ADVERTISER 150: Why we couldn’t report Hitler’s last V2 rocket attack that hits Whitechapel
PUBLISHED: 19:22 15 December 2016 | UPDATED: 19:38 15 December 2016
The Second World War in Europe is drawing to a close—but the defiant Nazis have a last shot at London with their deadly V2 rocket. Our nightly series looking at the big stories of the day to mark the East London Advertiser’s 150th anniversary last month has arrived at 1945 and the tragedy of Hughes Mansions, the story that we couldn’t bring you at the time...
1945: Hitler’s last act of defiance as his Nazi empire crumbles around him in the ruins of Berlin is firing his last, deadly V2 rocket at London in the final weeks of the Second World War—and 130 East Enders pay the price.
The V2, the world’s first ballistic missile, comes down in Whitechapel, smashing into Hughes Mansions in Vallance Road at 7am on March 27—only six weeks before the end of the war in Europe.
But the East London Advertiser can’t report it as wartime censorship under National Defence Regulations are still in place, as it might just give the Germans valuable information to know where their deadly missile has landed to calibrate further attacks with accuracy. It isn’t until the last week of the war that we can tell the story.
Our front page headline on May 4, 1945, declares:
Rockets Brought Debris and Death—London’s Last Caused High Stepney Death Toll
Six weeks before that headline, Hughes Mansions is wrecked by the deadly V2, the very last German rocket to hit London.
“The V2 destroyed two blocks and 130 people were killed,” we finally report in May, 1945, when censorship is relaxed. “The worst incident in the Stepney Borough since the first bombs dropped in August, 1940, plunged Whitechapel into mourning—this last chapter of German destruction.”
The RAF and anti-aircraft ground crews have had some success against the V1 doodlebug, which flies level at a maximum 400mph. But the V2 rocket is faster than sound, arriving silently from the upper stratosphere and impossible to intercept.
The Advertiser tells the story of one Hughes Mansions family for the first time on the 60th anniversary of the disaster.
Isabelle Wiggins should have been killed, we tell readers in 2005 . But her bedroom door blows off in the blast and lands on top of her, miraculously shielding her from crashing masonry.
Next to her lies her daughter Lillie, 21, who takes the full force of the collapse and is crushed to death.
Air raid wardens, who include Isabelle’s husband Charlie, pull Lillie’s body and 129 others from the rubble.
Lillie’s sister Rose, married and living away from home, rushes over in a taxi when she hears about the V2 attack on Hughes Mansions.
“There was a crowd at the police cordon,” she recalls. “Dad came to the barrier and told me he got mum out who was taken to the London Hospital, then said, ‘but I’m afraid Lillie is dead’.”
Lillie was a machinist in the rag trade in Aldgate. The sisters last see each other two nights before when Lillie walks Rose home to Walworth late on Sunday.
“I asked Lillie to stay the night, but mum was alone in Hughes Mansions,” Rose adds. “She said ‘goodnight’—the last thing she ever said to me.”
But Hitler’s ‘secret weapons’ had begun the year before with the V1 ‘doodlebug’, not a rocket, more a pilotless plane with a warhead that drops down and explodes when its engine cuts out.
The first one smashes into a row of houses in Grove Road, Mile End, in June 1944, killing six people, including a baby boy and his teenage mum.
The arrival of the doodlebug attacks is remembered more than seven decades on, when actor Sir Ian McKellan revisits the site next to the Grove Road railway bridge on the 72nd anniversary in June, 2016, as part of a national Blue Plaque remembrance campaign.