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The V-2 Ballistic Missile Campaign on London 1944-45: A New Type of Blitzkrieg

Updated on April 6, 2017
Mark Caruthers profile image

Bachelor of Arts Degree University of Arkansas Fayetteville Geography & History

The Beginning: The German Society For Space Travel

In the summer of 1927, as Germany had begun to rise out from the ashes of the First World War, a small group of rocket enthusiasts made up of mostly young scientists and engineers met at a small restaurant in Breslau to found the Society for Space Travel (Verein fur Ramschiffahrt, or VfR for short). Soon after their first meeting, the leader of this small group Herman Oberth, regarded as one of the fathers of modern astronautics, would recruit a young genius by the name of Wernher von Braun to join his club. Von Braun would soon stand out as the most charismatic of the young rocket enthusiasts and later became the leader of the VfR. Even as a young boy, von Braun had always dreamed of space travel but early in his quest the dark influences of war would push him to create the V-2 and give birth to the age of the ballistic missile.

By the end of 1930, VfR membership had grown to the point where the club began to publish its own magazine, Die Rakete (The Rocket), which further helped popularize the science of rockets and promote interest in space travel. The VfR would go through its ups and downs in the early 1930s, but soon after Adolf Hitler seized power in Germany, he realized the rocket's potential as an effective ballistic weapon.

On December 17, 1933, the German Army appointed Major General Walter Dornberger, a rocket enthusiast and career soldier who fought in the First World War, to head its research into the rocket's potential use for the military. He would enlist members of the VfR to work with the German Army to develop the rocket into an effective weapon. Dornberger was also a skilled engineer who held four patents in rocket development and a degree in engineering from the Institute of Technology in Berlin. Dornberger was quick to enlist both the 28-year-old Wernher von Braun and Walter Riedel who had already developed rocket powered cars. Von Braun would soon go on to lead Dornberger's team of rocket scientists. Because of the limited amount of interest in long-range rockets in the First World War, the western Allies excluded the development of them entirely from the Treaty of Versailles at the end of the war. This oversight gave Germany the freedom to invest a large amount of capital into the development of rocket technology, putting them decades ahead of any other nation in the study of ballistic missile technology. The German military would benefit greatly from this loop-hole. By the time the Second World War began Germany had already started testing rockets capable of reaching altitudes greater than 35,000 feet. At their secret test facility along the Baltic Sea Coast in East Prussia, near the small seaside town of Peenemunde, German scientists feverishly worked on designing rockets which were capable of reaching space.

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A V-2 rocket today at Peenemude the coastal town where the rocket was developed in the 1930s.A sectional view of the V-2 rocket which stands at 45 feet and has a range of 200 miles.
A V-2 rocket today at Peenemude the coastal town where the rocket was developed in the 1930s.
A V-2 rocket today at Peenemude the coastal town where the rocket was developed in the 1930s. | Source
A sectional view of the V-2 rocket which stands at 45 feet and has a range of 200 miles.
A sectional view of the V-2 rocket which stands at 45 feet and has a range of 200 miles. | Source

The Second World War

Early into the Second World War as Hitler's blitzkrieg quickly rolled over Europe he seemed unable to grasp the significance of the rocket's role in the future of warfare. As the tide of war turned against the Nazi forces Hitler would finally become totally convinced it might be the only weapon that could save his empire from total defeat. In June 1942, at Peenemude von Braun began testing a new larger rocket which would completely revolutionize the future of battle it would later become known as the V-2. On October 3, 1942, an event took place that would alter the course of history when von Braun's team successfully launched a 5 1/2 ton missile that reached an altitude of 55 miles that was capable of carrying a one ton warhead over 190 miles down-range of its launch site. Afterward, Dornberger held a celebration party at which he told his scientists, "We have invaded space with our rocket and for the first time --mark this well-- we have used space as a bridge between two points on earth; we have proved rocket propulsion for space travel. But he would later remind his scientists that until Germany had won the war the most urgent task in the near term would be the perfection of the rocket as a weapon.

