THE FIRST DOODLEBUG or V-1 rocket to land on London killed six people at Mile End in June 1944. Londoners soon became familiar with the loud clatter of their pulse jet engines as thousands more were aimed at the city. ‘Doodlebug’ had earlier been a slang term for a cheap car – one that spluttered and banged – and perhaps this in turn was derived from some general name for noisily-flying beetles such as maybugs.
The flying bombs appear in Winifred Vere Hodgson’s wartime diaries, published as Few Oranges and No Eggs and subtitled ‘A diary showing how unimportant people in London and Birmingham lived through the war years’. In July 1944 she recorded:
When the V-1’s onboard apparatus calculated that it had flown the required distance, the missile was pitched forward into a dive. This caused the jet to cut out. The brief silence that followed before the warhead’s detonation was listened to intently by Londoners. George Orwell made light of this in his regular ‘As I Please’ column in Tribune:
Life in the civilized world.
(The family are at tea.)
‘Is there an alert on?’
‘No, it’s all clear.’
‘I thought there was an alert on.’
‘There’s another of those things coming!’
‘It’s all right, it’s miles away.’
‘Look out, here it comes! Under the table, quick!’
‘It’s all right, it’s getting fainter.’
‘It’s coming back!’
‘They seem to kind of circle round and come back again. They’ve got something on their tails that makes them do it. Like a torpedo.’
‘Christ! It’s right overhead!’
‘Now get right underneath. Keep your head well down. What a mercy baby isn’t here!’
‘Look at the cat! He’s frightened too.’
‘Of course animals know. They can feel the vibrations.’
‘It’s all right, I told you it was miles away.’
The sound of a V-1 kicked off an album by the 1970s punk band The Vibrators. Here’s just the doodlebug bit from it:
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This morning another meaningful silence was observed across Britain to mark Armistice Day. A few years ago the artist Jonty Semper released a CD titled Kenotaphion, made up of all the recordings he could find of the two-minute silences between 1929 and 2000, a task which had taken him four years. The CD’s hard to get hold of now, but the link has three samples to listen to.