Imagine the scene. It’s Christmas Eve 1944, the early hours of the morning. The end of the Second World War is round the corner and Mid Cheshire folk, like most everyone else across Britain, are beginning to breathe a sigh of relief there will be few more bombs. Suddenly the silence is punctured by a distant unfamiliar hum, a strange put-put rasping sound. A fiery light streaks southwards across the dawn sky.
Guards on duty at an American military camp are taken by surprise. Nobody is quite sure and then the sirens begin to wail. Incredibly it turns out to be one of Hitler’s revenge weapons, a V1 flying bomb, one of the deadly ‘Doodlebugs’ that have rained down on London and the South West in their thousands.
No doubt there will be locals who do remember but until a few weeks ago I had certainly never heard the story. It came to me via Mikel Shilling, North Carolina-based historian of the United States’ 284th Engineer Combat Battalion which was stationed at Delamere Park Camp, Cuddington in December 1944, My first reaction was one of abject scepticism, a typical wartime tall story. Germany didn’t have the range capability to fire V1s this far north and, besides by the end of 1944 the Allies were over-running the launch sites in mainland Europe.
I was wrong and to confirm the incident Mikel put me in touch with an ‘eye-witness’, serviceman Dale Diller who was on the switchboard at Delamere Camp: “There was suddenly an air-raid warning and I phoned the line company to check on the camp lights. The V1 passed over the camp and far away we heard the engine quit for good and it went down, but we never did know what happened.”
In fact, the ‘Mid Cheshire’ V1 was a rogue, part of a devastating attack by the Luftwaffe. On that terrible Christmas Eve forty-five Doodlebugs were strapped to Heinkel bombers and released near to the Yorkshire coast, their target Manchester. Records show that fourteen of the forty-five V1s fell in the North Sea and only seven actually came down in what is now Greater Manchester, but this was enough to cause mayhem and forty-two people were killed, twenty-seven in Oldham, with over 160 were injuries.
The V1s were launched between 0500 and 0600 hours and took thirty minutes to reach Manchester but, fortunately, their guidance system was rudimentary and many fell in open countryside in a wide-ranging geographical area stretching from Durham and Yorkshire to Lancashire and Cheshire.
The sites where the thirty-one V1s fell have all been identified, including the ‘Mid Cheshire’ rogue, listed in records as No 31. This crashed into fields at Kelsall, on the Chester side of the village centre, and apart from a massive crater there was little damage. It was a close run thing – Kelsall had an extremely narrow escape and so did the town of Northwich.
The V1 was 27-feet in length, travelled at 400 mph and possessed an 850kg warhead. Its trajectory, the North Sea, Delamere Park Camp and Kelsall, indicates it must have passed directly over the ICI works at Winnington and if it had fallen a few minutes earlier what a Christmas present that would have been from Hitler.
Incidentally, it was always said, true or not, that the Luftwaffe deliberately avoided bombing ICI because it was to be an integral part of Germany’s Occupation plans and, certainly, it’s surprising the various local installations remained relatively unscathed during the 1940/41 Liverpool blitz.