Where three residential roads in Archway, Islington, north London, meet is the site of a tragic loss of civilian life during the Second World War (1939-45). A plaque commemorating the event can be seen at Giesbach Road Open Space, Giesbach Road, Islington N19 3EH.
The aftermath of the V2 Rocket attack in Archway, Islington,
5 November 1944. (Image: Mirrorpix)
A little after 5pm on Sunday 5 November 1944, a V2 rocket was launched from its site in the Hague, Netherlands – its target was London. Just minutes later, at 5.13pm, it exploded at the junction of Boothby, Giesbach and Grovedale Roads; nearby St John’s Way was also caught in the strike. This was the first enemy long-range V2 rocket to hit Islington.
Over 250 people were casualties of this wartime attack, which included 35 deaths and 219 suffering from injuries. The oldest person to die as a result of the explosion was aged 92 years, who passed away four months later, and the youngest was just five months old. Many houses were also destroyed or damaged beyond repair.
The V2 (German: Vergeltungswaffe 2 or ‘Retribution Weapon 2’) was a long-range single stage missile or rocket, which used advanced technology to cause destruction and devastation. Standing at 14 metres on end, with a 1-ton warhead of high explosive, it travelled at 3,500 mph and could reach an altitude of 50-60 miles before arcing in a 120-mile trajectory. The V2 had a flying time of 10-30 minutes before crashing, exploding and usually causing a large crater. There was no indication or noise of its approach, as it could travel at supersonic speed at over six times the speed of sound.
The first V2 Rocket to hit London , causing three deaths, occurred on Friday 8 September 1944, falling on Staveley Road, Chiswick. This was the first of over 500 V2 rockets to strike the capital between September 1944 and March 1945.
V2 Rocket in the Peenemünde Museum, Germany, 2005.
(Image: Creative Commons)
In his unique and fascinating account of Islington during the Second World War, Civil Defence in Islington 1938 – 1945: an account of passive defence and certain aspects of the war as it affected the borough (1946), Islington Town Clerk and ARP Controller W. Eric Adams recalls the attack:
The enemy had in preparation an even more fearsome weapon in the shape of the long-range rocket. The first two of these heard in Islington was on the 8th September 1944. Although they fell at Chiswick and North Weald respectively, they sounded quite near. They were kept very hush hush and were facetiously referred to as “exploding gas mains”. The explosions were never acknowledged throughout the attack, as to do so would have given valuable information to the enemy for use at the launching sites in Holland. In sharp contrast to normal high explosive and [V1] Flying Bombs no warning at all was possible with rockets, in consequence of which the difficulties of the Rescue Service were greatly increased.
The first rocket to fall in Islington was at Boothby Road on a Sunday afternoon in November 1944. It was a ‘diabolical weapon’. At the moment of impact it was travelling at possibly 3000 miles an hour, which is much faster than the speed of sound; consequently, the first intimation of its arrival was the impact explosion. This was followed sometime after by the characteristic rumbling noise of its passage through the earth’s atmosphere. In some cases the effect was of a double explosion. The rocket, like the fly bomb, carried the high explosive in the nose, the remainder of its 40 ft. length being occupied by means of its propulsion.
Mr Adams continues:
The Boothby Road incident occurred on a Sunday and the heavy rain which fell rendered the widespread clay, resulting from the explosion, very greasy and difficult to negotiate with casualties and heavy equipment. The work of the services was, however, eased to some extent by the employment for the first time in the Borough of an Army searchlight which proved invaluable. Although this incident which had occurred at 5.30 pm on the 5th, the last casualty was actually recovered on the morning of the 6th, the remaining time being spent in searching for persons whose whereabouts had not until that time been established. During this period the specially trained dogs made available to the Civil Defence Services were used in order to try to locate the persons believed missing.
The aftermath of the V2 Rocket attack in Archway, Islington, 5 November 1944. This photograph was taken the following morning and shows rescue workers searching for survivors buried in the rubble. Nearby Archway Central Hall was used as a temporary mortuary. (Image: Mirrorpix)
W. Eric Adam’s account has, more recently, been supplemented by a number of eyewitness or secondary accounts from those who experienced the attack or who had members of their immediate family recount the incident:
Gillian Joel (née Stephens)
Mrs Joel’s account was published in the Islington Gazette in February 2020. She was six when her mother Sybil and brother James were killed after the rocket hit their home at 32 Grovedale Road, Upper Holloway, in 1944.
Mrs Joel in Grovedale Road, c.2019. (Image: Islington Gazette)
Her father, John Stephens, thinking Gillian dead, had gone so far as ordering her a coffin. However, she was in hospital after being saved from the rubble by Islington-based rescuers:
I remember going to the underground when the sirens started, it must have been Archway Underground. There was a green case at the door that dad would pick up. It had an eiderdown blanket in it and I would sleep with another blanket over me. It was our emergency pack, and I remember dad would carry me to the station. I don’t really remember anything from the bomb, except I was playing downstairs with my brother, James. I still have shrapnel and glass in me and only a few years ago a bit of glass came out of my head.
