England’s Historic Cities under Attack: the Baedeker Raids, 1942

Between late April and late June 1942, the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) deliberately targeted Britain’s historic towns and cities, causing widespread destruction, hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries. The main targets were Exeter, Bath, Norwich, York and Canterbury.

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Lübeck Cathedral on fire following the RAF bombing, 1942 © German Federal Archive.

These attacks on historic and cultural targets were known as the ‘Baedeker Raids’ after the famous German travel guides, and were in retaliation for the RAF bombing of the historic German city of Lübeck two months earlier on 28/29 March.

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Ruins of Lübeck’s merchant quarter © German Federal Archive.

An RAF directive in February 1942 had authorised, for the first time, the targeting of civilian areas in Germany.  Air Marshall Sir Arthur (‘Bomber’) Harris, Commander-in-Chief RAF Bomber Command, wrote in his memoirs that the main reason he chose the port city of Lübeck as the first target was: ‘…to learn to what extent a first wave of aircraft could guide a second wave to the aiming point by starting a conflagration.’ The city lacked defences, and in the firestorm 300 residents were killed and almost 1,000 injured, whilst the historic centre was severely damaged.

Hitler was enraged and personally sanctioned reprisal air raids on Britain, demanding: ‘…terror attacks…where the greatest possible effect on the civilian population was to be expected.’

Baron Gustav Braun von Sturm, a Nazi propagandist, reputedly suggested bombing significant historic sites listed in the Baedeker Guide: a 19th Century set of travel guides published by the Karl Baedeker firm.

Exeter

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Interior of Exeter Cathedral after the raid in the small hours of 4 May 1942 © Historic England BB42-00738.

 ‘…The Cathedral was absolute chaos.  The organ was everywhere. Pipes were everywhere.  The whole of the south side of the choir was damaged.  It was filled with smoke from fires burning all over the place.  Not a window was left.  Chairs were everywhere.  Masonry all over the place.  It was devastation…’ Interview with Wilfred Dymond, firewatcher Exeter Cathedral, recorded in 1995 © IWM 15451

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Bombed ruins of Southernhay West, Exeter © Historic England BB42/00714

Exeter was the Luftwaffe’s first target: there were 19 raids, two resulting in widespread damage and the heaviest casualties.

EXETER IN WARTIME, 1943
The ruins of Exeter High Street. Destroyed sites like these were still private property: the signs indicate that claims on the land had to be maintained for when rebuilding began. 400 shops, nearly 150 offices, over 50 warehouses and stores, and 36 pubs and clubs were damaged or destroyed during the Baedeker Raids © IWM D16649.

On 24/25 April 1942 German aircraft dropped high explosive bombs on the city, failing to do much damage, but killing 73 people and injuring 54.

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Bomb-damaged remains of the Grade II Listed, 15th century St Catherine’s Almhouses and Chapel, Exeter – ruins left largely untouched since the war as a public memorial © Barry Lewis.

The bombers returned just after midnight on 4 May, this time dropping an estimated 8,000 incendiary bombs. These ignited on landing, swiftly spreading roof fires. Enemy aircraft strafed the emergency personnel as they fought to contain the conflagration. In the deadly 70 minutes of the raid, much of the historic centre of Exeter was left in ruins: 156 people lost their lives and 563 were injured, whilst 1,500 houses were destroyed and 2,700 severely damaged.

Bath

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Henry Street, Bath, in ruins following the Baedeker Raids © Historic England AA035416.

Bath became a military target in night air raids between 25 and 27 April. The city was vulnerable to attack, having no anti-aircraft guns or barrage balloons. The Luftwaffe flew 151 bomber sorties on the 25th, first dropping flares to light up the targets, followed by over 200 tons of high explosives and 3,500 incendiary bombs, as well as dive bombing and machine-gunning the streets. Four German aircraft were downed, resulting in the deaths of 24 airmen and the capture of two.

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Bath’s Grade II Listed, former Old Labour Exchange and Weights and Measures Office on Milk Street. It was badly damaged in the Baedeker Raids and still bears the shrapnel scars © Tom Fieldhouse.
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A memorial plaque at the Francis Hotel, Queen Square, Bath. The hotel stands on the foundations of four Georgian town houses that were destroyed in the air raids. They had been designed by John Wood the Elder who planned many of Bath’s elegant streets and buildings in the 18th century © Tom Fieldhouse.

Enemy aircraft returned the following night, mainly bombing houses in the old residential part of the city.  The raids came at great human cost: 432 people lost their lives, almost 1,000 were injured, and hundreds made homeless.

Norwich

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A corrugated iron Anderson bomb shelter standing virtually intact among the ruins of houses, Norwich, Norfolk © IWM HU36196.

 ‘…The blitz in 1942 was terrible….where we lived and all round the areas was one mass of flames…we were all in terraced houses, the next door was completely burnt out…and I was outside on the road with a stirrup pump trying to dampen our house down so we didn’t get much damage to it…when we eventually did get down into the shelters there was incendiary bombs all burning in the gardens…’ Interview with John Fuller, messenger with Norwich City Fire Service, recorded in 1997 © IWM 17647.  

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An aerial view of the Caley’s chocolate factory in Norwich, burning after a Luftwaffe raid 27 April, 1942 © IWM FRE10884.

The heaviest raids on Norwich were on the nights of 27/28 April and 29/30 April 1942. In total more than 200 citizens died and an estimated 850 were injured, whilst a number of historic buildings and homes in the city centre were also destroyed.

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The Saxon church of St Julian’s, King Street, Norwich was almost completely destroyed on 27 June, 1942 © Historic England OWS 01/17/511.

On 27 June the Luftwaffe attacked again: Norwich Cathedral was caught is a deadly rain of nearly 1,000 incendary bombs, but escaped serious damage owing to the vigilance of the firewatchers and the brick and stone vaulting within its roof.

York

The ruins of St Martin-le-Grand Church, Coney Street, York. Image courtesy of The Northern Echo.

 ‘…when they bombed York…all the building trades had to report to a central place and we were all allocated streets to go to to put sheets on the roofs and put up felt at the windows so people could go back as soon as posssible…’ Interview with Edwin Dales, a 14 year old plumber at the time of the raids.  Recorded in 2000 © IWM 20152.

70 German aircraft attacked York on 28/29 April 1942: more than 90 civilians died, around 200 were injured and an estimated 9,500 houses were damaged or destroyed.  Many public buildings also suffered damage, including the medieval Guildhall. The old Rowntree factory was burned to the ground; the railway station was badly damaged, with the incoming King’s Cross to Edinburgh train crowded with military taking a direct hit; the Bar Convent collapsed killing five nuns.

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Memorial plaque, York station, remembering William Milner, posthumously awarded the King’s Commendation for Gallantry. Courtesy of Malcolm Brooke/Military Histories.
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William Milner.

A plaque at York Station reads: ‘On 29 April 1942, York Railway Sation was attacked during a German air-raid. Foreman William Milner, a keen first-aider, went to the assistance of others trapped in damaged buildings.  The following morning he was found dead nearby.  He was still clutching his first-aid bag.’

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Memorial plaque to French hero, Yves Mahé Courtesy of Malcolm Brooke/Military Histories.
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Yves Mahé.

Yves Mahé, a young French pilot, escaped to England during the Nazi occupation of France and joined the RAF’s No. 253 Squadron. On 29 April 1942, his was one of six Hurricanes from the Squadron that took off at 02.45 to attack the Luftwaffe and defend York.

Canterbury

THE AFTERMATH OF A BAEDEKER RAID, CANTERBURY, KENT, ENGLAND, UK,
View of the extensive damage to St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury, and the surrounding area © IWM QHS299.

‘…We were in the flight path of the German bombers going to Canterbury and they were so low…that we could almost see inside the cabins… I went into Canterbury the next day and… all the shops in the main street, they were pretty olde worlde….all the old beams, were all smouldering…it were pretty awful what they did…’ Ronald Clack, was serving with the 112th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, and was posted to village close to Canterbury. Recorded in 2001. © IWM 20287.

Canterbury was raided on 31May/1 June 1942.  Thousands of incendiary bombs and hundreds of high explosive bombs laid waste to its medieval heart: 115 people died and 380 were injured.

THE AFTERMATH OF A BAEDEKER RAID, CANTERBURY, KENT, ENGLAND, UK,
Marks & Spencer, Canterbury, being boarded up after the bombing raids. © IWM QHS289.

Fires raged across the city: over 800 properties were completely destroyed and over 1,000 seriously damaged.  The Cathedral, which lost its library, survived- largely due to its fire watchers who doused the incendaries that had landed on the roof.  A stone memorial plaque to their bravery was unveiled within the Cathedral in 2004.

Header Image: A view over bomb-damaged Exeter. The Cathedral appears virtually intact, but had lost two of its supporting flying buttresses and was badly damaged within.  Photographed from the ruins of the Church of St Mary Arches, 7 September 1942 © Historic England BB42/03979.

Written by Nicky Hughes.

Further Reading

4 responses to England’s Historic Cities under Attack: the Baedeker Raids, 1942

  1. Dr Charles Kightly says:

    I cannot ‘like’ this, not having or wanting a Facebook account [not everyone does!]
    But is one of your best
    Charles Kightly

  2. William Assheton says:

    My grand father David Jones was dean of Llandaff and was entering the cathedral on the night it was bombed. A bomb exploded and he was blown out of the door wearing his kitchen colander as a hat which got damaged. He spent the last few years of his life arranging for the cathedral repairs and installation of the Epstein sculpture in the crossing.
    We still use the colander almost every day.

    • Mary Ann Atwood says:

      Thank you for that charming story. Such bravery, such a “never give up” approach to life – a remarkable testament to the British people.
      Wish we could visit this remarkable exhibition.

  3. Jennie O'Kane says:

    In Frome Heritage Museum, Somerset, we have a first-hand account of the bombing of Exeter Cathedral. It was written by Miss Eunice Overend who was on fire-watching duties there and she vividly described the climbing and scrambling she had to do to put out the fires up on the Cathedral roof.This was selflessly done with no thought to her own safety.

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