I must have heard it... but I don't remember the big explosion, there must have been an almighty bang when the bomb went off! ...nor the noise of our train crashing, I don't remember a pall of smoke, nor all the screaming. Yes, of course it was a steam train but I don't recall its whistle being stuck on after it crashed. I remember walking away from the scene after someone told me 'there's nothin' you can do 'ere', and of 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, he insisted on fetching me a cup of tea immediately, and later accompanied me all the way back home to Bexleyheath. My CO, a WAAF officer at RAF Manston in East Kent, phoned my mother and told her to keep me at home for as long as was necessary.
– WAAF signalwoman M House in November, 2008
If you think of all the devastating events that took place in the summer of 1944, a little-known train accident in the south-east of England becomes an almost insignificant side-show. Despite there being little loss of life, though, the Rainham crash was a tragic event. The story hardly made the newspapers, and though there may not have been a cover-up as there was for the Bethnal Green tube disaster, there has been much silence regarding the incident. It has been especially significant for M House, a WAAF signalwoman on that very train, and this entry looks at her story. Perhaps it can assign some sound to the story: a way of breaking the silence.
The Rainham crash took place out in the countryside at a railway bridge over Oak Lane between Rainham and Newington, but where should we begin? Out there in rural Oak Lane, perhaps? Signalwoman House had from time-to-time mentioned the crash to her children, and a high embankment and bridge surrounded by fields had often featured. With the advent of Google Earth, it became possible to take a virtual trip along the London-Dover mainline, allowing House to recognise and locate the site of a crash that had taken place six decades earlier. Until then, she had had no idea where the crash had taken place, save that it was somewhere between Rainham and Newington. Now, here it was on the computer screen.
It had to be the spot: a fine 'summer-day' satellite photo, wide open pasture, hedgerows, miles of apple orchards, a farmyard, some cows. Regardless of the fact that there were few other bridges on the line, this was nevertheless a rather hair-raising moment. Now House could even visit the site, not far from her home – but would she want to? This had, after all, been a disaster.
The Pilot Who Caused A Train Crash
House had often told her children about her wartime experiences, such as the time when she and another WAAF colleague had been on duty in the flimsy signaling hut at the end of RAF Manston's runway1 – a V1 'doodlebug2' rocket had suddenly appeared so low, almost directly overhead, scaring them so suddenly that they quickly bolted the wooden door. The V1 rocket attacks had begun only a few weeks before the Rainham crash, but RAF pilots had already begun to experiment with ways of destroying the rockets, or at least knocking them off their course. The latter was what one Spitfire pilot attempted while flying over Oak Lane on 16 August 1944 – the day of the Rainham crash – with a rather unfortunate consequence. His deadly mistake will be covered later; first, a closer look at the V1 rockets is in order.
V1 Production Sites
Having learnt of the V1 rocket's involvement in the Rainham crash, the Researcher's interest was further prompted by the fact that he has lived in Germany for some time, and recently had the chance to visit the old underground V1 and V2 factory in the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp, near Nordhausen in the Harz Mountains. The following is his experience:
Mittelbau-Dora is now a memorial to the hundreds, no, thousands of victims – many more than those who were killed by the bombs after they were launched – who were killed via forced-labour building these V-weapons in an almost indescribable underground purgatory. There are miles of tunnels: dark, damp, silent, strewn with rusted rocket scrap. The only sounds – the visitors' own pathetic whispers and some 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 far less known than all the other infamous names, such as Dachau and Buchenwald.
Fending Off The Doodlebugs
The majority of the V1s were aimed at London from fixed ramps in occupied Pas-de-Calais, but later in the war some were even launched from the air. Initially, the V1s were shot at by anti-aircraft batteries, passively hindered by barrage balloon cables3, and attacked by various fast fighter planes, such as Spitfires, Typhoons, Mosquitoes and even one or two Gloster Meteor jets, diving on them from high above in order to gain sufficient speed to shoot from behind.
RAF pilots were soon to recognise the dangers of shooting at the V1s; doing so from the rear at close range and then flying straight through the resulting explosion, fire, heat and debris proved rather a bad idea4. Soon enough, a pilot discovered that 'tipping' the wing would be a much less dangerous approach to the problem. The pilot would fly alongside the bomb and position his wing directly above the wing of the bomb in order to disrupt the airflow, thus causing the V1 to veer into a dive.
The first V1 to be destroyed by a Meteor jet occurred near Tonbridge on 4 August, 1944 when Flying Officer Dean (616 Squadron RAF) 'flipped over' a V1 using the Meteor's wing tip. This disabled the V1's gyroscope, forcing it to crash and explode well short of its target – London. There were no doubt several instances of propeller planes performing the same trick, as must have happened on the day of the Rainham crash. Indeed, the V1 was quite undamaged and flew, rather than plummeted, in an almost horizontal downward spiral towards the train as it approached the bridge at Oak Lane.
The day of the crash was a pleasant summer day, but there was a war on. The incident is referred to as 'The 1944 Rainham crash' in the one or two reports in the local press after the war. These reports were scarce, and many details of the event may have been lost in the mists of time. Signalwoman House, however, remembers the events of that day all too well.
I had no kit bag with me, so it must have been just one week's leave. 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 – seeing the train was full of servicemen – told me to 'sit in the front carriage with 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 it 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.
We stopped at all the usual stations, I remember it was daytime, we were passing flat countryside but we were up on an embankment, sometime after leaving Rainham Station. On the left were open fields and it was springtime or summer. Then suddenly there was much excitement and shouting and 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 out of 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 angle that it was also visible to those of us standing in the corridor and looking through the seating compartments and out of the left windows.
Signalwoman House was at the back of the train 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 what happened. It is a long time ago now, 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 a few feet along the corridor and around the corner of the carriage gangway. The train had alternating corridors. There must have been an almighty bang! We initially both managed to get up in the surrounding panic and walk 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 was across the gap, and many of the carriages had crashed down into it.
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!