Read the full Islington Gazette interview with Mrs Joel here.
Mr Hardiman recounted his memories of the attack on the excellent Archway Revisited Facebook Group:
I am somewhat familiar with this episode since I lived in one of the houses destroyed by that V2. I was just approaching my ninth birthday (December 44) at the time.
The V2 hit at about 5.30 pm on a Sunday in November 1944 … I do remember my mother saying something about “Hitler’s Guy Fawkes Day surprise” … I was in the Electric cinema at the Archway with my elder brother (aged 10) at the instant the rocket hit. In those days the first film showings on a Sunday was after 4.00pm (mustn’t clash with church going I suppose!). The film was Dive Bomber with Errol Flynn starring; Sundays films were always repeats of earlier releases; this one was first shown in 1942.
… Suddenly there was an almighty thump and dust drifted down from the ceiling. That was close, everybody thought – the cinema is actually about a half-mile from the impact – and carried on watching the film. A little while later we became aware that the usherette was flashing her torch down the row where we were sitting. “There they are” somebody said, and we were beckoned to come out of our seats … When we got to the foyer we discovered that one of my elder sisters and her boyfriend had come to fetch us. I was amazed to see that they were covered in dust and dirt from head to toe! We were told that our home had been hit by a bomb/rocket and we were then to be taken to the boyfriends (parents) home somewhere not too far away.
At that time we had no idea whether any of the rest of our family were alive or dead … Eventually we discovered that all the family had survived although my parents had been cut about by flying glass. My baby sister was asleep in her pram in the front room of the house, and a tiny splinter of glass landed in the middle of one of her cheeks! Thankfully it never affected her eye but left her with a small scar . Not so fortunate was one of my playmates and his younger sister and parents. They lived in the house whose rear garden was the point of impact of the rocket.
The corner of Giesbach Road and Boothby Road, Archway, after the V2 rocket attack. The corner and destroyed houses are now covered by Giesbach Road Open Space. (Image: Islington Local History Centre)
We lived in number 38 Giesbach Rd, which is the second house from the end on the south side [now gone, replaced with Giesbach Road Open Space]. The family who died (whose name unfortunately I have forgotten) lived in the corner house on the north side of Grovedale Rd. I am fairly certain that the rocket impacted in the rear garden of their house. Thus this house took the brunt of the blast as well as the back of the house in St John’s Way and the sides of the end houses on both sides of Giesbach Road. All adjacent house were also heavily damaged of course. Our house being the second from the corner was a little protected, and also the blast must have dissipated to some extent up the middle of Giesbach Rd and across the front of our house rather than directly at it.
We obviously never went back to the house which was pulled down along with many of the other houses round about. Eventually new blocks of flats were built over the site of the bomb damage and also the top half of Boothby Rd so that it no longer intersects with St Johns Way. I never got to see the conclusion of the film Dive Bomber until about thirty years later when it turned up on television!
Read the full Archway Revisited posting with Ray Hardiman here.
Islington V2 rocket attacks
There was a lull of 11 days before the second V2 landed in Islington at 2.46am on Thursday 16 November at Mayville Road, killing seven and injuring 53 people. During this second stage of the Third Reich’s V-rocket campaign, nine V2 rockets exploded in the borough killing 288 and injuring over 1000 people. The worst of these attacks were Mackenzie Road (26 December 1944) and Smithfield Market (8 March 1945) which, combined, witnessed 183 deaths.
The devastation to buildings in Islington (not including Finsbury) due to the V2 rocket explosions was immense. Serious damage, sometimes beyond repair, was caused to 18,000 houses, 72 public houses, 55 factories, 28 churches and 10 schools.
Islington remembers all those who suffered in the tragic Archway incident, as well as everyone who died and were injured in countless other V rocket attacks and enemy air raids across Islington and beyond during the Second World War. They will not be forgotten.
Memorial to the civilian dead of Islington (1939-1945), Islington and Camden Cemetery, East Finchley, 2018: “This memorial has been erected to perpetuate the memory of those citizens who lost their lives as a result of enemy action during the Second World War, and whose remains lie buried in this cemetery.”
Islington Memorial Plaque unveiling on 23 July 2021 to commemorate the loss of lives and those injured in the first V2 rocket attack on Islington,
5 November 1944. L-R: Revd Nigel Williams, Islington Mayor Troy Gallagher, John Williams (whose lost his first family in the blast),
Jeremy Corbyn MP, Cllr Janet Burgess.
(Photograph: Copyright Em Fitzgerald Photography)
Islington Museum | Islington Local History Centre
October 2020, revised July 2021
Related sources and links
Islington and the Second World War: