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On 24 October 1944 planet Earth was following its orbit about the sun as it has obediently done for nearly five billion years. It moved at the stunning speed of sixty-six thousand miles an hour, and in doing so, created the seasons. In the northern hemisphere it was a burnished autumn; in the southern, a burgeoning spring.
At the same time, the Earth revolved on its axis at a speed of more than a thousand miles an hour at the equator, turning from west to east, and this produced day and night.
As a new day broke over the Philippine Islands, two navy men, one Japanese, one American, were about to perform acts of such valor that they would be remembered whenever the historic battles of the sea were compared and evaluated.
Later, when the ceaseless turning of the Earth brought high noon to the island town of Peenemünde on Germany’s Baltic coast, a small, quiet mechanical genius working for Adolf Hitler would find himself in the middle of an ordinary day which would have a most extraordinary conclusion.
A few hours following, when midafternoon reached London, a youthful American engineer, not in uniform, would see for himself the power of Hitler’s vengeance weapon, the A-4, and would take steps to destroy it but not its makers, because even then the American government could foresee that when the war ended, they would need these German scientists.
And toward the close of that long day, when the Earth had revolved the western region of America into the hours of sunset, in a small city in the state of Fremont a boy of seventeen would experience three resplendent moments, and would realize as they were happening that they were special in a way that might never be exceeded.
In the early afternoon of that October Tuesday, Stanley Mott, an American civilian twenty-six years old, displayed a sense of almost frantic urgency as he watched the radar screen at a tracking station thirteen miles south of London.
“It’s coming!” an English sergeant cried, trying vainly to keep the excitement out of his voice. And there on the screen, as Mott watched, the sinister signal showed, a supersonic, unmanned monster bomb coming at London from some undetermined spot in Holland.
Even on the radar it displayed its silent speed, more than two thousand miles an hour. It would not be heard at this station until some moments after it had passed. Then sonic booms would thunder through the air, reassuring the listeners that this bomb at least had passed them by. “If you hear it,” the sergeant explained to Mott, “it’s already gone.”
In the fragile moments of final silence, everyone in the room listened intently for the tremendous sound which would indicate that the rocket bomb had struck, and sensitive devices were pointed toward London. K-k-k-krash! The bomb had fallen. The listeners turned antenna to new directions and soon an ashen-faced young man from Oxford University announced: “The heart of London. But I do believe east of Trafalgar Square.”
“Hurry!” Mott snapped, and within three minutes he and the Oxford man and a driver were speeding toward London with a set of red cards showing on their windshield, allowing them to pass roadblocks and salute policemen who barred certain thoroughfares. “Bomb squad,” the Oxford man called as the car sped past. This was not exactly true. He and Mott were not qualified to defuse unexploded bombs, as the real squad did; they collected data on the damage inflicted by these new and terrible bombs which Hitler was throwing at London in what he boasted was “our act of final revenge.”
From the manner in which confusion grew as the car approached the area leading to Trafalgar Square, it was apparent that the trackers had been correct; the rocket had landed in the vicinity but well to the east. This was confirmed when wardens shouted, “It landed in the City.”
Then apprehension doubled, for this meant that the crucial business heart of London, termed the City, was once more in peril. The Bank of England, St. Paul’s, the Guildhall, from which Churchill spoke—how Hitler would gloat if his spies wirelessed tonight that one of these enticing targets had been struck, how smug Lord Haw-Haw would sound as he ticked off the losses on the midnight radio.
But when the weaving car entered Cheapside—with the driver crying “Bomb squad! Bomb squad!”—Mott and the Oxford man saw with relief that the symbolic targets had once more been miraculously spared, but this discovery gave them short comfort, since they must now inspect the hideous consequences of wherever the bomb had fallen.
“Many lives gone this time,” muttered an elderly warden with pale face and drooping mustaches. He led the way through to a gaping hole where a short time before a small news kiosk had served businessmen working in the City. It and the shops near it had been eliminated—erased and fragmented as if made of sticks—with all their clerks and customers dead.
