Barely 150 metres from Imperial War Museum London is the site of the most destructive explosion in Lambeth during the Second World War, which killed 43 people. Just before 8.30pm on the night of Thursday 4 January 1945 a huge explosion destroyed an apartment building, Surrey Lodge, on the corner of Kennington Road and Lambeth Road. The old Lambeth Baths and a chapel on the opposite side of Lambeth Road were also severely damaged. The blast also extensively damaged the northern and western sides of the Imperial War Museum as well as many surrounding buildings.
There was no warning – no air raid sirens or sounds of approaching aircraft – just the explosion. However the initial detonation was followed by a distinctive roaring noise and a sonic boom, because the disaster was caused by a German V2 rocket – the world’s first ballistic missile - diving into the building faster than the speed of sound.
The scenes that followed would have been only too familiar to many Londoners after four years of war. One survivor described the aftermath of a similar blast once the rumble of collapsing buildings died away:
‘…there was a pause and everything was absolutely quiet for several seconds. After that all you could hear were people screaming from their terrible injuries, followed by the arrival of firemen and Army personnel …to help get us out from the debris. We looked awful with black and dust all over us, and, of course, we were still in our nighties!...’
With the grey light of dawn the full extent of the damage was revealed. Daylight also revealed the continuing rescue operations. But as the likelihood diminished of finding any more survivors alive, so the nature of the work changed. The cranes, lorries and workmen were increasingly clearing up the site to make it safe, removing rubble, and helping to recover residents’ personal belongings while starting to stabilise or repair damaged buildings. Lambeth Road was cleared and the tram service was restored. Soon this would become just one more London bomb site.
This was one of 1,054 V2 rockets that reached Britain during a campaign that lasted from 8 September 1944 to 27 March 1945, killing 2,700 people and injuring 6,500 people. Ironically more people died – an estimated 20,000 – working as slave labourers producing the weapons.