On 24 April 1942 the German propagandist, Baron Gustav Braun von Sturm, proclaimed, ‘We shall go out and bomb every building in Britain marked with three stars in the Baedeker Guide.’
This was in response to a raid launched by RAF Bomber Command against the historic Baltic port of Lübeck on the night of 28 March 1942. Some 234 bombers had rained high-explosive bombs and incendiaries all across the old town part of Lübeck, largely comprising wooden buildings. The centre of the town had been destroyed and a thousand people had been killed. Hitler was determined to order reprisal attacks against British towns. They would strike against Exeter, Norwich, Canterbury, York and Bath.
The catalyst behind the Baedeker raids of 1942 was none other than Air Marshal Arthur Harris, the Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command, who had been appointed to the post on 22 February. He believed that striking against cities rather than industrial targets would sap German morale and break their will to fight far quicker than strategic bombing. It was to bring devastation, not only to German cities but also to five historic towns in Britain, where upwards of 50,000 buildings would either be destroyed or badly damaged.
The so-called Baedeker raids are named after Karl Baedeker’s international travel guides. The firm had been established in 1827 and the guides grew so popular that they were available in a number of international editions. Paradoxically, the Baedeker’s company building by this stage in Leipzig was gutted in an air raid in December 1943. After the war, the company was revived and continues as an imprint, and is still available in translation across the world. It was on the basis of the Baedeker guide to Great Britain that the British cities were chosen for their historical importance as targets for bombing raids.
Since the Baedeker raids did not commence until April 1942, we must first look at the early months of that year and trace the progress of the air war over the east coast.
One of the main implications of the Germans introducing the Do 217 was that they could carry heavier bombs. This is amply illustrated by an incident that occurred at Lowestoft on 13 January 1942. At 1627 a Do 217 dropped four 500 kg bombs onto the centre of Lowestoft. Sixty-nine people were killed, one was classified as being missing and 114 were injured. The centre of the town’s shopping area was virtually obliterated. The buildings were literally pulverised, and it was a nightmare for survivors and rescuers alike.
Four days later, in the Lowestoft Journal and Mercury, stories of enormous bravery and selflessness began to emerge:
One of the acts of heroism revealed by the rescue work was that of the manager of a multiple tailor’s shop. His body was found shielding his 17-year-old assistant, Beryl Bunn, who was rescued with injuries to her legs, which were not serious. ‘The staff evidently had no time to bolt for safety,’ said one of the rescue party, ‘and he must have thrown himself on top of the girl as they fell to the floor. Mr Slater had been killed by the debris which fell on him.’
Edmund Penman was 20 in January 1942, and was working at a shipyard in Oulton Broad. He among many others was ordered to assist in the rescue attempts, as he recalled:
There were so many people doing their best to release the buried casualties that the Incident Officer had to clear the site in order for the trained people to be able to work safely. I joined my party who were releasing casualties from the first layer of rubble, passing them to stretcher bearers, who were using the Odeon cinema foyer as a casualty clearing station. Our own rescue parties were joined by organised squads from the Royal Navy and the Army. There would be about 150 of us working on site. It was dark and floodlights were supplied by the harbour yard regardless of any further enemy action.
Kenny Bourn was just 15 at the time. He saw a Dornier come in low as he sat in an air raid shelter covered by an 8 ft square slab of 2-in. steel plate. The bombs dropped were so close that the plate lifted 8 inches and then fell back into place. He went on to describe what happened next:
I rushed across to see if I could help once things had subsided a bit, and got into London Road North, where Wallers [a popular restaurant] was devastated. I came across a man who was injured but still alive. As he was trapped by an 8-inch by 10-inch wooden beam, I rushed back to the works [Kenny was working for a joiner] to get a saw and set about cutting through the obstruction. When I had cut through two-thirds of the beam, the saw struck a 6-inch wire nail, which blunted the teeth. So I went back for another saw and eventually we got this chappie free, but he died on us before we could get him away by ambulance.
Mrs Swaine worked in a grocer’s shop. She was just about to leave the shop to buy some cakes when a number of bombs fell, and, in her own words:
Within a flash thirteen shops were completely demolished – including the restaurant which I was about to visit. It was an extremely cold afternoon and snow was falling heavily. As I looked out, with all our windows smashed, the outside was as dark as night, for paving stones and earth were still floating about in the air.
