Today, we share the latest dispatch from Senior Historian Chris Anderson’s blog, History Hikes. Walking through London recently, Chris came upon a plaque dedicated to one of the little known stories of WWII: the Sloane Court Bombing in London, the largest one-day loss suffered by U.S. personnel in London during the war.
Lest we forget, Chris shares the story of this horrific moment in WWII history, one that includes Major Glenn Miller, the bandleader and commander of the 418th Army Air Forces band who was stationed along Sloane Court in the first week of July 1944.
Miller’s Luck: The Sloane Court Bombing in London During WWII
By Chris Anderson, Senior Historian
On July 3, 1944, swing bandleader Glenn Miller got lucky—66 other Americans didn’t.
If you were one of the thousands of GIs stationed in and around London in the summer of 1944 you could be forgiven for thinking that the war was someplace else. For almost a month Allied soldiers had been battling inland after their successful landings along the Norman coast. GIs and comrades of many other nations advanced north or Rome. On the other side of the world the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment dropped on Kamiri airfield in New Guinea while on Saipan in the Mariana Islands Army and Marine units captured key high ground overlooking Tanapag. While it was true that the British capital was undergoing a second “Blitz,” with dozens of Adolf Hitler’s V-1 “Vengeance” weapons falling on the city each day, for the most part American casualties in the first week of July were happening somewhere else-to someone else.
Like most history minded Londoners, when I think about the war and the city I think about the Blitz of 1940-41, not the “lull,” which came between the end of the first blitz in 1941 and January 1944 and caused more than 1,500 civilian casualties, nor the second Blitz, which began in January 1944 and did not end until March of 1945 and caused significantly more. It is an unfortunate oversight on my part and I was reminded of this on a recent walk around the city.
I’d headed over to Sloane Square to find some more Blue Plaques to photograph and since I was in the neighborhood, decided to stop off at the National Army Museum, which is next to the Royal Hospital Chelsea. In addition to its wonderful exhibits, “the NAM” has two of my favorite things: clean bathrooms and an excellent bookshop. Since I had the time, I took a windy way to get to the museum and as I strolled away from the tube station, I decided to turn right off of Lower Sloane Street at the Rose and Crown pub to see if there was anyone inside. As I walked along Turk’s Row I was brought up short by a simple plaque outside the Garden House School that is across the street from the pub. Very simple, the plaque said, “In Memory of the 74 American Military Personnel of the United States Army and Three Civilians Who Were Killed on the 3rd of July 1944 by a V-1 Flying Bomb.”
I had a vague recollection of having seen a plaque to American dead in the area during an earlier visit years before, but in my faulty memory it was not here on Turk’s Row and it was to Americans killed earlier than 1944. Clearly, I needed to dig into this a bit more.
By the end of 1944 England was filling up. To support the strategic bombing offensive, as well as the impending Allied invasion of France, by the spring there were more than one million American service personnel in the UK. While most were stationed at bases and installations throughout the country, several thousand could be found in and around London. With insufficient military housing available in the capital city, many GI “Joes and Janes” were billeted in a variety of civilian housing.
For some, it meant in the apartments along Sloane Court East, which runs between Turk’s Row and Royal Hospital Road in the toney neighborhood of Chelsea. Samuel Hatch, a young soldier in the 130th Chemical Processing Company who was billeted in Number 6, wrote in a letter to his parents, “I am in London and living in a very spacious and beautiful apartment.” Most of the Americans billeted, like Hatch, were temporarily on the street until their unit moved on or they were assigned to one of the various rear-echelon operations charged with keeping the vast American war machine in the ETO running.
One of the units stationed along the street with the 130th in the first week of July was the 418th Army Air Forces band and its commander, Major Glenn Miller, was not happy about it.
Miller had arrived in the middle of June to make arrangements for his band and he quickly discovered that the billets for his 50-man orchestra were directly in the path of the V-1s, which had begun reigning down on London the week after the D-Day landings on June 6.
Miller was alarmed when his new neighbors told him that he and his men would soon be sleeping in the midst of what Londoners were calling “doodlebug alley.” Band member Don Hayes remembered that as soon as the band arrived in Sloane Court and experienced their first V-1 raid, “Glenn was more determined than ever to get the boys out of there-but fast.” He soon secured a new base of operations 58-miles away in Bedford. His next problem was how to get his musicians there. Apparently there were insufficient Army trucks to move the band. Ever resourceful, Miller was able to secure the services of Royal Air Force trucks in exchange for performing a free concert for his new British friends. Moving day was Sunday, July 2.
The men of the 130th Chemical Processing Company, who were billeted between 4, 6 and 8 Sloane Court East, probably gave the departure of their new neighbors little thought. After all, they were probably too tired to care. Almost as soon as they had arrived in London in May 1944, the company had been busy not only continuing with their training in anti-gas warfare measures before deploying to Europe, but also in helping local Civil Defense authorities as the V-1 attacks increased. On the day that the 418th was being packed and loaded, personnel from the 130th had been digging out Londoners whose nearby homes had been destroyed. At the end of a long day digging through rubble, most would have spent their time cleaning up and resting, a lucky few may have gone to the nearby Rose and Crown for a few pints.
By 7:30 on the morning of July 3 the GIs from the 130th had finished their breakfast and were returning to Sloane Court East. Many were milling around in the street waiting for trucks to carry them to their various workstations while others had returned to their billets to make final preparations before the start of their day. Eighteen-year-old privates Theodore Booras and Samuel E. Hatch were busy sweeping up their second-floor rooms at Number 6. Booras and Hatch, both from Massachusetts, were inseparable wartime buddies.
