Hitler's V-Weapons: Magicians and the battle against the V-1 and V-2

"I am informed by the Fuhrer that the big rocket bomb weighs 14 tons. This, of course, is a devastating murder weapon. I suspect that when the first projectiles plunge down into London, the English public will panic."

- Josef Goebbels, Nazi propaganda minister

An hour before sunrise on 13 June 1944, two members of the Royal Observer Corps were on duty at their post on the top of a Martello tower on the seafront at Dymchurch in Kent, England. At that moment, they spotted the approach of a flying object spurting red flames from its rear and with the sound of a roaring engine. This was the first V-1 (Fi 103) flying bomb to be released against Britain and it was rattling towards them.

A week earlier, the D-Day and the Normandy landings, had signalled the beginning of the end of the war in Europe. Unkindly, just when the possibility of success and peace looked not too far away, Hitler's Vergeltungswaffen 1 (German: Vengeance Weapon 1), known as the 'doodlebug' or 'buzz bomb' by the Allies, burst from the skies. 

V-1 flying bomb
(Source: Public domain)

Dispensing with the need for a pilot meant that the V-1 could be half the size of a conventional bomber aircraft, making it difficult for anti-aircraft guns to hit. They travelled at 400 mph and each contained 850 kg of high-explosive. After nearly five years of war and the horrors of 1940-41 Blitz, the arrival of Hitler's latest secret weapon was devastating. 

Hear an original sound recording of a V-1 rocket here (opens in YouTube).

The main V-weapon target was London and, later, the Port of Antwerp in Belgium. Within a few weeks of the start of the V-1 bombing campaign, most theatres in London's West End closed. By July, less than ten remained open, attracting a mere handful of patrons each night. Many magicians who normally played London's music halls, found themselves out of work or facing increased competition for work in provincial theatres.

A V-1 makes it through Britain's defences to fall on London
(Source: U.S. Army Air Force) 

Magicians and their families were directly impacted by the raids off-stage too. These included Lewis Davenport and his family, proprietors of L. Davenport Ltd., one of the most well-known magic shops of the era. Their family home, Ivydene, was in Kent - in the direct flight path of the missiles on their way to London!

“On Friday, 30th June, 1944 tragedy nearly struck the family when a Flying Bomb, the infamous V1, commonly known as the Doodlebug, exploded close enough to blow out the front windows of Ivydene and cause damage to the lower floor ceilings. The conservatory and summer house were also knocked about a bit.

“… now troubled with the Flying Bombs. Day and night, and they bring them down all over us. Had all our house Windows, frames and doors mostly off last Friday week. Had them boarded up and then another Bomb down and blew the boards all off again. It’s a lovely time here I can assure you. Just like the first [World War] front line.”

Lewis, a World War One veteran, later realised that, “We were in what they called Bomb Alley. Flying Bombs used to come right over the top of the house 6 & 7 at a time. Sounding like express trains. We had this day and night for months and months. It’s a wonder we were able to live through it.” 

What Lewis didn't know, was that German secret agents (actually double-agents working for the British) were sending impact reports back across the Channel, but mis-reporting the coordinates so the bombs landed short, in the Kent countryside, and not in central London.

Lewis Davenport

The arrival of the V-1 sparked another round of evacuations, with children from London and Kent sent off to cities and countryside outside of the south-east region. Nottingham-based amateur magician, Tom Middleton, took in three evacuees. After the war, his daughter remembered the experience:

“My parents thought if we had a girl about my age she would be company for me. Mum took me down to the village school in the dark and wet. We waited about for what seemed a long time. There were no children on their own in this batch. They were all mothers and young children who were leaving the greater London area because of the doodlebugs. We ended up with Janet, her mother and Margaret who was about a year old. Their father came for weekends. I think they stayed about a year.”

Tom Middleton was a member of the Nottingham Guild of Magicians (which was founded on the eve of the war in 1939). By day, he worked in a reserved occupation in an engineering factory.