After the successful tests of the V-2, Walter von Brauchitsch, the German Army Commander in Chief began to set in motion the plans for large-scale manufacture of the V-2. He also gave the order to begin the construction of a massive bomb-proof launching platform on the French coast near the English Channel named La Coupole. This V-2 launch site which still stands today is a massive structure with a concrete roof over 16 feet thick. It was to provide a shelter from Allied air attacks so V-2 rocket brigades could launch up to 15 V-2s a day against London. The Nazi leadership planned on reducing the British capital to rubble by a continuous bombardment and attacking Allied airbases to stop their bombers from carpet bombing German cities.

Hitler was extremely impressed by what he saw when he watched film of the first successful V-2 launches. He gave rocket production top priority believing that rocket attacks on London would bring about a turning point in the war. But time was running out on Hitler and his embattled Reich as massive Allied armies quickly advanced on all fronts pushing his beleaguered armies to the point of near collapse. Regardless of the difficulties German rocket engineers faced getting the V-2 into production, London and the southeast of England seemed most likely to face concentrated assaults from V-2 rocket batteries in the near future.

The V-2 Sites Along the Coast of France

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A 1944 Drawing of a V-2 rocket site.The Dome at La Coupole.Entrance of the museum of La Coupole.Original V-2 rocket and engine on display under the dome of La Coupole.A blueprint of a V-2 launch site along the coast of France summer of 1944. Looking down from the sky.A United States Army cross section of the German V-2 rocket.Map of where the massive concrete V-2 launch sites were located along the French coast near the English Channel. The only problem was the Allied bombers who owned the skies day and night about the Reich by 1944.
A 1944 Drawing of a V-2 rocket site.
A 1944 Drawing of a V-2 rocket site. | Source
The Dome at La Coupole.
The Dome at La Coupole. | Source
Entrance of the museum of La Coupole.
Entrance of the museum of La Coupole. | Source
Original V-2 rocket and engine on display under the dome of La Coupole.
Original V-2 rocket and engine on display under the dome of La Coupole. | Source
A blueprint of a V-2 launch site along the coast of France summer of 1944. Looking down from the sky.
A blueprint of a V-2 launch site along the coast of France summer of 1944. Looking down from the sky. | Source
A United States Army cross section of the German V-2 rocket.
A United States Army cross section of the German V-2 rocket. | Source
Map of where the massive concrete V-2 launch sites were located along the French coast near the English Channel. The only problem was the Allied bombers who owned the skies day and night about the Reich by 1944.
Map of where the massive concrete V-2 launch sites were located along the French coast near the English Channel. The only problem was the Allied bombers who owned the skies day and night about the Reich by 1944. | Source

V-2 Production Moves Underground

Many scientists in Britain were completely unaware of advances in liquid-fueled rocket technology in the summer of 1943. They also believed that 40 miles was the maximum range for a single-stage rocket and that a new type of liquid fuel to propel it further was scientifically impossible. In spite of their doubts Allied leaders decided to rid themselves of the rocket threat so the Royal Air Force sent 600 bombers to destroy Peenemunde on August 19, 1943. Despite the Allied air attack on Peenemunde's main installation it escaped any serious damage. The Allied air attacks on Peenemunde gave the Reichsfuhrer of the SS-Totenkpfverbande (Death Head Units), Heinrich Himmler, an opportunity to put his dark influence on the V-2 rocket project. Himmler and his Death Heads Units ran Hitler's notorious extermination camps throughout the Third Reich and its occupied territories. In 1936, Himmler formed this special unit within the notorious SS-Schutzstaffel (Protection Squad) and by June 1944, it had over 24,000 members running 1,200 camps. On their black caps each member of these units wore a silver emblem of a skull to signify that they were loyal to the death. After the war ended they were hunted down like the murders they were and sentenced to death for their crimes. Himmler and his Death Heads Units orchestrated the Holocaust leading to the extermination of two-thirds of the nine million Jews who lived in Europe a horror that haunts the world to this day. They considered themselves part of a "Master Race" in their eyes certain classes of people were not even considered human. Heinrich Himmler described "Untermenschen" as a biological creature which had hands, legs, eyes, and a mouth but was considered only a partial human being more animal than human. Himmler would commit suicide soon after his capture by American soldiers to evade punishment for his crimes against humanity.

Dornberger decided he needed to find a new location for his rocket factory to avoid air raids and any future delays in V-2 production. Nordhausen was chosen an old gypsum mine located in the rugged Hartz Mountains in central Germany. It had once been used by the German Army as a fuel storage facility. His new underground rocket facility would be immune to air attack and fortified against ground attack. At Nordhausen a new rocket factory known as Mittelwerk- Dora was built from scratch, under the supervision of Himmler's representative SS Gruppenfuhrer Hans Kammler a civil engineer and architect who earlier in his career built the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Work proceeded rapidly on the Nazi's underground rocket factory and by November 1943, with the help of around the clock slave labor provided by the SS-Totenkopfverbande, the number of rockets assembled at the new factory soon exceeded those at Peenemunde. By February 1945 it was estimated that 42,000 slave laborers worked under the most horrific conditions at Nordhausen. Over half of the slave laborers who worked at Nordhausen died building the Nazi's secret weapon, more than the new wonder weapon would kill on the battlefield. Whatever the human costs the streamlined production facilities built at Nordhausen were capable of producing 1,800 missiles a month. At that rate London would receive thirty rockets a day more than British leaders felt the population could endure. Over 5,000 V-2s were produced at Nordhausen surprisingly production continued to the very last day of the war. The final production version of the V-2 was a brilliantly successful rocket the most advanced flying weapon ever created under the most difficult conditions.

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A V-2 at take-off after the war at White Sands New Mexico.A V-2 take-off at Peenemunde in 1943.A V-2 on it mobile launcher.The first picture of space from the nose of a V-2 after the war at White Sands New Mexico.A fixed V-2 launch site at Eperlecques in France after it capture by Allied forces soon after D-Day.Inside the Nordhausen rocket factory known as Mittelwerk- Dora during the last days of the Second World War.
A V-2 at take-off after the war at White Sands New Mexico.
A V-2 at take-off after the war at White Sands New Mexico. | Source
A V-2 take-off at Peenemunde in 1943.
A V-2 take-off at Peenemunde in 1943. | Source
A V-2 on it mobile launcher.
A V-2 on it mobile launcher. | Source
The first picture of space from the nose of a V-2 after the war at White Sands New Mexico.
The first picture of space from the nose of a V-2 after the war at White Sands New Mexico. | Source
A fixed V-2 launch site at Eperlecques in France after it capture by Allied forces soon after D-Day.
A fixed V-2 launch site at Eperlecques in France after it capture by Allied forces soon after D-Day. | Source
Inside the Nordhausen rocket factory known as Mittelwerk- Dora during the last days of the Second World War.
Inside the Nordhausen rocket factory known as Mittelwerk- Dora during the last days of the Second World War. | Source

D-Day—the Allied Landing on Normandy

After June 6,1944, with the Allied invasion of Normandy the possibility of launching V-2s from the coast of France became an impossibility. Also firing V-2s from fixed positions proved to be suicide due to Allied air superiority over most of Europe. General Dwight D. Eisenhower the Supreme Allied Commander would express his relief about the success of the Allied landings at Normandy, "It seemed likely that, if the Germans had succeeded in perfecting and using these weapons six months earlier than they did, our invasion of Europe would have proved exceedingly difficult, perhaps impossible." Because of their lack of air superiority the decision was made to use mobile launchers to deliver V-2s to its unsuspecting victims. A headquarters was established in Brussels as firing batteries took up positions in Belgium made up of 5,306 soldiers and 1,592 vehicles. It was also decided to take up positions around the Hague, and its suburbs, concealing the firing batteries from possible air attack. From their new positions V-2 batteries could launch freely at locations all over southern England and its capital London. By the end of the Second World War over 1,400 V-2s would be fired at Britain using mobile launchers.

By the 1940s with its palaces and other public buildings the metropolis of London was the crown jewel of the British Empire. Containing a fifth of Britain's population Europe's other capitals couldn't rival London's 7,250,000 residents in terms of population or economic significance. This sparkling city on the River Thames though battered by five years of war was literally the beating heart of England's boundless empire. It served as the center of trade for her shops which produced good of all types which included textiles, chemicals, machine working and many other goods. Little did the war weary citizens of London know they would become the first to witness the deadly horrors of the ballistic missile.

