Category Archive: The Consequences of Vengeance
The Manzine have published 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 one. The Manzine features work by many of the best writers working in Britain today and it allows them to write pieces that stretch them in a far more creative way than the mainstream publications they work for will allow.
“Chris Floyd exists partly because his mother was not blown up by V2 rockets launched from The Hague during the Second World War. Here are some pictures he took and a story he wrote about the subject.
The photographer David Bailey told me recently that when he was a kid, a German V2 Vergeltungswaffen (Vengeance Weapon) rocket, landed on his local cinema. After that, rage and sadness were with him constantly. He believed Hitler had killed Mickey Mouse.
I am 42 years old and I have two children of my own. Girls. They are six & two. The older I get, the more prone I am to dwelling on the feints, swerves and potholes of this life, as well as the gifthorses and cupcakes.
At 7.21am on Tuesday 27th March 1945 a V2 struck Hughes Mansions, a series of tenement buildings in Vallance Road, Stepney, London E2. It killed 134 people, most of them still in their beds. Most of population of the building were Jewish, of eastern European extraction. Two of those were my great grandparents, Abraham & Annie Mordsky, who lived at number 83.
This particular V2 also has its own little place in history. It was the final enemy attack of World War II to result in the death of London civilians. If Hitler, with his 1,000-year Reich collapsing around him, wanted to have one last go at exterminating the Jews, then what a sweet shudder must have run through him as the 1,401st of his beloved vengeance weapons to land on London took out 120 of them in the one place in Europe where they were guaranteed life and liberty.
Another relative, living nearby in Underwood Road, came running over to Hughes Mansions when he heard the explosion. In the rubble he found the bodies of Abraham & Annie, entirely physically intact, with not a mark on them. The colossal vacuum created by the V2 blast had asphyxiated them. It had sucked the life right out of them. They never knew what hit them.
My mother was two years old, a regular Monday night guest at her grandparents, while her mother went to work. Her father (my grandfather) was at sea in the Royal Navy. Abraham & Annie were his parents. My grandmother decided to change things around on the night of the 26th March and did not send my mother to stay with the Mordskys. Consequently, she was not killed at 7.21am the following morning. As a further consequence, you are now reading this.
I do not remember a time when this piece of family history was not in me. As I get older I think about the V2 more than I probably should. How could I not? It defines the reason for my existence on this earth. Are there other things like this that I don’t know about? A decision made by a woman to have the night off. No, don’t fancy it tonight, I want to stay in… I’ll swap my shift. I’ll keep the kiddy with me, we’ll see the in-laws later in the week…
I’ve dreamed about being there five minutes before it came and yelling at all those in its path to get out. Wake up! When I open my mouth in the dream, well, I’m sure you can guess: nothing comes out. They all die and I’m paralysed.
I am a photographer and taking photographs is the thing I do. It’s how I see, feel and touch. So I decided to go to the corner of The Continent from where my fate was determined and see it for myself. Maybe I can stop it there.
I spent a lot of time on the internet looking for information and I found a website called v2rocket.com. It’s a bottomless mine of V2-related facts and people. I discovered that the launch sites of many V2s are well known among those who like to know. Included in that list is the launch information for a rocket that originated in The Hague at 07.12am on March 27 1945. Alongside it is the known impact site: Vallance Road, Stepney, London. There even exists an RAF reconnaissance photograph of the site that was taken earlier in the same month. It shows a heavily wooded park/forest in the centre of the city – Haagse Bos. In the picture are five V2s lying on their sides in a line. The RAF returned later to bomb them. Unfortunately, the leading bomber dropped its load too early and all those planes behind followed its lead by doing the same thing. The bombs landed at the south east corner of the park instead of the intended spot, the north west. I look at that picture now and one of those five is what I can’t stop in my dream.
I went to see the consequences that were visited on that little piece of Stepney and we packed the car with large-format camera equipment. A 5”x4” cherrywood Zone V1 field camera. Or a “blanket over the head wedding photographer camera”, as a passerby once commented. Eighty sheets of large-format colour film were loaded in a darkroom. We were bristling with Victorian technology, and when we unpacked and set up the shot of the Hughes Mansions site as it is today, from under the blanket I was bringing into focus an upside down and back to front image of a tarmac carpark. Of course. What else would it be?
Also upside down and back to front in the viewfinder was the outline of a woman carrying a Tesco bag. She opened her mouth to speak and what came out, from across the other side of the car park, was absolutely the right way up and not back to front:
“What you fuckin’ doing that for? I live ’ere. I got right to know innit.”
