In February 2009 I was contacted by Jonathan Smale, who told me about a train crash in Rainham, which was caused when a German V1 flying bomb hit the line at Oak Lane. Jonathan's mother was on the train, and he wrote the following article based on an interview with her.
"I must have heard it ... but I don't remember the big explosion, there must have been an almighty bang when the bomb went off! ... nor the noise of our train crashing, I don't remember a pall of smoke, nor all the screaming. Yes, of course it was a steam train but I don't recall its whistle being stuck on after it crashed. I remember walking away from the scene after someone told me "there's nothin' you can do 'ere," and of walking all the way back to Gillingham. On the way there, I was approached by a uniformed MP. It didn't even occur to me that I might be going AWOL at that moment, but he soon asked "where are you going?" And we walked back to Gillingham Station together. I told him about the crash, he insisted on fetching me a cup of tea and later accompanied me all the way back home to Bexleyheath. My CO, a WAAF officer at RAF Manston in East Kent, phoned my mother and told her to keep me at home as long as necessary."
When thinking of all the devastating WWII events taking place in the summer of 1944, a little-known train accident at the railway bridge over Oak Lane between Rainham and Newington in the South-East of England in which my mother was involved, becomes an almost completely insignificant side-show of the war. But at some point I realized that the event really was extremely tragic, even though there hadn't been great loss of life, and it had always been quite significant to my mother, and of course had in some way become quite existentially profound to me too, and so here below is some of my account, and some more of hers. In many respects she experienced silence, through the overwhelming shock most likely, and I attempt now to assign some sound to the story... a way of breaking the silence. I had at one point even considered that the lack of available information was due to deliberate censorship - silencing perhaps - by the war cabinet, just as with the Bethnal Green tube disaster, but this was all just unreasonable suspicion. However, to tell this short version of the passenger train disaster, I should really start at the beginning, but where does the story begin?
Out there in rural Oak Lane maybe? My mother had from time to time related this tragedy of a Spitfire pilot chasing and deflecting a V1 flying bomb inadvertently onto a bridge. She also mentioned the high embankment, the fields and other surrounding features - she was a WAAF signalwoman on that very train - but I had never seen or heard any other reference to the incident, not that I doubted her. Yet one day (before finally deciding to properly interview her) I thought I'd virtually travel down the London-Dover mainline via Google-Earth. I did not yet know that the location was Oak Lane, nor indeed, where the site was at all, apart from being between Rainham and Newington.
And there it was, this 'must' be the spot: a fine 'summer-day' satellite photo. Wide open pasture, hedgerows, a farmyard, some cows. There aren't all that many railway bridges between these two stations anyway, but it was nevertheless a rather hair-raising moment. Seeing the site for the first time on my monitor, I thought: "we must drive down there some time" it's not so very far away from where she now lives. But it was a 'disaster' for heaven's sake: maybe she doesn't want to go back there at all. Although, when I finally asked her if we could talk in more detail about that day, she assured me she was quite comfortable with the idea. Even when we were young children, we had heard about her wartime experiences, as well as the time when she and another WAAF colleague were on duty in the signaling hut at the end of RAF-Manston's runway when a V1 suddenly appeared so low, directly overhead, scaring them so suddenly that they quickly bolted the wooden door.
Now, the date is August 16th 1944, a pleasant summer day, but there's a war on. The incident is scarcely but nevertheless sometimes referred to as the 'The 1944 Rainham crash' in the one or two reports in the local press after the war. The V1 flying-bomb attacks on London had begun only a few weeks before this accident, but RAF pilots had already experienced the dangers of shooting at the V1s from the rear at close range and then flying straight through the resulting explosion, fire, heat and debris (for example, between 19 June and 29 August, the New Zealander Flight Lieutenant John Harry Stafford (DFC) shot down eight V1s in this way, often badly damaging and burning the fabric of his Tempest). Very soon one pilot discovered that 'tipping' the wing (see below) would be a much less dangerous approach to the problem. This must have been the reason why this particular flying bomb was - other than being deflected from its gyro-compass-heading towards London - quite undamaged, and that it was not plummeting but flying almost horizontally towards the train now just approaching the bridge at Oak Lane.
I had indeed more often sought to find information about the event over the last few years, but until now, all my online research (I no longer live in England) discovered only one or two scarce references to the incident, but there must be someone or some records out there that have more details of the Spitfire or even of the pilot himself? My interest was further prompted by the fact that I have now been living in Germany for some years and that we recently had the chance to visit the old underground V1 and V2 factory in a concentration camp called Mittelbau-Dora near Nordhausen in the Harz Mountains.
