Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: The V2 rocket - the first truly modern weapon of mass destruction

Martin Newell's father on parade, and inset, his late grandmother

Martin Newell's father on parade, and inset, his late grandmother - Credit: Archant

A powerful explosion is a strange and terrible thing. Witnesses to the immediate effect of a direct hit on a large building have sometimes described seeing the walls bowing, almost as if the building was momentarily breathing in.

This is followed by a second of eerie silence before all hell breaks loose. The V2 rocket which hit the roof of the Woolworths store in New Cross London on a Saturday lunchtime on November 25th 1944 killed 168 people. My dad’s mother was amongst them. It wounded many others and affected the lives of even more. My father, 17 years old at that time, identified her body by a scrap of her coat and her wedding ring. As I went over the notes which he left, his laconic voice returned to me. “Monday: Identify belongings. Confirm. LOSS OF GOD. ”

V2 rockets, the first truly modern weapons of their era, were directed at targets in Great Britain from September of 1944. They were extremely powerful – capable of taking out an entire shopping parade. So fearsome were they, in fact, that initially, ministry misinformation was disseminated claiming that they were gas-explosions. London’s civilian population, far from being the doughty, determined souls frequently portrayed in films of that period, were rather closer to the edge than we are told. Many people were shaken, hungry, exhausted and depressed They’d had enough. Shortages, bombings, the blackout and the constant bad news had all taken their toll. It’s sometimes speculated that had Hitler come up with the V2 rocket few months earlier than he did, the allies may not have won the war.

It is startling for me to realise now that this terrifyingly uncertain world which my parents inhabited was only separated from the one which I was born into by about eight years. Within barely a dozen years of the Woolworths bombing came Elvis Presley and the Space Age. It’s also extraordinary to consider that by autumn 1960, only 15 years after war with Germany, four young leather-jacketed scousers were belting out rock’n’roll songs in a Hamburg nightclub. Then, within another three years, still only 18 years after the war’s end, came Beatlemania, pop art, mini-cars and package holidays in Europe. The contrast made me wonder how wars ever come about or how, for that matter, they ever end. And yet they do.

In their wake we lose much: architecture, financial wealth, historical artifacts, housing, identity – and people. As my father told me – half a century after the death of his mother – when he, his brother and their father finally returned to England, the family never reconvened. Their father, in fact, in the summer of 1946 died of cirrhosis of the liver at Netley Military Hospital near Southampton. Major Charles Wesley Newell RAMC, M.M. a tough battle-scarred old sweat who’d first enlisted in 1908, drank himself to death. It was rumoured that he’d had two brothers, one killed in the trenches, and the other, possibly a conscientious objector. Neither was ever spoken of. We’re not entirely sure that they even existed.

This is an aspect of war rarely mentioned. It’s not to do with what we lost but with that which we never had: the couples who never met, never married, the children they never spawned, the businesses, scientific discoveries and inventions which never came about because of the gaps in the paling fence with which war leaves us.

On my mother’s side for instance was a cousin. Alan lived in Herne Bay. As a boy he was so good at zoology, the identification of reptiles in particular, that the Royal Zoological Society awarded him special membership. My mother remembered him as a bright, artistic boy who, when war broke out, refused to join the Army. Instead, he became a Bevin Boy and went to work down the mines. The experience broke him and afterwards he became a recluse. He died in 2008, alone, unmarried, in the house where he’d sequestered himself for over 60 years – an unseen casualty of war. The garden was head high in overgrown shrubbery, the house full of dusty paintings, books, exotic musical instruments and strange manuscripts. Weeks later, as I picked my way through its musty chaos, I thought: “I might have liked this man a great deal – if I’d ever had the chance to meet him.”

When I was growing up, my father never spoke of his mother’s death. “She was killed by a bomb when she was shopping.” my mum told me quietly. Only in late November of 1994, when reporting restrictions were finally lifted and it was in all the papers, did he talk about the incident with me. The patchwork of my family history, with all its undiscussed tragedies, missing members and unforged friendships is oddly interlaced with an incongruous soundtrack of 1960s pop. The cheery jangle of 1960s music was the only constant throughout my entire childhood as we moved from posting to posting. Aged 13, while visiting my aunt in Colchester in 1966, I noticed on her piano the sheet music for the Moody Blues hit Go Now. Only 18 months earlier, in 1964 her own husband, also a soldier, had been killed in Malaya. To me, back then, my ‘with it’ pretty aunt seemed awfully young to be a widow. I occasionally wonder if we all dwell on wars rather too much. But then November comes and alongside it, remembrance.