On September 7, 1944, the occupants of three pleasant tree lined suburban streets in the Hague awoke to find German lorries outside their homes and SS soldiers in jack boots banging on their doors. Everyone was forced to pack-up their belongings and move elsewhere, leaving their doors unlocked and windows open. Once they left the next morning a convoy of trucks packed with soldiers and mobile rocket launchers (Meillerwagen) rolled up followed by trucks carrying V-2 rockets. The rocket launchers were used to stand the massive rockets upright and ready them for launch. The missiles were aimed to land 1000 yards east of Waterloo Bridge in a built-up area in southeast London. The V-2's Vertikant guidance system was a revolutionary technical innovation, which used three gyroscopes, two to control the orientation of the missile in space, and a third to shut off the engine when the correct velocity was reached. Its guidance system was remarkably advanced it was capable of adjusting the rocket's flight path in space compensating for a phenomenon known as the "Coriolis Effect" which was created by the earth's rotation.

V-2 Launch

The V-2 Campaign Against London Claims its First Victims

Soon after 6:38 pm September 8, 1944, the order to launch rockets was given setting in motion Hitler's V-2 terror campaign against England. The age of the ballistic missile had arrived and the citizens of London would become its first victims. Since the start of the war, Hitler had continually boasted about revolutionary weapons which would leave his enemies entirely defenseless. His Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels referred to these mysterious weapons as wonder weapons, or Wunderwaffe. When the German Army unleashed a wonder weapon with so much power and potential many feared what else the Nazis might have in mind for its enemies?

On Friday evening September 8, 1944, Staveley Road was a dark and dreary place most people were in a hurry just to get home and out of the rain. Suddenly at 6:43 pm without warning a huge hole appeared in the middle of the road and houses on both sides of the road collapsed. For hundreds of yards, nearby walls cracked down to their foundations shattering windows sending shrapnel in all directions. All anyone heard was a loud pop and a sudden rumble. Many felt the blast wave from the explosion like the caretaker of Staveley Road School, who was outside when the rocket hit and found himself suddenly thrown twenty feet across the road. "I picked myself up," he told a Chronicle reporter, in an interview which would not be published until a year later, "and staggered to the nearest wrecked house," where he found a woman lying dead. Later he would learn it was Mrs. Harrison, a sixty-five-year-old housewife who had been sitting by the fireplace with her husband. In that same instant, a young soldier also died, Frank Browning, who happened to be walking down Staveley Road to visit a girlfriend, and a three-year-old infant, Rosemary Clarke, killed in her cot as she slept. Hitler's V-2 had claimed its first victims, the honor of firing the first V-2 against London went to battery 485 commanded by SS General Hans Kammler the man picked to lead the rocket offensive against southern England.

British leaders would conceal the existence of the V-2 attacks on London for over a month in an attempt to not to cause a panic. London's air defenses hadn't the means to prevent ballistic missile attacks, it was impossible to stop an object traveling at speeds of well over 3,500 miles-per-hour. A new age of warfare had arrived where objects were striking the earth before the sound of the explosion could be heard by its victims followed by a blast wave whose rumble resembled an avalanche of falling rock. The V-2 attacks would literally take London's citizens breath away. A London resident would describe the V-2 as something like a thunderbolt. By the time it had arrived, "she reflected, "you were either dead or it had missed." The Christian Science Monitor reported that a V-2 impact felt something like an earthquake, "The reverberations from a V-2 rocket explosion spread up to 20 miles."

Wernher von Braun Talks about the V-2

The Last Days of the Reich and V-2

Churchill and his generals were very concerned that the Germans might have a larger rocket capable of delivering warheads greater than ten tons which could have totally destroyed London. Many of London's citizens knew something was up because the governments cover-up story of gas line fractures seemed so ridiculous. As explosions multiplied "flying gas main" became a common joke among London's citizens. Even children lost faith in the official government cover-story as V-2s continued to strike the city. The German New Agency would end the cover-up on November 8,1944, by announcing to the world the use of the V-2 on London. Two days later Churchill confessed to the House of Commons that England had been under rocket attack for the last few weeks. British leaders began to make plans to evacuate over one million residents from London fearing that the next generation of V-weapons might carry either deadly chemical or biological weapons in their warheads. England's military issued 4.3 million gas masks to the citizens of London and told them to pray.