Logo of the Nottingham Guild of Magicians
(Source: Nottingham Guild of Magicians) 

Often the first on the scene when a V-weapon landed, was an A.R.P. (Air Raid Precautions) warden. They would alert the Civil Defence Service and coordinate the arrival of rescue parties, the National Fire Service, and medical services. The extent of the damage and deaths caused by the flying bombs was considerable and the A.R.P. staff were on the frontline of the response. Many magicians served in the A.R.P. during the war, including Will Ayling, Bill Bowes, Lionel Branson, Gogia Pasha and Mark Raffles. Portsmouth-based amateur magician Ray Wickens was awarded a George Medal for his heroism dealing with the aftermath of a bomb during the earlier Blitz.

Aftermath of a V-1 bombing, London, 1944
(Source: Public domain)

The devastating V bombs were particularly distressing to those who had endured the Blitz four years earlier. Founder and two-time president of The Magic Circle, Herbert J. Collings was one of these. Early in the war, his family home in London was hit by a ‘firebomb’. The explosion ripped through the roof the house, but fortunately no one was in at the time. Later, over the summer of 1944, he spent ten weeks giving shows at isolated gun sites on the South Downs near Portsmouth, where he saw dozens of the doodlebugs brought down by anti-aircraft fire. 

Herbert J. Collings (in character as Col Ling Soo)
(Source: Potter & Potter Auctions)

Polish magician, Carl Rosini and his wife-cum-assistant Peggy, also had vivid memories of doodlebug bombings that summer. “Bombs were being dropped practically every hour on the hour. It got so that you could almost set your watch by them,” he later said. “Our first show in England was just outside London. We were entertaining shocked patients who had just returned from the war as casualties.” In the middle of Rosini’s act, a V-1 landed a few hundred metres from the theatre, causing a huge explosion. Despite his piano player running offstage to find shelter, Carl heroically carried on with the show as if nothing had happened.

A sketch of Carl Rosini in his U.S.O. uniform
(Source: Fergus Roy's The Davenport Story)

Amateur magician Wilfred Ponsonby, a British Army officer, remembers working at the War Office when the rockets started landing in London. A rocket hit one of the bridges over the River Thames, so pontoon bridges were installed next to the major bridges, to ensure people could still cross the river if more bridges were hit. "I remember I was half way across the pontoon by Westminster Bridge and one of the V1s came over and it looked to me as if it was going to come down on the Houses of Parliament [next to Westminster Bridge] but the engine cut out and it came down on St. Thomas' Hospital [which is on the other side of the river from the Houses of Parliament]."

One magician who wasn't quite so lucky, was Australian Al Wheatley, who performed an Oriental magician under the stage name Chop Chop. He was "blitzed by a buzz bomb in London" and ended up in a U.S. Army field hospital. While recovering, he used the time to plan a new act.

Al Wheatley (aka Chop Chop)
(Source: Genii - The Conjurors' Magazine)

Private First Class Delbert Hill got mixed-up in another V-1 related brush with death. He had been sent to Britain in 1942 as an entertainer with the U.S. Army Air Force's Special Services branch. In June 1944, he was appearing in a U.S. Eighth Army Air Force show called Skirts at a London theatre. A magician and fire-eater, he was in the middle of his act when an air-raid siren screamed.

“While bombs fell outside and shook the building, Hill went right on thrusting a fiery torch down his throat to keep the attention of an audience on the verge of panic. A fellow soldier emerged from the wings with a G.I. helmet and clomped it down on Hill’s head. It was too large and covered Hill’s eyes, but he went on with the routine. Flames gushed from his lips and smoke crept all around the helmet. The children screamed with delight at the ludicrous sight and their mirth spread to the adults.”