The Germans were not finished with Lowestoft, and they returned on the evening of 19 January. This time two 250 kg bombs demolished a building in Denmark Street.
Close by Great Yarmouth feared the worst, but it was lucky in January, and just four bombs were dropped around Alpha Road at 1800 on the 21st.
Lowestoft’s agony continued on 22 January; this time four 500 kg bombs shattered buildings in Till Road, Summer Road and Stanley Street. Other targets were not immune from attacks, although Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth seemed to be bearing the brunt. Four bombs fell around Horning school on the night of 10/11 January. At 1809 on 19 January two 500 kg bombs were dropped on Sheringham. This had been the first attack since July 1941, and the weapons succeeded in killing four and flattening four houses. Five bombs were dropped on Southwold on 20 January, a mine was dropped off Felixstowe pier on 22 January and a Do 217, unable to find a shipping target, dropped four bombs around Lowestoft station. Reedham received four bombs on 31 January, and a second Ju 88 dropped bombs on Cromer.
It is important to bear in mind that this period had seen a heavy fall of snow. Conditions were not ideal for aerial activity; it was cloudy and the night-time temperatures dropped perilously low. Still the Luftwaffe pressed on in the worst of conditions. A pair of Dorniers dropped bombs on Southwold on 2 February, Do 217s braved icy conditions to drop four bombs to the south of Coltishall on 6 February. Three bombs were dropped on Mutford near Lowestoft on 17 February, and Great Yarmouth came under attack from sixteen German bombers on 18 February. They dropped four high-explosive 250 kg bombs, straddling Northgate Street. Eight people were killed and five were injured. The attack had come in at 1250 and had it been ten minutes later dozens would have been killed and hundreds injured as they made their way home for lunch. The RAF of 151 Squadron in their Defiants managed to shoot down a Do 217 that day, as they attempted to attack a convoy off Norfolk, and a heavy bomb was dropped close to Beccles.
Into March 1942 bombs dropped on Bradwell, Happisburgh, Winterton and Lowestoft. On 8 March night-fighters belonging to 406 Squadron shot down a German raider, probably an He 111. There was definitely a reduction in Luftwaffe activity, but the defenders could not let down their guard, as at any moment a major raid could be launched. Consequently, night-fighter defences were being improved, with the arrival of Mosquito squadrons at Wittering and Castle Camps in Cambridgeshire. The RAF was also being far more aggressive and actively seeking out intruders and striking against German airfields.
A prime example of the RAF’s new striking ability took place on 3/4 March 1942. Over 220 bombers dropped flares, incendiaries and high explosives on a car factory near Paris. It was not only highly successful, but also the RAF suffered very few losses. Towards the end of the month, as we have seen, the RAF launched their assault on Lübeck. Up until this time no German city had been subjected to this kind of attack.
It took the Germans a little while to respond, but on 14 April Hitler warned of what was to come:
When targets are being selected, preference is to be given to those where attacks are likely to have the greatest possible effect on civilian life. Beside raids on ports and industry, terror attacks of a retaliatory nature are to be carried out against towns other than London. Minelaying is to be scaled down in favour of these attacks.
All of the Baedeker raids were led by He 111 Pathfinder aircraft, and the bombers were guided into their target by radio location beams from Cherbourg and Boulogne. The Countermeasures Unit of 80 Wing was capable of jamming these, but there was another signal that the British knew nothing about: the location beams were very accurate; they were set by a map reference and the equipment aboard the He 111s would enable them to pick up the beams and then drop incendiaries and flares onto the target so that the other bombers could be guided in.
On the first raid against Norwich on the night of 27/28 April, the railway station seemed to be the central point. In fact the roof of the station was completely gutted. The centre of the target for the second raid was Orford Place in the centre of Norwich, and this again was completely wrecked. The air raid sirens began to wail at 2321. Searchlights hunted for the enemy raiders high above them. By way of a diversion, twenty Ju 88s had been dispatched to mine the area around Cromer and Southwold. The incoming raiders had been picked up as early as 2015. The first bombs began falling on Norwich at 2340; incendiaries fell all around the railway station. Straight afterwards low-flying German aircraft machine-gunned the streets. Then the main force of German bombers appeared.
