Bomb-damaged ruins and flattened streets, with Exeter Cathedral and the Church of St Mary Major in the background © Historic England Archive. BB42/03979
Bomb-damaged ruins and flattened streets, with Exeter Cathedral and the Church of St Mary Major in the background © Historic England Archive. BB42/03979

Exeter: First Victim of the Baedeker Raids

Between April and June 1942 Britain suffered a new wave of attacks. These were launched on Hitler’s orders in retaliation for a Royal Air Force raid on the medieval German city of Lübeck in March 1942.

This fresh wave of bombing targeted small, historic cities, rather than larger industrial centres. The aim was to damage historic buildings of cultural importance and spread fear among the population.

They were known as the ‘Baedeker raids’, after a popular German guide book to Britain.

People standing in the street in front of the remaining façade of 25-36 Southernhay West. The blast from high explosives could destroy part of a building but leave parts of it intact © Historic England Archive. BB42/00714 | 13-24 Southernhay West on the National Heritage List for England

The first Baedeker target

Exeter was the first place to be attacked. It was bombed over three consecutive nights in April 1942 and again one night in May.

At the time, the city had a population of 72,000 including over 1,200 who were acting as part-time wardens and 16,000 as fire guards, plus military personnel.

Wartime reports in The National Archives tell us that the city was struck by a lone aircraft on the nights of 23–4 and 25–6 April. On 24–5 April, a clear, moonlight night, around 25 aircraft descended on the city.

Exeter during the raids

Exeter was a historic city with a medieval centre and some fine Georgian buildings. Its narrow streets made it "a terrible fire risk" according to the Chief Constable ('Gloucestershire Echo', 17 June 1942).

The raids destroyed many ancient buildings in the city centre, along with 1,170 houses (TNA HO 192/868).

Official reports maintain that there was an "uneven fire guard action" which was hindered by falling explosive bombs. "A mixed Fire Guard of men and women in a multi-story building were successfully attacking I.B.s (incendiary bombs) when H.E.s (high explosives) began to fall. The women were immediately sent to shelter in the basement and the men alone were unable to check the fires that started." Students at St Luke’s College tried to save the buildings from over 200 incendiary bombs, but it was gutted (TNA HO 207/1163).

Elsewhere, the city’s fire guarding teams were more successful. The Chief Constable described how a team of three dealt with 15 incendiary bombs to save a cinema while others saved "a whole terrace of houses" through quick action ('Gloucestershire Echo', 17 June 1942).

An interior view of Exeter Cathedral, showing the bomb-damaged Chapel of St James © Historic England Archive. BB42/00738

Fire guards in action

The Exeter raids showed the advantage of teams of trained fire guards.

An official report on the raids described how the Co-Operative store on Eastgate was saved, despite being "in the centre of very considerable fires." A team of four fire guards led by a Mr Restorick used sand to deal with half a dozen incendiaries which fell on it.

Restorick placed one man on each of the building’s four storeys, "… himself being on the roof as a watcher. Each man had a whistle and could summon help from the others by signal blasts, one for the ground floor, two for the second and so on … by working hard his men had succeeded in preventing more than slight damage, running from one window to another … and hosing them. In two or three places the fire had entered and taken hold of wooden fittings but energetic action had prevented [its] spread" (TNA HO 207/1163 and HO 192/868).

In the weeks afterwards Home Secretary Herbert Morrison and his junior minister Ellen Wilkinson praised the efforts of the National Fire Service, a new wartime body made up of the volunteer Auxiliary Fire Service and local authority fire brigades, in saving the city’s buildings.

An artistic study for ‘A Fire Guard Team, Exeter’. William Clause’s watercolour shows three fire guards standing in rubble, with Exeter Cathedral in the background © IWM (Art.WWM ART LD 3197)

False rumours

The unexpected raid did spread panic among the city’s residents. Soon after the raid rumours spread that a new type of jumping fire bomb had been used (TNA HO 207/1163).

The Chief Constable reassured people that the incendiaries "did not hop about and … could be effectively dealt with by a sandbag or a stirrup pump" (Gloucestershire Echo, 17 June 1942).

One young woman, Marjorie Birch, later remembered how her mother dealt with an incendiary bomb in her house:

…my Mother picked it up, well she tried to wrap it in a rug, it was in one of the bedrooms, and throw it out the window. She burned her hands and arms really quite badly. That was a brave but rather a silly thing to do I suppose. But some of those incendiary bombs… if you approached them, I mean they were burning, they would blow up.

Marjorie Birch (James)
A one-kilogram incendiary bomb. Thousands of these fire bombs were dropped during air raids © City of London London Metropolitan Archives. 35630 M0020078CL.

Counting the cost

The Baedeker raids caused considerable damage to Exeter’s historic centre. According to files in The National Archives, 850 houses were damaged and 53 fires started.

The attack on Sunday 3–4 May was the heaviest the city suffered. Around 30 enemy aircraft dropped 54 tons of bombs in 46 minutes. There were 166 high explosive bombs, three parachute mines and around 5,000 incendiaries (TNA HO 192/868). The number of people killed was 164 and 476 were injured.

Many of those tasked with saving the city from destruction were themselves victims. During the Baedeker raids on the city, 14 fire guards, nine fire fighters and three wardens lost their lives (TNA HO 207/1163).

Stretch of rubble with signs planted where shops used to be, advertise their new locations.
Signboards advertise the new locations of the shops that once stood on Exeter’s High Street. © IWM (D 16649).
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