Soon after, on the 168th anniversary of America's declaration of independence, 4 July 1944, Queen Mary, the Queen Mother, watched a command performance of the show, where Hill's earlier coolness under fire was recognised. After World War Two, Delbert Hill suddenly appeared on the British variety circuit as Donna Delbert, ‘America’s Outstanding Lady Magician and the Only Lady Fire-Eater in the World.'

Read Teller's (of Penn & Teller) New York Times article 'My Search for Donna Delbert' here

PFC Delbert Hill (later known as Donna Delbert) in female costume
(Source: Philadelphia LGBT Mapping Project)

One of the first post-war gigs Donna Delbert worked, was as a speciality act in Jasper Maskelyne's Hey Presto! show.

In the latter years of the war, Jasper was serving in India, as Major Maskelyne. As a Royal Engineer with General Headquarters, India, he was involved with the development of ideas and prototypes for defences against the V rockets. Throughout the Empire, military research teams were challenged to devise a means of intercepting them.

“A good many experiments with models were carried out in our workshops,” he wrote in his autobiography, Magic - Top Secret (1949). 

“One device which seemed promising was a very light steel-wire net carried by barrage balloons ... Another method of interception in which I was very interested was the spraying of the air in front of an approaching flying-bomb … by our jet-fighters … [with] a substance … which would spontaneously have exploded the flying-bombs when they entered air charged with it.” 

Major Jasper Maskelyne, c.1944
(Source: Public domain) 

Despite the best efforts of Jasper and colleagues, none of these ideas came to fruition. Instead, the British relied on more standard defences; a combination of bombing the launch sites, intercepting the missiles with fighter planes over the English coast, anti-aircraft batteries in Kent, and barrage balloons around London. These were successful in destroying 4,300 V-1 missiles of 10,500 launched at Britain.

By September 1944, Hitler's forces had developed the V-2 rocket. This was the world's first rocket-powered long-range ballistic missile. Over the next few months, nearly 1,400 struck London and its environs. They were less accurate than V-1 missiles, but since they travelled at the speed of sound, and so made no warning noise before impact, it was almost impossible to defend against them.

England wasn't the only target for the V-1 and V-2, France, Belgium, The Netherlands, and even Germany suffered attacks as the Allies advanced out of Normandy. Poland was also targeted. C. Thomas Magrum, who served as a magician in the U.S. Army's Special Services branch, "came near [to] being wiped out by a buzz bomb at Spa, Belgium."

The threat from Hitler's V-weapons ended in 1945 as the British Army and their allies advanced across France, Belgium and The Netherlands, capturing the launch sites. The last attack in England was at Orpington in Kent on 29 March 1945. 

V-2 rocket mid-launch
(Source: Creative Commons)

German V-weapons killed more than 15,000 people and wounded another 47,000 in the U.K. and continental Europe.

After the war, the Allies conducted tests on captured German V-2 rockets, to advance their own rocket technologies. American Lawrence Miller, later a psychic magician, was employed at the U.S. White Sands V-2 Launching Site in New Mexico.

Both the V-1 and V-2 foreshadowed future weapons development, pointing the way toward nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. They also played an important role in the development of space exploration.

Quoted text of Lewis Davenport is taken from 'The Davenports Story (Volume 3)' by Fergus Roy. Other quotes are from various sources.

Related article: 'Entertaining Hitler: Gogia Pasha, the gilly-gilly man (and war worker)', a blog about gilly-gilly man, Gogia Pasha, who worked as an A.R.P. warden in London. Blog link.

Related article: 'Heroic magician saves lives in Portsmouth Blitz', tells the story of amateur magician Ray Wickens, who was awarded the George Medal for a daring rescue. Blog link.

Related article: 'Evacuees: memories of magic', explains how magicians were involved in the evacuation of British children from London and other cities at risk of air raids and gas attacks. Blog link.

Related article: 'Jasper Maskelyne: War Magician?', introduces a BBC Reel short film about the magician and his wartime exploits. Blog link

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