Surprisingly, Hitler didn't use the V-2s to deliver a true wonder weapon the world's first true weapon of a mass destruction liquid Tabun. It was a deadly nerve agent who's very existence was unknown outside Hitler's most inner circle. Similar to Sarin gas it was one of the most deadly substances ever created by man. A tiny drop on the skin could kill an individual in minutes or sometimes seconds. This lethal concoction had already been tested on Nazi concentration camp inmates with surprising results. A victim's death by Tabun intoxication resembled the last hectic moments of an ant sprayed with an insecticide. The first symptom of Tabun exposure was pinpoint pupils, then the glands and muscles of its helpless victims would hyper-stimulate causing their respiratory systems to fail. Enough Tabun gas had already been produced to decimate the entire population of London on any given day. Once tested after the war by the U.S. Army's Forty-fifth Chemical Laboratory Company Tabun killed a warm-blooded rabbit five times faster than anything that the British or American scientist had ever seen before. The most alarming fact revealed during testing was that the nerve agent need not be inhaled to kill. A single drop on a rabbit's skin killed the animal in just a few minutes. The millions of gas masks given to Allied forces in England and to its citizens offered no defense against such a deadly chemical weapon as potent as Tabun. The fact that Hitler possessed tons of this deadly nerve agent and never used it is truly a miracle which spared millions their lives. Within months after the surrender of Germany 530 tons of Tabun were secretly shipped to the United States and used in top secret field tests.

November 1944 was the most deadly period of the V-2 Blitz on London a total of 26 V-2s landed in London with a success rate of 76%. On November 1,1944, sixty-two people were killed and ninety were seriously injured by three rockets. The V-2 attacks would continue through Christmas leaving the citizens of London in a constant state of fear. The final two rockets would hit London on March 27,1945, one of these was the last to kill a British civilian. It has been estimated that 2,754 civilians were killed in Britain by 1,402 V-2 rockets, a further 6,523 were injured. Over the last months of the Second World War more than 3,000 V-2s were fired by the German armed forces, London (1358) and Antwerp (1,610) would receive the bulk of the attention. The accuracy of the V-2 increased alarmingly some of them impacted within a few yards of their intended target. On November 25,1944, a V-2 struck a Woolworth department store in London where it killed 160 civilians and seriously injured another 108. In Antwerp another V-2 hammered into a cinema killing 567 people, the single most deadly V-2 attack of the war. By March 1945, the Minister of Reconstruction reported 600,000 houses had been destroyed or damaged by V-2s, the number totally destroyed or having to be pulled down at least 20,000.

When the V-2 attacks began about 21,000 men were assigned to work on repairing V-2 damage in the London area, by the end of the rocket offensive over 125,000 men were employed by the Ministry of works. Another 3,000 civil-engineering workers were busy demolishing unsafe buildings. If Hitler had been able to deploy his rocket troops earlier its possible von Braun could have built two-stage rockets capable of reaching New York or Washington D.C. bringing the nightmare of the V-2 to the American people. It is estimated over nine thousand military personal and civilians were killed by V-2 attacks in the Second World War.

Von Braun After the War

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Von Braun arm in cast and Major-General Walter Dornberger on May 3,1945, with American soldiers after the surrender of Nazi Germany. Included in this photo is Hans Lindenberg the V-2s rocket combustion chamber designer.Von Braun with President Kennedy in 1962 he would be recruited by the United States after the Second World War to help develop  its rocket program.Von Braun in front of the Saturn V rocket engines the most powerful ever built a product of his creation they would land man on the moon.Von Braun celebrates with Apollo 11 mission officials after Apollo 11 liftoff July 16,1969
Von Braun arm in cast and Major-General Walter Dornberger on May 3,1945, with American soldiers after the surrender of Nazi Germany. Included in this photo is Hans Lindenberg the V-2s rocket combustion chamber designer.
Von Braun arm in cast and Major-General Walter Dornberger on May 3,1945, with American soldiers after the surrender of Nazi Germany. Included in this photo is Hans Lindenberg the V-2s rocket combustion chamber designer. | Source
Von Braun with President Kennedy in 1962 he would be recruited by the United States after the Second World War to help develop  its rocket program.
Von Braun with President Kennedy in 1962 he would be recruited by the United States after the Second World War to help develop its rocket program. | Source
Von Braun in front of the Saturn V rocket engines the most powerful ever built a product of his creation they would land man on the moon.
Von Braun in front of the Saturn V rocket engines the most powerful ever built a product of his creation they would land man on the moon. | Source
Von Braun celebrates with Apollo 11 mission officials after Apollo 11 liftoff July 16,1969
Von Braun celebrates with Apollo 11 mission officials after Apollo 11 liftoff July 16,1969 | Source