Nearing the end of their fatigue detail, Booras told Hatch to hurry down to the street and get on the truck and he would join him after bringing the rubbish down to the bins in the basement. Hatch promised to repay the favor to his friend by taking the trash down to the basement on Tuesday.
By the time Hatch got down to the street, the first truck was full, and he decided to wait nearby for a second to begin loading so he could secure a place for himself and Booras together. Suddenly, at 7:45, 2Lt. Floyd R. Perryman who was standing in the street supervising the loading, shouted out, “Buzz bomb! Take cover!”
Soldiers started scrambling for shelter. Men tried to jump from packed trucks while others sought the shelter of nearby buildings. Standing near the intersection of Sloane Court East and Turk’s Row, Hatch remembered, “I looked up. It [a V-1] looked like a plane on fire. It had a fuselage and wings, there was a flame shooting out of its tail, and it was silent. The engine shut off miles away and the momentum carried the flying bomb the rest of the way. I ran into the street to my left [Turk’s Row] and fell face down on the pavement with my arms outstretched. My mother’s face flashed before me. Then a horrendous explosion. I was thrown by the blast—I don’t know how far. I was choking and coughing; I couldn’t see. The air was filled with smoke and dust. Numbers 4,6 and 8 Sloane Court were demolished. Theodore Booras died in the wreckage of our building.”
“The men who ran around the building were much safer than those who ran to the cellar,” the unit’s official history stated, “The blast completely destroyed No. 6 Billet and almost completely destroyed Nos. 4&8. The buildings that had collapsed on all the men in the buildings had blasted the truck into the side of the buildings [sic]. It is doubtful that any man on the truck came out alive. Immediately after the bomb struck rescue squads were at the scene helping the men out of the wreckage. Some men walked out of the building amidst smoke and flame. A fire started which added to the hazards of the men who were trapped beneath the debris. Some of these men in the debris were severely burned. They were in such a position that they couldn’t move and could do nothing about the flames. Most of the men were trapped for a number of hours. One was trapped for four days.”
Royal Air Force airman Bill Figg was home on leave when the rocket fell. After the explosion he ran out into the street. “I saw the truck with four bodies slumped over the back,” he later remembered, “In the middle of the road was a head. All down Sloane Court East there were more bodies than you could shake a stick at. You just rolled over the bodies and felt for a pulse. I must have rolled over 20 or 30 bodies but they were all glassy eyed. It was beyond me. When I realized I couldn’t help, I just got on my way.”
It was a disaster. For many years it was believed that nearly 100 were killed in the blast. Today, that number has been revised downward to 65 U.S. military personnel—most from the 130th but also three from SHAEF staff—and nine civilians. Many, many more, including several Women’s Army Corps personnel assigned to SHAF headquarters, were wounded. With strict wartime censorship in place and much larger tragedies playing themselves out in the final year of the war, the disaster on Sloane Court was quickly forgotten, except by the survivors-who were ordered to remain silent-and the civilian residents of the street.
What remained of the 130th were taken to Little Heath Camp in Essex where they began to rebuild. Two months to the day of the Chelsea disaster, on August 3, another V-1 exploded just yards from the gates of the unit’s new camp. As the 103rd’s official history recounted, the shock of another bomb blast coming so soon after the incident in Chelsea got on the nerves of the remaining men of the unit; several having to be evacuated to nearby hospitals.
Miller was getting his men settled into their new camp at Bedford when just days after arriving a bandmate told him about the near miss the 418th had had. According to one account, when he got the news of the Sloane Court disaster Miller said, “As long as Miller’s luck stays with us, we have nothing to worry about.” Of course, Miller’s luck ran out on December 15, 1944, when his single-engine UC-64 “Norseman” disappeared on a flight over the English Channel.
The 130th never really recovered. When it was realized that the losses of such highly trained men could not be easily replaced, the unit turned over most of its equipment to fresh organizations who took it to France. The unit’s remaining personnel were then used in a variety of rear-echelon activities or retrained as infantry and sent as replacements to Europe. In March 1945 what remained of the 130th finally made it to France. It was only there for a very short time before being shipped to the Pacific in July 1945.
This historical amnesia surrounding the terrible fate of the 130th continued until the 1990s. In 1997 Louis Baer, who missed the blast because he had stopped after breakfast that morning to get a cup of tea, paid to have a plaque put in the sidewalk along Turk’s Row. Unfortunately, the plaque incorrectly stated that there were WACs amongst the almost 100 dead. The next year Figg, who had survived the war and maintained a lifelong interest in the V-1 attack along his street, paid for the plaque on the wall of the Garden Street School that I stumbled upon on my walk. While the figures on Figg’s plaque are slightly wrong, it does serve as a fitting reminder to the largest one-day loss suffered by U.S. personnel in London during the war. Lest we forget.
Additional Information on Sloane Court Bombing
For more information about the Sloane Court bombing, check out the outstanding London Memorial website created by Samuel Hatch’s grandson that is full of information on the details of what happened on July 3, 1944.
The Blitz Then and Now, Winston Ramsey, ed., a magnificent 3-volume set, is THE definitive book on all of the attacks on wartime London. Chronological and packed with thousands of photographs, maps and text, volume 3 focuses on the period of the V-weapon attacks.
Glenn Miller and His Orchestra by George Simon, is the best account of the history of Miller and his band, including World War II.