who had at first felt 'sick and helpless', now reported 'to the fire station as .... a part- time fireman' to be given a task that was emphatically not for the squeamish:

I was put to work digging for people in Building 6, near where the dust extraction plant had stood. I found the remains of three men in the rubble. These parts were put in three 'Woston' boxes, a wood and plywood box, identified where possible by skin and age; young, middle-aged and old.

One inspector/tester, after being rescued from Building 8, was 'told to get everyone I could out to the roadway and up to the top field, for roll-call' like the survivors of a badly-mauled battalion after a battle. The ominous silence which greeted name after name confirmed more eloquently than words the scale of the disaster which had fallen upon the factory.

Like the fire-fighting arrangements, the medical services at STC were, in the words of the official report, 'of a high standard under a whole-time doctor with a staff of ten registered nurses and 108 auxiliaries.' The doctor was Dr. Pringle, who lived close by and was on the scene within minutes, attending to the most desperate cases as they lay entombed, or were carried to him on the roadway between the two worst affected buildings.

As the bodies were removed from the wreckage they were laid out in rows in the entrance hall, close by the main surgery. A few, killed outright by blast, 'looked,' the sister in charge remembers, 'as if they had just sat down' but some were unrecognisable or badly mutilated.

The sister in charge of the main surgery was Mrs.R.V.Sandwell, who, with two nurses, had been 'attending to a young man with cuts from a machine' when the bomb fell. Within minutes the three women - and two nurses on duty in the other surgery - found themselves confronted by a long procession of badly injured workers, 'cut by glass, burnt, or injured by burning wood.'

The two first-aiders quoted earlier remember, after bringing in a whole series of casualties, some of whom 'were declared dead, ... giving assistance in the main hall,' where the injured awaiting attention were laid in rows. 'Our last task was a check out right through the workshops....and there was a middle-aged chap....from the carpenter's shop hobbling along with a large piece of wood through his thigh. He had sawed a piece off it whilst it was still in his leg, to enable him to walk.'

Even in the surgery there were lighter moments. Among them was the sudden arrival of one 'boiler houseman', who 'rushed in hysterically saying it wasn't his boiler that had blown up the building' - the 'then plant manager' had regularly warned him that he 'one day would blow the place up' by 'over-stoking'.

Directly the bomb had fallen the main gates had been closed, mainly to prevent people arriving for the 8:30 shift from entering, but soon a crowd of relatives clamouring for news formed outside, as in so many newsreels of pit disasters. Around 10am all those who had worked in the two damaged buildings and were not busy on post-raid duties were ordered to go home, while the members of the personnel department helped the nursing staff to label every body before it left the factory and to remove the contents of the pockets for safe keeping. Then came the melancholy duty of tracing the next of kin of the dead and injured - a time- consuming business with so many families evacuated. It was 10:30 pm that night before the wife of one man deafened by blast, who was living with relations in Bedford, learned what had happened to him and not till next day that another employee was asked to identify the body of a friend whose wife and family lived in Ireland. He found the mortuary in Lyonsdown Road besieged by 'a crowd of distressed people making inquiries about their relatives' and 'the officials ...very painstaking in the execution of their duties.'

The New Southgate flying-bomb cost the lives of thirty-three people, twenty-one of whom died on the spot, and caused serious injury to about 200 others - the government figures and company records disagree slightly as to the total - making the total of dead and seriously injured, 233, the highest of the whole campaign. The public knew little of what had happened, for the Barnet Press reported merely that some lives had been lost, when 'a works' had been hit and within two or three days production had been re-started even in the worst damaged buildings.

True to its tradition as a 'caring' company, STC Ltd set up a special committee, which included union representatives, to give both an immediate cash grant and long-term help to the injured and bereaved. It soon became clear - paralleling German experience - that the death and injury of their workmates had merely strengthened the resolve of the survivors. When the men from the two affected buildings returned to work and were asked to help with the clearing up, not one voice protested that he was a craftsman, not a labourer, and when the siren sounded thereafter, people throughout the factory were even more reluctant than before to desert their benches for a single moment.

The tragedy which occurred on the morning on 23rd August 1944 nearly had a sequel the following evening. At 6:50 pm on 24th August another flying-bomb, no doubt fired from the same ramp, was reported approaching from the same direction. This time, however, it landed on the sports field to the north, 'causing only superficial damage to the main buildings and partially destroying a test hut.' The enemy did not trouble Standard Telephones and Cables again.

Many thanks to Martin Cope for providing this account as a soft copy (ie easy to upload onto this website)
NOTE: It has become apparent that most of this text was extracted from the book "The Doodlebugs" by Norman Longmate, 1981 ISBN 009144750X

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