Chris Floyd: Clean Living Under Difficult Circumstances.

The Consequences Of Vengeance

Posted in Me Myself & I, Personal Projects, The Consequences of Vengeance by Chris Floyd on February 12, 2010

A few postings back I put up a photograph from an ongoing project, The Consequences of Vengeance, which is my quest to photograph houses from London and it’s suburbs that were visited by the German weapon which was the cause of the most extreme fear and stress for it’s civilians during the Second World War.  This weapon was the V2, the world’s first ballistic missile.

In this post I want to tell you about the project in a bit more detail.

Towards the end of 1943 the population had become accustomed to frequent and regular bombing from the air by the Luftwaffe.  However, these actions were predictable, almost always took place at night and thanks to a good early warning set-up along the coast, the inhabitants of London often had enough time to find shelter, frequently in one of the city’s deep underground stations.  Nevertheless, approximately 65,000 British civilians were killed during the war, primarily as a result of German air raids.

By mid-1944 the bombing of London had more or less come to a halt and, with D-Day on 6th June, the British had good reason to think that the hellish days of the Blitz were over.  Unfortunately a new kind of blitz was about to begin.  On 13th June the first V1 flying bomb landed in Hackney, East London and killed 6 people.  The V1 was exactly what it looked like – a big flying bomb.  Launched from northern France, it was the first unmanned missile.  It flew at 400mph and once unleashed it could no longer be controlled.  The German army were aiming them in the direction of London and they flew until they ran out of fuel, whereupon the engine would cut out and they would dive down to earth and explode on impact. In the 3 days following that first one a further 73 flying bombs had hit London and on the 18th June, 5 days after the first one, a V1 hit the Guards Chapel in St. James’s during the Sunday service and killed 141 people.

Within 3 months, however, the Observer Corps and the RAF had begun to develop techniques to deal with the V1 and using aircraft that could match the speed of the V1, barrage balloons and anti-aircraft fire, 4,261 V1’s had been shot down or destroyed before impact.  In September the launch sites on the French coast were engulfed by the advancing allied armies and, with a few exceptions, the threat of the V1 had ended – just in time for the opening of Hitler’s final attempt to force the allies into submission.

The ‘V’ in V1 & V2 stands for the German phrase  Vergeltungswaffe – vengeance weapon.  These weapons were, in the end, of no military significance. Their real impact was psychological.  The allied advance on Germany: the Amercians, British, Canadian armies from the west and the Soviet Red Army from the east already had Hitler in an unbreakable vice grip.  No, the vengeance was designed to cause such trauma and fear in the civilian populace that Hitler deluded himself into believing it would be strong enough to trigger a withdrawal at least.

On Friday 8th September at 6.34pm outside 5 Staveley Road, Chiswick, London W4 an enormous explosion ripped half the street apart.  It killed a little girl who was asleep in her cot and a passing soldier, home on leave from France.  For quite some time people believed, and the government propagated the myth, that it was a gas main explosion.  What had actually happened was that the first V2 had just arrived.  The rocket was the brainchild of Werner von Braun, the German scientist who, after the war, was captured by the Americans and went on to work for NASA and create the Saturn V rocket which carried the first men to the moon.  His 12 tonne baby was launched from Holland and followed a parabolic flight path that reached it’s apex about 60 miles above the Earth before heading in a downward direction at a peak of 3,000mph.  Think of it as the world’s first Predator drone missile.

As it travelled faster than the speed of sound it would arrive silently and too fast for the eye to see, exploding it’s one tonne warhead on impact.  In a final post explosion smirk, those still alive would hear the double crack of the supersonic boom and the sound of a very heavy object crashing through the air – a short sadistic trip back in time to the moments when those now dead were still alive.