Fighters were sent up, including nine Beaufighters of 68 Squadron out of Coltishall, ten Spitfires of 610 Squadron from Ludham and three Mosquitoes of 157 Squadron from Castle Camps. The first high-explosive bombs fell around Drayton Road, but others engulfed Shorncliffe Avenue and Valpy Avenue. More damage was done as bombs fell on Dereham Road and Hailsham Road. Bombs fell on the Clark’s shoe factory, incendiaries around St Mary’s Silk Mills, more incendiaries were dropped around the station, and soon the fire was out of control, extending to around 120 acres. There were fires in up to 180 different locations. The mixture of incendiaries and 500 kg high explosives shattered the centre of the city. Buildings in Elmgrove Lane, Earlham Road, St Giles Street and numerous other locations were shattered and the Co-op warehouse in Victoria goods station yard was gutted.
The bombing had reached such intensity by 0022 on 28 April that the telephone exchange was evacuated, effectively cutting off much of the city from the outside world. The Norwich Fire Service was operating 170 pumping points and nearly 8.4 million gallons of water were used over the next twenty-four hours. So much water was used that two reservoirs were emptied. There was danger from escaping gas and severed electricity cables.
The last of these bombs fell at around 0045. It has been estimated that two He 111s had operated as Pathfinders and that a mixed force of Do 17s, He 111s and Ju 88s were involved in this first raid. Certainly no more than around twenty-six bombers were involved. A total of 174 people were killed, of whom twenty-four were children.
In just ninety minutes this handful of bombers had caused irreparable damage to the city of Norwich. The authorities’ reaction was swift. Enormous resources were poured into the city to help the injured, deal with the dead and cope with the homeless. Steps were also taken to try to prevent this from ever happening again. The area became a Gun Defender Area, with a battery of mobile guns of the 106th Regiment of the Royal Artillery (heavy anti-aircraft) being put in place. Their regimental HQ was at 221 Beccles Road, Gorleston. A rocket battery was also brought in, whose HQ was established in Unthank Road, Norwich.
Unfortunately Norwich’s ordeal was not yet over. They returned for a second major raid on the night of 29/30 April. This time, seventy aircraft were involved, and in excess of 90 tons of bombs were dropped within the city area. The sirens sounded at 2310. It was a fine, cloudless, clear and moonlit night and the bombs started dropping on the city at 2325.
This time, having identified their targets with flares, they dropped 1 kg incendiary bombs and large high-explosive bombs. Once again the raid was led by He 111s, seven of them. They illuminated Norwich with flares and incendiaries. Following them were eleven Do 217s of KG2 out of Soesterberg and eleven more from Schiphol. These were quickly followed by eight Do 217s flying out of Gilze Rijen, nine Do 17s of KG55 and nine more of KG40. Following up the rear were five Do 217s of KG4 and fifteen Ju 88s.
The centre of the bombing was around Orford Place and Rampant Horse Street. The inhabitants of Norwich were not even safe in their shelters from the massive 1,000 kg bombs. In Chapelfield a trench shelter received a direct hit and four people were killed. But there were some incredible escapes. In Miller’s Lane five shelters were at the edge of a massive crater caused by a 1,000 kg bomb that had landed in that lane and in Nicholas Street. Twenty-seven people were sheltering in them, and just two people were killed.
One of the marked targets was certainly the city shopping centre, although Thorpe station and goods yard, the Bishop Bridge gas works and Boulton & Paul’s factory were also secondary targets. The fact that the water works in Heigham Street had been put out of action in the previous raid caused enormous problems. This time the death toll amounted to sixty-nine, with eighty-nine more injured. It has been estimated that there were around 37,000 houses in Norwich in April 1942. The raids destroyed or damaged beyond repair nearly 1,500 of them, and another 19,500 were damaged but repairable. It would take weeks of work to make many of the buildings habitable again. The raids had destroyed three shoe factories, several engineering works, Caley’s confectionery factory and a silk mill. It had thrown the city into chaos; emergency ration cards were needed and food was shipped as quickly as possible to the city to prevent additional privation. Several churches and other landmarks had been destroyed. Remarkably the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital, although partially damaged, had not received a direct hit. Mass funerals took place on 4, 5 and 7 May 1942. In some cases it had taken this long just to identify the bodies.