“There was a German rocket that landed here in the war and killed 134 people. My grandparents were two of those. I’m a photographer and am doing a proj…”
“Oh right. Yeah. The war. Fuckin’ killed loads innit.”
She then turned to an as-yet unseen
co-inquisitor, above us in the flats, and bellowed:
“BOMB COME. THE WAR. KILLED ’IS FUCKIN’ NAN & GRANDAD INNIT. ’E’S TAKIN’ A PHOTO OF IT OR SUMMINK.”
And then she disappeared up the stairs with her Tesco bag and whatever.
Then we’re being eyed up by four young guys. Just watching us. Not speaking, to us or to each other. Some more appear across from where they are standing. I’ve been in a lot of places where a camera is not welcome and I can sense when its presence is causing ripples. Now is that time. Even the sky seems to go darker. Malice is radiating and it starts to gently rain. A warning. Stay here and bad things might happen. The difference between then and now is that I know I’ve been warned. I’ve been given the luxury of time.
There is history here. In 2005 a small memorial plaque was unveiled on the site. There was a high turnout of old Jewish people, some who survived the V2. But as we drove out of there it occured to me that the V2 didn’t just suck the life out of my great grandparents in that place. The tarmac carpark feels like a memorial, and there seemed to be mistrust, suspicion and paranoia all around. I don’t need to go back there again.
The distance that the V2 flew in nine minutes in 1945, we drove (in the opposite direction) in 13 hours this year. From Hughes Mansions to Harwich in Essex, an overnight ferry to The Hook of Holland and then another drive to The Hague.
The launch site. This was it, the place I dream about and the muddy patch of woodland that the RAF missed. Standing there I felt more kinship and meaning in this, the patch of crappy municipal ground from which my grandad’s mum & dad’s death was certified, stamped, signed, sealed, delivered, nine minutes before they knew it. There is more grace, peace and beauty in this bare patch of Dutch mud and leaves that gave of itself to allow death to be delivered remotely to others, than there is in all of that blob of grim, dark blight of east London that seems to bear only ill will to those within as well as to those from without.
And now I know why. From here, the path that led to my place on this ball of rock in space was sealed too. This terrible incident was the first step in a chain of events that led to my mum meeting my dad. Had there been no rocket that day, then, well, who knows what it might have been. I know there’s no point in asking these questions, but what point also is there in the Fantasy Football League?
We choose the fantasies we like to take part in. Some people like football, I like to wonder about rocket trajectories. No rocket? No deaths, no mourning, no this, no that, no who knows what and on and on for another 25 years, deviating from the trajectory of me. No mum meeting no dad. No me. Nor my children too. I see their little faces in in the deaths of Abraham and Annie. I thank them for it and realize that this isn’t just about the consequences of vengeance. It’s also about the consequences of trajectory, the defining characteristic not only of projectiles but also lives. Cupid, above all, can tell you about that. “
I haven’t mentioned this one for a while but I have been quietly working away on photographing more locations that were on the receiving end of German V2 rockets 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 on Kent and the information I have managed to find on these incidents is recorded under each picture.
Friday 2nd February 1945
Between Finland Road & Revelon Road, Brockley, London SE4
Thursday 15th March 1945
Crystal Palace Park Road, At Junction of Westwood Hill, Bromley, Kent BR1
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 www.chrisfloyd.com
This is from a series I have been working on of English houses that were hit by German V2 rockets during the final months of the Second World War. They were ordinary, boring places then and they’re ordinary boring places now. By a fate of trajectory these places were selected to be the recipients of the most advanced and sophisticated scientific technology of the time. The final rocket struck at 4.54pm on 27th March 1945 and killed Ivy Mildred Millichamp, a 34 year old married woman who was making a cup of tea in the kitchen of her house at 88 Kynaston Road, Orpington, Kent.
The ‘V’ in V2 refers to the German word for Vengeance – vergeltungswaffe. Hitler believed that this weapon would be the miracle that would save Germany from defeat and that the destructive impact of the V2 would cause such a collapse in morale that the allies would be forced into a retreat.
There is something sordid, pathetic and poetic in the fact that this technologically superior weapon, with 2,200lbs of explosive on board, arriving at 3,000mph via the Earth’s upper atmosphere, only 3 minutes after it’s launch from Holland, managed to kill a solitary unarmed woman in the kitchen of a bungalow in a suburb of London at teatime. Of the other 1401 V2′s aimed at London there were incidents of hundreds of deaths at a time but in this final throw of the dice the futility of the meisterwerk is laid bare.
Wernher von Braun, the inventor of the V2 was captured by the Americans as Berlin crumbled at the end of the war. He went on to become a director of NASA and was the chief architect of the Saturn V rocket that propelled the first astronauts to the moon.