I remember the sixteenth of September, 1944. I was on a train going from Peterborough to Kings Cross station in north London. I was 17 and I had been awarded a scholarship to go to Imperial College, which at that time, was part of London University. I had a reservation at the Russell Hotel, chosen because it was near Kings Cross. When I went in, I realized that it was the biggest building I had ever been in. The first impression was, “Wow! This is swanky.”
To me, a village boy, everything was impressively another world. I went to my room and was equally impressed, except for the windows which were covered by a big cross of wide tape. The bellboy told me that the tape was to stop the windows breaking if a bomb went off nearby. That is when I remembered we were at war and London had been peppered with nightly bombing raids. In our village, we had nightly air raid warnings and we heard bombers flying over us, but we never heard a bomb. It was explained to me that the routine bombing was over but they were getting random explosions from Hitler’s “secret weapon” he had been bragging about. These were the infamous V-1s or Doodle-bugs as they came to be called.
A V-1 was a bomb with wings and a jet propelled engine fuelled by kerosene and liquid oxygen. They were filled with enough fuel to reach London and crash to the ground when the engine stopped. I later saw several of these. They sounded like a two-stroke motorbike with no muffler. Sometimes they immediately crashed, but often they glided a long way. Either way, it was a test of how long you could hold your breath.
Hitler’s second “secret weapon”, the V-2 was a simple rocket with a warhead. It was supersonic so there was no warning and the only people who heard it were the ones it missed. The V-2s came fairly soon after the V-1s and they mostly landed in north and east London. The closest one to me was in Hyde Park about half mile north of the Albert Hall. Some of us went to look at the 30 foot diameter crater. I found a piece of the shrapnel and carried around with me for a while. I thought they should have made a duck pond at the site but years later I could not find it, so I think they filled it in.
The thing that impressed me was the amazing way everyone went about their daily business, ignoring these devastating missiles. It would have been impossible to know at that time that the man principally responsible for launching V-2s from Peenemunde in Germany, Dr. Wherner von Braun, would be brought to America under President Truman’s 1945 Operation Paperclip designed to keep Germany’s top scientists from the Russians. A few years later, he was the Director of the Marshall Space Center and was the architect of the successful Apollo program that put a man on the moon.
I presented myself to the Chemical Engineering Department and started to learn the life of a first year student. I was given a list of addresses of people who took in student boarders and went with another student looking for digs. We went first to Parsons Green and checked out a few places and eventually settled for the home of Mr. and Mrs. Webb on Eddiscombe Road, not far from the Parsons Green station. They provided us with room and board for our first two years of being commuting students. Mr. Webb was the purchasing manager for a factory in north London and over dinner he related his experiences of commuting across most of war-torn London daily and gave us reports of the numerous V-2 explosions on and around his factory.
As a student, I had deferment from the draft which kept me from being on Gold, Juno, or Sword, the British beaches at Normandy on D-Day, June 6th1944. I remember D-Day very well because on every road, lane, or open area of our little village there were tanks, trucks, and men everywhere. We knew something big was about to happen. Then suddenly it did because one morning we got up and everything and everybody had disappeared.
The next day, the BBC news told us that General Eisenhower was leading the biggest force in history to an invasion of the Normandy beaches. These first three months since D-Day had been a trying time for everyone. It was by no means certain that the invasion would be a success. We listened to the BBC news regularly and the topic of conversation was always about the war and the location of our troops.
I discovered that my Class of 1948 was comprised of 32 very serious fellow students. I think all of us showed signs of being in a new and strange environment. None of us had been away on our own before and I know my own feeling was one of nervous expectation. Everything was new and different. I was shocked to find the lack of the boys’ school discipline I was used to. We were free to go to classes or not and it was up to us to decide. When I had free time, I started to explore the sights of London that I had only heard about. I did this on my own and I was very lonely and homesick. This feeling lasted until our Christmas break and I felt that if I went home, I might not want to come back. Fortunately, I realized that village life was dull compared to London and I went back in a much better frame of mind. It would, at this time, have been hard to realize that I would leave college in 1954 with a Ph.D., but that is another memory for another day.