Mittelbau-Dora is now a federal memorial site to the hundreds, no, thousands of victims - hundreds more than those who were killed by the bombs after they were launched - who were killed via forced-labour building these V-weapons in an almost indescribable underground purgatory. There are miles of tunnels: dark, damp, silent, strewn with rusted rocket scrap. The only sounds - our own pathetic whispers and echoes of water dripping somewhere in the blackness. It's a truly terrifying place, that leaves one quite speechless when resurfacing into the daylight, and its far less known than all the infamous names such as Dachau and Buchenwald.
At the beginning of the flying-bomb attacks on Britain, defence units had been trying out various ways of knocking out the aircraft before they reached their city targets. The majority was aimed at London from fixed ramps in occupied Pas-de-Calais, as this one probably was too, but later in the war some were even launched from the air. Initially, the V1s were shot at by anti-aircraft batteries, passively hindered by barrage balloon cables, and attacked by various fast fighter planes such as Spitfires, Typhoons, Mosquitos and even one or two Meteor jets diving on them from high above in order to gain sufficient speed to shoot from behind, which was, as mentioned, extremely dangerous for the pilots (Hawker Typhoon attack-aircraft were based at Manston later in the war, as was also the first Meteor jet squadron of the RAF).
A preferred method was developed after some pilots were killed by the blast or the debris of the exploding V1: The pilot would fly alongside the bomb and position his wing directly above the wing of the bomb in order to disrupt the airflow, thus causing the V1 to veer into a dive. The following account proves that this technique was already in use by the RAF at the time of the bridge crash, and indeed there were probably other instances of pilots in propeller-powered aircraft which predate this event: The first V1 to be destroyed by a Meteor jet (616 Squadron RAF) occurred near Tonbridge on August the 4th 1944 when, piloted by Flying Officer Dean, he 'flipped over' a V1 using the Meteor's wing tip, thus disabling the V1's gyroscope, forcing it to crash and explode well short of it's target (London). (http://www.eastmidlandsaeropark.org/meteor.htm).
"I had no kit bag with me, so it must have been just one week's leave. My mother, Edith House, saw me off at Bexleyheath station near our home in Avenue Road. I had joined the WAAF in 1943, it was the first time I had lived away from home, apart from a short spell in Manchester as a teenager, but that's another long story. I was in uniform for less than two years, I had completed my basic training in Kent and technical training in Ipswich. Now I had one stripe on my arm, a signalwoman, returning to duty at RAF Manston in East Kent near the Channel coast. My mother told me to 'sit in the front carriage with friends,' but I didn't want to sit with them and decided to travel in one of the last carriages and I found a window seat on the left of the train, and it turned out to be quite a fateful decision. The train was full of sailors returning to Chatham, and other WAAFs, and soldiers as well as civilians."
"We stopped at all the usual stations, I remember it was daytime, we were passing flat countryside but we were up on an embankment, sometime after leaving Rainham Station. On the left were open fields and it was springtime or summer. Then suddenly there was much excitement and shouting and pointing into the sky. We could all then see the flying bomb coming down closer and closer to us... almost chasing us and getting bigger, everyone was looking at it out of the windows of the train. At that moment I was standing in the corridor, looking out of the right window of the train and talking to a sailor, but the V1 was flying at such a flat angle that it was also visible to those of us standing in the corridor and looking through the seating compartments and out of the left windows ..."
My mother was on the train, in one of the last two carriages, travelling towards the bridge that was just about to be struck by the flying bomb. As with many other details of that day, she is no longer quite sure about all that had happened. It is a long time ago now, and shock also has a well-known effect on memory, but other details she says are as clear as yesterday.
"The jolt of the crash knocked everyone over and threw the sailor and I a few feet along the corridor and around the corner of the carriage gangway. The train had alternating corridors. There must have been an almighty bang! We initially both managed to get up in the surrounding panic and walk back to our compartment as soon as our carriage had come to a complete stop. We were in the nearest carriage to the yawning gap where the bridge had been and the bomb crater beneath it, but maybe not the last carriage of the train. The locomotive was across the gap, and many of the carriages had crashed down into it." Had she not decided to sit at the rear of the train then she wouldn't have been in any position to mind any gap again. "I don't remember walking down the embankment, but I must have done. One man was completely covered in blood, there were parts of bodies and there were wounded and dead lying everywhere. The locomotive had shot across the collapsing bridge, other carriages had fallen into the gap where the bridge had been, there were only one or two carriages still left up on the embankment. Those poor people, we were the lucky ones"
"That poor man, the pilot! ...circling round and round the crash-site in his plane, flying low, ... he must have felt so terrible!"
All photographs © 2000 - 2009 Jason Ross unless otherwise stated.