Disasters in Medway - The Rainham Train Crash Caused by a V1 Flying Bomb
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, and updated it in 2021:
The V1 Flying Bomb and the Rainham Train Crash
The pilot who inadvertently caused a train crash
"I must have heard it ... but I don't remember the huge explosion – nor the loud crashing of the carriages falling beneath the destroyed bridge – there must have been an almighty bang when the bomb went off! Neither do I remember a pall of smoke, nor all the screaming. Yes, of course it was a steam locomotive but I don't recall its whistle continuing to blast after the crash. I remember walking away from the scene after I offered assistance and someone told me "there's nothin' you can do 'ere, Miss" and I recall 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, I was still shaking. He insisted on fetching me a cup of tea and later he accompanied me all the way back home to Bexleyheath to my parents’ home. My CO, a WAAF officer at RAF Manston, a forward base in East Kent, phoned my mother and told her to keep me at home as long as necessary. I was still in shock."
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 Aircraftwoman Margaret House was involved, becomes an almost completely insignificant side-show of the war. But at some point I realized that the event really was very tragic, even though there hadn't been great loss of life (eight passengers out of four hundred were killed, though many more were injured), 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 tranquillity, 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 – some silencing perhaps – by the war cabinet, just as with the Bethnal Green tube disaster and to some extent also the Balham tube flooding, but this was all just unreasonable suspicion. However, to tell this short version of the passenger train disaster, I should really start with my mother’s memory of it, though the historical account is perhaps even more revealing.
To be brief, I should perhaps simply start out there in rural Oak Lane. My mother had from time to time related this tragedy of a Spitfire pilot (it was, I discovered much later, a 274-Squadron RCAF Mk V Hawker Tempest flown by Lieutenant John Malloy) chasing and deflecting a V1 flying bomb inadvertently onto a railway bridge. Aircraftwoman House also mentioned the high embankment, the fields and other surrounding features – she was a WAAF signalwoman on this Ramsgate train – but for many years during my childhood I had never seen or heard any other reference to the incident, not that I doubted her. Yet one day (before finally deciding to formally 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 exactly the crash site was, apart from it being between Rainham and Newington.
And there it was, this 'must' be the spot: a fine summer-daytime satellite photo. Wide open pasture, hedgerows, a farmyard, some cows. There aren't all that many railway bridges between these two stations in any case, 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 and have a look around." It's not so very far away from where she was living long after the war south-east of London. My German wife and I often visited her before driving past Rainham and further east to Dover, thence back to Heidelberg.
But the crash was indeed a 'disaster' so maybe my mother 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 signalling hut at the end of RAF-Manston's runway when a V1 rapidly appeared at such low altitude, almost directly overhead, scaring them so suddenly that they immediately bolted the thin wooden door.
Manston was on the front line, situated on the Isle of Thanet not so very far from Dover and also the German-occupied French coast. Earlier in the war it was under almost constant bombardment and even experiencing at one point a ground-crew mutiny – they refused to come out of their bomb shelters after one particularly severe Luftwaffe attack. Certainly more striking for Aircraftwoman House – a signalwoman communicating directly with bomber aircrews – was the fact that Manston was one of three RAF bases (as well as RAF Carnaby and RAF Woodbridge) along England’s east coast which were designated emergency landing strips: extra-wide and very long, and used by any damaged bombers returning from raids, often severely damaged or low on fuel, or both, wounded (or dead) crewmembers, no brake pneumatics, no hydraulics, no undercarriage! Very low on fuel. Fires, screaming, crashing, explosions. Bulldozers shaking the ground, viciously shoving wrecked bombers off the runway. This all resulted in her witnessing considerable suffering. In addition she was based for long spells in a simple wooden communications hut at one end of the runway very close to all this danger. She once explained how during a competence test at the end of her nine-month wartime training, colleagues would bash pots and pans together behind her, shouting insults – replicating wartime chaos to distract her – while she was operating her wireless equipment. Years later as little kids, we would sometimes try to gain her attention by shouting “mummy, mummy, mummy!” and even pulling hard on the hem of her dress … to absolutely no avail.