“I don’t know which is worse,” Mott said to the Oxford man. “That ghastly hole in the ground or the splinters of wood and bone.”
“Thank God, that monster in Berlin doesn’t have fifty of these to send at us every day,” the English expert muttered.
“How many have hit London?” Mott asked.”
“If my count is correct, this is only number seventy-three. Since September, when they started. Something’s badly wrong with the German supply system.”
“Our bombing of Peenemünde is what’s wrong,” Mott said. “Your boys have wrecked their hatching ground.”
“Let’s be grateful for that,” the Englishman sighed as he poked among the wreckage for any shreds of the bomb. His team was still not quite certain how the horrible thing operated. “You know, Mott, before they started to arrive, we calculated Hitler could throw a hundred a day right at the heart of London. One hundred thousand civilians dead each month. We’ve been lucky. We’ve been terribly lucky.”
“How many dead here?”
The two experts consulted with wardens and came up with a figure of less than fifty, and when Mott repeated the number, almost with a sense of gratification, the Oxford man gave a convulsive sob. “Look at one of the fifty,” and he pointed to the body of a young girl who had been serving in the shop of a tobacconist. She was torn apart, but her head was untouched and her pretty face was still smiling, or so it seemed.
Mott looked away. Seeking out a member of the real bomb squad, he asked professionally, “Did you recover any metal parts? Any at all?”
“Total fragmentation,” the man said.
“Damn. Always we work in the dark.” He kicked at some rubble, gave a last survey of the wreckage, and stepped aside as hospital orderlies moved in to start recovering bodies.
“Shall we go on to Medmenham?” the Oxford man asked.
“That we shall,” Mott said. “We’ll hit those Nazis tonight with such a rain of destruction they’ll forget London.” He looked up at the sky and said, “Moonlight will be good till ten o’clock. Stand back, Hitler, you bastard.”
They sped from London on an emergency route leading to the west, and three times they crossed the winding River Thames, beautiful in its autumn coloring, with great trees crowding its rural banks. Heading in the direction of Windsor Castle and Eton, they could make excellent time, since the roads were free of traffic, and soon they were turning off onto a country lane that led to a remarkable site at which a remarkable meeting was about to take place.
Medmenham, a rustic village, was the site of England’s ingenious Air Force Signal Center, where data on the bombing of Germany were evaluated. Some of the brightest men and women in the world, English mostly but with a cadre of Americans and French, grabbed at aerial photographs as the plane crews delivered them and then made sophisticated calculations of the damage that had been inflicted. At Medmenham, as one watched these clever people at work, one got the feeling of a Germany that was being slowly strangled and reduced to rubble.
Tonight, the brightest of the Allied minds had assembled in a temporary shed to study just one set of photographs: those showing the German rocket site at Peenemünde, in former times a trivial summer resort located on a small island facing the Baltic Sea. If the German wizards at Peenemünde were allowed to proceed freely with their experiments and their manufacturing genius, London would be destroyed—and after that, New York and Washington.
“It could be the major target in the world,” an American Air Force general was saying when Stanley Mott joined the group. “What’s the word from Washington?”
“I bring a straightforward commission. Peenemünde is to be erased. Forget the other targets.”
“That we can’t do,” an English general interrupted. “You Americans with your heavy bombers are free to go at Peenemünde. We encourage you to strike at the breeding ground. But we British, with London in such peril…We must try to eliminate the actual launch sites. What news of the latest rockets?”
Mott said, “About an hour ago one landed in Cheapside. Almost equidistant from the Bank of England, St. Paul’s and the Guildhall. Hit a tobacconist’s.”
“God must be with us,” the general said, then quickly: “How many dead?”
“Less than fifty.”
The room fell silent. These men knew what the word fifty meant, the tragic reverberations outward to the families of the dead.”