My own personal interest in the story of the V2 is entwined in the fact that at 7.21am on Tuesday 27th March 1945 134 people were on the receiving end of a V2 that hit Hughes Mansions, a tenement building in Vallance Road, Stepney, London.  Of the 1402 V2’s that struck the British Isles this was the 1401st.  There was one final rocket on the same day which killed a woman in Orpington, Kent.  The entire population of the building were eastern European Jews who had fled persecution and death before the war.  Abraham & Annie Mordsky of No.83 were two of them and they were my great-grandparents.  They had come to Britain sometime just before the First World War thanks to persecution in Russia.  If Hitler, in this last throw of the dice, believed that vengeance was his then he certainly got it by wiping out the 134 Jews that were on the receiving end of this futile final gesture.  My mother, who was 3 years old, was due to be staying with them that day.  Only because the rocket struck the building so early in the morning, before her mother had dropped her off, was she not the 135th person to die in it.  And now I am here and alive and I do not forget that.

What I see in these photographs is the calm, quiet, untroubled suburban order that would have been in place in the moments prior to the total and utter devastation that was visited upon the houses in them, without warning, in those last few months of the war.  For these people and places, the war was almost over.  They had got through a marathon of endurance and survival.  The Luftwaffe had long been smashed and the idea of it reaching them now was not in the running.  And yet, while we are looking at these scenes, a missile launch crew somewhere in a Dutch forest have just unleashed something that will deliver all this to eternity.  And in 3 minutes time this eternity will pick it’s companions and it will be arbitrary.  This is how it was then and this is how it is now.

To see more of this project please visit my website


8 Responses

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  1. Tom said, on February 12, 2010 at 4:27 pm

    Nice to hear a little bit more about the project and how it relates to you. A big part of my degree (History/Politics) was about memory and the war, and how people remember/honour it and the part it plays in our culture today. I think this series and the idea is interesting in that context. What we forget as it were.

    I think the pictures you have put up are successful examples of what you have set out. There is a serene sense of distance from the war contained in them, which plays well off the darker text.

    What interests me is how it contrasts with the tenement building in Vallance Road? With this being the ‘start’ of the project from a personal perspective did you investigate the site to start with? Or are you working towards it?
    I suppose also that it sits against the suburban idil that the other houses in the series represent. More crassly, I suppose a tenement of 134 people is large, and ugly (?) as an aesthetic object to photograph. And, in central london the buildings built after the war to replace them were not exactly an improvement? It is a terrible example of the damage the V2s caused, but also sits against what the series is trying to communicate I suppose. Would be interested to see how you resolved this in the series?

  2. GLENN said, on February 15, 2010 at 4:21 am

    Great project and nicely done sir!

  3. Greg Funnell said, on February 16, 2010 at 11:35 pm

    Really interesting project you’re working on Chris. Similar to Tom I did a degree in History/War Studies and to see projects that meld history and visually appealing content is always great; making use of photography as it should be. My gran was bombed by a V2 whilst at work on an office in the strand/aldwych, right next to my old university. She has a fantastic 8×10 black and white print that must have been taken from the top of another building showing the immediate aftermath. To go past that place most days whilst I was at University and to think how close I came to not existing because of circumstance on that very same spot all those years ago was quite strange. But truth be told I’ve only really started to think about it properly since seeing this project. And even though this project isn’t just about that (my own selfish thoughts of fate!) thank you for creating a thought provoking piece.

  4. John Lowry said, on December 30, 2010 at 2:26 pm

    Very many thanks for sharing this most interesting project with us. My grandmother (Alice Gray) and uncle (Ernest, together with three other family members) were killed in February 1945 in their house in Finland Road, Brockley.

  5. […] this piece by me on my ‘Consequences of Vengeance’ project.  Read the backstory here and if you’d like to buy a copy of the magazine then visit their site and order yourself […]

  6. […] this piece by me on my ‘Consequences of Vengeance’ project.  Read the backstory here and if you’d like to buy a copy of the magazine then visit their site and order yourself […]

  7. […] in the latter stages of the Second World War.  If you’d like to know more then please read this post from earlier this year.  The locations shown here are in south east London – bordering […]

  8. […] in the latter stages of the Second World War.  If you’d like to know more then please read this post from earlier this year.  The locations shown here are in south east London – bordering […]

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