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 and only weeks after D-Day, but RAF pilots had already experienced the dangers of shooting at the V1s directly ahead of them at close range and then unavoidably 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 curving almost horizontally in a very shallow spiralling dive towards the train now just approaching the bridge at Oak Lane, and only about twenty seconds behind it.
I had indeed often sought information about the event over the last few years, but until now, all my online research (I no longer live in Britain) 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 my wife and I recently had the chance to visit the old underground V1 and V2 factory known as Mittelwerk GmbH, directly beside a former SS concentration camp called Mittelbau-Dora near Nordhausen in the Harz Mountains in central Germany. The tunnels in Kohnstein Hill in Thuringia near the village of Niedersachswerfen and only 3 kilometres from the town of Nordhausen were formed from gypsum mining and were taken over by the V1 and V2 projects following the large-scale RAF bombing of the Peenemünde facility.
Mittelbau-Dora is now a federal memorial site to the hundreds, nay, thousands of victims – thousands more than those killed in England and Flanders by the V-weapons after they were launched – who were killed via forced-labour building these Vergeltung-weapons in an almost indescribable underground purgatory. The tunnel entrances were dynamited by the Soviets after the war but a memorial site was opened in the GDR in 1965 and reconstructed in 1995 after German reunification. There are miles of tunnels: dark, damp, silent, strewn with tons of rusting rocket scrap and flood water. 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 it is much less well-known than all the other infamous names such as Dachau and Auschwitz. It was once a sub-camp of Buchenwald but became so important in Goebbels’ Vergeltungsstrategie (retribution/retaliation scheme) of the wartime that it was developed into an independent concentration camp system with its own sub-camps of forced labour. Slackers and saboteurs were immediately hanged (and left hanging) from the gallery ceilings. Infernal hammering and machinery noise, whippings and beatings were relentless. The dead – from exhaustion, disease and malnourishment – were carried out every day. Those too weak to work were taken to Nordhausen and left to die on cold, empty factory floors. Around one third of the 60,000 forced labourers sent to Mittelbau-Dora died or were murdered.
At the beginning of the flying-bomb attacks on Britain, defence units had been trying out various ways of knocking out these aircraft before they reached their city targets. The majority was aimed at London from fixed ramps in the German-occupied Pas-de-Calais region, as this one probably was too, but later in the war some V1s were even launched from the air via Luftwaffe bombers to sidestep the balloon-cable barrage. Initially, V1s were shot at by anti-aircraft batteries in East Kent, passively hindered east of London by barrage balloon cables (V1 wings were thus later fitted with explosive bolt cutters in their leading edges), and attacked by various fast fighter planes such as Spitfires, Tempests, Mosquitos and even some Meteor jets – in July 1944 seven Meteors of 616 Squadron, the first allied operational jets of the war, were based at RAF Manston. They would dive down on V1s from high above in order to gain sufficient speed to catch up and shoot them from behind, which was, as mentioned, extremely dangerous for the pilots (Hawker Tempest attack-aircraft were based at 11-Group coastal airfields during this period of the war).
A preferred method of detroying V1s was developed after some pilots were killed by the blast or the debris of the exploding V1 ahead of their attacking aircraft: The pilot would fly alongside the bomb and position his wing directly above the wing of the bomb in order to disrupt the airflow, the loss of lift 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 its target (London).
"I had no kit bag with me, so it must have been just one week's leave or less. 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 some 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 the choice of this carriage 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 travelling to East Kent."
"I remember it was about midday. We stopped at all the usual stations. The train was passing by flat countryside but we were now up on an embankment and we could see far and wide soon after leaving Rainham Station. On the left were open fields and it was springtime or summer. Then suddenly there was much excitement and shouting, with passengers 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 through 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, horizontal angle that it was also visible to those of us standing in the corridor and looking through the seating compartments and out through the left windows ..."
Aircraftwoman House was at the back of the overfilled 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, 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 along the entire length of the corridor and around the corner of the carriage gangway. The train had alternating corridors. There must have been an almighty explosion! We initially both managed to get up in the surrounding panic and barge 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 had ‘flown’ across the gap, and many of the following 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!"