The Saturn V Rocket

Missile to the Moon

George Orwell (1903-1950)

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A passport picture of Eric Blair (George Orwell) during a trip to Burma in 1933.V-2 damage in London spring 1945.A press photo of Orwell in 1941.
A passport picture of Eric Blair (George Orwell) during a trip to Burma in 1933.
A passport picture of Eric Blair (George Orwell) during a trip to Burma in 1933. | Source
V-2 damage in London spring 1945.
V-2 damage in London spring 1945. | Source
A press photo of Orwell in 1941.
A press photo of Orwell in 1941. | Source

George Orwell (1903-1950) and the Cold War

George Orwell would best describe his lack of confidence in the future in his weekly column in the London Tribune on December 1, 1944," I'm no lover of the V-2, especially at this moment when the house still seems to be rocking from a recent explosion, but what depresses me about these things is the way people seem to be talking about the next war. Every time one goes off I hear gloomy references to the 'next time' and the reflection: 'I suppose they'll be able to shoot them across the Atlantic by the next time.'" Born in India of British parents as Eric Blair, Orwell would coin the term for the period after the Second World War as the "Cold War" in a 1945 essay. The "peace that was no peace" did not last forever. The Cold War ended at the close of the twentieth century without a real victory. The Soviet system simply collapsed when it had, quite literally, spent itself into oblivion. The Cold War had a lifecycle that leaders and citizens have struggled to understand. It ended as it began with a shift in geopolitical power and a new set of alliances and rivalries among peoples and states. Orwell best known for his "anti-communist" novels Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), was a socialist who fought Franco's fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Spanish Communists Party attacks on socialists, including Orwell, turned him against Stalin. The pen name "George Orwell" was inspired by the River Orwell in the English county of Suffolk. As Orwell predicted, the end of the Second World War narrowed the range of political and social creativity across the globe and at home.

For many Americans, one of the most enduring images of the Cold War is a little black-and -white cartoon turtle. "Burt," as he was named by the Federal Civil Defense Administration, rose to iconic status after he starred in a 1951 film telling children that in case of nuclear fallout, the best line of defense was to "duck and cover." Footage of children diving under desks to Burt's happy song epitomizes our early twenty-first-century impression of the naiveté of Americans who seemed to believe that such a flimsy maneuver would actually safeguard them from a nuclear attack, let alone the insidious effects of radiation sickness. For children growing up during the Cold War, the possible dangers of nuclear fallout were part of everyday life. Studies found that Cold War children as young as four had already assimilated words such as "fallout," "Russia," "radiation," and "H-bomb into their vocabulary.

Sources

Ford J. Brian. Secret Weapons: Technology, Science and the Race to Win World War II. Osprey Publishing. Midland House, West Way, Botley, Oxford, OX2 0PH, UK 44-02 23rd Street, Suite 219, Long Island City, NY 1101, USA. 2011

Neufeld J. Michael. The Rocket and the Reich: Peenemunde and the Coming of the Ballistic Missile Era. Harvard Press Cambridge Massachusetts USA. 1995

Reese Peter. Target London: Bombing the Capital 1915-2005. Pen & Sword Military Books Ltd. 47 Church Street Barnsley South Yorkshire 570 2AS. 2011


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    • dougwest1 profile image

      Doug West 5 months ago from Raymore, MO

      Good article. I reference it in my Wernher von Braun Hub.

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      Mark Caruthers 9 months ago from Fayetteville Arkansas

      Thank you for taking time out of your day to read my hub.

    • Mark Caruthers profile image
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      Mark Caruthers 9 months ago from Fayetteville Arkansas

      Thanks for taking time to read my hub.

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      Louise Powles 9 months ago from Norfolk, England

      That's really interesting to read. And with the added pictures and video clips, it's made it highly informative. Thank you.

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      JR Krishna 9 months ago from India

      Very informative and elaborate article.

      Thanks for sharing